Joystiq impressions: Batman: Arkham Asylum


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Judging by the recently released trailer and screenshots, you probably have the same expectations of Batman: Arkham Asylum that we did heading into a recent demo of the game. That is: it looks like nothing more than a Batman beat-'em-up. The truth: it's a full-fledged Batman game, complete with stealth, gadgets, investigations, and, yes, fisticuffs.

Having seen the game played in its current state, we were struck by something we've termed "The Pure Effect," thus named because we first experienced it upon seeing Disney Interactive's superb off-road racer, Pure, for the first time. The effect is not a subtle one. It generally causes those who encounter it to exclaim (hopefully internally), "Where did this game come from? I've never heard of these guys. This looks ... really good." And so was our first encounter with Arkham Asylum.
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The visual inspiration for the game draws more from current Batman comics than any of the films.

Our demo kicked off with the cinematic sequence seen in the trailer, which is entirely real time, as are the rest of the game's cut scenes. It's also running on Unreal Engine 3, but you wouldn't know it, seeing as the entire game world doesn't look laminated and large parts of it don't suddenly pop into existence.

It's also somewhat interactive. The Joker's strapped to a vertical "Hannibal Lecter" gurney under heavy guard and – controlling Batman's forward movement – you escort him through the (many) security checkpoints as he's processed. During this sequence, you're free to look around at the various things happening in the background – other inmates struggling, some yelling at Batman, until you reach the main lift leading to the asylum proper. There you have to wait for Killer Croc to be escorted past. He's huge, menacing and, as you can see in the screenshot gallery, thoroughly re-imagined.

In-game Batman model detail
That's not to say that this Batman game is out to change everything about the comic's universe, or how it looks and sounds. Paul Dini, a writer on Batman: The Animated Series and season one of Lost, is penning the game's plot and dialogue. The latter is voiced by Batman: The Animated Series veterans Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hammil (The Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn – a character created by Dini) with the promise of "more to come." The look of the game itself is original, drawing inspiration more from the current Batman comics than any of the films.

Frankly, while flashy, the combat looked fairly routine.

Before we knew it, we were getting our first glimpse of the game's hand-to-hand combat. Batman was surrounded by several thugs and the Warner Bros. rep piloting the demo was able to dispatch them stylishly using simple direction / attack button combinations. Enemies also telegraph the fact that they're about to attack by means of blue sparks above their heads; if you time your attacks properly, Batman executes a reversal. Frankly, while flashy, the combat looked fairly routine.

What happened next, though, wasn't. Following a trail of chattering gag teeth (one of the game's means of leaving "bread crumbs" to direct players) Batman made his way to the electric chair chamber, where Mr. Zsasz, a B-grade member of Batman's rogues gallery, had strapped a guard into the chair and was threatening to flip the switch. %Gallery-43535%
After receiving a situation update from Oracle – who provides such information to Batman from her command center in the Batcave – it was time for a different type of gameplay. At this point, we were shown the game's "detective mode." (Cue a resounding "Yes!" from fans.) This mode let the Dark Knight play to his proclivity towards gadgetry and the fact that, well, he's the world's greatest detective.


Detective mode X-Ray vision
Zooming in on characters in this mode reveals info about them, including their names and even their heart rate. Every character in the game has a unique name and, to some extent, backstory. It was clear that the guards Batman was looking at were gravely concerned about their co-worker, as indicated by rapid heart rates.

A full-on assault being out of the question, our demo pilot glanced upwards, revealing a number of objects that Batman could grapple to and perch on. Silently doing so, he made his way behind and above Zsasz, at which point on of the game's many contextual prompts came up. In this case, it was a glide kick. Pressing "A" sent the Caped Crusader swooping down, kicking Zsasz to the floor where he could be neutralized with a quick choke-out.

Even given our instinctual distrust of licensed games and PR-speak, what we saw had us impressed.

In another scenario, The Joker released Joker Toxin into a decontamination room, trapping guards and an inmate above the rising gas. What followed was a matter of reaching the guards and hoisting them to safety. Of course, the inmate was screaming for help. We were told that he could be left for his fate, but that saving the bad guys in such predicaments would eventually unlock an Achievement. So Batman did, although not without roughing him up a little.

The final area we were shown was meant to demonstrate some of the game's more open-ended scenarios (which will include "large" outdoor areas). Batman entered a large room occupied by several gun-wielding thugs. Entering "silent predator mode," he was able to sneak about the room, quietly opening ventilation covers and the like. For the purpose of the demo, we were shown a skill purchase – defeating enemies rewards Batman with XP, which can be spent on new moves and weapon upgrades – which was, in this case, was the ability to hang upside-down from a perch and silently snap up an enemy.


Predator mode silent takedown
As the other enemies took notice of their comrade's predicament, Batman used the situation to take them out one at a time (like the warehouse sequence from Batman Begins). He dropped down onto one, knocking him unconscious. He quietly popped open a floor panel and snuck up behind another, silently yanking him down.

Using the detective mode's X-Ray vision, he tracked another thug – who was emitting "whiskey fumes" according to the screen (there's a visible trail, and this element will evidently factor more heavily into later gameplay) – but this time Batman was spotted. Rather than risk death going up against an armed enemy, he used his grappling gun to break his foe's line of site in a decidedly Assassin's Creed moment.

We saw Batarangs used several times (holding the "throw" button follows their flight, much like the glaive from Dark Sector) and were told that Batman will utilize other tools, including an aerosol explosive for breaking through walls and even fingerprint analysis.


Aerosol explosive in use
Warner Bros. told us at the conclusion of the demo that it is confident this will be (and we quote) "the best Batman game ever," and that its goal is to make a game that, if all of the licensing were stripped away, would still be a triple-A action title. Even given our instinctual distrust of licensed games and PR-speak, what we saw had us impressed -- and thinking this could be a rare occasion where it all comes together to make a really good game.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.