This Batman story begins with our indomitable hero bringing a handcuffed Joker to Arkham Asylum in true style. The Batmobile cuts heated tracks through the city and out to the island where Batman's ever-smiling arch nemesis is to be incarcerated. But Batty's rubber knickers are quite rightly bunched because of the Joker's easy defeat. Batman remarks as such to Commissioner Gordon when he brings him in, saying he doesn't like how peacefully the Joker gave himself up. Knowing he must be up to something, Batman insists on escorting the Joker right into the heart of the facility.
The game opens here, with the player being able to control the Dark Knight from this point on. At first, you'll just urge him forward, listening to the Joker's high-pitched taunting and the guards' nervous banter. But whoops-a-daisy! The Joker's too smart for everyone. He manages to get loose more or less the second after Batman is kept from going any further by Arkham's guards.
What ought to strike you first is a) the game's impressive graphics and tres noir style, keeping it real, and b) the fantastic voice acting of the Joker. From the first, Arkham Asylum promises to be a treat.
You'll be happy to know it goes on delivering.
Once the Joker has knocked a couple of guards and doctors off, and made his escape, you're left to deal with the thugs he sends down as a diversion. This is the obligatory tutorial for control mechanics, in which you learn how to fight. Fighting is core in Arkham Asylum, and so much damn fun I almost wish it had been a scrolling beat-em-up. Alas, it's an over-the-shoulder first person action adventure game, and I guess that will just have to do. I guess.
Stringing together your combos allows you to take on many foes at once, so when you are assaulted from all sides it's Batman's direction that matters. Once you have knocked an enemy to the floor with fists, feet, elbows and knees, there is an option to finish him off with a ground attack, but you really need to pick your moments. If you try and knock out someone who's wiggling on the floor before you've taken care of all his mates, you'll find yourself getting slapped from behind.
Good timing and a hasty button tap can result in counter attacks, which are very powerful and have some artful animations attached. As you progress through the game's first few minutes, you'll also learn about gliding kicks, dodging, running attacks and swinging from the deck. Arkham Asylum's battle system is executed with real class. And what would Batman be without a little stealth? Two words - silent takedowns. These aren't something you can take advantage of until later, but they're so satisfying I just had to mention them up front.
Arkham's warden is taken hostage by the game's female lead and the Joker's right-hand woman, Harley Quinn. Like J-dawg she's off her rocker, and is another reason you'll be kept busy in the asylum. The Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, too, so chasing down the bad guys, making sure everyone stays safe, and rescuing put-upon guards and other staff is how the game lays out your objectives while you try and sort out what the Joker has going on behind the scenes. Contact with the mainland means you know that the Joker has told Gotham police that he has rigged several places in the city with bombs, and demands to be left to his own devices under threat of explosions. Better get to work right?
Part of the game's charm is Batman's vast array of boostable skills and gadgets. At certain milestones, you will be offered the chance to upgrade your equipment and fighting prowess through the Waynetech app. My first choice: the inverted takedown move, which allows Batman to hang upside down from the many gargoyles and other vantage points in the asylum (access by grappling hook). When an enemy walks beneath, you can drop down, grab him and string him up with the push of a button. You can also upgrade armour, the ability of weapons like your Batarang or explosive gel gun, and many others besides. Scrolling through the range of unlockables before they're all available will give you a good idea of just how much is waiting to be discovered. As you meet new characters or otherwise hear about them, their biographies will also unlock. You can read a bit about the characters, get interview tapes from their time at Arkham and see when they first appeared in the Batman mythology. None of this is groundbreaking stuff, but it's a nice touch.
The support network you have access to, and which will keep you alive, includes your detective system, which is activated through Batman's mask. This allows you to search for evidence within certain limited areas, and analyse it to help you through your objectives. You can use the system to detect things like odours on the air or see through walls with x-ray vision. It also shows you where hostiles are, and even gives you their mood and a heart reading. Taking advantage of the leg-up this technology gives you is essential to your success. A map of Arkham, both inside the asylum and out, is also accessible from the menu, and you can use this to track down your next objectives. Such a feature is absolutely necessary, because the island and the network of buildings, both, are quite complex.
As well as being wonderfully constructed, the environment drips with atmosphere. In Arkham Asylum you get what you expect from a game of this type and franchise, but it's the little details that really sets it off. Things like rusted equipment, dim lighting, clinically bare walls and dangerous-looking pieces of machinery help add to a labyrinthine feel. The asylum looks and sounds like a place where very bad things happen every few minutes, and as you walk, run, jump, glide and swing around it, you will find yourself being drawn in to the gloominess.
The sound in this game is top notch - I have already mentioned the superb voice-acting of the Joker, and Harley Quinn's is suitably diabolical also - so the ambient noise, voiceovers from old videos playing on the asylum's monitors and chatter from the guards and crazies alike is all excellent. I will admit to getting a bit sick of Batman saying, "...but not for long!" every time he's asked about whether the Joker has escaped or gotten away with something. You are able to interact with most of the guards and other characters in the game, and talking with them as they beg you to save friends or try and fix a broken lift for you adds a real sense of urgency to the proceedings. In every way, this game makes you feel like you have a job to do.
Finding issue with this game isn't easy. I noticed during a couple of the slow-mo combo animations, a deadly kick or finishing elbow that never actually connected with the target. The gap between Batman's boot and the thug's mug, when it happened, was always obvious. It was like watching a movie and seeing the strings. If nothing else, they make you feel slightly sad. Here is a game, after all, that is so close to perfect, such slips are kind of heartbreaking.
Otherwise? Some of the camera control can be a bit finnicky - it's all too possible to over or under steer, especially during combat. And in confined spaces it can sometimes be hard to make out all of the action at once.
Bar a few little niggles, this truly is a fantastic game. This review surely doesn't mention every great experience I have had at the controls, nor does it give everything away - hell, for a game like this, we can barely scratch the surface in a thousand words. NZGamer.com would hope that our reviews help game-hungry Kiwi buyers make informed decisions, but it is seldom put quite as clearly as this: when this game comes out at the end of the month, do yourself a favour.
Go buy it.