A strange thing happened last year -- when The Dark Knight hit theaters, no videogame tie-in came with it. As a comic book fan, I was happy I didn't have to put up with a thrown together cash-in, but on the other hand, I worried that the industry might have missed an easy chance at a decent Batman game.
Turns out my fears were unfounded and I didn't have to worry about a forced movie tie-in -- Rocksteady's working on Batman: Arkham Asylum, and it's its own beast. After watching the first 15 minutes of the game, I can say that the title looks like it has a shot at being pretty darn good.
If this is your first time checking out IGN's Arkham Asylum coverage, you're picking a good place to start because up until now we've only known the basics of this third-person action/adventure game. This is the ground floor of actual game coverage. The story I was introduced to yesterday kicked off with Batman hauling the Joker back to Arkham via the passenger seat of the Batmobile. Now, this story is set in the general comic book-Batman universe but it's not linked to any preexisting story. Rocksteady's starting from scratch here and even brought in the folks from Jim Lee's WildStorm to come up with original character designs. That said, some stuff looks pretty familiar (the Batmobile looked like a more stylized version of the Tim Burton car, Batman's in a traditional gray and dark blue/black suit, and the Joker's all about the purple-suited/super-slim features you know and love) while some things such as the 15-foot incarnation of Killer Croc are pretty much crafted from scratch.
Why so serious?
Arkham itself seems to be a pretty interesting take on the Batman universe. Set on an island, the nuthouse was once the home of a Mr. Arkham, but it eventually got turned into the gigantic facility it is in the game. Once Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy from Batman the Animated Series) got Joker (voiced by the one and only Mark Hamill) inside Arkham, the clown prince of crime was strapped to a Hannibal Lecter-style dolly and Batman accompanied three guards on their journey to get the villain into the Intensive Treatment section of the prison.
This was no easy task. It wasn't tough because the Joker was fighting or anything -- he actually just stood there cracking wise to Batman and the guards -- the trouble was that the Intensive Treatment is waaaaay down in Arkham. There were guard stations to clear, elevators to descend in, and hallways to traverse. While your escorting your "better" half, the story's being laid out for you. Warden Sharp's in charge of Arkham, and he's got a lot on his mind. The Joker burned down part of Blackgate Prison, and Gotham's penal system relocated hundreds of the non-insane criminals to Arkham's padded cells. Now, as Brucie's journeying deeper and deeper into the asylum, the prisoners the convoy pass explode with cheers for the Joker... almost like they know him.
Eventually after bumping into a chained Killer Croc -- he says he's going to kill Batman, but the guards turn on his electric shock collar and Croc shuts up quick -- the group makes it to the wing they're looking for and find Commissioner Gordon. The guards release the Joker and take him past an employee/patient-only door, and within seconds, Joker's flipped the script and is choking one of his capturers with his own handcuffs.
Batman starts trying to punch through a pane of glass to get to the clown, Harley Quinn unlocks all of the doors in Arkham, and the Joker escapes down a hallway just after Gordon shoots out the glass window so Batman can get after the bad guy. Of course, now everyone's loose, and before Batman can give chase, a few thugs swoop in to take on the hero. This is the Joker's master plan -- lure Batman into Arkham for the worst night of his life.
One of the pillars Rocksteady's building this game on is FreeFlow combat. As the bad guys come at Bats, he'll be able to engage up to 15 of them without breaking too much of a sweat. The face buttons are strikes, grapples, and counters, and these simple inputs will be your lifeline to throwing dudes across the room and incapacitating foes. When you knock a standing guy out or pull off a floor takedown (a kick to the head of a downed foe), you'll get a health boost and some XP. Yes, even Batman has experience points these days, and you'll be collecting them so that you can unlock moves such as the Hang Attack (I'll get back to this in a bit) and power-ups such as an armor upgrade. Your Progress to the next level-up opportunity is tracked in a circular meter in the top right corner. When you take out a baddie or earn XP some other way, you'll see some bats on screen and then the meter will fill. Above the XP tracker is Batman's health. Rather than give you a life bar that you need to constantly monitor, the health part of the HUD only pops up in combat situations and only applies to that specific fight. That is, if you beat a room filled with bad guys with just a sliver of health left, the next time you fight someone, you'll get a brand new bar -- there's nothing to pick up and you don't need to recharge the meter or anything.
As much as Batman is about hand-to-hand combat these days, he's still all about gadgets. In Arkham Asylum, you're going to have a lot of toys to play with as the Caped Crusader. During my demo, I got to see that the Batarangs are unlimited (you whip'em out and throw'em with the shoulder buttons and there's an auto-lock aim), you can use your grappling hook in all the places you'd expect to be able to use it, using your cape to glide is a -- pun intended -- breeze, and Batman's got goggles. See, when you kick on Investigation Mode, the cowl drops a set of specialized lenses that turn the screen blue and provide all sorts of useful information in an x-ray-like display. You'll see objects you can interact with; how many people, hostiles, and armed folks there are in the room; and where fingerprints are.
During my demo, Batman ran across some guards who were trying to figure out how to take on Zsasz, a serial killer who carves a line into his flesh for every life he's taken. Seems the cutter grabbed a hostage during the meltdown and strapped him into the electric chair. Batman had to figure out a way to get from the second floor to the killing machine on the ground floor without Zsasz catching wind. Popping on his x-ray specs, Batman could suddenly see a few gargoyles that were now showing up in a golden color. Bats grappled to one, then to the other, and finally glided in to kick Zsasz in the face and knock the fool out before he could fry anyone. Each of these gliding and grappling moves pops up as a button option as you look at certain things in the room.
With Zsasz down and the day saved, Batman ripped the cover off an air vent (Tap A/X to pull!) and was on to the next challenge, which was actually somewhat optional. If you've seen the Arkham Asylum trailer IGN's been hosting for a while, you can probably recall the scene where Batman comes upon a decontamination chamber and finds a number of guards getting gassed. Using his grappling hook and some air ducts in the game, Mr. Wayne maneuvers his way around the gas and to a high level that's safe from the green death below. Now, there are a number of guards hanging on to ledges that leave them half in the gas and part of the way to safety. As Batman, you have the choice to either lift these guys up or blow past them. Lift them up and get XP, ignore them and they'll just hang on forever. There's even one of the Joker's thugs begging for help -- pick him up and you'll immediately knock him out when he's safe.
Although the folks showing the game from Warner Bros. weren't ready to tell me all of the characters in the game, they did mention that there's going to be a lot of nods to comic book lore in terms of little asides, cameos, and more. At one point in the game, Batman walked into an abandoned cell that had a few green question marks scrawled on the walls. What I can confirm is that there's no Alfred in this game. Rather than radioing back to the Cave for assistance and getting his butler, Batman's going to be constant communication with Oracle, master hacker Barbara Gordon for those of you who have somehow missed the last decade or so of comics. Another familiar voice popped up in my demo, and it was none other that Harley Quinn. Yes, Arleen Sorkin is back to reprise her vocal role from Batman the Animated Series as well, but this is a much more "adult" version of the character. Sporting a corset, traditional face paint, super-short skirt, blonde pigtails, and -- as my demoer was nice enough to repeatedly point out -- jiggle physics. More than just eye candy, Harley's actually a pretty big part of Mr. J's plan to torture the Bat. She's kidnapped the Warden, and she's the one who unlocked all the doors.
Beyond Harley, who only appeared in cutscenes, my demo moved into a warehouse filled with foes. Kicking on Investigation Mode, Batman's goggles let him know that two armed hostiles were in the immediate vicinity. Deciding it was time to cash in the stored XP, Batman bought the Hang Attack and grappled on over to the gargoyle above a lone enemy. With a button tap, Batman lowered himself -- upside down mind you -- to the foe, snatched him up in his cape, dragged him skyward, and left the baddie tied and hanging from the gargoyle. Although incapacitated, the enemy called out to his friends, and Batman's cover was blown. If he would've wanted to, Batman could've cut the line suspending the thug, and the bad guy would've been knocked out when he collided with the floor.
In a lot of ways, I hate eyes-on reports because if the game's good, all I really want to do is snatch the controller and play for a few hours/days. Batman: Arkham Asylum is definitely one of those games. Aside from all the gameplay stuff I've written about here, there seems to be a few more bells and whistles left to mention. Seeing as how this is supposed to be the longest night in Batman's life, look for the hero to be sporting more and more stubble as the events wear on. As the events of the night unfold, expect Batman's costume to become damaged and stay damaged -- when holes pop up in his cape, you'll need to account for it when you glide.
It's early, but I can't wait to answer the Bat Signal this summer.
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