From his first ever video game adventure on the ZX Spectrum, through to the recent multi-platformer Lego Batman, the caped crusader has graced pretty much every console ever released. With the exception of Lego Batman, pretty much all of these games have had two things in common. Firstly, they’re bloody hard. I may have been young at the time, but I could never get more than a few screens into the first Spectrum effort before I was crushed by some spiky ball or eaten by a giant sphere with teeth. When the hell did that ever happen in the comics anyway? The second thing they have in common is that they’re generally soulless, poorly-designed pieces of crap. This may be both a blessing and a curse for the superhero’s latest adventure, Arkham Asylum. While some fans will have naturally low expectations based on the slew of cash-in titles, others will have great hope that Arkham will finally smash the trend and actually be - shock, horror - fun to play.
For Arkham Asylum, London-based developers Rocksteady have taken the DC comics as inspiration (which celebrate their 70th anniversary this May). This makes a welcome change from the majority of Batman games, which have mostly been spin-offs from the films. Despite the influence of the comics, the story is an original piece written especially for the game. From the trailers, screenshots and website, Rocksteady have clearly aimed for a darker atmosphere, similar to that seen in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. This ain’t no kiddie-pleaser like Lego Batman.
The central bad guy is fan favourite the Joker, who at the start of the game is actually captured by Batman and dragged off to Arkham Asylum, a former mansion on a desolate island. Joker doesn’t seem to be too bothered about it all, and it soon becomes clear why. The clown-faced wrong-doer has a plan, and manages to break out of his restraints and escape from the guards. From there everything quickly turns pear-shaped. Batman finds himself stuck inside the asylum with the inmates on the loose, and they’re all a little bit miffed.
Voice actors from the animated series have reunited for the game, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and video game connoisseur Mark Hamill as the Joker. Judging by the trailers, Hamill's performance is suitably twisted and should provide a decent dose of black humour. Classic enemies from the comics will also be making an appearance, including the Venom-addicted Bane and the monstrous Killer Croc, who has clearly prepared for the game by downing endless cheeseburgers and milkshakes. The guy’s beefed up to the size of a small Norfolk village, and he towers over Batman in the screenshots.
Combat looks impressive so far from the various trailers. Being a bit of a tough lad, Batman can take on more baddies at once than the entire American army. A simple combination of strikes, grapples and blocks can effectively see off the heavy floods. Some of Batman's moves are impressively devastating, such as hurling an enemy straight into his villainous brethren. With the accompaniment of some limb-crunching sound effects, the result should be pretty damn brutal. Various other touches have been included to make combat more interesting, such as earning experience points for each successful take-down. These points can later be spent on new moves and skills.
In addition to full-frontal assaults, Batman can also adopt more stealthy tactics when appropriate. The asylum owners have apparently been hit hard by the economic crisis, as they've taken to lighting the place with nothing more than a few candles and a handful of sparklers. As a result, there's plenty of shadows to lurk in. Why not wait in the rafters for a bored-looking sentry to wander by, then drop down on him and kick him in the face? Kapow! As an added bonus, you can then leave his unconscious body swinging from the ceiling to scare the crap out of his mates. If that doesn’t make you want to play this game immediately, you might as well stop reading right now and go back to picking fluff from your belly button.
Of course, this wouldn't be a Batman game without the trusty utility belt. You can hurl the usual batarangs at baddies, and the grappling hook will help you to negotiate the environment in a hurry. However, much more exciting are the cool Syphon Filter-style goggles. One setting on the goggles shows you any surrounding objects that you can interact with, such as beams and statues that you can swing from. Not particularly exciting so far, granted. But then you've got every young boy's dream setting - x-ray vision. This shows any innocents or enemies that are skulking about on the other side of a wall - very useful when planning out a silent take-down, or a hostage rescue. Batman can even return to his detective roots with a setting that lets him search for fingerprints, footprints and other clues to help him track down the Joker. How deep the detective functionality delves still remain to be seen, but I'm expecting something more akin to Condemned than CSI.
Arkham Asylum is a game that promises much, and should hopefully satisfy fans of the comics, cartoons and films, as well as those who simply enjoy beating the living snot out of armies of mentalists. At the very least it appears that a great deal of thought has gone into the game’s construction, as opposed to simply rushing it out to capitalise on the popularity of The Dark Knight. Let's just hope it doesn't end up resembling a steaming heap of bat-poo.