We’re frequently disappointed by games based on our favourite licenses because we and the people making them usually want very different things. We want to live the essence of our favourite movies, comics and heroes. We want to directly experience what we love about them and by doing so make them more real. Developers and publishers usually just want to use a recognisable brand name to sell a few extra copies of something, and it doesn’t really matter what that something is. Thus the strong, layered, nuanced worlds we love are squashed into convenient-to-make anygame templates and we usually end up with something like this:
You’ll have heard a lot so far about Batman: Arkham Asylum being the greatest superhero game ever made. But while the sentiment has now lost all meaning through its dogged repetition in the press over the last few months, it still needs addressing. Not only because it’s completely true, but also because Arkham Asylum gets the treatment of its subject matter so right that it’s now the new benchmark in games licensed from anything. Sorry, Goldeneye.
Intro for the Bat-fans
Fellow Chiroptera-geeks, your time has come. Recognising that Batman’s character, abilities, world and cast are already solid, diamond-encrusted gold in terms of drama, visuals and action, Rocksteady Studios has distilled everything that’s made Batman so mind-bustingly awesome over the last 70 years and created a true, legitimate, interactive showing for him. Games can now stand proudly alongside movies, comics and animation as having a “proper” Batman in their line-up.
More on the details of that as we get further into the review, but know for now that Arkham Asylum is all of the dark, grimy, brutal, twisted and utterly enthralling things that spring to mind whenever you think of Batman. The attention to detail and sheer love of all things Gotham will make even moderate Bat-fans tingle, and serious fans will positively vibrate with joy. As a small example, take a quick look at how seriously Rocksteady has taken the all-important matter of Batman’s iconic cape physics.
Borderline pornography, is it not? And it only gets better.
Intro for everyone else
But we must rapidly move on from this nerdy Bat-fap love-in (for a while, at least). Because while Batman: Arkham Asylum is indeed The Best Superhero Game Yet Made ™, that title actually does it a weighty disservice. Because rather than simply a staggering piece of fan-service, it’s also a completely legitimate and utterly brilliant video game in its own right.
Arkham takes starting points from several of gaming’s big hitters (Splinter Cell, Ninja Gaiden, GTA, Metroid, Condemned and even Prince of Persia on occasion) but by focusing them all through a shrewd bat-shaped lens makes them completely its own. Any hardcore player with an appreciation of a finely-crafted game will have a lot to love, regardless of whether or not they’re the sort of person who’ll get excited when Bane does this after he beats you:
The core game takes Batman on a heavily story-led journey through the eponymous hell-hole during a Joker-headed takeover; a journey requiring calculated stealth violence, smart exploration, the odd bit of detective work and plenty of good old fashioned beat-downs. The sprawling Arkham Island acts as an overworld hub of sorts, allowing progressive access to the asylum’s facilities and catacombs while leaving you completely free to re-explore old areas and discover new ones as your abilities and Bat-tech expand.
It’s a big, ambitious game made of many diverse elements, and that Rocksteady has realised its vision in such a cohesive, compulsive, immersive and shockingly fun way is a testament to the immense progress it's made since 2006’s good but flawed Urban Chaos: Riot Response.
And now, on to the details!