We can all recognise the attraction of a super-hero game. It’s the same thing that leads little kids to dress up as Spider-man or Superman, or lie awake at night, trying desperately to open the door only with the power of their mind after watching Star Wars (come on, we’ve all done it at some point). Despite the oft tragic lives these figures lead, fraught with danger and filled with loss, the little kid in us knows a simple truth: to be able to do what they can would be tremendous fun.
When it comes to super-hero computer games, however, there’s just one problem. Putting it as charitably as possible: they tend to be unmitigated rubbish. Yes, the character on screen may look like your favourite hero, but often handles like a drunkard or is beset by often arbitrary limits (like the PC port of the Iron Man game, where the maps were so small you couldn’t even turn a full circle without running into an invisible barrier when travelling at full speed). In fact, the only part of the super-hero experience the games managed to convey was a sense of tragedy and loss (albeit, of knowing you weren’t going to be getting that time back).
Batman: Arkham Asylum is all the more remarkable, and is not only a brilliant super-hero game (admittedly something not too hard to do given the competition), but is also an absolutely brilliant game, full stop. Not only does it look like Batman, and convey the twisted cast of characters and gothic world which he inhabits, but it also manages to convey the feeling of being The Bat. A large part of this is due to the absolutely stellar voice-acting. If you ever watched the Batman animated series, you’ll instantly recognize the voices: Kevin Konroy voices Batman himself, while Mark Hamil (aka Luke Skywalker), reprises his iconic role as Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. Courtesy of this, you don’t so much as feel that you’re playing a game, but you’re playing your way through one of the cartoons. There are also a ton of secrets to find, unlocking biographies, artwork and audio tapes, all which do a great job of bringing the asylum, and it’s insane cast, to life.
The other part of this is due to ingenious design decisions. As well as being a world-class athlete, Batman is also the world’s greatest detective, master of hand-to-hand combat, and excels in stealthy operation. As such, alongside the standard platforming elements (how to navigate your way around the island and buildings which hold the asylum), gameplay is split between investigation, predator, and combat encounters. Investigation is a straightforward affair, giving you control of Batman’s gadgets in order to ferret-out clues to let you know where you should go next. In many ways this is the weakest element of the game, but it is never overused.
Predator encounters task you with stealthily incapacitating a room full of baddies. These are far from simple, as enemies are armed to the teeth, and even Batman will quickly fall to a hail of bullets. While these may be daunting, you’ll soon find yourself grappling between vantage points, crawling through floor-gratings, or even hanging off ledges in order to grab passing enemies. Traps can be set on weak environmental points using Batman’s explosive gel, or you might use sonic batarangs – or even a downed baddie – to set up the perfect ambush. All the time, you can access x-ray vision courtesy of Batman’s high-tech cowl, to let you know where your enemies are, how many there are, and even their heart-rate (a nice touch – as you take down more and more of their friends, the baddies get increasingly jittery, until they’re liable to jump at the slightest sound).
Combat encounters are just that, and this is where Batman: Arkham Asylum really shines. As an former martial-artist, no other game series I’ve played comes as close to reflecting the decision making process, fluidity and thrill of hand-to-hand combat. Gone is the clunky lock-on system used by most games, and in its place is the brilliant Freeflow system. This is all about fighting groups, and doing so in as flawless and cool way as possible. Land three hits in a row on any opponent, and then three things happen: 1) a hit on any normal opponent results in them getting knocked off their feet, giving you a momentary break before they re-enter the fray; 2) any opponent in the fight will be in range of Batman (even if they’re on the other side of the room, he will roll, flip or otherwise dart to their location), and; 3) Batman doesn’t block enemy attacks, he counters them with his own. Batman’s array of gadgets can also be seamlessly deployed mid-fight, and you also have ground knock-outs, stuns, dodges, vaults and instant take-downs to play with.
This leads to very intense, complex, yet fluid fights. You see, the more different moves/gadgets you can weave into a single combat encounter, the more the game rewards you with points which can be used to unlock the next upgrade (more health, lowering the number of hits you have to land before an instant take-down becomes available, etc...). Finishing a round without ever breaking your combo (for example, by getting hit, missing a strike, or dodging too many times in a row), rewards you with bonus points, as does finishing the fight with a ground knock-out (a slow attack which leaves you open to attacks from other opponents). Add to this opponents who can only be defeated with a ground knock-out, or bring a gun to a fist-fight (it does happen), and you have an incredibly rich, deep yet intuitive system with oodles of replayability. This is something that the devs were clearly well aware of, as there are also heaps of additional challenge maps for you to try get the high-score on when you’ve finished the main game. Oh, and if you want to ramp up the difficulty, you can opt to have the attack notification (a warning which flashes above an enemy’s head letting you know you need to either counter or dodge) turned off.
While the graphics have dated slightly, this is the only thing which gives away its age – in terms of game-play, design, story and characterisation, it still stands amongst the best around. Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only one of the greatest super-hero games ever, but one of the greatest PC games of all times. For any gamer, this should definitely be in your collection. ■