The Caped Crusader has had something of a dodgy past both on the silver screen and in games. From the ace 1989 Tim Burton gothic epic that grossed over a quarter of a billion dollars domestically to the franchise-murdering Joel Schumacher colour-saturated camp-fest Batman & Robin that barely limped past the $100 million marker, Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego haven’t had it easy.
That was until three years ago when Brit director Christopher Nolan delivered a knockout back-to-basics Batman that put one of DC’s darkest characters to the forefront of superhero films. He followed it with this year’s blistering sequel, The Dark Knight, the second-highest grossing film of all time – surpassing George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. For the most part, any game that was released alongside each Batman movie has been a disappointment: the one possible exception being Sunsoft’s ’89 platforming brawler. With EA failing to cash in on The Dark Knight gaming licence and reportedly losing over $100 million by doing so – despite developer Pandemic’s involvement being the worst kept secret in gaming history – Bat-fans did not expect to see Gotham’s finest in a videogame for an age.
Enter London-based developer Rocksteady Studios, who, with just one well-received PS2 title under its belt (Urban Chaos: Riot Response), set fanboy pulses racing with news that it’s hard at work on a Batman game not born of comic, film or TV show. The focal point of this game is on Gotham’s sinister nuthouse, the baddest madhouse in comic book land. Billed as Batman meets The Chronicles of Riddick and BioShock, the third-person Unreal Engine 3-powered actioner pits Batman against his greatest enemy, The Joker, alongside an asylum full of other classic comic book villains including Killer Croc, Penguin, The Riddler, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Zsasz and The Joker’s lady-love, Harley Quinn.
When looking at the haunting screens, one thing is for sure: Rocksteady is striving for an adult take on Bob Kane’s character, leaving the cartoonish antics to Traveller’s Tales. While the bulk of the story and its deep twists and turns are being kept under lock and key for now, the licence held by Eidos includes all 69 years of Bat-history with The Joker surrendering himself to Batman and the law, and the taking over of Arkham Asylum serving as the game’s narrative backbone. And despite sharing a title with Scotsman Grant Morrison’s seminal Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, that’s where the similarity ends. That isn’t to say Morrison’s brooding, brilliant book wouldn’t be worth reading (alongside The Last Arkham and Arkham Asylum: Living Hell) to get a sense of the direction that Rocksteady is currently taking things.
As rumours abound that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker), the vocal talent behind the Emmy-award-winning Batman The Animated Series are being primed to reprise the voiceover duties of Batman and The Joker respectively, Arkham Asylum is stepping out of the shadows swinging. With scribe Paul Dini signed up for story duties (another veteran of the spectacular Animated Series) this could be the Batman game that finally eradicates all memory of the soulless cash-ins of yesteryear and heralds a brand-new start for the Dark Knight.
Played out through an over-the-shoulder perspective, you’ll explore every inch of Arkham Asylum, battling the aforementioned villains and fighting The Joker’s hulking thugs who, as you can see from the screens, show a little resemblance to the maniacs found in Rockstar’s murder sim, Manhunt. With combat confined to just three buttons – attack, stun and throw – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this facet of the gameplay mechanic could turn out to be extremely shallow (The Bourne Conspiracy springs to mind). Not so says, Rocksteady.
The decision to map fighting moves using a combination of button presses works really well. It helps create a sense of fluidity by avoiding complicated combos that would be forgotten in the frenzy of combat. To augment these, Rocksteady has implemented an upgrade system that allows you to add new abilities to Batman’s arsenal of attacks, such as swifter takedowns and multiple Batarangs to sling. Earning points is achieved by chaining moves together, and once you’ve done so, a slick animation that involves a colony of bats swarming around Batman kicks in before being tallied to your experience meter.