Think of a great superhero game. No, not a good one — there are plenty of those around — but one as essential as, say, Grand Theft Auto IV or BioShock. You’re struggling, right? That’s because there aren’t any. Or rather there weren’t any until Batman: Arkham Asylum came along. After an extensive hands-on, exploring the majority of the enormous Arkham Island – we’ve come to the conclusion that not only is this Batman’s best game to date, but quite possibly the best superhero game ever made. A bold claim, but one we think you’ll agree with the moment you take your first tentative steps into the foreboding darkness of Gotham’s legendary loony bin.
The first thing you notice is how it looks. Rather than cash in on the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s grimly “re-imagined” Batman universe, developers Rocksteady have drawn influences from the darker chapters of the Caped Crusader’s comic book adventures. “We wanted to create something totally authentic”, explains game director Sefton Hill. “We were inspired by the psychological elements of the Batman comics, the detective elements. We see Batman as a kind of mythological figure to the villains. And we wanted you to feel like that.”
The result is an extraordinarily evocative setting – the exaggerated gothic architecture of the asylum being a particular highlight – and a cast of bold, vividly designed characters. But rather than simply ape the comic book artists, the villains in Arkham Asylum have all had radical makeovers. We’re sworn to secrecy about exactly who makes an appearance, but we can say that this is the Batman universe as you’ve never seen it before. The developers have taken the best of 70 years of Batman history and given it its own rich identity.
But perhaps the most fascinating character is Arkham itself. The environments are enormous, varied and stuffed with detail – from elaborately decorated hallways and dreary cell blocks to the moonlit bay of Gotham City and the giant gothic spires silhouetted on its horizon. The game may be set entirely on Arkham Island, but rather than be limited by this the art team have created a broad selection of colours and moods – in the same way that the Dead Space team made each deck of the Ishimura feel distinct.
There are also numerous references to the Batman universe that fans will lap up, such as ‘Vote Harvey Dent’ stickers inside guard towers, newspaper articles detailing events from the comic books strewn on the floor and even patient interview tapes you can play in the background as you explore. These not only help to flesh out the characters and give the story context, but also immerse you completely in the world. Arkham is as complete and fertile a setting as the depths of Rapture or the streets of Liberty City. An incredible feat.
But what good are lush environments if they’re no fun to move around in? Mercifully Rocksteady have nailed the feeling of ‘being’ Batman. What makes the Dark Knight such an effective crime fighter is his mixture of light-footed agility and brutish strength. With the help of your grappling hook, getting around is a breeze. You can latch onto pretty much any surface and pull yourself towards it. This lets you swoop and clamber effortlessly around the levels, using your cape to glide across gaps. The controls are brilliantly smooth and the thrill of silently leaping between rooftops and guard towers above the oblivious enemy never fades.