About the above Rapture reference
Believe it. With Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady has given us 2009’s BioShock. Obviously Batman isn’t going to be doing any shooting from a premier-person perspective, and you won't see Killer Croc turn up in an atmospheric diving suit, but surface trappings aside, the essence of what both games achieve is very similar indeed.
Arkham’s rusting Gothic nightmare is the closest we’ve experienced to a new Rapture since 2007. The density of atmosphere. The uniqueness of personality. The foreboding sense of tentatively trespassing on a long-established place much bigger and more dangerous than you… It’s all here in abundance thanks to some brilliantly detailed environmental design and a twisted sense of character in every area you’ll discover. Put simply, Arkham Asylum provides that same deeply immersive, compulsively explorable sense of horrible reality that we’ve been missing ever since Jack’s bathysphere finally broke the surface.
That creative flair is coupled with the best use of the Unreal engine since Gears of War 2. Characters and scenery alike feel so solid and tangible that you’ll want to lift them out of the screen (and then probably put them swiftly back, because a lot of them are quite horrifying). With such technical skill combined with such vivid production design, it’s no great stretch to say that in places Arkham is actually even more of a reward for the eyeballs than Epic’s shooter masterpiece. Seriously. It just is.
Cutting through to the basic mechanics of the game, the meat of what you’ll be doing will involve either stealthily dismantling rooms full of increasingly freaked-out goons or beating a path straight through them, depending on how well-armed they happen to be. Batsuit armour might be Waynetech approved, but seven guys with machine guns can still manufacture a dead bat pretty quickly.
Should you choose to take the direct approach, you’ll be presented with a very rewarding combat system indeed; one which is as accessible as you could want while holding seriously satisfying depths. You have one button for attacking, one for counters, one to stun enemies with a swish of a cape, and another to control all the acrobatic flipping and evasion you’ll need when taking on Arkham single-handed. Little lightning symbols briefly appear over the head of any goon preparing to take a swing, and if you tap the counter button quickly enough, Batman will parry or reverse the hit with effortless brutality. And without breaking his flow for a single frame.
Here's where we would usually bang on about how the context-sensitive animation is so slick that you could almost mistake it for FMV at a cursory glance, or the fact that when you're seamlessly pounding, parrying, dodging and leg-breaking your way through the centre of a 10-man mob, it could not look or feel more Batman. But we'll let you watch it for yourself, with explanations from Director Sefton Hill.
But we will tell you that there's a mammoth level of satisfaction to be had by plumbing the depths of Arkham's combat mechanics. There’s a savage efficiency to the whole process, and when it all comes together successfully, even a zen-like flow that kicks in as you start chaining up monster combos.
And it requires seat-of-the-pants tactical thinking too. Do you keep moving to stay one step ahead, or linger around to herd all the goons together for an ultra-fast hit string? Do you keep your distance, or do you focus the fight around a weapon storage cupboard, guarding the guns inside from their would-be users? Should the hulking great uber-goons be prioritised, or should you keep them around for a while to smack up the normal ones with their lumbering clumsiness? Fast, brutal and intelligent. It’s Batman down to the ground.
Silent but deadly
Similarly, stealth play is an absolute joy. Rightly refusing to turn Batman into a cowering little girl, Rocksteady has built the sneak-battery around systematic domination rather than hiding and hoping for the best. No cardboard boxes here. Oh no. It’s all about silently surveying your prey from the rafters and picking them off one by one, until the final, terrified goon is yours to toy with.
And “toy” is certainly the word. Your ever-expanding set of gadgets (tools are added and upgraded as you gain XP throughout the game) let you pull apart the opposition using any approach you can come up with. You can drop a straggler with a well-timed swooping kick from the roof before grappling back up unseen. You can use batarangs fitted with sonic emitters to draw your quarry beaneath you, before dropping like a silent bomb and pulling him up into the darkness, and dangling him as bait for the rest.
If you fancy being even more methodical, you can explore the crawl-spaces around the room, setting up “out of nowhere” beat-downs or laying explosive traps in walls and floors. And for those moments when you’re feeling uber-pro, there’s always the good old fashioned, sneak-up-behind-and-throttle-them-while-they’re-distracted approach.
The game strikes an excellent balance with all of this stuff. At no point will you ever feel any less than a ludicrously-empowered dark wraith of justice, but your abilities are rationed out and restricted by the environment well enough that stealth will never become a walkover. You’ll have to earn every single victory you win, but the ways in which you can earn them means that even the toughest will never be a chore.