We're about to commit what some geek groups would consider heresy: Maybe the world was better off not having a game based on The Dark Knight, Batman's wildly successful and delightfully dismal summer movie outing from last year. Yes, we saw the movie (four times, thanks, and that's not counting IMAX viewings); yes, we loved it. But what are the chances a rushed-through-development movie tie-in would have actually been good? That's where Batman: Arkham Asylum steps in. It’s a next-gen Batman game wonderfully free of any time-sensitive movie, television, or comic book tie-ins that would push it out the door too early.
The development team at Rocksteady Studios understands the lesson learned from previous Batman games; they know they can't rely on the badass mystique of the caped crusader alone. Their goal when the game started development was to craft a title that would be a blast to play even if Batman and his always-entertaining rogues gallery were completely removed. Thus, in our latest look at Arkham Asylum, they skipped past the story elements we've already heard about – Batman follows a finally-captured Joker into the legendary halls of the Arkham Asylum penitentiary and then must clean up the chaos as Joker and his minions escape – and focused on the new "FreeFlow" combat system.
Associate Producer Nathan Whitman stressed to us that the game is not a beat-em-up, though Batman will certainly rock the faces of a great number of enemies throughout Arkham Asylum. Despite a seemingly simplistic three-button setup, players can jump from one enemy to another with ease. The largest group we saw Batman wipe out was only four bad guys deep, but Whitman says the final game should feature mobs of 15 to 20 guys for Batman to bounce between. A stylized experience bar in the upper left corner keeps track of how impressive your combo is and rewards the best players with experience bonuses, allowing even deadlier moves to be unlocked.
We were also told that different types of enemies will show up, requiring specific strategies to take them down. Unfortunately, we only got to check out a couple varieties - unarmed thugs and thugs with guns - but even with those two, differences in how they should be approached were evident. Batman may be a complete badass, but he still can't soak up very many bullets, so when machine gun-wielding criminals show up, it's time for the bat to take to the sky. Using the handy investigate mode, players can identify high spots that Batman can grapple to in order to survey the situation and figure out how to take out the bad guys one by one.
In one example we saw, the first villain was knocked out by a batarang to the back of the head. The next, patrolling unknowingly under a perfectly situated gargoyle, was grabbed and strung up by Batman hanging upside down from the grapple spot. With only one opponent left, the player was able to glide down and engage the final foe in hand-to-hand combat.