There's a massive irony when it comes to Batman and videogames. The thing is, there's never been an official game that truly captures the essence of what the character is about, but unofficially, our digital fun-boxes have been providing fantastic almost-Batman games for years.
The elements which make Bats great have long been staples of certain other series. Predatory stealth, intelligent tactical planning, slick and brutal melee violence... There are more than a couple of big franchises which have made them their trademarks for years. But with Arkham Asylum, it looks like Batman is finally taking back what was his all along. We've played it. We loved it. Here's why it makes the pretenders to the bat-throne look like exactly that.
Of the videogame stealth kings, Splinter Cell's Sam is by far the most professionally kitted-out. Snake might have stealth camo, a sizable selection of guns, and a mini robot buddy, but for realistic, multi-purpose infiltration, Sam's array of lockpicks, optic cables, night vision and microwave pulses wins every time. Batman however, has the competition nailed, both in functionality and the all-important cool factor.
During the two sections of the game we got to play (both taken from vastly contrasting examples of the game's many unlockable challenge rooms) we got to use five pieces of kit, and although they will be upgraded and added to as the main game progresses they were more than enough to make a massively satisfying stealth experience in themselves.
Batman's over-achieving Detective Mode visor smugly combines night, heat and x-ray vision simultaneously and highlights exploitable environmental features and goons' emotional states via a heart-rate monitor. A quick tap of the left bumper instantly cuts any potentially complex scenario down to a clear visual catalogue of exactly what Bats is up against and what he can use, but thankfully without ever dictating a recommended course of action. This is Batman we're talking about. The man ain't no casual, and he needs not your patronising videogame hand-holding.
Combine all of that information with a batarang, grapple gun, remote-triggered explosive gel and a goon-baiting, sonic emitter batarang, and we had all the offensive, diversionary and evasive tools we needed to start setting up elaborately-layered traps and screwing with the baddos' heads in a manner more brutal and dynamic than anything Sam or Snake has ever been capable of. In fact with thoughtful use, the well-balanced tech line-up allows Bats to go beyond mere sneak-killing to attain a complete and utter total dominance of any environment he might stalk. But fuller details on those dark delights a little later on.
Batman's battling uses all face four buttons; one for attacking, one for evasive rolls and leaps, one to stun nearby enemies, and one to counter enemy hits. That last function is the keystone to the whole combat system, and it's the one which will bring you your most poundingly badass victories and some of the most satisfying hand-to-hand videogame violence you've experienced in years.
Batman's counters allow him to remain the stoic calm at the eye of a storm of increasingly brutal body damage. When you're about to be attacked, a blue lightning flash will appear over the offending hood's head. Tap the counter button in time and Bats will transition smoothly from whatever he's doing into a powerful counter move, without breaking the flow of the fight for a second.
If an enemy tries to kick him in the back, he'll calmly grab their leg and snap it at the knee without even turning around. Incoming fists will be grabbed and crushed. Swinging pipes will be caught, turned on their owners and then discarded. And then he'll be straight back to the important business of making facial pate without a single moment's pause.
At first, Batman's weighty animations feel a little slow. Sluggish even. But after spending a grand total of around two minutes getting a feel for the rhythm of the combat model, you'll be on fire. Remember that bit from The Karate Kid when Daniel finally realises what "Wax on, wax off" was really all about and accelerates his movements to become a lethal block and parry machine? When you develop an instinct for reacting to incoming attacks, Arkham Asylum's combat feels exactly like that. It won't take long before you can even predict incoming violence based on enemy movements, and parry almost precognitively.
The transition from one animation to another really is so boggling to watch that it makes the whole process feel almost like viewing a pre-rendered martial arts scene. With grabs, throws, brutal takedowns and grunt-confounding overhead flips all available to drop into the mix at the simple touch of a button or two, you've got a fast and powerfully versatile set of options that could set a visceral new standard for group combat.
It's exciting, it's exhilarating, and what it lacks in gravity-defying acrobatics it more than makes up for in pure blunt force trauma. From what we've played so far, Batman's hand-to-hand could be satisfying enough to carry a whole game in itself. The single combat arena we were demoed was addictive enough that we developed an almost medical need to replay it over and over to perfect our combo ratings, resetting at the first error as if we were trying to ace an SSX stunt run. We've had terrible thumb-twitching withdrawal for it ever since.