Again, the outlook is grim right from the start. The game opens with an interactive cut-scene in which The Joker is wheeled into Arkham alongside Batman and three guards. Nathan Whitman, Associate Producer at Warner Bros., fueled my fears, saying that this would be “Batman’s longest night ever.” Yes, the game takes place over the course of one night. Whitman explained that, as someone who knows the game inside and out, he can complete it in around eight hours -- so he expects that the average (read: casual) gamer will need nearly twice as long to finish a play-through. “It’s a long game,” he told me. You won’t be inside the whole time, though -- the asylum is on Arkham Island, which Whitman called “massive,” and there will be a number of outdoor levels.
What seems so enticing to many gamers, I’m sure, is the usage in Arkham Asylum of many people and designs associated with Batman: The Animated Series, which was one of my favorite TV shows growing up (in fact, Whitman and I reminisced for a few moments about some unforgettable episodes, including the universally recognized best-episode-ever, “Heart of Ice”). Five-time Emmy winner Paul Dini, who was a producer on Batman: TAS and a writer on the first season of Lost, penned the story for Arkham Asylum. It doesn’t pull material from any specific Batman escapades -- it does its own thing -- but it’s definitely a narrative in the vein of classic Dark Knight tales.
Its principal focus is, of course, The Joker. Batman is understandably suspicious of how easy it was to capture him, and as you might have guessed, getting into Arkham is just how the Clown Prince of Crime launches his nefarious master plan. You see, while you’re escorting Joker down into the depths of the Intensive Treatment ward, you discover that Warden Sharp is a bit frazzled. There’s been a fire at Blackgate Prison, so hundreds of inmates have had to be temporarily transferred to the titular insane asylum. (Take a wild guess as to the identity of the arsonist.) These new prisoners don’t jeer at the Joker -- they cheer, which is probably the first tip-off that something is awry.
On your way to your destination, you cross paths with a chained Killer Croc, who’s definitely beefed up compared to the version we’re familiar with from TAS. All he can growl are a few menacing threats before his handlers turn up the juice on his electric collar, but Whitman hinted that that wasn’t the last of Croc. Once you reach the proper wing, you chat with Commissioner Gordon (sadly, his TAS voice actor doesn’t return, which creates a bit of a jarring disconnect) while the guards take Joker behind closed doors. Of course, he gains the upper hand and subdues the staff, so Gordon then shoots the window into the room to allow you to give chase -- and it’s at that point that The Joker has you right where he wants you.
Harley Quinn (voiced by original TAS voice actor Arleen Sorkin) appears on a TV and taunts you with a bound and gagged Warden Sharp, and then she unlocks the cells to unleash the inmates’ wrath upon you. Unfortunately, Harley’s not sporting her usual skintight leather getup; instead, she’s wearing a much more revealing, skimpy, cleavage-flaunting outfit that Whitman highlighted as part of the game’s “hard Teen rating” (obviously, Batman doesn’t kill anybody, but Arkham Asylum is definitely a mature title).
This was when I got a taste of the FreeFlow™ combat system that the game features, which is based on four functions: strike, counter, stun, and evade. Like The Club and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, there’s a multiplier for the experience points (XP) that you get from downing enemies -- so the idea is to always be performing a combo on somebody. Whitman got his multiplier up to 6x at one point, but by then, he’d already taken out the thugs who had surrounded him moments before. The fighting does, indeed, flow pretty well -- animations dovetail nicely, and Batman’s blows land with satisfying thuds.
Whitman then headed down a corridor past some jail cells, the walls of one of which were covered with bright green question marks -- I was told that we’d be seeing a variety of members of the classic rogues’ gallery. This includes Zsasz, a lesser-known foe who is no less intimidating than his more famous counterparts because of a disturbing quirk: for every person he kills, he cuts himself. Four are on his forehead; the would-be fifth victim to complete the count is Batman. Zsasz has put a guard in the electric chair, and the guy’s buddies and co-workers can’t figure out how to free him.
The solution is to go vertical, but in case that isn’t completely apparent, you can always try out Detective Mode. This brings up a slick blue overlay that gives you loads of information about your environment. For example, it’ll provide X-ray vision for any people in view, and it’ll also tell you what their heartbeat is in beats per minute. But the most useful feature of Detective Mode is that it highlights points of interest, so gamers who are stumped by a particular puzzle can check out the mode, which essentially provides a gussied-up “go here” arrow. And in another nod to TAS, Batman’s eyes are an opaque white in this mode (they’re normal otherwise).
After using Batman’s grappling hook, an essential part of his part of his utility belt, to get up onto a gargoyle, you can swoop down and take Zsasz out before he even realizes you’re there. And here’s where the game’s sandbox-esque elements come into play. You could also have thrown a few Batarangs (another belt weapon with unlimited “ammo”) Zsasz’s way, or you could’ve used a special Invisible Predator™ takedown (unlockable with XP). Whitman stressed that the game was designed so that “if you can see it, you can go there,” and the grappling hook is a large part of that (though it seems to rely on grapple points instead of simply allowing you to aim anywhere).
The next bit I saw also offered the player some choice. After crawling through a vent that he ripped the cover off of, Batman found a room filled with guards and prisoners alike -- oh, and Joker’s infamous noxious gas. Whitman took the high road again, but he helped up the men who were hanging on for dear life (including an inmate, whom Batman saved and then promptly bopped on the head). If you save the guys, you get extra XP, but that isn’t necessary. As Whitman moved through the levels, a voice in his ear fed him information -- that’s Oracle, known as Barbara Gordon until The Killing Joke; she helps Batman out in more ways than one in this game, especially because Alfred doesn’t appear in it.
Finally, Whitman showed me a warehouse level (a “sandbox room”) with three gun-toting enemies patrolling the area. They’re unaware of your presence at first, so it’s best to be stealthy and keep it that way -- remember, Batman’s mortal, so someone with an automatic weapon can bring a swift death. Still, you can play it however you like, which is great. Whitman took one guy down quickly and quietly, but the others noticed their fallen comrade, and Whitman explained that the AI changes when your enemies discover that their ranks are thinning -- they become more careful, watchful, and fearful.
To finish off the next baddie, Whitman purchased an Invisible Predator takedown that allowed him to fly in and string him up by his feet, leaving him twisting in the air. Since the guy was still conscious, his cries for help put his buddy on alert, so Whitman didn’t bother with stealth on the third and final punk. Again, Whitman stressed the inherent freedom of the gameplay: he could’ve thrown a Batarang at the rope by which the goon was suspended, severing it and sending him hurtling to the floor to collapse in a heap and be knocked out by the impact.
Arkham Asylum is running on the Unreal Engine, and it’s certainly very striking visually. There’s an immense amount of detail -- just check out the screenshots to notice things like Killer Croc’s mottled hide and Joker’s lime green ’do. Because the title is being co-published by Eidos and Warner Bros., London-based developer Rocksteady Studios (of Urban Chaos: Riot Response fame) had the ability to work with WildStorm on the character designs, and they also had access to the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California, to do Foley work.
It’s a shame I couldn’t get any hands-on time with Batman: Arkham Asylum; now I’m dying to play it. Reportedly, there will be a playable build at GDC in a few weeks, so hopefully we’ll see some impressions of hands-on play during the conference. The game was pretty high on my 2009 radar before, but now, it’s near the top of the list of games I want to play this year -- look for it on PS3, 360, and PC this summer. Check out a recent trailer here, some more screenshots here, and the game’s official Web site here.
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