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Batman: Arkham Asylum PS3 is a brilliantly realised action adventure providing an experience as close to being a super hero as you can get without pulling on some tights. Although not previously a fan, Arkham delivers such a convincing a portrayal of Batman's super-vigilante role that I was soon won over.
When Eidos boss Ian Livingstone proclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum would be the game of the year last summer he got quite a few tongues wagging. Developer, Rocksteady were virtually unknown and the last good Batman game was arguably on the Commodore 64. On release, Ian's claims were validated by the media, but he still had to convince me as a lifelong hater of the caped crusader and his rich boy antics. Whatever my feelings, I embraced the chance to experience wearing the Kevlar armour of one the most iconic characters of the twentieth century.
Batman: Arkham Asylum makes a great first impression with an opening that takes Batman through an interactive credits sequence. Stunning character design and voice work lend both Batman and the Joker given as much life as any of the films or animated series. Mark Hamill's Joker is a performance worth celebrating even if it's hard to believe Luke Skywalker can sound so maniacal and unsettling.
Despite my perhaps unfair loathing of the Gotham universe, I couldn't help but be impressed with all of the major characters. The deliciously sensuous Harley Quinn a delightful distraction - it's probably a tie with The Joker as which of them get the best lines.
Whilst my memories tell of a light hearted Saturday morning television show, the Batman here is the dark knight of recent films and literature and makes for a far more enticing prospect. Playing the role of an uncompromising vigilante, delivering harsh justice to an army of bad guys, whilst showing deep respect to comic book lore is what video games are all about.
Playing the role of an uncompromising vigilante, delivering harsh justice to an army of bad guys, whilst showing deep respect to comic book lore is what video games are all about.
Everything about Batman is perfectly captured - by default he strides purposefully everywhere, only breaking into a run when you deliberately force him to. When he speaks he is the authoritative figure of Christian Bale rather than the comedic Adam West and when he strikes, bones are broken and men begin to cry.
Batman is also extremely agile, able to leap about the levels and use his grappling hook to reach high places, giving him the unfair advantage you would expect. This gave me a real sense of power as I moved silently around the rafters, spying on my foes below. Even without the awaiting upgrades I still felt much more capable than the patrolling guards, but once I had begun earning those new powers, only clumsiness got me killed.
This is exactly how I want to feel as a super hero - not invincible, but capable of putting my lesser powered foes into state of panic. The fact that their chatter grew ever more urgent as their numbers were depleted only added to my satisfaction.
But along with the menacing physicality there is a darker sneakier side to Batman. The level design is good enough to let you do either. Silent takedowns maintain stealth, but alerting guards to a booby trapped body can be just as effective, especially when the explosives take down the whole group.
Batman is not a game of set pieces, but on occasion the exploration is broken up with memorable moments. When I faced Scarecrow the hairs rose on the back on my neck; how would Batman have felt when faced with the demons of his childhood and how would he conquer his fear and overcome this master of terror?
The other major encounters are disappointing. Repetitive brawling tactics are at odds with the variety of approaches the rest of the obstacles allow. It feels at times as if the developers had a mental block on how to present these encounters.
When I faced Scarecrow the hairs rose on the back on my neck.
Other than the main mission to recapture Arkham Asylum, there are other distractions. For those that love collecting there are riddles hidden throughout the asylum. I loved tracking these down, especially as some of them could be spied early in the game, but were only accessible after obtaining all of the gadgets. Both a source of elation and frustration, sometimes they required me to look at a particular object from a specific vantage point, which needed good spatial awareness as well as a keen eye. As usual I employed the brain of my other half when Bruce's own intellect failed him.
Batman: Arkham Asylum executes its vast number of smart ideas with a style and presentation not often attained even by the most accomplished of developers with only the monotonous boss encounters proving disappointing. But it is the role and presence of Batman than they really excel. The heft of the main character creates a genuine understanding of the dark tension in his vigilante role. By the time I finished, I was converted and truly hope that the next time I put on the Kevlar cape, it's as a rewarding an experience as this one.
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