Kevin Conroy is
Batman. Never mind Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney or Christian Bale; there has only ever been one actor who nailed the character with perfection, and for a long time he showed up on the television every Saturday morning to take me along on his Joker-pursuing adventures.
Actually, while I'm on that thought, there really has only been one Joker too, and like the aforementioned Saturday morning Caped Crusader, it's a voice behind a series of animation cells that so ignited my love of his antics and gleefully evil (yet hypnotic) banter. That person is most definitely not
Jack Nicholson or the late great Heath Ledger (though arguably, Heath comes in second), it's Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill.
So it was with joy I first read news we'd be playing through Rocksteady Studios' Batman: Arkham Asylum with all the Saturday morning cartoon voice-actors in tow; Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) among the top of the cast. Then, of course, came news the game's story was being penned by Paul Dini, an absolute comic legend and someone who knows both Batman and The Joker in and out. On top of all this was the steady stream of media coming from the studio in the form of trailers and screens which, for the first time ever, gave me hope a Batman videogame might not only not
suck, but actually be pretty damn good.
Strange then I waited until the very end of E3 to find my way over to Warner Interactive's booth to check out the game, but in doing so, it left more than a lasting impression (being the last game I checked out), and being told by the Rocksteady Studios specialist on-hand I was one of few people who made it all the way to the end of the demo, well, I couldn't help but feel some affinity to it (ask Dan, it's true).
The thing is, until I actually got my hands on the game, I was still sceptical. I assumed we'd be seeing a fairly cut and dry split between 'investigatory/detective' elements and fighting. But the marriage between the two of these gameplay basics is so complete; it seems stupid no one has ever crafted a Batman game like this before.
My demo begins with a video of The Joker being the usual catch-tease he is. His sociopathic ways never once leaving Batman out of his criminal equation, it's more a game of cat and mouse to him, and with the tried and tested vocal chords of both Conroy and Hamill in charge here, this rings true better than ever. However, in the interest of saving something substantial for myself (even I, a gaming journalist, hate spoilers), I skipped the intro and jumped straight into the game, which landed me smack in the middle of a gang of thugs I had t deal with rather quickly.
At first, I will admit, it took a little getting used to, but the combat system crafted for Batman: Arkham Asylum is damn near perfect. This game does not have its AI waiting their turn to attack you - they'll attack all at once which means on top of a good offensive, Batman requires just as good defence. This comes in the form of a reversal button (applied to Y on the Xbox 360 controller), utilised when an enemy's head appears to be electrically on fire (think Spider-man's Spider Sense tingling from the comics), hit Y when you see the indicator and Batman will contextually reverse any move being thrown at him. Moreover, this can (and will) be thrown into the middle of any fisticuffs combo, meaning you can literally string together massive combos, against multiple enemies, all at once, and because of a stunning contextual animation system, it all flows together beautifully.
What's important to take away from this is you're playing this game as Batman. The Dark Knight, The Caped Crusader, The Bat
- and he's an absolute gun when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, and again, it strikes me as odd no one has ever capitalised on the Batman character in videogame form like this before.
Of course, Batman doesn't just have hits feet and mitts, he has a whole utility belt filled with useful items such as Shark Repellent and Anti-Carousel Spray (well, maybe not for this game, but you never know for the sequel right?). The obvious inclusions then are his Batarang and hookshot, both of which are infinitely reusable and handy. You can zip-line yourself around levels by spotting areas of the immediate environment available for hookshotting, while the Batarang brings up a familiar poise-and-aim system that lets you choose multiple targets to strike. By the end of my demo, I was applying my newly forged hand-to-hand fight skills with Batman's tools of trade, creating an awesome display of superior skill and outside-the-box thinking. You really feel the sensation of playing as Batman with all of this in place, and I haven't even touched on half of what makes this game cool yet.
Beyond the fist approach, Batman can literally embrace the shadows, becoming that which the enemy fears the most. There's a very rewarding and intuitive stealth system to the game that not only employs shadow and cover for hiding, but also Batman's ability to be just about anywhere. One cool feature can have you perched up on high above an unsuspecting goon. A tap of a button then sends him zipping down headfirst at his target to snap them up and recoil back to his perch. Once they're there, he silences them before they even know what hit them and let's them go (hey, just because he can't kill, doesn't mean he can't maim).
Other actions include silent takedowns from behind the enemy, as well as unsuspecting glide kicks. This is all helped by a thermal imaging system that gives you plenty of recourse to work out just where all the baddies are and plan your assault well and truly in advance. Level design equally caters to great Batman-inspired gameplay thinking thanks to tiered design that sees multiple levels coming into play and plenty of opportunities to take out the bad guys without his buddies ever being aware.
Progressing through the demo, I found myself engaged in a few rough and ready combat scenarios as well as self-employed games of hide and seek with the enemy. The ability to utilise Batman's various skills as well as his gadgets, the physical environment and bad-guys themselves created a seriously unique and satisfying gameplay experience with the opportunity for plenty of variety.
I was told an XP system would be applied and reward skilful and crafty players with more moves, gadgets and so on. You're also locked onto the island Arkham is situated on, allowing for more elaborate level design and plenty of short-roam exploration. Batman will even have a small cove he's set up as his own makeshift Bat Cave, and you're free to roam the island as you see fit.
I avoided too much of the cut-scenes on offer, but there's a dynamic context system for chatter among enemies and what The Joker will spill across the asylum's PA. It's a good way to gauge how well you're performing as the thugs will begin to become scared of you, and even The Joker will sickly praise your efforts.
Visually, I can't fault the game. The slick camera work when performing an ultimate takedown, or swooping in on an enemy is never intrusive, and only adds to the game's presentation and atmosphere, while for the most part you have a fully free 3D camera to use at your will (which helps during investigative moments). Batman himself looks awesome and always stoic and in control. Harley Quinn popped up briefly, replete with fan-service chest jiggles, which I kind of wasn't complaining about (The Joker is one lucky guy), while all the thugs I encountered looked the part and moved the part.
The game is incredibly dark and gothic, which again has never really been done properly in a Batman game and begs me to ask why? But it's finally here and I'm not complaining about a lack of true Batman love anymore.
Unfortunately my demo was somewhat short, but it gave me more than enough to know no matter what, this is the best Batman game ever made - will it be the best superhero game? We'll know sometime around August, but so far it's looking on the money.
For more media and info, be sure to hit up our AusGamers Batman: Arkham Asylum game page