Falling somewhere between abysmal Superman and solid Spider-Man in terms of overall quality, the Batman license has largely suffered from a design problem. Far too many titles fail to deliver something tailored to the caped crusader in favor of something that could have starred any superhero not named Aquaman. So it's understandable if expectations for a Batman-licensed game on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or PC are low, especially considering the pedigree of developer Rocksteady Games, whose previous credit was the disappointing Urban Chaos: Riot Response.
The feeling of trepidation when approaching this digital Dark Knight shifts into anticipation as you watch the stylish, cinematic opening, which has you walking with Batman as he carefully watches over his new prisoner, the Joker, slowly being wheeled across the gloomy, decrepit halls of Arkham Asylum. Giving you a quick taste of what is about to come, the Joker taunts the guards every inch of the way, until a trap is sprung, and the inmates literally take over the asylum. Over the course of one long, arduous night, Batman must figure out what surprise the Joker has planned and then find a way to stop it.
The entire game takes place on Arkham Island, home to six large structures and three outdoor sections or grounds. While many Batman fans would have traded in their utility belts for a free-roaming, crime fighting game in Gotham City, the smaller scope allowed the design team to focus on adding as much detail and sense of history to the environments as possible. Whether you're making your way through the penitentiary and morgue to the botanical gardens and caves, comic book fans will appreciate the ominous, gritty atmosphere perfectly appropriate for Frank Miller's re-imagined bat.
The gameplay in Arkham Asylum is carefully constructed into three parts: fast-paced, rhythmic fighting; stealth-based combat; and free-roaming exploration. All are equally enjoyable. Batman is agile, powerful, and capable of single-handedly defeating large groups of the Joker's hulking thugs the moment you slip inside the cowl. And the best part is, he gets even stronger as you progress, with a total of 20 upgrades from which to choose. You can throw up to three batarangs simultaneously, detonate multiple explosive charges, and even leave enemies dangling helplessly from various stone gargoyles perched high above the Gothic environments.
There is some detective work too, but this aspect of Batman's persona is limited -- typically involving a button press to "analyze" smoke trails or fingerprints and then following them straight to your target. To encourage exploration, the game offers various Riddler challenges, but the "riddles" aren't head-scratching puzzles. Instead, you are given an item description and have to hunt down (and scan) the referenced object in a nearby room. Other "challenges" involve finding hidden question mark trophies, Arkham relics, and interview tapes located underneath grates, inside crawlspaces, and so forth, many of which require Batman's more advanced gadgets to access.
As you climb, jump, glide, shimmy, crawl, and grapple your way through the labyrinthine areas of Arkham Island, you won't find much in the way of diverse enemies to battle. The overwhelming majority of foes are members of the Joker's crew, and they all look like they share the same gym membership. Outside of the Joker, you'll also have to deal with Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, Bane, Poison Ivy, and the Scarecrow at various points, but most of these encounters are indirect, often forcing you to confront waves of third-rate lackeys instead of elaborate one-on-one fights against the archenemies themselves.
While having so few enemy types and underwhelming boss encounters would have been a serious problem for most action titles, Arkham Asylum's haunting atmosphere, impeccable voice acting, and equally exciting fight and stealth sequences are too strong to ignore. Actor Mark Hamill deserves special recognition for bringing the Joker to life, who will be a constant presence in your journey through mocking updates over the asylum's PA system. Like Batman's line launcher, the game quickly grabs a hold of you and starts drawing you in, keeping you hooked until the final credits start rolling.
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Batman: Arkham City, Fallout 3, Batman: Vengeance, Assassin's Creed III, Assassin's Creed (Director's Cut Edition), Battlestar Galactica, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Attack on Pearl Harbor
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