Even though Batman is currently dead in the DC Universe (because people really stay dead in comics *snicker*), Warner Bros. and Eidos are marching along with Batman: Arkham Asylum. While most Batman games ended up being disappointments, there's a lot to look forward to in Arkham Asylum. You have the best-looking video-game rendition of Batman ever (courtesy of Unreal Engine 3), an original story by Paul Dini (best known for his work on the animated series), and awesome voice actors (
Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy FTW!). At GDC 2009, I caught a glimpse of The Dark Knight's next video-game adventure and was excited by what I saw.
For those not familiar with Arkham Asylum, it's the institute where Batman's villains are carted off to after he has foiled their plans (and beaten the crap out of them). It also features some disturbingly poor security (I'm pretty sure breakouts are a weekly thing). The Joker has busted out and taken control of Arkham and it's up to Batman to set things right. Trapped in the asylum, Batman has to make his way through countless minions, some of Gotham City's heavy hitters, and The Joker himself -- all over the course of one night. Since the game is an overnight affair, Batman starts off a spiffy cloak and cowl, but as the game goes on his costume becomes tattered, his eyes become red, and stubble appears on his face. In a way, this game is like a season of 24 with each chapter being an episode.
The melee combat I saw looked pretty fun. It seems like casual gamers can get away with some button mashing, while core gamers will enjoy stringing together combinations. The attacks, so far, don't look overly complicated, but it takes some deft timing to string together a chain of attacks on multiple minions. In the parts I saw that consisted of running around different areas and beating the crap out of underlings, the action reminded me of an action-RPG like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance.
Obviously, Batman's capabilities are diverse. When a room or situation doesn't lend itself to straightforward melee combat, he can use his stealth skills to divide and conquer. Warner Bros. compared these sections of the game to a lion separating a zebra from the herd; in some cases, it's easier for Batman to take out his foes one by one. To aid him in exploits are a wide variety of Bat gadgets including a grappling hook, explosive spray, a sonar resonator, goggles that allow him to see through walls, and Batarangs (naturally). Initially, you might not think this style of play isn't as fun as plowing through a gang of five minions, but when you've made your first silenttakedown, you'll probably change your mind.
Of course Batman is also the world's greatest detective. Arkham Asylum's "investigative" mode lets gamers experience this aspect of The Dark Knight. Using his awesome forensic tools, Batman can check fingerprints, track pheromones, and more. I didn't see much of this mode, but as a fan of the comics, I hope that it's well thought out and truly represents this side of Batman.
No Batman game is complete without a variety of villains. So far the rogues gallery is comprised of The Joker, Harley Quinn, KillerCroc, and Zsasz. The Riddler isn't in the game, but he's used as a metaphor for unlockable items and features (of which there are more than 200). The game's art is being handled by DC's Wildstorm branch. While Warner Bros. is insisting that this is a unique take on Batman, you can obviously see that the look is influenced by Jim Lee's art. While he's not directly involved with the game,Wildstorm is his baby and his influence shows.
One feature of the game I didn't like was the way it handles new moves. While I understand that this is a game and characters traditionally get more powerful as a game progresses, it just doesn't make sense for Batman to unlock new moves over the course of an evening. Did he suddenly remember a move that escaped his mind three hours ago? Did he take a break from the carnage at Arkham to read a jiu-jitsu pamphlet for 30 minutes? I don't get it.
After being mildly annoyed at EA's Batman Begins, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic about Batman: Arkham Asylum. On paper, it has a bunch of great feature that should add up to a great game. Then again, a lot of Batman's console adventures looked great on paper. The game is due for a summer release, so the G4 crew will be getting some hands-on action in the near future. I truly hope this is the Batman game I think it can be and that Bat-Mite isn't just messing with my head.