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Friday June 19, 2009 3:47 pm

E3 2009 Idle Speculation: Batman: Arkham Asylum

Arkham Asylum

God dammit, Warner Brothers, how the hell am I supposed to come into this convention without any bias when you set up a demo center like this?

They brought in their own little slice of Arkham Asylum to display the latest Batman game to attendees of E3 ‘09, and while it took for-f*cking-ever to get a turn to play it on the 360, it was well worth the wait.

Hit the jump for our impressions of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

What is it?
Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game following in the footsteps of the recent Wolverine game - a labor of love by Eidos and Rocksteady studios meant to accurately capture the narrative that makes Batman the figure he is today. See, most of the time, you’ll see a superhero game released in conjunction with a movie. That usually means the game is going to blow (barring certain exceptions, such as Riddick), because the developers have little time to work out the kinks, and sometimes aren’t even privvy to the plot details until just a scant month or two before release. Not so with Arkham Asylum. The developers are keeping this game in the oven until it happens to be good and ready for release, and as it looks now, it’s shaping up to be possibly the best Batman game we’ve seen yet (yes, including the Batman Returns side-scroller from the SNES era. Sacrilage!).

Why should I care?
Because this game is a Frankenstein monster of everything that is awesome with the Batman universe. It features the entire rogue’s gallery of Batman villains (though the demo only let us see The Joker, Harley Quinn, and Killer Croc). The story is written by Paul Dini, best known for his work on the Animated Series (go look up the episode “Heart of Ice”, largely considered his best work). The voice cast is made up of Batman veterans, such as Kevin Conroy of the Animated Series as the titular hero, and, yes, Mark Motherf*cking Hammill as the Joker, who is now and forever the best Joker in cartoon history. Pistols at dawn if you disagree.

You get to wander all of Arkham Asylum and fight awesome new versions of aforementioned villains. You get to run around as the Joker on the PS3 version of the game and wreck ####.

It’s so… Beautiful.

What did you play?
Just a demo of the first few areas of the game, starting from the first cutscene and up until (but not including) the fight with Killer Croc.

What was cool?
The art team has really done an awesome job with Arkham Asylum in terms of paralelling the feel of the narrative. It’s more similar to the feel of decay and lawlessness you might find in Dead Space or Bioshock than the camp of some of the later Batman movies (I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin, and your terrifying rubber nipples and ice skates). The game is running on the Unreal 3 engine, and is really squeezing out every drop if power it can get. It’s gorgeous, is what I’m saying.

Furthermore, they have the gameplay to back it up. Much has been said for what you can do in the game in the context of the Batman universe, with particular attention being paid to the combat and stealth mechanics you have at your disposal. You’re encouraged to use stealth and fear to your advantage, making enemies paranoid and prone to mistakes, and you can do this with silent takedowns and your grappling hook. In a room I got to play through, you were asked to take out all escaped inmates in the vicinity, who were patrolling with weapons in hand.

Now, Batman is essentially a rich ninja, so bullets don’t bounce off of you. If you take fire, it’s going to hurt, and you’re going to die quickly, period. For this reason, stealth kills were put into play. You could quickly and easily zip around the gargoyles on the high walls of the room using your grappling hook and targeting system, getting close to enemies below, and finally taking them out. You could do this in a number of ways, ranging from a gliding kick to actually hanging upside down from the gargoyles and stringing enemies up in a very cool inverted takedown, sending any nearby enemies into a panic. Batman’s superpower is fear, and Rocksteady got that down pat.

But when enemies are unarmed, you’re free to take them on in hand to hand combat, and the Freeflow combat engine doesn’t disappoint - in fact, next to Bayonetta, it was my favorite combat system at E3. It was smooth, flawless, damn easy to control, and really, really fun. It was, however, not as fast as you might expect if you’re coming from the school of Devil May Cry, but it’s an aesthetic necessity. Think ‘God of War in molasses.’

What sucked?
Well, the combat system, again, is slower than other games that have a more frantic pace to them. Whether or not this will irk you, I don’t know.

There were a few issues with AI that I encountered, both in the combat and stealth zones. In combat, I understand that the devs want you to enjoy their Freeflow system, but the enemies were just plain stupid. You could take out whole rooms of them without a scratch. That is, unless they have guns, in which case the lack of a clear health regeneration system, pickups or otherwise, makes it damn hard to come back from a stupid fumble when they sap most of your health.

In the stealth section, most of my time was spent waiting on gargoyles and planning to strike, but the enemies moves so slowly and in such erratic patterns that it took me a good 10 minutes to kill all 4 enemies successfully. You need to isolate them for the takedowns or risk getting shot, but they often moved in tandem with each other or intersected other patrols far too frequently, leading to more watching and waiting than should be necessary.

When will I be able to play it?
The current release date is set for August 25th, but it has already been delayed twice, so don’t hold your breath about a solid release date quite yet. Again, they’re taking their time with this one.

You’ll probably like it if you liked…
The aesthetic elements of Bioshock, the narrative elements of Dead Space, or the investigative elements of Condemned: Criminal Origins. Hell, it’ll even have open-world exploratory elements and a damn nice combat system to boot, which I’m honestly having trouble comparing to other recent brawlers.



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