Developer: Rocksteady Publisher: Eidos Platforms: 360, PS3, PC Certificate 15 Review by Jamie Trinca Convention has it that I should probably start with a rant about the old license based videogame paradigm – y’know, that they’re generally shit. It will suffice to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the few exceptions. Arkham Asylum combines stealth, brawling, puzzle solving, open world exploration and even some key sequences of 2.5d platforming in a dizzy genre-bending whirlwind of kitchen sink game design. Developers Rocksteady have managed to seamlessly blend these disparate elements together in a cohesive, narrative-driven experience that rarely feels half-arsed. Difficult to pidgeonhole as it is, it starts off as a brawler. Once The Joker escapes your grasp at the end of the game's prologue, you're thrown into a tutorial of the elegant "Freeflow Combat" system. Unlike many brawlers, which often require the hand/eye coordination of a certain Enterprise D helmsman, Arkham's fisticuffs don't even use half the pad. The emphasis is on timing and direction instead of massive, impossible to remember button combos. "Easy to learn, difficult to master" is certainly the mantra adhered to here. Stealth gameplay gets the same treatment. It's a genre that usually bores or frustrates me to tears, and during the game's pre-release marketing, "stealth" was a word that filled me with dread. I needn't have worried. In fact, Arkham lives up to its admission price for the stealthy bits alone. Peppered throughout are moments where your progress is blocked by a room full of armed henchmen whom you could swoop down and punch if you like, but Batman can and will die quickly when he's being shot at. So the best idea is to pick them off one by one from the rafters as they become visibly and audibly more terrified. There is no finer sadistic thrill than swooping between gargoyles, cackling away as the foes on screen panic themselves into psychosis with every dropped comrade. Rocksteady really have tapped into the fact that, y'know what? Fucking with people is fun. Is this what it feels like to BE the Batman? Well played, devs. Batman's RPG elements are basic, but welcome. Kicking the poop out of people earns you experience points which can be used to unlock items from a sparse list of attributes and skills. Most simply enhance your Bat stats, but there are a good selection of strategy altering combos and gadget upgrades too, ensuring that the gameplay has plenty of room to evolve. The only disappointment to be found (aside from a few petty nitpicks) is in the various boss battles, of which 90% are basically the same damn fight. The thrill of finding and exploiting the weakness of a massive bastard whom you could never beat in a one on one fight is the very essence of a good boss in my book. They are, at their best, puzzles. With punching and stuff. Unfortunately, Batman comes up with a not particularly taxing one for its first big bad and refuses to bother revising it for each subsequent Goliath. There are notable exceptions - Scarecrow encounters, which arguably don't count, are gloriously imaginative 2.5D romps through the darker regions of Bruce Wayne's psyche. Killer Croc gets an entire lengthy sequence to himself that relies on thick slices of tension and a delicate touch on the analogue stick to get through. But for the most part, Batman makes you pound the same hard arse in the exact same way on multiple occasions. Still, when the rest of the game is this good, all is forgiven. Batman AA, runs on the Unreal 3 engine (I think it's a law now) and looks rather incredible. The gnarled, gothic architecture of the Asylum itself serves to mirror the twisted nature of its many captives, deliberately and cerebrally so. The gorgeous character design takes many of its cues from the Warner Brothers animated series and a good chunk of its voice cast too, lending an air of familiar authenticity to proceedings. Mark Hamill's Joker and Kevin Conroy's Batman are considered by many Bat-fans to be definitive in their roles, and it's hard to disagree, Bale and Ledger notwithstanding. The biggest deviation from the established norm, it seems, is the visualisation of popular villainess Harley Quinn, who has ditched her court jester get-up for grimy Junkie Chic. Some would complain that this costume change deviates from the source material, but in context with the rest of the game's presentation, it just works. Similar compromises exist elsewhere in the game - take Killer Croc. He's still scaly and amphibious, but altogether more humanoid than his comic book self. These artistic liberties won't sit well with many, but for my money, they've done a commendable job of tweaking the goofier elements of the Batverse to fit their videogame version of it. Though it seems, story wise, to tie directly into the comic books, its general flavour veers on the side of The Dark Knight and is a billion light years away from Adam West. To sum up, Arkham Asylum is a lovingly crafted valentine to Bat-fans and an extraordinarily good game in its own right. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you let yourself be put off by the hype, which admittedly is a bit extreme – calling this the best game of 2009 as some are already doing is just, well, silly – but never mind all that. Sign yourself into the nuthouse and prepare for the only Batman videogame to date that can proudly stand alongside the Chris Nolan films and the WB animated series as one of the great detective's best on-screen interpretations. Oh aye, see Tim Burton's Batman? Shite.