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TVG takes you through what to expect from the first two acts of this exciting venture into the Batman universe...
The onslaught of comic book adaptations for the Silver Screen has brought with it a host of rushed, half-hearted games that exist to squeeze every ounce of cash out of our beloved heroes. It came as a huge surprise then, when Batman: Arkham Asylum was announced with no ties to the phenomenally successful Dark Knight film. This move marked Rocksteady's intention to create their very own vision of the Batman universe, free from damaging time constraints.
The result is looking very promising indeed. The visuals and artwork seem to have been lovingly pulled straight from the pages of a Batman comic and brought to life using the Unreal engine, creating some of the best graphics seen this generation. Our first hands-on in March, where we were shown the brawling and stealth aspects of the game, proved that there was some substance behind the impressive style, but it remained to be seen how this would all add up to create a competent game. We were excited then, when we were invited to play the first four acts (about 4-7 hours of gameplay) of Batman: Arkham Asylum, unabated.
Welcome to the House of Fun
The game opens with Batman taking the Joker to Arkham Asylum after an attempt on the Mayor's life. While the credits roll, you escort Joker past the many security measures designed to keep Arkham's inmates behind bars. Reminiscent of Half-Life, this opening sequence gave us the opportunity to really appreciate the work that has gone into pushing the Unreal engine to its full potential. The Joker's smirking face is so brilliantly expressive it's hard to look away from him, while Batman's towering stature and menacing prowl makes it almost a shame to have to run through parts of the game. Although when you do, the fluttering movement of his cape is a sight itself. Meanwhile, next to the larger-than-life comic book characters by comparison make the corridors of Arkham Asylum almost seem a little dull, drawing focus to the stars of the show. That's not to say that they're ugly, as the reflective tiles and detailed scenes catch your eye.
Once we could draw ourselves away from gawping at the Joker's detailed mug, we got our first and last look at another of Arkham's residents, Killer Croc. As he emerges from a cargo lift, stooped over, he goes through the usual formalities of threatening to kill Batman before being escorted off, stage left. All the while dialogue between Batman and the warden reveals that a fire at Blackgate prison has resulted in all of Joker's captured henchmen being transferred to Arkham fuelling Batman's niggling suspicions. At the end of this sequence, Joker finally escapes (as seen in the trailer), and Batman dives ears first into his first slice of action.
The combat that we saw in our last hands-on has remained largely the same. Using the X button (on an Xbox 360) together with the correct direction sends Batman leaping across the room to deliver massive blows to oncoming enemies. As a goon comes to attack you, small lightning streaks appear over his head; pressing Y at this point enables Batman to counter this, breaking several bones in the process, though crucially never killing them. The aim is to build up a string of combos by switching from knocked-down foes to those still standing. In the challenge modes, higher combos mean higher scores for the round. However, in the story mode better combos result in XP bonuses, so accurately timing when to counter and when to attack becomes vital to character progression.
When the thugs are knocked out, small fluttering bats swarm around them before flying off past you, signifying the XP gained from dispatching them. Accessing your "WayneTech" console in the game allows you to upgrade your combat, health and gear with your hard-earned XP (though personally we preferred the all-powerful batman without the need for upgrades).
Soon after, Harley Quinn appears over the asylum's intercoms and screens, goading the "B-man" deeper into Arkham, confirming that the Joker's capture has been a set up all along. Throughout this early section the gameplay is paced well between the exploration of the asylum and different moments where thugs are set on you by Joker. The exploration is mainly expedited by using of Batman's grappling hook. Traditional routes are typically blocked off, as Harley and Joker try to funnel you into the next trap, and it's your job to find a way round while saving the various bystanders trapped in Arkham.
The result is quite linear gameplay; however there are lots of goodies dotted throughout Arkham to divert your attention. Recordings of patient interviews are scattered across Arkham adding welcome layers to the character of each escapee you encounter. Meanwhile the Riddler has left small question mark trophies dotted around the island for Batman to find on his travels, though in our play through he never made an appearance himself.
After climbing through various air ducts and gliding across rafters we get to our first villain, Victor Zsasz, a murderer that cuts a tally into his body after each kill. He takes a hostage, and threatens to kill him at the first sign of a Bat, meaning that we have to find another way around. This is where the stealth aspect of gameplay comes in; using your grappling hook you can climb to the rafters and rest on conveniently placed gargoyles. In the rafters, enemies can't detect Batman, leaving you free to move around unperturbed. A few grapples and swings later and we're crouched in the darkness on a gargoyle behind Zsasz. At the touch of the B button, Batman jumps down, opening up his cape to silence his landing. Unnoticed, we creep up to Zsasz, before performing a silent takedown.
For fans the stealth genre, the system will feel a little crude. At times, you can sneak up on numerous enemies standing alongside each other without the other noticing. However, being Batman, the emphasis here is more on fun and taking on the persona of the Dark Knight, so its simplicity can be forgiven.
When Zsasz is temporarily taken care of, Batman gets back on the trail of Harley Quinn only to find out that one of the Arkham guards has been helping her gain control of the asylum and has taken Commissioner Gordon hostage. To track him down, Batman is going to have to live up to his name as the "world's greatest detective", a side of Batman we haven't seen in a game before. This involves using his "detective mode": hitting RB will turn on a scanner that reveals important evidence, the locations of guards through walls, heart rates, structural weakness and finally important objectives. Having a quick gander across the room, we see a flask belonging to the guard containing some whiskey. Through the magic of comic book technology Batman can trace vapours of Whiskey from the guard's breath left in the atmosphere which Batman can follow. Although this may sound like a gimmick, it actually brings a welcome new dimension that helps to recreate Batman's persona in the game.
This mode can also be used to solve the Riddler's riddles - and optional mission. Each area has its own riddle suggesting an object that Batman needs to find. Combined with hidden areas only accessible with items acquired later in the game, this means that you can definitely head back through Arkham to pick up anything you've missed later in the game.
Eventually Batman finds his way out of the Asylum and out into the island of Arkham. In a scene that wouldn't look amiss in a comic book frame, the moon stands impossibly large over Arkham with Wayne Enterprises looming in the background. It's a welcome refresher from the claustrophobic corridors of the Asylum, and is the first sign that Batman has a lot more variety in level design than we first thought.
Taking out a few guards on the way, we made our way to the test facility to rescue Gordon. En route we hear a recorded Tannoy message referring to a Titan project which may or may not have something to do with the storyline. Finally, we find Gordon, who is being held hostage by Harley above a giant tank that looks oddly familiar. It's familiar because it's the tank Bane is held in.
With Gordon freed, Joker springs his trap and reunites Batman with Bane. Without wasting any time on pleasantries, Bane hurls Batman through a wall and the boss fight begins. Roaring and grunting like a Russian weightlifter, the trick is to avoid Bane while he tries to steamroll you. Without giving too much away, you eventually find a weakness and can topple the beast and end act two.
So far this is a brilliant translation of the Batman universe from the comic book page to a video game. Characters are brought to life with care and accuracy, but also have Rocksteady's own touch added to them. The gameplay at this early stage is a little easy, but that helps you feel empowered as Batman. If the first two hours are anything to go by, there are a lot more surprises in store for the rest of the game, as Joker puts it: "I've got a lot of friends waiting for you, old and new, I'm even bringing some in" (there's even a throwaway line about Twoface). There's clearly still a lot to come from this game and here at TVG we're really looking forward to it.
Stay tuned for a preview of next two acts of Batman: Arkham Asylum here at TVG.