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TVG shows you around Arkham in what's shaping up to be the best Batman game to date...
Every time we've seen Batman: Arkham Aslyum, it's looked more and more like it could finally make up for decades of awful Batman games, and our latest hands-on was no different. Last month we previewed the first two acts of the Dark Knight's latest crusade, and now we can finally take you through the meatier third and fourth acts.
Batman: Arkham Asylum arguably boasts the best presentation we've ever seen in a comic book game. In some respects it even has some of the best graphics we've seen in this generation so far. The first two acts flood you with such an amazing level of graphical detail - just look at the Joker's face as an example - that you spend half the time just gawping at the world around you. Thankfully, the first two acts are paced so that you have some time to take in the scenery. Whether it's the way Batman's cape weaves through the air as he runs or small touches like the remnants of Killer Croc's shackles left on the floor, Arkham Asylum and its denizens have really come to life.
While this early pace was good for getting to grips with the controls and bullying the occasional guard, we were anxious to get into later stages of the game to see if the gameplay lives up to the outstanding visuals. Up to this point, Batman has had his hands full rescuing commissioner Gordon from Harley Quinn while the Joker gains control of the asylum, but now Batman has to chase after Dr Young, who has gone to recover her work on something ominously named Project Titan. Before that, Batman needs to get some more weaponry to even the odds, as well as find out some more about Project Titan. Conveniently then, Batman had the foresight to build a bat cave on the island itself "just in case" and so this was our first destination.
Life On The Outside
The fight with Bane at the end of act two brought us outside the actual Asylum and on to the island for the first time and, just as the claustrophobic asylum was lovingly recreated, the island has clearly enjoyed the same level of care and attention. By night, Arkham is just as dark as its Asylum. Where most games will have an oversized sun hanging in the background, Batman: Arkham Asylum has an impossibly large moon - taking up about half of the screen - looming over Wayne Enterprises in the background. However, it manages to create the sense of darkness that is so vital to the Batman universe, while retaining its comic book palette.
On the Outside, the world seemed a reasonable size for an action-adventure game. As with most games of this genre, at this point the free-roaming aspect of the game is a bit of a guise - sure, you can go where you want, but most routes are blocked off or funnel you back to your objective. There are, as mentioned in the last preview, collectables dotted around that can be ample distraction but it will be interesting to see how the free-roaming aspect of the island figures into the game later on. For instance, random guard patrols or alternate entry routes to buildings would make the Outside feel more like a fun place to be, rather than just space between buildings.
So far, the combat inside Arkham has been split into two distinct approaches: stealth and brawling. If the guards have guns, then stealth is necessary and those without guns often ambush you and lead to a brawl. While you can't argue with the logic, by the end of act four this started to feel a little contrived. As a fan of the stealth genre, the most fun is to be had in choosing your approach, whether its brute force or delicate subtlety. Up to this point (inside the walls of Arkham Asylum) that decision is mostly made for you, taking some of the lustre of your kills. However, on the outside, without the immediate safety of the rafters to climb into, there's more freedom to choose your approach. For instance, a sniper on a watch tower can be handled either up close and personal, or you can pull him off his perch from below using the Batclaw.
Outside the Asylum, where you can approach single guards more easily, it also makes it a little clearer that they aren't the brightest AI in the business. At times, you can get so close to the side of an enemy that the he could probably smell what Batman had for lunch, without them being any the wiser. However, these criticisms will only bother the most hardcore of stealth fans. The stealth and brawling are both incredibly fun even if they aren't as nuanced as the likes of Hitman.
On arrival at the Batcave, via the catacombs and sewers of Arkham, we discovered that Project Titan is, in fact, research with the sole purpose of creating an army of Banes. This is what Joker wants to get his hands on, and now what Batman must stop him from getting. At the Bat cave we also picked up two new toys. The first is the Batclaw, which allows you to pull grates off of air ducts, giving you access to new areas, as well as giving you the ability to pull enemies off ledges from a distance. The second is a Cryptographic Sequencer, which when set at the right frequency via the analogue sticks can unlock doors. In the Bat cave we also got a tantalising peek at the Bat plane, which is hopefully a hint at what's to come later in the game.
Emerging from the Bat cave, we saw Arkham in all its glory from a higher viewpoint before setting off into Arkham Mansion to find Dr Young's notes on Project Titan. The mansion is a different beast from the Asylum and is another welcome change in scenery, although the style of play remains largely the same, alternating between being ambushed and being the ambusher. Without spoiling too much, we traced Dr Young's steps through the mansion, using a trail of her DNA, while occasionally dispatching guards. Meanwhile, Harley has been busy getting herself another hostage, the Warden, before heading to the hospital.
En route, she also found the time to free another of Arkham's notorious residents, Poison Ivy. Although we didn't get the chance to interact with her at this early stage, we're sure she'll be causing problems for Bats later in the game. This all finally builds up to a meeting between Harley and Batman. Having freed what we thought was the Warden only moment's ago, we see that Harley still has him in her possession. This means one thing: that we had just freed Clayface, one of Batman's lesser known foes.
Patience Is A Virtue
We chased Harley through treatment rooms packed with soon-to-be Banes, to finally get one-on-one with the Joker's girl. In this boss fight she sent wave after wave of thugs our way, while alternately electrifying portions of the floor. This is a timing nightmare requiring you to string together flowing combos whilst moving around to avoid electrocution. At this point, the combat system really comes to life and presents itself as one of the game's best features. As well as the standard counterattack and takedowns we used to string together impressive-looking combos in previous previews, in this fight we also had to use flips using the A button to get behind enemies with stun batons. Hitting guards with these glowing, blue sticks caused Batman to become stunned, promptly inviting other guards to join in.
The solution is to flip behind the guard and hit them in the back of the head. In practice, this is much harder than it sounds (or maybe we just got a bit carried away beating the living daylights out of the guards), but mastering it is thrilling as you can string together one flawless combo between enemies for as long as you can manage. Finally, once we managed to overcome the guards, Batman and Harley finally came face-to-face for a showdown, but we'll leave it there for now, and let you enjoy the rest of the game for yourselves.
On its release, Batman: Arkham Asylum will probably be the best Batman game ever, but that isn't saying much. Beyond its name, this game plays like a great action-adventure with a brilliant and original combat system that puts the usual hack and slash style to shame. The stealth aspect will possibly leave dedicated fans of the genre wanting more, but what it loses in this respect it makes up for in sheer fun. By carefully picking the voice-over artists, and pacing the game well there is also a real sense of drama as each act builds to another encounter with one of Batman's legendary foes. To be a success, all Batman: Arkham Asylum has to do now is maintain this standard over the length of the game while adding some variety. It's clear that Rocksteady and Eidos have a lot more surprises in store, but personally I'm hoping it's not the inclusion of Robin.