You've heard of Batman no doubt, but if you don't read comics, it's conceivable that you might be unfamiliar with Arkham Asylum. The iconic psychiatric hospital is essentially Gotham City's Alcatraz, and it has housed just about every villain Batman has ever tangled with at one time or another. Now, thanks to Eidos and developer Rocksteady, Arkham is also the setting for a great third-person action game in which the lunatics take over the asylum and only you can stop them. As Batman, you not only get to go toe-to-toe with thugs in fast-paced punch-ups, but you also employ satisfying stealth tactics, play with great gadgets, solve some remarkable riddles, and do a decent amount of detective work. In short, you get to do all of the things that you want to when you don a Batman costume in a game, provided you weren't hoping to get behind the wheel of the batmobile.
The close-ups you're afforded every time a combat sequence comes to an end are always a treat.
Because just about everything else needs to be unlocked, the first time you boot up Batman: Arkham Asylum, your first port of call (after creating or logging into a Games for Windows Live account so that you can save your game) will inevitably be the Story mode. Here, you learn that Batman has captured Joker, and as the lengthy intro sequence plays out, you see him being returned to the asylum under Batman's watchful eye. Joker doesn't seem at all perturbed by his predicament, and it quickly becomes apparent that he has deliberately allowed himself to be captured as part of a grand plan that involves taking control of Arkham Island and throwing a party there with Batman as the guest of honor. Clearly it's a trap, but as Batman (and as someone who demands more than two minutes of gameplay before the credits roll), you just can't walk away from it.
As you take the controls, Arkham Asylum wastes no time throwing you into the thick of the action. Almost immediately, you're rushed by a few of Joker's goons and encouraged to knock them out using both basic attacks and counters. Both the Xbox 360 controller and mouse-and-keyboard control schemes work very well, though the latter occasionally demands a bit more dexterity to perform certain actions. You're free to move between the two options on the fly though, and the onscreen prompts for context-sensitive controls change accordingly. Using just two buttons on your mouse or controller, you can perform a huge number of moves from Batman's superbly animated repertoire, and it isn't at all difficult to string together combos worthy of Hollywood's finest fight coordinators. That's because for the most part, at least early in the game, combat requires you to do little more than mash the attack button and then hit the counter button anytime you notice an enemy with an "I'm about to attack you" icon above his head. None of the thugs that you encounter pose much of a threat individually, but you rarely encounter fewer than three or four of them at once, and often, you'll be up against six or more. Furthermore, the vanilla thugs are joined by enemies with knives, cattle prods, and guns later on, who force you to raise your game and incorporate stun attacks and evasive rolls into your deadly dance routine. Boss battles against supervillains like Scarecrow and Harley Quinn are definitely among the game's highlights, though it's a little disappointing that there aren't more of them. One supervillain in particular makes a number of appearances, but you never actually get to fight him.
Hit Y or the right mouse button, and the attacker with lines above his head will be countered with style.
The combat in Arkham Asylum never gets overly complicated, though the number of moves and attacks at your disposal increases quite dramatically as you progress through the Story mode, earn experience points, and subsequently spend those points on acquiring new combo moves and gadgets. Throws, takedowns, and even batarang attacks can be incorporated into your combos this way, but you never need to press more than two buttons simultaneously, and the timing of your moves doesn't have to be particularly precise. Fighting against mobs of up to a dozen enemies or so is a blast, and while they're not smart enough to all just jump on you at once, they're not stupid either. Given half a chance, thugs will pull pipes from walls to attack you with, pick up boxes to throw at you, and recover weapons from fallen colleagues. Fortunately, there's one weapon that your foes seem blissfully unaware of but which Batman is incredibly comfortable with: the environment.
Your surroundings don't always have a role to play in combat, but during large set piece encounters (many of which can be replayed against the clock in Challenge mode), using them to your advantage is practically a requirement. Picture this: You walk into a large room where eight gun-carrying enemies have been instructed by Joker to keep an eye out for you. You can't leave the room until every single one of them is unconscious, and going toe-to-toe with them isn't an option because--at least as far as this game is concerned--bullets are Batman's kryptonite. What do you do? Job one is to stay out of sight, which can often be accomplished by crouching atop gargoyles mounted high on the walls that, while an unusual interior design choice, make near-perfect hiding spots from which to survey the scene using your X-ray-like detective vision. From a vantage point like that, you can perform glide kicks to swoop down and floor enemies passing nearby, perform awesome "inverted takedowns" to grab guys as they pass directly beneath you and leave them hanging on ropes for their comrades to see, and throw batarangs that serve a number of useful purposes. Or, if you need to move, you can use your grapnel gun to zip to another location. Just be sure to suspend your disbelief as you do so because you're invisible to the enemy when you're in transit.
If this guy had looked up he might have seen the inverted takedown coming.
Once you've thinned your number of enemies a bit, it's safer for you to move around on the ground, and that's when you can really start to use the environment to your advantage. You can rig explosives to bring walls and ceilings down on top of enemies, crash through windows and ceilings, hide in floor grates and emerge directly behind unsuspecting enemies, and, well, you get the idea. All of these actions can be performed quickly and easily, but that doesn't make them any less satisfying when they work.
The reactions of enemies who know that their colleagues are being picked off one by one adds massively to the feeling that you're playing as a bona fide superhero. As their numbers diminish, enemies become visibly more scared--they start to move around in pairs rather than individually, press up against walls and lean around corners, and ultimately get so panicked that they fire a shot anytime they turn a corner. Listening to their superbly voiced conversations clues you into their state of mind as well. Initially, your enemies will be quite bold, loudly making threats and musing on how famous they're going to be for killing you. But as the odds gradually shift in your favor and Joker taunts them, they exude less and less confidence--ultimately sounding like they're resigned to their fates and might start crying at any moment.