All is not as it seems
In Batman: Arkham Asylum you play the Dark Knight himself as he returns a captured Joker to Arkham Asylum, Gotham City's home for the criminally insane. Unfortunately Batman's concerns about Joker's ease of capture quickly ring true as the madman turns on the security staff and manages to take control of the whole asylum, using the always helping hands of Harley Quinn.
Most Batman fans will jump with joy when these main characters open their mouths for the first time. This is down the ingenious decision to bring back the cast from Batman: The Animated Series. So you will be hearing Kevin Conroy's superb Bruce Wayne, Mark Hamill's timeless Joker and Arleen Sorkin's squealing Harley Quinn. Unfortunately these three beloved actors completely overshadow the rest of the voice cast who all seem incredibly dry by comparison. Most of the major villains are well voiced, but some of them just don't sound quite right for the job.
More Bioshock than Gears
So the voice acting is a mixture of joyous and mediocre, but you certainly won't find the same mixed bag in the gorgeous visuals. The game was built on Epic's Unreal Engine 3 and for the most part it does a fantastic job of avoiding the obvious Gears of War look. The tone of the graphics is actually much closer to another Unreal game, Bioshock. This is achieved both through the game's colour palette, which changes very distinctly as you move around the free-roaming Arkham Island, and also through the animation which is an awful lot more intricate than you might expect from the engine. It's a shame in some ways that you can't see more of the world, as the camera is often incredibly close to Batman.
There are some truly beautiful special effects though on Batman himself, from tearing to the suit and cape and the way that the cape moves in the wind and wraps around enemies and the environment. Rocksteady have really nailed the atmosphere of Gotham City, particularly when compared to the Batman graphic novels of the nineties and The Animated Series, which presented a realistic modern city, with some slightly supernatural undertones.
Unfortunately, if you are a fan of the realism portrayed in recent movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight then you might be put off by the plot's emphasis on the supernatural connotations associated with the rogues gallery of villains. I had one problem in particular, with The Joker. The game portrays him as a character with a very clear plan and motivation, but most fans have come to expect a high level of randomness and chaos in his behaviour. It works in the context of the wonderful story, written by The Animated Series' Paul Dini, but in the larger framework of the Batman universe it doesn't quite fit.
What makes Batman: Arkham Asylum stand out from Batman games of the past is the feeling of truly being The Dark Knight. Rocksteady can definitely claim to be the only developer to empower the player to do everything you would expect from The Caped Crusader. Nowhere is this more evident than in the "silent predator" scenarios littered throughout the story mode. These involve large rooms, usually with gargoyles to hide on in the rafters and filled with several of Joker's goons. You can use Batman's immense arsenal of bat-gadgets and the room itself to pick off the thugs one by one, gradually creating more and more fear in those that remain. It is very reminiscent of the Arkham Asylum scenes in the Batman Begins film. It is also something EA tried to achieve in their Batman Begins game, but they didn't give you anyway near as much control over the situation as Rocksteady have done.
You can hang upside down from gargoyles and sweep thugs up to the rafters in your cape, hanging them upside down for their friends to find. You can then cut them down with a well aimed batarang from a distance, making those remaining panic even more. You can explode weak walls into enemies or pull them over ledges from a distance with the bat-claw. It feels like a playground of fear and you are completely in control, toying with the guards however you see fit.
The more traditional combat in the game uses a technique called "free-flow combat". It is a deceptively simple style of fighting, using one button to attack and one to counter your enemies when a warning symbol appears over their head to show they are about to launch an attack. It sounds dull, but it's so fast that you often can't stop to think. You are constantly watching for attacking enemies as you will often fight 10 or more at a time. The simplicity of the combat and the brutality of the animations are just another way that you are made to really feel like Batman. As you progress you will learn to use the batarangs and bat-claw in combat and discover vicious finishing moves and takedowns. Like the silent predator events, this feels like it has been greatly influenced by the fights in the Christopher Nolan films.
Beautiful special effects.
The bosses can be a bit too gamey.