Four things impressed me about the upcoming "Batman Arkham Asylum" game, which I saw in New York City yesterday.
Batman may have starred in major movies and fantastic comic books, but, in video games, he's just another super-hero who has never had a great game.
Last year's "LEGO Batman" game was okay; EA's "Batman" projects in recent years have been damaged. Where's the great Batman game?
Would it be foolish to expect this summer's "Batman Arkham Asylum" to be the breakthrough effort?
I got a hands-off demo of the game yesterday in a New York City hotel and can summon up at least these four reasons why I think this digital Dark Knight adventure might be special:
1) Strong Premise - The story is simple, sensible and friendly to the way games are constructed. "Arkham Asylum" occurs over the course of one night, during which you're Batman (never Bruce Wayne). The Joker's incarceration into Arkham on the night of the game is actually part of his plot to take the place over. He frees the crazies inside and traps Batman into a grand death trap. What unfolds is an adventure in a quasi-open setting. The game isn't as small as some people might think. The Arkham of "Arkham Asylum" is not one building, but an island full of structures and caves through which the action proceeds. Once nice gimmick: over the course of the night, Batman's costume will be more and more torn and he'll grow stubble, a possible sign that the developers at Rocksteady Games have played "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" to the end.
2) They Mentioned "Metroid" - Batman may be a fighter, but he's also a detective. That quality seems to puzzles those developers who can easily find precedents for making Batman punch villains, but can't really point to many great detective games from which to draw gameplay. Enter one of the few great gaming series that consistently did detective-work right: "Metroid." In both the 2D and 3D incarnations of Nintendo's classic series, players have had to scour the game's landscape for details. In the "Metroid Prime" games, different visors allowed for the tracking of heat patterns, x-ray signals and even made sound visible. The detective-work in "Arkham Asylum" has some of that, allowing Batman to see his world in blue, with people x-rayed and tagged with data, key structures displayed in different colors. Plus, as Batman fights and gains experience points, he earns new gadgets that allow him to re-visit old areas and access new areas. I asked if any of this was "Metroid"-inspired, and the producer showing me the game assured me that he and the developers are both big fans and students of the Nintendo series.
3) This Is A Standalone Batman - This game is based on no one story from Batman lore. It's not drawn from Grant Morrison's "Arkham Asylum" graphic novel. It doesn't flow from the movies or even use Christian Bale's growling voice. It does its own thing and therefore may be freed from some of the standard narrative constraints of an adaptation. Some results: a 20-foot rendition of Killer Croc (good) and a sexed-up Harley Quinn who wears a corset and shows lots of cleavage (necessary?). The sense that the developers are having fun with the lore is apparent and word is tthat hey're acknowledging as many Batman characters as they can, including Killer Moth and… Ratcatcher?
4) The Batman Staples Are There - Batman spends some of the game time being a detective, some of it brawling with crowds of enemies, but also lots of time doing Batmanish things: Batman standing on a perch stalking hoodlums. Batman crawling through vents to sneak up on thugs. Batman throwing many different types of Batarangs. Batman gliding with the help of his cape. It's all there.
Is this a trick? Or is Batman finally getting a game worth of the comic book legend?
"Batman Arkham Asylum" is slated for a summer release for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC from publishers Eidos and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment.