The first twenty minutes of Batman: Arkham Asylum say a lot about the game: we've got the voice cast of the 90s cartoon, action-stealth gameplay and the writer that brought us episodes of Animaniacs and Lost.
But if Paul Dini isn't enough to convince you that this Batman game is on the level, there's plenty more going on in Arkham Asylum that deserves a look. First, and most important for me, is the voice talent. Almost the entire cast in the game seems to be drawn from Batman: The Animated Series. The Dark Knight himself is voiced by Kevin Conroy, Harley Quinn is played by Arleen Sorkin and I'm pretty sure I recognized Commissioner Gordon's voice, but I can't be sure it's Bob Hastings.
The big star, though, is Mark Hamill as The Joker. I'm glad they got him instead of going for a Heath Ledger sound-alike –- it solidifies Arkham Asylum as a Batman game that stands apart from the movies. Besides, the role of main psychopath is a demanding one. From beginning to game over screen, the pinstripe-sporting super villain is there, taunting the caped crusader, goading him and generally being absolutely crazy at every opportunity. You need a star like Hamill to carry the performance.
The game starts pretty much how the trailer shows it: Batman escorts The Joker into Arkham, The Joker breaks free the second Batman is out of arm's reach, the inmates at Arkham bust loose and take over the whole island. There's also a plot point about Blackgate Prison being on fire, so a lot of Joker's minions wind up at Arkham just before the break out. Killer Croc makes an appearance early on, Harley Quinn helps herself to a nurse's outfit and a gun, and then the game lets the player take control of The Bat to try and get things under control.
Gameplay is a combination of three modes: Investigative mode, Combat mode, and Stealth-hunter mode. Early on in the game, when the inmates aren't armed with guns, it looks like you can get by mostly with Combat mode. The controls haven't been 100% finalized, but it looks like you mash A and maybe Y to pull off punches, kicks and headlocks. There's also some button combo that leads to a slow motion elbow-drop, but I'm not sure what the demo runner did to bring that on.
Right now, the game is still in pre-alpha, so they haven't hit their goal number of guys on screen for combat. I only saw up to five guys in a fight at once; but the demo guy said they had gotten the count up to 15. By launch, Rocksteady hopes to bump that to 20 so the Combat portion of the game will be even crazier.
During combat phases, a combo-counter appears in the upper left hand corner of the screen along with a health bar. The higher the combo number, the more XP Batman earns for the encounter. When you level up, you can upgrade weapons or fighting moves and the health bar regenerates automatically when the fight is over (unless you die, in which case – game over).
They keyword here is "context." Almost all of Batman's moves are context sensitive. For example, you approach a grating over a vent and a prompt pops up, telling you to press A repeated to break the grate faster. You could do that, or you could hold down Right Trigger and then press A once to slowly and stealthily remove the grate and slide it to one side. This is the basis for the Stealth-hunter mode where Batman has to take out multiple minions without being spotted. So instead of running in a mashing A, you creep in and hold Right Trigger while pressing A to turn a headlock into a stealth-choke or a punch into a smothering move.
It all depends on what the situation is and that's where Investigative mode comes in. By toggling this mode, Batman sees the world in a sort of infrared view where everyone's skeletons are visible. You can see how many people are in an area, how many are armed, where possible exits might be and all sorts of clues (like "pheromone trails" or hand prints). It's clear that Rocksteady wasn't out to make a brawler – they remember rightly so that Batman is supposed to be the world's greatest detective, not the world's best boxer.
Other components of gameplay in Arkham are collectible items and exploration. The game isn't exactly a sandbox game, but neither is it a straight linear path. Batman can go all over Arkham island (observe the mad gliding ability in the trailer), but certain areas won't be open to him at all times in the game. Some areas will require a certain item or a certain event to happen before they're open and it sounds like you can't really go back in the game unless the main plot makes do so.
Using Investigative mode will tell you where to go next to advance the story, but wandering around means more collectibles and more collectibles means more unlockable content. Paul Dini has gone all out on creating back stories for almost all the
meat shields prisoners and prison guards in the game. So it's never just faceless dude Batman has to save/kill – it's "Steve" or "Joe" and he's got a wife and kids or whatever. Profiles for characters are part of the unlockable lineup along with original art from WildStorm and probably some other undisclosed goodies.
I walked away from my time with Batman: Arkham Asylum feeling more hopeful than I have in a while about a superhero game. It was said several times during the demo that the developer was out to make a game that would stand on its own without the benefit of the Batman franchise -– and I actually believe that's true. Of course it doesn't hurt that it's Batman. I'll take any excuse to have Mark Hamill in my games.
Arkham Asylum comes out sometime this summer for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. When asked about Achievements and Trophies the answer was: "There are lots – with a capital L."