Of all the comic book superheroes, Batman is undoubtedly the closest to being a multimedia superstar. Take 2008 for example: He not only starred in the biggest film of the year, but he was versatile enough to make it into a Lego-based video game. This year, on the 70th anniversary of the character's creation, Batman will return to his comic book roots in Rocksteady Studios' Batman: Arkham Asylum, a third-person action game that's shaping up to be as varied as it is visually stunning. We were lucky enough to see the first hour of the game at the studio's London offices, as well as speak to the people behind it.
"We want to explore the psychology of the Batman character," lead designer Sefton Hill told us. "Players should feel empowered by being Batman, and his ability to handle any given situation however he wants." To this end, Hill and the team have endowed Batman with cool gadgets, nifty weapons, and raw athletic ability and then set him loose in a highly interactive world. And while that world is a prison filled with the worst of Gotham's bad guys, this Batman most definitely makes a formidable hero.
We watched Hill play through the opening of the game, which takes the form of an interactive cinematic. Batman has captured the Joker, and given the Joker's status as the ultimate supervillain, Batman decides to accompany him right down to his maximum-security confines at Arkham. Batman passes many familiar faces along the way, including an intimidating Killer Croc, as well as some of the good guys, such as Commissioner Gordon. But while Gordon may be toasting your success at capturing the city's most dangerous criminal, Batman senses that something is awry. The Joker has given himself up all too easily, and as he teases Warden Sharp and the guards with his trademark maniacal humour, he finds a chance to separate from Batman and make his escape. With the help of Harley Quinn and an army of inmates to do his bidding, the Joker effectively takes over the prison, setting up a fight with Batman on his own terms.
This opening sequence is an audacious introduction to the game. First off, the characters are brilliantly voiced by Batman regulars, including Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman, while the dialogue has been penned by Paul Dini, the scribe behind many Batman and Superman animations, as well as the TV series Lost. Dini came over to London at the beginning of the game's development and helped to flesh out the overall story alongside the development team as well as give the dialogue an element of authenticity. His work is certainly felt throughout the game, particularly in helping the Joker become an irritatingly likable villain. The Joker spends the entire game using the prison's speaker system to taunt both Batman and the goons he's taking out, with some highly entertaining results.
Then there's the look of the game, which is impressive to say the least. The Unreal engine is working under the hood, but it's virtually unrecognisable under the stylistic touches the team has added to the game. The character animation in particular deserves special praise, probably thanks to the studio's on-site motion-capture facility, which has imbued the many villains that we saw with their own individual traits. Hill described how the team used diving weights to achieve Killer Croc's ambling movements, while there's one person whose sole job it is to perfect the look of Batman's floating cape. This sort of attention to detail is easy to appreciate onscreen.
Arkham Asylum is essentially a third-person action game, but we got to see many different gameplay elements during our visit to Rocksteady. The combat is based on hand-to-hand combat at the beginning of the game, and a combo system encourages you to link moves together to earn more points. This results in experience points, and there's a basic role-playing game system that lets you use your points to upgrade either your weapons, such as the batarang, or Batman himself. The basic fighting moves include punch, kick, and flinging your batarang, but you can vault over enemies if you find yourself cornered. It's also worth noting that the health system isn't regenerative while you're in combat, but you can earn health back at the end of a fight if you're victorious.
There are also stealth elements to the game, although Hill is quick to emphasise Batman's power in these situations. "We didn't want a stealth system where you go in, learn the patrol patterns of the enemies, and then use trial and error to get past them. Batman is a powerful character--he spends time looking at a situation and then approaches it how he feels best." He demonstrated this in an open section of the prison, where numerous henchmen were patrolling with guns. He took Batman through the ventilation system, pulling off the grate and then sneaking up behind the first guard for a silent takedown. He immediately fired off a grapple line and ascended to the top of a stone gargoyle to survey the area. Engaging Batman's detective mode, we could see an X-ray of the room, with red and blue skeletal outlines indicating enemy targets and friendly NPCs respectively.
Heading towards one of the isolated enemies, Batman jumped off the gargoyle and used his cape to float through the air before delivering a lethal kick to the enemy's head. This made enough noise to startle the other enemies in the area, and Batman was able to use this intimidation to his advantage. Hill moved Batman around the room to position himself above another enemy, and in a spectacular coup de grace, he used the grapple line to leave the enemy dangling in midair for everyone else to see.
Arkham Asylum is a character itself in this world. The environment changes as you progress; for instance, posters asserting Warden Sharp's authority are defaced by the Joker and his graffiti-loving crew. There are some great comedic touches, such as when the Joker leaves mechanical chattering teeth around the prison, as well as more sinister prison traps, such as gas chambers and electric chairs. In one scene, a prisoner was electrocuting one of the guards in a chair; in another, toxic gas was being let loose on the guards and the prisoners. You're the good guy, so you still have to save the odd criminal, although Batman is badass enough to beat them unconscious once they've been lifted to safety.
Arkham Asylum is stuffed full of unlockable items, and it will be well worth exploring the environments if you're a completist. As we watched the game being played, we saw Batman collecting a Riddler question-mark bonus. In addition, meeting characters in the game unlocks biographies that can be read later. There also seem to be challenges that you unlock by playing through the main game, although the developer was coy about revealing just what they are. Batman will also be able to upgrade his arsenal by collecting experience points, and it was hinted that the batarang can be upgraded to take out multiple enemies with one throw. Hill also spoke of an explosive gel weapon later in the game, which can be detonated remotely.
In case our enthusiasm isn't already apparent, we were left really impressed with Batman: Arkham Asylum. The savvy script and excellent voice acting are sure to please Batman fans, while the combo fighting system and stealth elements look like they'll be great fun. The game is already looking incredibly impressive visually--hopefully an indication that it's nearing completion in time for its Q2 2009 release window. Eidos has promised us a hands-on with the game in the coming months, so hopefully we'll be visiting Arkham again for a more in-depth look shortly.