Not only is Batman: Arkham Asylum one of our most anticipated games for 2009, but it somehow manages to become even more enticing every time we see it. Perhaps it's because Eidos still has plenty to reveal about the game--from the few visits we've made to developer Rocksteady Studios, we'd say there are at least a couple of major characters in the game that have yet to be announced. One character that has been revealed is the Joker, who is a playable character in the PlayStation 3 version of the game and has eight specific challenge-room levels to boot. We were lucky enough to be the first people in the world to play these levels as the Clown Prince of Crime, and we found him to be a completely different proposition to the Dark Knight himself.
It's clear from our playtime that the Joker isn't just Batman in a different skin--he's a completely different character with his own strengths and weaknesses. The key difference is that the Joker isn't clad in body armour, nor does he have an arsenal of gadgets. But what he lacks in strength and tech, he makes up for with pure anarchic destruction. He can unleash a pair of mechanical chattering teeth holding a stick of dynamite, which he can remote-control and detonate next to enemies. He also runs amok performing stealth kills with his signature Joker twists--kicking enemies square in the groin, jumping on their shoulders and smashing them in the head, or spraying toxic gas in their face before dancing manically over the fallen body.
These skills mean that the Invisible Predator mode is a completely different experience when played as Batman or the Joker. The Invisible Predator mode contains a set of unlockable levels, which are opened up by collecting items in the main game, and the aim is to take out all the enemies as quickly as possible. Whereas Batman can swing from pillar to pillar taking out inmates from up high, the Joker has to use each level's interconnected vents and drains to hide from enemies. And while Batman's body armour can withstand some indirect gunfire, the Joker can be taken down with a single shot.
The Joker isn't completely helpless, however. Like Batman, he has a form of X-ray vision that he can use to see the skeletal outline of his enemies through walls. The Joker's take on the technology is slightly more comical, though--he wears large spiral specs that make a hypnotic whirring noise when he wears them. He's also limited to using them when he's standing, so you can't hide in the vents while studying enemy patrol patterns, which obviously leaves you vulnerable to attack. Finally, the Joker also has access to a gun, albeit with only one bullet. That said, it's a useful weapon not only for killing people but also for creating noise. Fire it off, and the other enemies will investigate both the dead body and the area where the shot came from.
With the Joker's relatively simple tools, you have the building blocks for an incredibly addictive stealth experience. It took us a few attempts to stay alive at first, but after we successfully took down all six guards in four minutes, it took only a few more goes to get it down to one minute and five seconds. We started the level by holding R2 to sneak up on the first guard, before pressing the triangle button to silently gas him from behind. We then ran up a ramp to the first floor and fired off our single gunshot to take out the next guard. If the noise didn't startle the guards, then his rag-doll body falling over the walkway certainly did, and it wasn't long before the four remaining guards started investigating. Running into the nearest vent, we watched them gather around the body, at which point we unleashed our chattering teeth. The blast took out three of them in one go, and the remaining guard was so startled that we could jump out and beat him up without facing a fight.
Pretty proud of our performance, we talked to the Eidos reps watching on to see how our time stacked up. While it was respectable, we quickly discovered that a skillful player could easily knock another 15 seconds off our time, and if they practiced enough and got a perfect run, a further 10-second savings wouldn't be out of the question. When the leaderboards launch alongside the game later this summer, we can expect some pretty amazing times to be posted online. It's just a shame that players won't be able to record their runs and post videos to the Internet from within the game. We also broached the subject of the Joker's PS3 exclusivity: Is Batman's greatest supervillain really a Sony fanboy, or could he eventually make an appearance on the Xbox 360 via downloadable content? "All we've announced so far is that he's exclusive to PS3," was the answer from our Eidos man. Take from that what you will.
We were left thoroughly impressed with our first play of the new Invisible Predator rooms, and Rocksteady has really delivered on its promise to make Batman and the Joker two distinct characters. The level we played, Paging Dr. Joker, was the easiest of these levels, and Eidos promises that the later rooms will ramp up the difficulty with more enemies and fewer hiding spots. It's difficult not to mimic the Joker's crazed laughter as he tears up Arkham. We even discovered a new move in the combat rooms where he can jump on enemies before kicking them in the face to finish them off. The full game is set for release at the end of summer, and we get the feeling that Eidos has plenty more to reveal about the game between now and then.