GDC 2009: Batman: Arkham Asylum Hands-On Impressions

We jump into the boots of the Caped Crusader to see how things control in his latest adventure.

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SAN FRANCISCO--There are a select few superheroes that are so big and so popular that they can afford to star in a game that's not being accompanied by a big-budget Hollywood film. Batman is certainly one of those, and for evidence you need look no further than Batman: Arkham Asylum, an upcoming action-stealth hybrid from developer Rocksteady Studios that's scheduled to arrive nearly a full year after the release of The Dark Knight. We had our first look at Arkham Asylum back in January, but yesterday we had our first chance to get our hands on a controller to see how it plays.

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There are a few ways to describe Arkham Asylum's gameplay. On the one hand, you could easily call it a brawler. Batman's primary threat as he makes his way through the demented halls of this infamous insane asylum is the stream of crazed thugs that the Joker has taken control over. The conflict isn't any one enemy, but instead the sheer number of them, requiring you to bounce through swarms of enemies using attack combos, agile counters, and any environmental advantages you can muster up. But there are also stealth and gadget elements that come into play, as Batman can, at certain points, silently stalk his prey using the cover of darkness and a utility belt full of advanced technology.

In the story campaign, these two elements will be blended together fairly seamlessly--or at least according to copublisher Warner Bros. Interactive--but in our hands-on demo we got to try a few challenge rooms that take each of these gameplay types and have you flex your skills in a way that highlights each one specifically. The first was a brawling-focused challenge room that pit Batman against a dozen or so thugs in a tiny room, with a succession of rounds that raised the enemy difficulty each time. It's sort of a take on the recently popular horde mode we've been seeing lately where the goal is to rack up as many points as you can to use as bragging rights on an official leaderboard.

The basic controls are easy to get a hold of, but as you might expect, they become more challenging as Batman unlocks more-advanced maneuvers and gadgets (which is done via the main storyline). Here's a brief rundown of the basic controls in the Xbox 360 version of the game: X is your primary attack button, Y is to counter, B will stun your enemies momentarily, and A lets you run when its held, vault over enemies when pressed once, and dodge when double-tapped. Taking on a single bad guy is as easy as hitting X a few times, but often you'll have several of them flanking you, so you'll need to be cognizant of who else is attacking you besides the guy standing immediately in front of you. That's when counters come in handy, which are often slick animations that let you, say, grab a guy's arm and snap it mid-punch.

Arkham Asylum's visuals make good use of Unreal Engine 3.
Arkham Asylum's visuals make good use of Unreal Engine 3.

Another handy technique is vaulting, which lets you acrobatically flip over an enemy and attack his rear side. Armed enemies are best attacked this way after stunning them, to minimize the amount of lead pipe or machine gun damage Batman takes. Managing all these threats is a delicate ballet of dancing between bodies, taking out the most pressing threat, and using the group to your advantage--like when you can knock one guy into another guy who subsequently falls off a ledge, for example. We liked the way the controls worked: they were simple but allowed for some depth with advanced techniques like contextual takedowns and using the batclaw to pull enemies from across the room. And to top it off, the animations were all very realistic and fluid.

The other challenge room we played was called the Silent Predator Arena. Here, instead of taking on a big clump of bad guys all squeezed into a small room, Batman has to silently take on a smaller sample of enemies patrolling a much larger space. A good idea is to use the Investigative vision mode, which turns the screen dark and highlights armed enemies in red and unarmed enemies in blue. This gives you an idea of whom to target first. From there, it's a matter of deciding whether to take on enemies from the ground floor, or to zip up to the gargoyles perched high atop the giant walls and take them out from on high.

The options you have for dealing with these guards are pretty extensive. You can take them on directly with hand-to-hand combat, but that winds up being a remarkably bad idea considering they're all armed. A better option is to pick them off one by one. In a typical scenario, you might start by doing an inverted takedown on a guard who's unlucky enough to walk under your gargoyle, then spray some explosive gel on a wall where a group of them might gather if you create the proper distraction, and then blow the bunch of them up remotely. Then, stun a leftover guard by leaping from a ledge with a glide kick, and finish him off with a final, crippling blow to the head. Of course, that's just a suggestion; you can go about each room how you want, and it's all a matter of zipping around unseen, figuring out how to use the environment to your advantage, and maximizing each attack.

Enemies will frequently flank you, so watch out.
Enemies will frequently flank you, so watch out.

Altogether, we had a good time with Arkham Asylum. The controls offered a friendly learning curve, and the reward for trying out some of the advanced techniques was a collection of slick takedowns and interesting animations. We should be able to offer more on the game's story in the coming months. In the meantime, you can expect Batman: Arkham Asylum to arrive this summer on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

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