Super heroes appeal because they are usually men and women who are capable of extraordinary things. There's an element of wishing you had those abilities, whether it be Spider-man's tingling spider-sense, Superman's flight or Wolverine's regeneration, but some super heroes aren't really so super. Batman is just your average, rich, man who's made himself into something better, using his intellect, detective skills and the latest gadgets to give him an edge over his foes. So if he's just an ordinary man why has it been so hard to make a successful video game about the Caped Crusader? We've had the odd flash in the pan down the years, but only now with Eidos and Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum do we have a game that really does Bats justice.
If you haven't been following Arkham Asylum over its development, the set up couldn't be simpler: Batman is transporting arch enemy The Joker to the asylum, with the grinning one tightly secured in the back of the Batmobile. On entering the secure facility, in an opening sequence reminiscent of that seen in Starbreeze's excellent The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, there's a sense of unease. Surely nothing can help The Joker get out of this one… or can it? It seems it was all a devious plan and soon enough The Joker is free, running Arkham Island with a whole load of goons doing his bidding.
As we touched on earlier, Batman isn't a man with great strength. He can't fire lasers from his eyes and he doesn't have the ability to stretch; he's a man who uses his smarts to find clues at crime scenes, uses gadgets to traverse the environment in ways normal men can't, fights with the skill of the best martial artists and lurks in the shadows while stalking his foes. This all had to be part of Arkham Asylum in order for the game to be a true Batman experience, and it is. No game before has let you step into the shoes of Batman like this.
Combat is as good a place to start as any, with hand-to-hand brawling making up a large portion of the overall experience. Rather than overcomplicating things with a God of War or even Ninja Gaiden-style system, Rocksteady has implemented a simple control scheme that is easy to pick up but takes some time to get truly great at. It's worth noting that while the game is entirely playable using a keyboard and mouse, the melee combat benefits immensely from using a game pad, such as the Xbox 360 controller. All other aspects of the game function perfectly with the traditional PC control setup, but fighting feels a bit more complicated. Punches and kicks are mapped to one button or key, counter attack to another, and stun to a third. Enemies come at Bats from all sides, so it's essential to direct his attacks in combination with an attack.
Early on you'll need little more than the main attack and the odd well-timed counter - enemies handily display a clear marker above their heads when they're about to attack assuming you're not playing on the hardest difficulty setting. It's all about timing rather than button mashing, and soon you'll settle into a rhythm and pull off some stunning moves, ending in glorious slow motion finishers. As you progress you'll gain new moves, unlocked in the upgrades menu in exchange for points earned through general play. One key ability is the takedown, which lets the Dark Knight incapacitate fallen enemies so they don't get back up. What matters is that it feels great, fitting snugly between the slightly too basic counter combat in Assassin's Creed and the best examples in the hack 'n' slash genre.
Fisticuffs is just one aspect of combat in the game though, with a wealth of gadgets at Bats' disposal should you want to use them. The Batarang is the first you'll get your hands on, with the game offering a quick throw that auto targets the most significant object or enemy on screen and a manual aim. In its most basic form it's good for temporarily knocking down enemies and cutting down objects that are out of reach, but later on you'll be able to upgrade to get hold of Sonic Batarangs that send goons off searching for them, and multi Batarangs that allow Bats to target numerous enemies at once. Towards the end of the game you'll have so many gadgets and weapons that you won't always see the obvious solution to a problem even if it's staring at you in the face. The Batclaw lets you pull down ventilation shaft grates that are just out of reach, but this is eventually upgraded to pull down weak structures, and there's a slight variation that forms a zip rope between two solid walls - oh, and you can also use the claw to pull enemies off their feet, too.
There's just an abundance of options. When assessing any situation, Batman's main tool is his detective vision - an enhanced viewing mode that highlights key objects that can be interacted with, the location of enemies (even if they're behind walls), and whether or not an enemy is carrying a weapon. By using this info you're able to plan your attacks, whether it is a straightforward assault through the front door or a more considered series of stealthy swoops down from the rafters, dispatching foes one at a time. A favourite technique of ours is to swoop down and knock out an enemy, spray some explosive gel on his location, retreat to cover, wait for his buddies to investigate and then blow the gel. It's sneaky, but it gets the job done.