I've just spent the last fifteen minutes thinking of ways to insert the word "bat" into famous stealth game titles. To be honest, I've not had much success. I've "Bat-sassins Creed," which is pretty damn awful, and "Splinter Shellfish", which amuses me greatly but uses an animal that isn't even vaguely like a bat. All told, the best I could come up with was "Bat-le Gear Solid".
As it happens, that last one is actually a fairly decent comparison. In pure gameplay terms, Bats' latest adventure feels reminiscent of Solid Snake's outing on the PS1. There's the island setting, for one thing, and the combination of sneaky action and futuristic gadgets, but the biggest single reminder is the game structure. Ever since Eidos and Rocksteady first revealed Arkham Asylum, everyone's been wondering about how the main game would play. Would it be an open-ended adventure, allowing full exploration of the game world, or would it be a channeled and linear experience? Most people were hoping for the former and fearing they'd get the latter - a pessimistic expectation forged by years of piss-poor movie tie-ins.
Well, I've now played through a massive chunk of Batman AA, and I can tell you that the game is a halfway house between these two models. Once you've completed the first section of the story you're relatively free to go exploring Arkham Island, but you'll soon find that many areas remain off-limits to you. As you progress through the story you'll naturally gain access to new buildings and areas of the facility, while your expanded set of bat-tools will allow you to bypass obstacles that would previously block your way. The batclaw, for example, is a sort of ranged grappling hook launcher that allows you to pull vents off walls; once you've done this you'll be able to enter air ducts that were previously off-limits. At any given time you'll need to be in a specific place to progress the story, but you're usually free to wander off if you suddenly feel the urge to sight-see. While you're doing this, you'll also be able hunt for the game's many collectibles. There are over 300 of these to find, ranging from patient interviews to age-old notes on the history of the asylum. There's also a whole set of puzzles set by The Riddler - cryptic hints that lead you to highlight certain items or bits of scenery; even when you get one right, he'll still pipe up to tease you about how stupid you are.
Like the game's overall structure, a mixed approach is employed with regards to combat. As you explore the asylum and the surrounding grounds you'll frequently run into The Joker's goons - clown-faced thugs who were previously transferred to Arkham after Blackgate Prison mysteriously caught fire. Sometimes you'll be encouraged to tackle these chaps in a specific way, but more often than not the decision is left in your hands. Do you simply rush in and tackle them with your fists, using the attack-counter-stun system we've already seen in the challenge rooms, or should you hang back and use one of your toys - a batarang, perhaps, or the aforementioned claw? As a general rule you're fine to use melee attacks on the bad guys who carry melee weapons, but those carrying firearms are a different proposition.
Each chapter of the game seems to carry at least one Invisible Predator section, an interlude where you're required to take down a number of gun-toting enemies within a set environment. The first of these areas is the medical facility that featured in the challenge mode-focused preview that I wrote back in March. Later examples take place in other arenas (some of which I'm not allowed to mention yet), but the idea is always the same: climb up into the rafters of a tall room, use your hook to grapple from perch to perch, and take out the attackers one by one. Much of the fun here lies in carefully planning and then executing your strategy. By switching your vision into Detective Mode you'll get an X-ray view of your surroundings, with all nearby hostiles represented as red skeletons and all objects of note highlighted in bright yellow. These might be air vents, a good spot from which you can launch a silent glide-kick, or perhaps just a nice weak ceiling that can be rigged to collapse on dim-witted guards below.
As I said in my last preview, both the predator sequences and the melee combat work extremely well. The combo-based fist fighting makes you feel tough and powerful, but not to the extent that you get careless. As long as you remain focused and keep the blows coming you'll remain on top, but if you let an attack slip past your defences you can be swiftly overrun by large crowds. And while it's incredibly satisfying to stalk your terrified foes in the predator sections, you'll die in a hail of bullets if you get too cocky. You'll earn XP with every successful battle, represented by a flock of bats that swarm up into an indicator at the top of the screen, and every time you level up you'll be able to upgrade one of Bat's abilities. You might just opt to make him tougher, or you might choose to unlock new equipment. In addition to the Batclaw, you'll eventually get access to spray-on plastic explosives and a whole array of Batarangs: there are ones that give out electric shocks, that can take out multiple enemies once, and that make distracting noises. If you think of a way to be nasty to escaped criminals, Batman probably has a batarang to get the job done.
Of course, much of the stuff I've talked about - upgradeable items, combo attacks and stealthy takedowns - is the bread-and-butter stuff of third-person action games. There's nothing wildly original about the things you'll be doing in Arkham Asylum, but the important point is that you'll be doing them as Batman - and for once, you'll really feel like him. The biggest strength of this game is arguably its immaculate presentation: from the cinematic score to the dark-yet colourful art style, the whole endeavor feels like classic Dark Knight. This atmosphere counts for a lot, and it ultimately works to link everything together. There are quite a few different elements at play here - combat, stealth, platforming and the occasional spot of puzzle-solving - and it would have been easy for these ingredients to sit awkwardly alongside each other. Instead they feel like part of one continuous adventure, because this is Batman, and we know that he does all these things.
It's also fair to say that Eidos and Rocksteady made a smart move in bringing aboard Paul Dini - the writer-producer who worked on the Emmy award-winning Batman: The Animated Series. While I won't say much about the game's plot (we'll save that for the next preview), let's just say that The Joker's takeover of Arkham creates a decent excuse to have Batman square off against a broad selection of his old enemies. More importantly, it allows The Clown Prince of Crime himself to take a central role in proceedings. While it's cool to hear Kevin Conroy reprise his role as Batman, there's no doubt that Mark Hamill's Joker is the absolute star of the show - fulfilling a similar role to that played by Andrew Ryan in BioShock. Thanks to Arkham's PA system and the near omni-presence of monitors, it's rare for five minutes to go by without you hearing some form of barbed taunt from your green-haired nemesis, accompanied by his psychotic laughter. He's creepy, he's funny, and you're going to love him.
As you might expect, he also has one or two tricks up his sleeve - but let's leave them for another time. We'll be running another preview at the end of the month, and in that article we'll take a look at some of the nastier surprises The Joker has in store for you - and perhaps at some of the other people who are dying to catch up with Batman. In particular, there's a muscle-bound monster with a taste for venom who's desperate to break back into the caped crusader's life. If you want to know more, check back here in a fortnight.
Batman: Arkham Asylum will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on August 28.
Want to play Batman: Arkham Asylum in London this Saturday and get yourself a goody bag? Head here to get all the details.