Bane is bearing down on Batman like a meaty steam train. As he charges across the room his stomping steps cause a minor earthquake. His arms alone are the size of most men's torsos, his muscles fuelled by the mysterious steroid known as Venom. He is, famously, the man who broke the bat - snapping the caped crusader's spine during a rumble at the Batcave. That was some time ago, but now in the underground halls of Arkham Asylum, he's out for blood once more.
The Dark Knight himself remains unfazed. With reflexes trained by years of downing Guinness and playing darts in The Gotham Arms (no, really), Batman hurls a sharp batarang into Bane's scowling mask. The blow doesn't stop the giant, but it does cause him to lose control. As Bane continues to rush forward under his own momentum, Bats leaps out of the way in glorious slo-mo, and the drugged-up thug smashes into a heavy brick wall. Welcome to the boss fight, Arkham Asylum style.
If you read the preview I wrote two weeks ago, you'll know that I've now played through the first four chapters of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Up until now I've not been allowed to chat about what I've seen in the third and fourth sections of the game, but now my lips are largely un-zipped. Considering that my previous article focused on my general impressions of the game, I thought it might be good to focus on a few of my favourite moments from what I've played so far. Needless to say, I'm about to throw out quite a number of spoilers, so only read on if you're happy to blow a few key surprises from the first half of the story (although there are still one or two things that I'm not allowed to mention).
Let's return to the fight with Bane. This encounter takes place at the very end of Chapter 2 and is essentially the first true boss battle of the game. The whole episode works extremely well because, like so many other things in Arkham Asylum, it successfully represents the nature of the two characters involved. Although Bane is far more intelligent a villain than his hulking appearance might suggest, his primary characteristic is still his awesome strength. Batman, on the other hand, is renowned for being a smart superhero: Yes, he has great gadgets and is pretty handy in a fight, but his primary weapon is his brain.
During the battle, the player first has to deal with Bane's imposing presence. The size and detail of his character model, combined with the speed at which he charges at you, makes him a fairly intimidating foe; as a result you're likely to spend the first few minutes of the encounter simply running away. Once you've actually calmed down a bit, you'll realise that you have to use his strength against him, stunning him as he runs and only attacking once he's crashed into a wall of the arena.
The Bane fight is, in short, a minor puzzle. The find-the-weakspot game is a long-established trend within boss battles, but it feels particularly right here because you know that's exactly what The Dark Knight himself would do in the situation. You know those "What Would Jesus Do?" armbands that became massively popular a few years ago? Well, online there's a place where you can get a T-Shirt that asks, "What Would Batman Do?". It's a question you'll ponder repeatedly throughout your time in Arkham Asylum. Sometimes there's a prescribed solution to your problem: on a few occasions Batman has to use CSI-style genetic evidence to trace a character he's pursuing, following particles of cigar smoke in the air or traces of DNA left behind on doors and bits of scenery. At other moments the game leaves it to you to find you way through: shortly after the Bane fight you're introduced to a set of sniper-wielding goons who are guarding a wide open courtyard. There's almost Tenchu-like quality to this section, since you'll get a bullet to the head if you stray into your enemies' lines of sight.
As I said last time, the lush graphics and shiny production values really help to smooth the transitions between different gameplay types. The action and plot move at a fairly brisk pace, and once you've beaten Bane the game starts to throw new things at you fairly regularly. As soon as you start to get comfortable with Joker's henchman, a fresh enemy type will pop up to make things awkward: a thug with a cattle prod, perhaps, or a freaky raving lunatic who hops about like a deranged beast. These changes keep you on your toes, and they add to the feeling that the whole adventure is one long ordeal for poor old Batman, his suit and cape gradually becoming more torn and slashed up as the story progresses.
I could write pages and pages about the neat moments I saw during my playtest, but time is limited - and besides, it would be mean to spoil all of the twists and turns that are in store. I will, however, mention two scenes that pop right towards the end of chapter four, a pair of events that take place in Arkham's penitentiary area as you attempt to track down Harley Quinn. The first moment takes place just after you've been introduced to Batman's decoder - a handheld device that can be used to crack electronically locked doors. Using this gadget results in a quick mini-game where you have to rotate both analogue sticks in an attempt to find the "sweetspots". As is often the case, you're given this new toy just as it becomes vital to progress through a certain point in the story. You get the decoder, and a few minutes later you've already used it to bypass a few barriers. "Alright," you think to yourself, "I've got this down now. Where's the next fight?"
And then, out of the blue, you're suddenly forced to use the gadget under duress. You walk into a room and find two guards suspended over electrified pools of water. Harley Quinn starts to taunt you from behind the safety of a shatterproof glass window. You work to free one of the guards, and Harley promptly reveals a bomb that's set to go off in a matter of seconds. There's another computer that needs to be diffused, but there's a big pool of electrified water in the way. The guards are panicking, Harley is laughing... but what would Batman do?
The second moment I want to mention takes place a few moments later. Batman finds a way past Harley's evil dilemma (well, after a couple of failed attempts in my case) and confronts her in a hall-like section of the prison. Rather than fighting Batman herself, Quinn elects to send wave after wave of thugs his way. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but unfortunately Harley is in front of a control panel that allows her to electrify the floor. Batman has to lay into the mass of bad guys, using his combo and countering skills to keep control of the crowd, while periodically jumping back and forth between safe and electrified parts of the arena. You've also got to do the whole fight on one health bar, so every time an enemy sneaks a fist or a pipe past your defences Batman takes a nap. It starts off simply, but by the time the third wave arrives you'll be utterly knackered. It's a marathon of violence, Batman versus the hard bastards, and by the time you finally emerge you'll feel almost as bruised as our long-suffering hero.
But I tell you this; you'll also be hungry for more. It's kind of a strange pleasure to play so much of a game in one sitting; it's a bit like trying to speed-eat some kind of caped crusader cake - perhaps a Bat Forest Gateau. Actually it's probably nothing like that. The point is that I played Arkham Asylum for seven hours, and at the end of that session I was still reluctant to put the pad down. If you like Batman - and hey, who doesn't? - then you should be feeling pretty good come the end of next month.
Batman: Arkham Asylum will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on August 28.