Monday, March 30, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum Hands-On Preview

Originally featured on

The one thing every comic book fan I've ever met can agree on is the villainous rogue gallery of the Batman comics contains some of the darkest, most sinister enemies of any comic universe. These are mad men with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas, each one a twisted souls looking for more than wealth as they inflict pain and suffering on the citizens of Gotham. If there is one thing that Batman games have taught me, its that gamers can completely identify with Gothamites. We've been put through the wringer by the last trio of Batman games, each one under-delivering on the promise of playing a game featuring the Dark Knight Detective. And it's hard to undo the collective amnesia that we all seem to undergo the second a new game set in the franchise is announced.

It's with this mindset that I walked over to a demo session of "Batman: Arkham Asylum", and got a closer look at the game during the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

Three Pillars of Game Design

The developers of "Batman: Dark Asylum" were quick to inform me of the game's three pillars design philosophy (think concentration areas). These three areas of focus were: Investigation, Free Flow Combat, and Predatory Combat (think stealth). Interestingly, my reaction to this design credo was surprise because I'd never actually thought deeply on what the core essences of the character were. But when I did, I saw a lot of value to this list - they're the most important elements of his masked persona distilled to it's purest and basic idea. To showcase the three pillars concepts in action, I was given a demonstration in the Riddler's Challenge rooms.

The Riddler Challenges

The Riddler challenges are a set of rooms that are designed as an incentive for players to unlock bonus art and character profile info (the game will ship with over 200 of these). The first challenge room I'm shown showcases the game's Free Flow Combat System. Controlling Batman, I'm able to ping-pong around the room engaging different opponents quickly using strikes and kicks. Of course, combat in real-life (or comics for that matter) is rarely ever focused between two people trading blows in gentlemanly fashion and a third person enters the fray. As said goon makes his move I get a moment to try a cool feature that the developers call, a re-direct.

Re-directs in "Batman: Arkham Asylum" are used as a way to redirect Batman's attention to a separate incoming attack. Whenever the Caped Crusader's attention is diverted and an opponent is attacking from his blind side, a lighting bolt appears over the incoming attackers head. This is your prompt as the player to hit the re-direct button to intercept the attack (and look super cool) and then counter the move. Players can either redirect or dodge which leaves the system open and not feel too automatic, and if a prompt makes you feel like the sequence is too quick-time-ish, it shouldn't. Ultimately, it contributes to keeping Batman aggressive in these one-versus-many brawls, and it's satisfying when you nail them into consecutive combos (which for challenge rooms, can be recorded and then uploaded to online leaderboards).

Predatory Instincts
The second series of challenge rooms show off the predatory combat pillar of the game's design. As Batman, players are tossed into a much larger room with the goal of taking out all the goons, only now they are encouraged to use more stealthy means. Batman can crouch walk to silence his steps to sneak up behind foes, or use his grappling hook to observe his prey from above and put together a rough combat plan.

I scale to the top of the room using my grappling hook and check out the Caped Crusaders wonderful toys in "Batman: Arkham Asylum". My first assessment tool is called investigation, and by tapping a button I get a wire-frame looking heads up display that informs me of enemy positions. Using the right trigger, I can crouch walk and sneak up behind someone for a stealth take-down, one of the best ways to dispatch an opponent silently, or I can look for marked surfaces to use my explosive gel. Tagging a marked surface, you can remote detonate the get and take out an enemy using the opposite of a stealth take-down, but its still very satisfying. Two more great tools for the Dark Knight are the Bat Claw and fan favorite Batarangs. The Bat Claw pulls enemies across the room over to Batman (think Scorpion's claw from Moral Kombat), or over rails, taking them out in the process. And Batarangs are like ninja stars except shaped like .... bats.

As I systematically took out each goon in the challenge room one by one, I had another epiphany - this could be the best Batman game so far. The predatory combat felt right for the license, but the thing that sealed the deal were the enemy A.I. and there reactions. If I was too loud, all the thugs would come running to see what happened - a plus in my book. One of my favorite moments played out when I used one of the game's vertical take-downs - If an enemy passes under Batman's perch in a level, he can grapple down, scoop up the enemy, and tie him to the post while he screams for help. After I hog-tied my prey, he scream out and all the goons leveled their machine guns to fire at me. Using the grapple I was able to evade the bullets and seek a better spot while the enemies bickered amongst each other wondering where I went. This was a Batman moment and it convinced me that the game is on the right track.

There's still much to discuss when it comes to "Batman: Arkham Asylum". The game takes place over the course of one night, and with a pretty familiar comic book plot: Batman apprehends the Joker. Joker escapes and then sets all the lunatics of Arkham loose on everyone's favorite Dark Knight (all according to plan, I might add). So, while the outcome to the story could feel obvious, we're fairly excited to see how it all plays out for Batman this time. Clearly the three pillars philosophy as a key design decision means that Rocksteady Studios understands the Dark Knight, better than the developers that came before. Yet its to early to tell if this is the game that vindicates the Batman license and lifts it out of the dredge of 'bad licensed games'.

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