Batman: Arkham Asylum

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Okay, there are very few video games I've been this excited about. Back in February I started on a mission to try to scam, I mean, legitimately acquire an early demo of Batman Arkham Asylum. I asked nicely, I tried my charm—I'm pretty sure I got annoying—and yet, nothing. I'm sure I would have stood a better chance at robbing a bank than getting an early copy of the game.

So imagine my surprise when an email from WB graced my inbox, inviting me to demo the game at Comic Con. Sure, I'd have to share my Bat-time with thousands of other demo-hungry fans, but, hey, a demo's a demo.

Getting to try out the new Batman Arkham Asylum at Comic Con was just as awesome as I thought it was going to be, and slightly embarrassing. Let's start with the embarrassing part! I do consider myself fairly knowledgeable in the ways of gaming, but after my trial run of Batman Arkham Asylum I was left a little red faced—although I insist it's because I was handed the Xbox version and I'm a PS3 girl.

After getting my butt sufficiently kicked and handed back to me on a silver platter, not once, but five separate times, I handed the controller back to the (I must say, cute) demo guide and had him finish the level for me. To a prideful gamer, there is nothing more painful than having to admit defeat with a crowd of your fellow game nerds looking on, and then allowing someone else finish the level for you. Silently, I hung my head in pitiful, yet well-hidden shame. Apparently, I wasn't the only one to exhibit mass amounts of Bat-fail, which made me feel a little better.

Now, on to the loads of awesome that this game is: First, the opening sequence and credits gave me that eerie feeling, like walking through a haunted house. You're just walking with The Joker, walking and seeing the madness you're about to be tossed into. It's the same feeling I got playing Resident Evil for the first time and being locked up inside the mansion.

Then you meet Killer Croc, and you think "damn, that guy's huge. I have to fight that later?" So the set up is great. Tons of fear, no allies—well, Oracle is plugged into your head—but on the ground, it's all you.

Next comes the game play. Now that I've got the proper controller in my hands, I can kick ass more efficiently. The "freeflow" combat allows you to string together multiple hits for a take down. So what starts as a simple kick to the head can become (if you're fast and fluid enough) a kick to the head followed up with a couple elbows to the face, and this really cool jumping downward punch to finish off the attacker—and that's just the first attacker.

If you can keep it up, you'll keep stringing the combos together and by the time the last guy gets hit, he'll get hit with a 15+ move combination. The attack moves are a terrific combo of skilled martial arts and flat out brawling, just what you'd expect from Batman.

The take downs are way too much fun; I found myself giggling a little. Getting to glide kick Victor Zsasz in the back, or dropping down on an unsuspecting thug and stringing him up by the ankles—who wouldn't want to? And it's not all about knuckle dusting a bunch of psychos; you will have to rely on the Detective mode.

Detective mode allows you to pick up trails, like whisky breath, or identifies which thugs are carrying lead pipes and which ones have guns. We lucky PS3 players get the "exclusive" Play as The Joker add-on where, as you guessed, you get to play as The Joker through several game challenges. It's free, so go for it. There's also a mini-comic that's included—nothing special, just a little backup story.

Next on the coolness fact sheet: It's written by Paul Dini. Now, if that guy can't write a Batman story then no one can. And just to make this the ultimate Batman throwback, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin are reprising their rolls as Batman, The Joker, and the great Harley Quinn from the way too cool Batman: The Animated Series.

I don't know about anyone else, but I spent a fair amount of my childhood acting out Batman in the front yard with my friends because of that show. Giddy with the knowledge that not one, not two, but three classic cartoon voices will be present in the game, I asked Sefton Hill, the game director, what it was like to bring back the actors and Paul Dini for this mini-reunion:

"It was great fun working with Paul. He brings a very different perspective to the whole game coming from the comic books and TV show background. He came on right at the start of the project, which was really useful because we developed the story and the game play side by side, so each one reinforces the other, whereas in other games the story may override the game or the other way around. And it was amazing working with Mark. He's just amazing as the Joker, and Kevin does an incredible job as Batman. It's a unique opportunity to get those guys back together and really give the game that authenticity."

When Sefton said Mark Hamill is amazing as The Joker, he's not just tossing that word around. Those of us who watched the show as kids or young adults remember his brilliant, over the top, iconic performance as the Clown Prince of Crime, and Mark has brought it all back for the game and then some. The gleeful madness flows almost too naturally—maybe we should worry. I found myself looking forward to the cut scenes just so I could hear that voice and the maniacal laughter.

The character designs are fantastic; they're a really good mix of classic and a new dark, and twisted Batman. The ladies are more sexed up then usual, but Bane and The Joker look as you would expect them to look. I was told that Harley Quinn's appearance went over rather well among the fan boys. Not hard to see why. And Poison Ivy, well, let's just say the girl could use some pants.

Now we come to the greatest villain of them all: Housing some of the most vile, insane, and oddest of Gotham's citizens is Arkham Asylum, the setting of the game. We finally get to wander the halls and yards of the infamous nut house, and it's very impressive. It's a giant twisted maze of dark halls, dirty cells, a greenhouse (three guesses as to who you'll see there), and the nastiest looking sewer I've ever seen. Combine the atmosphere with hundreds of escaped crazies who hate you and you've got a holy Bat-nightmare.

So far, confirmed as the game's villains are: Joker, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Victor Zsasz, Bane, and Scarecrow. The line-up is great, but I'm hoping for some well-kept secret cameos, maybe a Mr. Freeze tossed in for good measure. I literally just finished my first boss battles, the first with Scarecrow. What a head trip. I'm pretty sure the Scarecrow's image might haunt me for a little while. He's got needles for fingers. This is definitely a step up since the animated series, but may not be appropriate for the youngsters due to some naughty language, and strange and suggestive language from The Joker.

From the dirty sewer water to The Joker's purple suit to Batman's facial expressions when he elbows a guy in the face, the details of the game are very impressive. Batman's even got chin stubble. The game is, in a word, complex. Not a bad complex, but a "wow, a lot of time and effort went into this game" complex. We'll shoot back to Sefton Hill for a quick quote on building the game:

"We really wanted to create something very real, very authentic, something that could exist, so there's a tremendous amount of detail in the environments. The artists worked extremely hard to bring the whole environment to life. They studied asylums and the like for two years to bring this all to life. Basically, everything in the game has had hours and hours of discussion, from Batman's belt to the cape and how long it is. Everything has been studied and experimented with. It really took a long time because we wanted to create our own, consistent Batman universe that could sit alongside the current mythology and cannon. It's a lot of work, but it's really a labor of love, a celebration of everything Batman."

And it is a celebration of everything Batman. The suit, the car, the wonderful toys—it's all here. You even get a Batcave. I'm just so impressed with the game so far; it's probably one of the best comic book video games I've ever played, and certainly better than the Watchmen game.

There are also the Riddler's quests to complete, which add a whole other layer to game play. Throughout the game, little trophies to collect and riddles to solve will pop up. Completing these will unlock character bios and other little fun extras. You can ignore these as they are not essential to the game, but it's an extra challenge, and trust me, some of them will take some time to figure out. Be prepared to spend some time wandering around the Asylum grounds trying to piece together the puzzle while the Riddler insults your intelligence.

Overall, it's a really, really good game. I predict many hours of sleep lost due to Batman Arkham Asylum.

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