This has genuine potential to be the best Batman game ever produced.
I had fairly high hopes for this game... Now, having actually played the thing for a bit, I'm feeling more and more confident that those expectations will be met.
A recent hands-on with some preview code allowed me a chance to test out two of the game's challenge modes - one based on combat, the other focused on what the developer calls Invisible Predator gameplay - and the good news is that both demos felt extremely Batmanesque, for want of a better word.
These two challenge modes are part of a set of 16 mini-game-like levels that the player will unlock during Arkham Asylum's main campaign. While neither offered much in the way of the game's plot, they worked as a perfect example of many of the techniques you'll end up using throughout the central adventure.
The Invisible Predator level found Bats working to defeat six armed guards in as quick a time as possible, using a variety of clever tricks and toys. Since gunfire will kill you relatively quickly, the player's first priority is to get to grips with the art of moving around stealthily.
While on foot, Batman can choose to walk, sprint or sneak - the latter being achieved by holding down the right trigger. Sneaking behind a guard allows you to pull off a silent takedown at the touch of a button. So far, so Solid Snake - but the real fun begins when you get up to a high vantage point to spy on your prey from afar.
Scattered around the level are lots of places that you climb to with your grappling hook, and getting atop one of these spots is a simple matter of looking at them and then pressing RB (R1 on the PS3 pad) when the relevant icon appears. Once you're up high, you can swiftly move back and forth between perches by hitting the same button.
Once you're in a decent position, you might want to hit LB to enter Detective Mode. Here your vision takes on a Predator-like blue hue, with enemies displayed as X-Ray skeletons. Text on your HUD reveals information about the number of foes you face, whether they're armed and what their mental state is.
Meanwhile other interesting items and areas in the game world are highlighted in yellow. In the demo level I played, using Detective Mode revealed several collapsible walls - perfect locations for some of Batman's spray-on plastic explosive. Sneak over, lay down the sticky stuff, then detonate it when one of the Joker's boys comes past.
Or perhaps you'd rather handle things a different way. The apparent beauty of this mini-game is that you're entirely free to choose how you dispose the guards. Along with the aforementioned Sonic Batarang, used to lure guards to a chosen spot, the challenge room also lets you use the Bat Claw as an offensive weapon.
Position yourself on the same level as an enemy, ideally with a large gap between you, then equip the claw and lock on to your target: You'll shoot a grappling line around your opponent's neck, then tug them off the edge of whatever platform they happened to be standing on.
If you prefer a more up-close-and-personal approach, you can target foes from one of your high look-out spots, then glide down and land on them. And best of all, you can hang upside-down and swoop on bad-guys as they pass underneath you, leaving them hanging from a long rope.
Because all of these commands are handled using a mixture of lock-ons and simple button presses, it's fairly easy to pull off a string of different movements within short spaces of time. With practice you can drop to the ground, spray explosives and then return to the rafters within a handful of seconds.
Once you've got it down pat, you'll want to show off and toy with your dim-witted enemies. Because you're Batman, and you kick seven flavours of ass. Once you've knocked out all the guards, you're given a time and a rating of zero to three bat-signs, depending on whether you despatched the thugs using certain methods.
In the demo, one of these was rewarded for remaining completely unseen, another was given for clever use of explosives, and the final was only granted for cutting the rope on strung-up enemy so that he fell on one of his chums - a tricky manoeuvre, but hugely satisfying. There will eventually be online leaderboards for these challenges, so competitive crusaders will be able to vie for the best times with different ratings.
A similar grading system, now based around high scores, was present in the Combat challenge, which found Batman squaring off against four increasingly-tough waves of bad guys. No stealth or grappling hooks here - just lots and lots of knuckle sandwiches.
Having said this, the action itself feels quite different to your standard beat-em-up, thanks to a heavy emphasis on combo-based scoring. Three face buttons give you access to standard attacks, counter-moves and stuns, with the precise animation varying according to Batman's position and the direction in which you aim the left analogue stick.
This may sound like a fairly standard beat-em-up setup, but the key departure from convention is that most of the Caped Crusader's attacks are delivered in slow-motion. While initially this appears to be little more than a jarring attempt to look stylish, you realise that this is intended to give you enough time to plan your next attack.
Assuming that you manage to keep moving towards the next enemy, and assuming that you don't fumble a counter and take a hit, you're actually able to build enormous chains of attacks. Each successive combo adds to your score multiplier, and if you're really good you can even take out an entire wave of thugs in one extended stream. Needless to say, this sends your score through the roof.
While it seems quite strange at first, the slowed-down action eventually makes you feel very powerful. Rather than the jittery stop-and-start rhythm of most beat-em-ups, the combat in Arkham Asylum feels like a fluid and well-choreographed fight sequence. I dare say this design choice will have its detractors, but it seems to be a fresh way of presenting an overly familiar style of gameplay.
Like the Invisible Predator challenge, the greatest compliment you can pay to this mode is it genuinely makes you feel like Batman. If these two mini-games can pull off this feat without the support of a full plot, I can't wait to see what the main campaign feels like. Before this hands-on, my hopes for Arkham Asylum were pretty high; now they're positively dizzying.
Batman: Arkham Asylum will be released later this year on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
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