Batman has finally vanquished one of his most technologically savvy foes: video games.
The Caped Crusader who stalks the new Batman: Arkham Asylum game (out today, rated T for ages 13-up; $60 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $50 for PCs) stands up against top-shelf depictions in graphic novels and the recent films.
Over the years, Batman has survived more than a dozen games in the franchise. But their quality has ranged "from passable to outright awful," says Brett Elston of GamesRadar, a video game news site.
With Arkham Asylum, the U.K.-based game studio Rocksteady "nailed the atmosphere perfectly," he says. "The goal is to completely immerse you in the Batman universe, and based on what I've seen and played, that's undeniably what they've done. … The buzz out there is that Arkham Asylum is going to be the Batman game."
Longtime archenemy The Joker is at center stage in this original story. Captured by Gotham's finest, he breaks free after being transported to Arkham Asylum, an island prison for supervillains. Turns out The Joker has orchestrated all of this to trap Batman inside with a lineup of villains including Poison Ivy, Killer Croc and Bane now free.
The inmates are running the asylum, Commissioner Gordon is a prisoner and neither Robin nor Batgirl will be coming to the rescue. "In those relatively tight confines, Batman has to use all his cleverness, all his gadgets and all his strength to survive getting out of this enclosed space," says writer Paul Dini, who won Daytime Emmys for his work on the animated Batman Beyond and The New Batman Adventures. "It really puts the heat on him."
Providing the voices for Batman and The Joker are Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who voiced the characters in Batman: The Animated Series and in animated movies such as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. "Just as we rethought the world for a video game, they rethought their roles a little bit and stepped up to give it that extra menace and determination," says Dini, who helped write those projects as well as many DC Comics. (He also worked on the TV series Lost during its first two seasons.) "Batman sounds a little more driven, a little more darker in this version, and The Joker is a little more gravelly, a little more manic, a little more hateful. They brought their A game."
Video game company Eidos (Tomb Raider) enlisted Rocksteady after teaming up on 2006's Urban Chaos: Riot Response. WildStorm Productions, founded by famed comics artist Jim Lee, provided early concept art and helped give the game "the standout identity it has," says Eidos' Lee Singleton. The "exaggerated Gothic" style of Arkham Asylum's exterior houses a gritty interior.
Rocksteady's new "FreeFlow" combat system lets players "feel what it's like to be Batman" by unleashing the character's martial arts skills via simplified controls. "With a very simple series of button presses you can take down enemies in a room in a way that makes you feel cool like Batman," says Rocksteady designer Paul Crocker.
The Dark Knight's talents as the world's greatest detective are in play, too. He processes CSI-grade forensics and hunts his prey from high above. "We have kind of an X-ray mode so you can see bad guys through walls. You can tell if they are armed. You can tell their mental state and what their heart rate is (and) if they are scared or confident," Crocker says. "You really have to think like Batman and choose how to take them out, one by one."
DC Comics' John Morgan concedes that "this is the first game to truly showcase Batman's stealthful nature, his moral focus, and also his combat skills, all within any given five minutes of varied gameplay, as part of a complex and original story."