Normally derivative platformers or rushed GTA rip-offs, licensed games are almost invariably a cynical ploy to wring another few quid out of an already wheezing premise. Occasionally, however, there is an exception to the rule, and this is one of the finest examples in years.
Arkham Asylum doesn't follow the action from any one specific film, cartoon or comic, but there are obvious influences from each media and the experience is all the richer for it.
There are shades of Tim Burton's dark and surrealist vision in the level design, a wide breadth of characters cherry-picked from the comics, and then there's the stalk-your-prey approach, reminiscent of Christian Bale's interpretation of the Dark Knight. Batman himself is a tough, grizzled but fallible amalgamation of his every previous incarnation, nimble and pleasingly simple to control.
The combat is quite a departure from any game to date. Instead of looking to isolate and then pick off a goon from a group, Rocksteady have pioneered a fluid system whereby Batman will seamlessly dash, jump or somersault to the most immediate threat with a simple nudge of the analogue stick and a tap of a button, regardless of whether the target is standing next to you or all the way across the room. You are encouraged to keep combos going to stun and then finish opponents off in style, and ever more brutal moves can be unlocked as you progress. Admittedly, some fights are so hectic that strategy can take second place to good old fashioned button mashing, but accidental or not, your victories will look good.
The stealth mechanics, however, are very tight and extremely satisfying. In order to achieve certain objectives, you are often forced into areas where you must carefully pick off henchmen, one by one, trying to avoid alerting their colleagues and bringing about your demise in a hail of bullets. Using the excellent detective mode, you are able to X-ray your surrounds and monitor each goon's activity, plotting the perfect attack. Will you sit atop a gargoyle and wait to hoist a passing thug up by his ankles? Do you wait for a couple to walk past a wall and then detonate the explosive gel you placed on the other side, knocking them unconscious in a shower of bricks? Or do you simply sneak up behind them? The options are superbly varied and there are always more to learn.
The narrative is superb and immediately engaging. The voice talent really adds to the experience, especially Mark Hamil's crazed Joker who taunts Batman throughout the game on random monitors. Cut scenes all use the game's impressive graphics engine and further the clever, twisting and distinctly adult story while keeping the player fully immersed.
Despite being set essentially on one location, Arkham Island is beautifully realised and every new area feels fresh and full of hidden extras. You are rewarded for exploration with all sorts of fanboy extras, including eerie interview recordings of each of the sinister inmates at the Asylum. They won't change the gameplay but they do serve to flesh out the characters and their motivation in such a fantastic way that you'll want to find them all.
For all the praise though, Arkham Asylum cannot claim to be perfect. Boss battles are enormously underwhelming and save for the more imaginative encounters with Scarecrow, little more than jump left, jump right, throw batarang to succeed. This in no way ruins the game, but you can't help but feel let down when the rest of the game is so epic in scale.
It matters not. Sublime graphics, superb controls and a consistently engaging story will have you glued to the screen and begging for the sequel come the end. Thoroughly recommended