I'm going to give this more of a gaming mag treatment this time - run through the plot and such before critically appraising the game itself (more appraisal than criticism, I assure you). During Steam's Holiday sale, the Eidos pack consisting of 20 games - including Batman, which released last June - was going for $50. Batman itself was a $50 retail game, so I jumped on it. I have found myself gradually steering toward this type of action/brawler/beat 'em up game since I played the first God of War. I had heard nothing but great things about the game, so why not?
The setup is this: Batman has captured the Joker (again) and is transporting him to Arkham Island to be imprisoned. During the processing, Batman voices his concern that it was a little too easy this time. Cut to Joker escaping the jailers and leading Batman into the Asylum - which is now overrun with henchmen and a good selection of Gotham's Most Wanted. Harley Quinn is at the controls, and soon it's Batman versus..well, just about everyone. The goal, simply, is to put them all back into their cells before...well, the story takes an intriguing twist about halfway through, and I'll leave it at that.
There are 3 entirely distinct and functional aspects to the gameplay: Combat, Detective, and Predator, and all three have serious polish. In most areas of the game, Batman will encounter any number of thugs who have to be defeated. As it's Batman, nobody ever "dies", they just get slugged unconscious until someone can pick them off the floor. As the game progresses, new thug types are introduced packing various weapons (the usual low-level thug just tries to punch you), in different groupings and in varying quantities. Sometimes you'll face 12 guys, 2 of which have knives, and a couple more who run for the gun case. The combat in Batman is incredibly fluid, diverse, and basically kickass. Bats (as Harley calls him) responds very well to your inputs, executing combo after combo with a special move or instant takedown here and there (after unlocking them) to spice things up. A sort of "spidey sense" alerts you to an attack from behind, and the controls make it easy to counter pretty much anything that comes at you. You know those action movies where the hero is surrounded by bad guys, and they come at him one or two at a time? Batman's combat is somewhat like this, and you feel like a rocking action hero taking down whole rooms of these losers.
Detective Mode is, in all honesty, the biggest part of the game. At any time, Batman can switch into this mode, which grants him X-ray vision and easy identification of useful objects around whatever environment in which he currently finds himself. In some parts of the game, it is essential to continue the story (tracking fingerprints, for example). It is also critical to finding all of the collectibles. You see, the Riddler has taken it up on himself to be a big pain the ass and challenge Batman to find everything he has scattered around the island - including interview tapes and trophies, but more on that later. Detective Mode lets you examine a room and plan out your perfect strategy, usually while not being noticed by anyone. This comes in very handy when performing Predator moves.
Batman, being a mortal man, doesn't have superpowers. What he does is instill fear in those he hunts by giving himself an almost supernatural aura. In Arkham Asylum, this translates very well. Some of the rooms require you to pick off several armed thugs, and the only way to do it is by being sneaky - charging in with fisticuffs will get you riddled with holes in short order. In fact, one area requires you to disable all the guards without being seen once. To that end, it takes a page from Splinter Cell. There is great joy to be had in hanging upside down from a perch and grabbing a thug passing underneath you, while he screams and the others in the room start to freak out. In Detective Mode, Batman can see the change in heart rate (!) and tension level of the remaining thugs. As they get picked off, they become more and more terrified, sticking together, firing around corners, and generally being spooked silly. It's a wonderful trick.
What you may not know, depending on your Batman knowledge level, is that the voice talent consists largely of the actors who worked on that Animated Series from the mid 90's, which includes Mark Hamill as the Joker. Everyone is in fine form here. Batman himself has a very confident, but determined tone of voice that seems very fitting. Personally, I thought Harley Quinn's performance was amazing (and the outfit on display is quite the distraction).
When not roping thugs to gargoyles or leaving a room of comatose bodies in your wake, other adventures await our caped crusader. Scarecrow makes several appearances, and it's no small compliment to say that some of these sequences are the best in the game. While his sections usually involve a side-scrolling platform mini-game, the visuals at work as Batman falls under the gas effects are, in a word, epic. Without spoiling too much, the player spends a brief period controlling Bruce as a child during one of these sections.
One of the biggest complaints I can levy against some of the games in this genre lately are that collectibles, or loot, or what have you, don't have enough bearing on the game experience to bother going back and finding them. This was apparent in Ghostbusters. In Batman, you really want to find everything. There are several types of things to locate - actual environmental riddles, question mark trophies in out of the way (and inaccessible until later) places, interview tapes, and Chronicles of Arkham, which tell the story of the man himself, Amadeus Arkham, and how the Asylum was built. The interview tapes alone are worth the search, as Victor Zasz' sessions with the Asylum psychiatrists are, put simply, chilling. Besides, there is a sense of accomplishment in outwitting the Riddler at his own game.
Being a Batman game, there are of course several gadgets. Without going into too much detail, the Batarang and that Batclaw are in full effect and invariably useful at many points. Some feel superflous, as if they weren't really necessary but add a little depth to the game. None of them are, however, downright useless.
All that said, the game is not perfect. One of the bigger complaints I can levy is that the boss fights are, with few exceptions, a little dull. It would almost be excusable were it not for the fact that the final battle against Joker is shockingly short and entails hardly any interaction with the villain at all.
There is also an annoying design decision wherein if a player fails to complete an objective, say, defeating Bane, on the first try, then at the loading screen there is none-too-subtle text for the player to read that pretty readily spells out how to emerge victorious. It's cheap. If I die 5 times in a row, maybe I will ask for help, but to give it to me so soon doesn't make me feel like I've accomplished as much.
Finally, a nitpick: achievements. I like in-game Achievements that reward me for something truly special, but Batman continues another trend I dislike, and rains down Achievements for just about everything on the player who successfully completes the game. This is silly, and seems like filler. I don't need a little pop-up granting me 20 gamer points to feel an accomplishment for defeating a boss - it's part of the damn game, and carries with it it's own achievement. There are a few out of the ordinary ones, which are good, but not enough of these.
To sum up, there is no other game like this on the market, that combines several prominent game concepts and makes them all feel totally awesome. You ARE Batman. And being Batman totally rocks. This is the best game I have played in years.
(I don't have a rating system. I will try to come up with one).