One of the most buzzed-about games of the year isn't a big-name sequel or movie tie-in, although it does have the kind of pop-culture bona fides other games can only dream of. Instead, Batman: Arkham Asylum (published by Warner Bros. and Eidos) is a standalone story about everyone's favorite caped crusader--although the vibe is more Christian Bale's moody Dark Knight than '60s Adam West Technicolor antics.
Video games based on comic book characters have almost uniformly disappointed in the past because the games bore little resemblance to the source material. Typically, they're generic brain-dead beat-'em-ups that a game developer awkwardly inserted a 3D version of a licensed comic book character into.
Perhaps because it started life as a lower-profile project, this game was able to develop without a movie release deadline to hit or a hard holiday season shipping date. What we've ended up with is one of the best games we've played this year, with appeal that goes far beyond comic book fans.
Set on an isolated island that houses an asylum for the criminally insane, Batman must recapture several of his old arch-enemies (who are conveniently all locked up in the same facility). The game smartly mixes several different types of action, and never leaves you doing the same thing for too long.
There's a good deal of hand-to-hand combat against low-level thugs; stealth sections where Batman has to sneak past gun-toting bad guys by zip-lining between stone gargoyles; and lots of exploration and puzzle-solving, using some custom (but slightly goofy) "Bat-vision" goggles that can also track DNA and search for clues. We do wish the detailed, moody locations were more interactive (wandering around Arkham Asylum, we'd be tempted to rifle through filing cabinets and search the computers); instead there are interview tapes left scattered around that tell various villain's life stories through snippets of recorded therapy sessions.
There are plenty of cameos from DC comics characters, and fans of Batman's various animated series will be pleased to find voice actors Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) playing the part of the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman.
Much like the recent Star Trek big-screen reboot, you don't need to be a Bat-fan to appreciate this game's excellent pacing and production values. Unfortunately delayed, the game has slipped from late-June to "end of summer." Even more perplexing is why neither Microsoft nor Sony played up the game during the big E3 console company press conferences--they're clearly missing out on a winner.