Batman: Arkham Asylum

Given the wildly uneven history that Batman has had with videogames, I didn’t get my hopes up when I first heard about .

Sure, the story sounded appealing, the screenshots were stunning and the inclusion of so many major characters was a plus, but I still wasn’t convinced. I knew I wouldn’t get a real sense of the game until I played it. So I did, and it’s incredible.

The story begins with Batman returning Joker to Arkham Asylum, Gotham City’s penitentiary for the criminally insane. Upon arrival, Batman is concerned at just how simple it was to capture the Joker and suspects that the clown is up to something.

Sure enough, Joker has planned some elaborate trap for the Dark Knight, and Batman must race all over Arkham Island to stop the criminal mastermind and save Commissioner Gordon.

While this may sound like typical Batman fare, character biographies, hidden patient interview tapes and the mysterious Spirit of Arkham all make the story a much richer and more fulfilling experience.

As far as its presentation, is the game that finally gets it right. It’s dark, moody and gets away with a lot considering its Teen rating.

All of the characters look fantastic, and even though the designs on some of the villains have been changed (like Scarecrow), the new looks are respectful of the original characters and should not be a problem for fans.

The design of is terrific as well, as more is present on Arkham Island than just the intensive treatment facility that bares its name.

The inclusion of other buildings (such as Arkham Mansion, a medical facility and underground sewers), as well as the mass of land between all of these locations, gives Arkham Island an authenticity that is rarely matched in other game environments.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how great a game’s characters and environments are if the game doesn’t play well. Fortunately for , the controls are intuitive and the gameplay is very enjoyable.

At first, the control for movement – and especially for combat – may come off as too simple. In reality, it’s a decent way to ease the player into the game. Before you start swinging from gargoyles, gliding from rooftops and hurling batarangs, it’s important to know how to move around and fight some goons.

The combat system is a great example of the old “easy to learn, hard to master” adage. One button used for attacks, one button for countering enemy attacks and one button for a cape stun are the three basic buttons that will be needed for fighting.

It seems too easy in the beginning when you can get away with just mashing the attack button and never taking a hit. However, as you progress, the game requires you to abide by its “freeflow” philosophy: seamlessly moving from enemy to enemy and chaining together a large combination of attacks by using your basic attack, counter and stun. Gadgets and special takedowns are eventually introduced and further help Batman to bring about his special brand of justice.

Speaking of gadgets, Batman comes well prepared when he shows up on Arkham Island. He is initially equipped with the iconic batarang as well as a combination grappling/spear weapon called the grapnel gun. As the game progresses, Batman will receive more gadgets that will assist in transportation, enemy submission and access to previously unreachable areas.

The grapnel gun quickly becomes one of the most important gadgets, both as a mode of transportation as well as strategic advantage. The grapnel gun plays a large role in the excellent stealth missions, where Batman is required to stay out of sight if he plans on surviving the threat of armed guards.

Players will have to choose their own means of subduing the gun-toting goons, whether it is hiding in a vent until the right moment or jumping from a gargoyle when a guard’s back is turned.

Fortunately, doesn’t lose sight of Batman’s reputation as the “World’s Greatest Detective.” Early on, in an effort to prove he is smarter than the Caped Crusader, the Riddler challenges Batman with a list of riddles, interview tapes and trophies that can be either solved or found somewhere on Arkham Island.

While the trophies and tapes can be simply found, the riddles take a little more effort and require the player to use a little more brainpower.

Though completely optional, the Riddler challenges are by far some of the most enjoyable aspects of the game and feel much more rewarding than the typical inconsequential side quests of many other games.

There are some minor downsides to . Playing through the game will not take a terribly long time, and even though the Riddler challenges and an additional challenge mode add some length and options to the game, the main quest is still a brief experience.

Also, there will be times when Batman might need to jump from one ledge to another, and the slightest miscalculation due to sluggish controls in a tight spot lead you to fall over the edge and backtrack. While not a huge inconvenience, a few of these misses will cause some unnecessary and frustrating hikes back to your previous position.

But these minor issues don’t change the fact that is an absolutely phenomenal experience. It comes highly recommended for anyone interested in stealth/action games, but it is absolutely unmissable for fans of the Bat.