When the Joker escapes Arkham Asylum (again) and gives himself up without a fight, you'd be right to assume something's not quite right. Of course, this being the start of the game, your assumptions would be correct. The Joker tricks Batman inside Arkham Asylum of which he subsequently takes control. Cue one of Batman's most adventurous outings, spanning numerous encounters with famous Gotham villains.
The genius of Batman: Arkham Asylum lies in the premise. Taking cues from 2K's BioShock, Arkham Asylum's biggest personality is the game world itself: like Rapture, the Joker-controlled asylum is a haven for intrigue, discovery and — most importantly — personality. It's a sandbox for exploration, and Batman's skill-set enhances that.
Unlike previous Batman video games, Arkham Asylum attempts to tackle all the characteristics of the World's Greatest Detective. By mixing stealth, combat and exploration, the gameplay mechanics actually complement each other, rather than becoming stale. Combat is a deviously simplistic affair of tapping the Square button and pointing at your opponent. What initially seems basic opens up when you get grips with the counter move. The enemy AI will constantly attempt to flank while your attention is elsewhere; it's at these moments that a well-timed press of the Triangle button will pause Batman's current action, allowing him to deal with the threat behind him.
Combat isn't always about simple brawling, however: Batman's detective mode can be activated with L2, allowing him to get a good view of his surroundings. This is imperative for areas that are populated by armed guards, as Batman has no real resistance to bullet fire. Moving through the shadows, using the grapple hook to reach high ground and performing silent takedowns is the order of the day in these situations. The detective mode also allows Batman to scout out crime scenes, discover fingerprints and tail assailants. The array of varied mechanics means you'll never get bored of any one element, unlike so many other superhero games.
Without wanting to give too much away, Arkham Asylum is packed with amazing set pieces. Most of these come at the hands of the Scarecrow and his fear gas; as you can imagine, developers Rocksteady go wild with the character.
Though it might be constrained, the asylum is a rich place to explore. Taped recordings of psychiatric interviews provide background to the game's villains and the Riddler's riddles require thought and patience, while standard "collectibles" are rewarded with character trophies and Challenge Rooms. Combat and exploration are both rewarded by XP, which allow you to upgrade your abilities. The most important thing is that given Batman's skillset and the world's design, you'll want to go back and find everything.
Without being the most clever idea in the world, Arkham Asylum's Challenge Rooms add enough to the experience to make the purchase even more worthwhile. Awarding points to those players who can brawl the best in various arenas provides a well tuned scoreboard challenge amongst friends, and you'll want to outdo your friend's scores. Likewise, stealth-like arenas reward player's on their best times, with later Challenge Rooms almost puzzle-like in their design.
Despite an interesting world and well designed characters, Arkham Asylum can look a bit flat. The use of the Unreal Engine makes the game feel "familiar" despite the individual personality injected, textures can look rough and there are some examples of tearing and dipping framerates. The game's countless corridors can also feel a bit sterile and non-interactive: Batman can take on countless thugs but can't even knock over a chair. It's not going to hurt your enjoyment of the game at all, but it's disappointing nonetheless.
There are a number of boss fights in Arkham Asylum and they're all set up in a pretty interesting way. Sadly they're let down slightly by the repetition of actions required to beat them. Sometimes these can be as simple as one or two actions you must repeat over and over. It's disappointing given the spectacle of the scenes that these encounters couldn't have been more interesting, especially given Rocksteady's dedication to Batman's varied skills.
It's blissfully evident that Rocksteady wasn't content with crafting the best ever Batman experience. Indeed, Batman: Arkham Asylum is not just the single-most worthy superhero title, it also stands next to GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64 aloft the dizzying heights of best ever licensed game too.