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Zadzooks: Batman: Arkham Asylum review

- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Batman: Arkham Asylum (from Eidos and Rocksteady for PlayStation 3, rated T for teen, $59.99).

In this third-person spectacular, DC Comics' famed Dark Knight confronts and contains his greatest archenemies. A single person controls the heroic vigilante around one of Gotham's most infamous facilities.

What's the story? From the game manual: It's going to be a long night. After a seemingly random attack by the Joker at the mayor's office, Batman is returning his greatest nemesis to Gotham City's Arkham Asylum, the institute for the criminally insane.

But the Joker has a plan, and escape is only the beginning. By the time the sun rises on Gotham, he will have turned Arkham Asylum into a twisted playground.

Play the role: A player uses all of the physical and mental faculties afforded Bruce Wayne's alter ego to stop the Joker and a mind-boggling assortment of supervillains.

Look for legendary encounters with Bane, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Killer Croc and plenty of battles against prisoners and the Joker's mutated thugs and assassins.

Support characters include Commissioner Jim Gordon, Oracle (aka Barbara Gordon) and Alfred Pennyworth.

The adventure will take Batman through all the major ventilation systems and buildings of the Arkham complex, including the morgue, botanical gardens and underground sewers, and even will require a visit to an incredibly cool Batcave.

Get to the action: A mixture of hand-to-hand combat and stealth moves leads Batman's arsenal. As he combines punches, kicks, counterattacks and throws, he gains experience and spectacular finishing moves. The experience will level him up and unlock 20 WayneTech upgrades to use with eight types of tools and weapons, such as batarangs (a radio-controlled version no less), explosive gel, a bat grapple claw, a cryptographic sequencer and a zip-line launcher.

The explosive gel is pretty slick: The hero draws a bat-shaped outline with the goo on a wall or floor and can trigger an explosion from a safe distance.

While the player is exploring areas, a Detective mode offers an infrared/X-ray-on-steroids view of the surroundings to pinpoint clues, evidence and enemies, even through walls.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): the opening scene featuring the Joker going back to Arkham; hanging upside down under a gargoyle to drop on a thug; fighting a gargantuan version of Scarecrow; talking to the corpse of Thomas Wayne; using the hero's cape as a glider to land on an unsuspecting foe (that incredible cape has a life of its own); and bats, bats and more clouds of bats being unleashed at any time.

Violent encounters: The player controls a traditional Batman, who is more concerned with saving innocents and recapturing and incapacitating inmates than killing them. His enemies are not so generous.

A tremendous amount of punching, kicking, shooting and clubbing takes place as opponents use whatever means necessary to try to kill the Bat. The smart player will strike as silently as possible and only engage unarmed thugs face to face.

Additionally, the implied violence is much more sinister. Killer Croc is heard saying he wants to eat his doctor; the Riddler offers a grisly conundrum featuring a dismembered child; and if the player makes a mistake when rescuing Commissioner Gordon, Harley Quinn nonchalantly opens fire with a machine gun. (The commissioner is off-screen.)

Read all about it: DC Comics released the seminal graphic novel, "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth" ($29.95) in 1989. Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, it is one of the key sequential-art stories of the Batman library.

Those confounded by the game can grab BradyGames' Signature Series Strategy Guide ($19.99). However, I would use it only to help uncover Riddler's challenges rather than to solve the story.

Pixel-popping scale: 9.5 out of 10. Imagine living in a universe animated by comic-book legends John Bolton and Simon Bisley. Comic-book fans will consume the absolutely dark and realistic beauty of this masterpiece. The design of the world and characters is so compelling, this superfan at certain points had to let someone else play the game as I was too mesmerized to continue.

Extras and unlockables:A collection of 240 Riddler challenges can be found as floating question marks, items and trophies throughout environments.

Also, the player eventually accesses biographical information on 42 characters. Information includes first appearances in comics and offers interview recordings of every major inmate in the game.

Additionally, a multitiered challenge mode enables the player to really let loose. Play as Batman, or PS3 owners can download and play as the Joker, taking on waves of enemies in a three-dimensional fighting-game setting.

PS3 owners also get multiple high-definition featurettes highlighting the design of the game and some of the major villains.

Star power: Emmy- and Eisner Award-winning writer Paul Dini, a close chronicler of the Bat as well as co-creator of Harley Quinn, provides the story.

More incredible, actors who have brought the animated exploits of Batman to life also lend their voices. They include Kevin Conroy, the man behind the cartoon Caped Crusader; Mark Hamill as the Joker; Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn; and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred. By the way, Mr. Hamill's performance is stellar. Somebody nominate this guy for something.

What's it worth? Batman: Arkham Asylum is the best licensed comic-book video game ever made. Read that and weep, my friends, as it will take a lot for me ever to write that again.

* Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times' Community pages (www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).