Video Game Review: Batman Arkham Asylum

(Eidos/Warner, PS3; also for Xbox 360)
Game ••••• Graphics ••••½ Sound ••••½

Pardon the political incorrectness, but if Batman: Arkham Asylum is any indication of what it's like to be stuck inside a psychiatric prison, then lock me up and throw away the key. After an all-too-easy capture of a certain escapee - none other than the Joker - a suspicious Batman escorts his No. 1 nemesis back to Arkham. But quickly the tables are turned, and captor becomes captive. So begins this videogame - without doubt the best Batman simulator, and arguably the best superhero game, of all time.

Co-writer Paul Dini was the author and producer of the Emmy-winning Batman: The Animated Series, and having him aboard here all but guarantees that the storyline stays true to the Batman mythos. Joining him are Animated Series colleagues Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin, who reprise their roles as Batman, the Joker, and his psychotic squeeze Harley Quinn (whose redesigned costume - what little there is of it - can't be commended enough). All turn in top-notch performances, but it's Hamill who steals the show. Here, the former Force-wielder strikes the perfect balance between clown and killer, his homicidal laughter taunting Batman over the prison's P.A. system - and goading you, too, through your surround channels.

Unlike previous Batman games, Arkham Asylum gives equal screen time to his brawn and brains. Playing as the Dark Knight, you'll throw down with the Joker's thugs in beautifully animated brawls, go mano a mano with big-name bad guys like Bane and Killer Croc in subwoofer-challenging encounters, stalk criminals from the shadows, do some cerebrally satisfying detective work, and employ an amazing array of gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. But it's the iconic moment when you pop open your wings and glide through the night sky - with the rush of air panning past you from front to rear - that gives you the sensation of being a superhero.

Adding to the immersion is the gorgeously grim setting, which perfectly complements the disturbing narrative and successfully blends the comic-book aesthetics with the ultra-realism offered by high-def gaming consoles. With some other games, repetitive environments can be enough to drive anyone insane, but each of Arkham's impressively detailed buildings has its own look and ambient soundscape, while still allowing the entire asylum to have a unifying, foreboding atmosphere. The brilliant art direction borrows from Victorian and Gothic architectural styles to give Arkham an appearance every bit as dark and twisted as its inmates.

Simply stated: "I'm Batman." And you can be, too.

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