by: Mike 'Pheriannath' Katsufrakis
Batman: Arkham Asylum is quite an achievement. First off, it's a licensed superhero game and it has somehow managed to avoid nearly all of the pitfalls of such a thing. Second, it's the first *good* Batman game since the original NES was in vogue. Finally, it comes from a studio whose previous game was Urban Chaos. (Here's a hint: it wasn't great.)
Glib remarks aside, the reason you won't want to pass up on Arkham Asylum is the pseudo Batman: The Animated Series reunion. While not all of the major players return, the ones that count do: Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker and Paul Dini writing the dialogue. While the story isn't particularly amazing, the presentation drips atmosphere (and reeks of the developers being fans of System Shock 2/Bioshock) and yes, all of the hyperbole about Hamill's Joker performance in this is deserved.
Gameplay is very system-based. The "Freeflow" combat system is particularly fun, allowing you to string combos, reversals and finishing moves together with devastating effects. While button mashing in this system will get you adequate results, stringing attacks together with carefully-timed inputs is the way to go. Calculated and efficient, it makes you feel like, well, Batman.
Adding to the Batman feel are your ever expanding utility belt and the stealth system, which when combined by a skilled player allow some creative takedowns. Out-of-place, but strategically placed gargoyle heads allow you to perch and survey the landscape while plotting out elaborate ways to chain your wonderful toys together. My personal favorite is to take down a guard, then plant explosives nearby- once his buddies come to investigate, blow the charges and watch the excitement.
Batman also has the most high-tech cowl ever created, and it lets him shift into "detective mode", revealing weaknesses in walls, the location of any enemies and other threats, as well as allowing you to take snapshots of the environment to solve the 240 Riddler challenges strewn throughout Arkham. While these mostly end up being collectible hunts, there are some really interesting environments you can uncover only through following the Riddler's clues.
All in all, Arkham Asylum does exactly what it sets out to do; it creates the ultimate Batman simulator, and finally ends the Dark Knight's dearth of quality titles.