E3: Batman: Arkham Asylum sneaked, and it's pretty dark

SCI FI Wire got a chance to check out the highly anticipated Eidos/Warner Brothers game title Batman: Arkham Asylum at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and it looks incredible.

Batman: Arkham Asylum has the Caped Crusader trapped with the inmates of Arkham Asylum, Gotham's psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. The Joker has taken over the building, and he's rigged bombs to go off in the city if Batman doesn't save the day.

The story, written by Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), is a completely separate story from the films and the comic books. The art style will be familiar to fans of the animated series, and the game uses Unreal Engine technology. No Heath Ledger or Christian Bale copies here. All the voice actors for the series are here, including Mark Hamill as the Joker.

We saw an edited introduction in which Batman is driving to the asylum with the captured Joker in the back of the car. There has just been a fire at the other insane asylum in town, which seems to indicate a plot of some kind. Batman drops off the Joker, and he stages a coup, releasing all the criminals. The entire game takes place in and around the island.

During the presentation we were told that hardcore fans of Batman will recognize tons of nods to the lore and newcomers to the franchise (are there really any of those?) will get all the background they need during the game. As you explore the loony bin, you find question marks that unlock information about the characters, including backstories, facts and the dates when they first appeared in the comics. During the demo, we saw info on the Riddler and Zsasz.

The first mob fight we were shown displayed the new ability to simultaneously smash the heck out of one enemy while choosing which one to hit next. And the one that's about to hit you next is conveniently marked for you with a lightning bolt. The new FreeFlow combat system allows you to chain together unlimited combos by hitting the button shown on the screen.

In the "detective modem," Batman can sense the skeletons of bodies around the room; things that are interactive glow (like a grate that can be removed or a lever that you must push to open a door), and the path you are supposed to be following shimmers in front of you. (Making games easier to play seems to be a trend across the board this year at E3.)

This is Batman, so we get lots of gadgets, like the Batarang, an explosive gel aerosol, the Batclaw, a gel sonar resonator and the line launcher. Then, of course, there are the villains. Harley Quinn (who we were told was planted there by Batman for some sort of sting) has a bit of an S&M makeover, in a red corset, red thigh-high boots, a short skirt and blond pigtails. We watched Batman swing from gargoyle to gargoyle with his grappling hook, do a silent drop behind Zsasz, who is torturing a prison guard, and take him out. We didn't see Killer Croc, but he'll be there as well.

The graphics are beautiful, dark and brooding, with little change between cinematics and gameplay. Plenty of mood lighting and realistic textures. A sort of stylized reality that seems to be the way games are trending, as opposed to the attempts at photorealism of the past few years.

We were told that the first few levels are linear, but that it becomes a completely open environment quite soon. The game will be available for Windows, Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, which will feature extra content: You have the ability to play as the Joker on eight challenge maps that will be available for free download and have access to exclusive Batman gadgets, a digital comic and exclusive challenge maps that will be available 30 days after release.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is rated T and will be released sometime this summer.

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