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No Joking Around: Arkham faithfully recreates the franchise's noir feel 

Arkham faithfully recreates the franchise's noir feel.

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The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane - or just Arkham to the good citizens of Gotham - is the semi-permanent address of some of the world's most celebrated criminals. The Penguin, Two-Face and The Riddler have all made the crumbling madhouse-mansion their home at one time or another. And most of them have escaped, only to be captured and hauled back by their dedicated nemesis Batman.

But at the beginning of Batman: Arkham Asylum, the most famous inmate can't wait to get back inside. Joker has been caught again by Batman, and he's delighted that his old foe is escorting him back - so delighted that he promptly escapes and rolls out the welcome wagon. Within minutes, Joker has released the institution's collection of psychos and sociopaths. The inmates are running the asylum.

It's a setup worthy of a Batman graphic novel - not quite as sophisticated as The Killing Joke, perhaps, but certainly an improvement on the bland videogames Batman has appeared in over the years. Modeled after the current fashion in action games, Arkham Asylum puts players in control of Batman as he sneaks, climbs, flies and fights his way out (and in and out and in) of the ancient asylum.

But Arkham Asylum is not really about the action - it's about a place. Batman's weapons are all about placement (explosive gel to break through walls, grappling hooks to pull him from the fray) and the fighting is all about approach. Tunnels run beneath the floors and ducts twist through the ancient walls. Gargoyles loom overhead, giving Batman perches from which to plan his attacks before swooping down with his cape spread in that iconic silhouette.

For their part, the psychos in Arkham Asylum are alert to noise and quick to function as a group. They pass along information about Batman's location, and gang up intelligently when he confronts them on the ground - stalking him from behind with knives and pipes while he fistfights in front. They might be crazy, but they're not stupid.

THE GOOD: As befits a comic book asylum, Arkham is moody and stylish, filled with details that tell the story of the wealthy family that once lived there. A small cemetery crumbles with ornate tombstones, and the administration building fills a luxurious private library with tottering stacks of bureaucratic paperwork.

THE BAD: Whenever Batman gets into a fight, Asylum shifts into slow motion. In theory this allows players to finesse the combat, choosing their actions with the preternatural awareness of a superhero. In reality it feels sluggish and unpolished. Once a button has been pushed to initiate a punch, it's not possible to dodge despite Batman's superpowered reflexes. The dreamy action also highlights the game's only graphical shortcomings.

THE BOTTOM LINE: As moody and ornate as a top-shelf comic, Arkham Asylum is the best translation yet of the Batman mystique into a videogame.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Rated Teen; PS3, 360, PC


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