Batman: Arkham City Preview
2009′s Batman: Arkham Asylum was a treasure of a game in many ways. It was a truly satisfying super hero game. That’s very, very rare. More specifically, it was the first great Batman game. Developer Rocksteady successfully made you feel just like Batman, thanks to one of the best combat systems ever made for an action game, plus a full arsenal of kick-ass gadgets, and many other good things I won’t go into right now.
So, how will Rocksteady craft the forthcoming sequel Batman: Arkham City, without repeating themselves or fixing things that aren’t broken?
I saw part of the answer to that question in action at the Microsoft Games Showcase in San Francisco earlier this week. It was clear right away: the scale is way, way larger. Batman: Arkham City is a huge game, “fives times larger” than Arkham Asylum, explained Rocksteady’s Dax Ginn during the demo. The demo opened with Batman on top of a very tall building in Arkham at night, with a full sweeping panoramic view of the city. Spotlights, skyscrapers, rooftops, helicopters, ant-like activity below: Batman can see it all. This is a very different scope than the corridor-laden layout of Arkham Asylum, and–at least cosmetically–it’s a very welcome one.
Dax explained that Arkham City represents a walled-off prison district, run by Hugo Strange. Different gang leaders–Joker, Two Face, etc–vye for power, competing like separate factions in the ghetto.
Alfred sends Batman some intel. It appears Two Face is up to no good. He’s captured Catwoman, and plans to publicly execute her in the courthouse to make a statement of power and control. Batman can’t let that happen. We get a close-up view of the courthouse, which has been modded by Two Face to resemble his own deformed visage: half of it is nice, the other half marred. Dax explains that all of the gang leaders in Arkham City fashion their hideouts to express their individual personalities, which is a cool touch.
Batman whips out his revamped Cryptopgraphic Sequencer, a gadget he used frequently in Arkham Asylum. Whereas before it was used to hack electronic locks, in Arkham City it can actually tap into all sorts of communications frequencies. With it, Batman can hear conversations all over the city.
Batman hacks into a conversation between the cops and Two Face, who taunts them with his plans to kill Catwoman. Get to it, Batman.
For the first time, we see Batman jump straight off the building, which Dax describes as “always awesome.” He’s right. In Arkham Asylum you could ocassionally jump from high points and glide around, but here Batman has breathing room on an oceanic scale. Batman can also perform a new move which Dax called a “Dive Bomb,” which sends Batman plunging straight down towards the ground at high speed. By reversing direction and pulling back up, Batman can use the increased momentum to climb altitude and reach previously inaccessible nooks and crannies.
On the way to the courthouse, Batman spots an “informant” surrounded by thugs down below. This is an example of one of Arkham City’s new optional side-quests. Informants are special NPCs, possessing key information. Dax opts to mine the informant for information, and swoops Batman down below for a quick fight. To unlock the informant’s information, Batman must ensure the informant is the last man standing. After a short, careful brawl, the informant fesses up: he knows the locations of five Riddler Trophies in the area, which are then added to Batman’s map.
Yes, the Riddler Trophies have returned, but are more difficult to obtain this time. Dax makes a quick detour to grab one. As Batman approaches it, a mantrap closes viciously around it. It seems the trophies are like riddles unto themselves this time. Dax uses the batarang to grab it remotely, and then continues on.
Batman finally reaches the courthouse. Inside, there are a whole bunch of thugs in an open central area, just waiting for an a$$-whooping. Two Face is pep-talking them up and getting ready to execute Catwoman by dropping her in a vat of acid (elaborate). It should be noted that Catwoman is showing more cleavage than I’ve ever seen anyone show before. It’s almost something different, something better than cleavage.
By going into Detective Mode (which has returned), Batman can see which thugs have what weapons. A few have pipes, machetes, Two Face has an actual gun, and there’s a guy up in a good sniping-positiong with a full out machine gun. He’s priority number one. Batman carefully climbs up from behind, and performs a silent takedown, much like the first game. Then it’s time to jump down and instigate a giant brawl. One significant change in Arkham City is the thug count, another part of increasing the overall scale. Whereas before Batman fought 5-10 thugs at once, in Arkham City Batman can take on between 20-30 thugs at once for insane battles. That’s some serious combo fuel right there.
In action, combat looks like it’s remaining largely the same, with a couple noticeable tweaks. Batman has what looks like a new two-handed “ear clap” move, which is sure to rattle someone’s cage. Also, when facing a well-armored foe, Batman can start with a cape flourish, and then transition into what Dax called a Beatdown–a fast, brutal MMA-style flurry of punches that wears down an opponent’s armor. It’s vicious looking.
Two Face catches Batman off guard with a well placed gunshot, which triggers a cutscene. After a brief exchange, Catwoman manages to break free of her elaborate-death-in-acid-vat predicament at the last second, and she even bitch-slaps Two Face in the process. But she’s not out of the woods yet. While Catwoman and Batman chat, a sniper laser appears on Catwoman’s head. Batman pushes her out of the way, just in time. She was nearly assassinated, by none other than the Joker.
Now that things have cooled down, Batman goes into Detective Mode to give the courthouse crime scene a full x-ray inspection. Using Detective Mode, Batman can zero in on the bullet’s point of impact on the floor, and then trace it back up through the window, up to its point of origin: a belltower some distance away, Batman’s new destination.
Batman heads out the Courthouse’s backdoor, since the front is crawling with thugs. When Batman takes to the sky again, we’re treated to another awesome new feature: helicopter hitch hiking. Batman can grab onto police helicopter skids, because he’s F-ing Batman. He can just chill there and piggy back around, getting a killer view of the city below. This extreme vantage point is a good place kick on Detective Mode, to get an all encompassing look at options: Riddler riddles, thugs, etc. Batman can also tap into various conversations going on around the city, and choose to pursue them as side-quests if so inclined.
Upon reaching the belltower, Batman meets Harley Quinn, who is looking (if this is even possible) much sluttier than she did in Arkham Asylum. She’s still got the pig tails, but instead of a skirt she sports skin tight hot-pants. In Arkham City, you can expect to have much more direct interaction and banter with boss characters like Harley Quinn. Boss characters were always hands-off in Arkham Asylum, distanced villains that you only got to see Batman interact with in cutscenes, or fight in actual boss fights. That’s changing.
Harley tells a few thugs to keep an eye on Batman, and shoot him if he tries anything. Since they’re all well armed, you’ve got to take them down carefully. Dax introduced us to a new weapon in Batman’s arsenal, a Smoke Bomb. It clouds the area in thick smoke, giving Batman the edge and time to close in for the knockout. Nice. Optionally, Batman can stick around and listen to the conversations of some of the belltower hostages, for some humorous dialog.
When Batman makes it to the top of the belltower, he walks right into a trap. Joker is not actually there. His face appears on TV sets scattered around the room. Joker was able to use the sniper rifle in the belltower via remote control. Clever. Oh, and he also has the room rigged with explosives, and gives Batman a few seconds to decide what to do. Before it blows, you can make Batman jump out of the window to safety, which concluded the demo.
A lot of this looked pretty exciting. The gigantic scale and sand-box style side-quests make Arkham City look like a sweet place to turn Batman loose in. I do wonder how the more open format of the game will hold together, and how deep the world actually is. Are there rewards for sidequests beyond revealing the locations of Riddler Trophies? How free are you really to explore Arkham City? These are questions we’ll have to live with until we get a chance to play it for ourselves.
Batman: Arkham City is coming out later this year for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.