Comic-Con 2011: Arkham City Double Hands-On Preview

While at Comic-Con this year I actually got the opportunity to go hands-on with Batman: Arkham City on two different occasions. Once at a private Microsoft event with the guidance of the ever enthusiastic Rocksteady Marketing Manager Dax Ginn. The other was lead by Lead Animator Zafer Coban down on the show floor. Both were absolutely entertaining and took me to completely different locations. If you weren’t completely sold on the idea of Arkham City, I’m here to tell you to start writing the check.

Dax Run

It’s  Thursday night and the first official day of Comic-Con has just wrapped up. Myself and a fellow GameFront writer get our names checked off a list and wristbands bolted to our arms. As we push through the door we’re greeted by televisions, video games, journalist celebrities, Frag Dolls, and free drinks.

Right away I bolt to Batman: Arkham City. “I have an appointment tomorrow,” I tell the PR representative that immediately joins my side, “but I really want to try it out tonight”. “Of course,” she responds, “why don’t you just get an interview now as well?” A moment later and I’m shaking hands with Dax Ginn, former Lead Designer at Argonaut Games, Executive Director at Eidos, and now, Marketing Game Manager for Rocksteady.

His huge smile and hearty handshake rattles the ice of our drinks. I can already tell I’m in for an adventure. A quick reset of the game and we’re off.

The demo begins in the campaign office of Harvey “Two Face” Dent. “We’ve really built out Arkham City to feature all these legendary landmarks.” I immediately take control of Cat Woman. A character who’s reveal is now old news, but not someone I had expected to play as so soon.

Selena plays like a much lighter and faster Batman. All of the controls are the same - X to attack, Y to counter, and B to stun - but with Catwoman flair. The first thing players will notice, besides her agility, is Catwoman’s whip stun, used in place of Batman’s cape. This allows for a greater range of contact but also leads, in my demo, to a small new feature.

Pounding the attack button after stunning an enemy allows for a sort of instant combo where in Catwoman (or Batman) wails on a single target. It’s satisfying and Catwoman’s barrage specifically finishes in some gender specific pain.

What should strike you as impressive here, is that every bit of Catwoman’s animations were created specifically for her. The same is true for Robin, whom I did not get to play as, but will be available for the beefed up Challenge Mode. These aren’t reskins and texture swaps. “That must be a ton of work,” I ask Dax. “Do you see these eyes.”

But more than just a new gameplay venture, Catwoman’s presence allows for a new exploration of the Batman narrative. “She offers you the opportunity to explore Arkham City from a criminal perspective… When you’re playing as Catwoman you get the chance to do the wrong thing. And I think gamers like that opportunity.”

After my short stint with the diamond thief (she gets captured by Two Face), control switches over to the caped crusader himself, who is now out to rescue the feline fatale. As I perch on the roof of a building I’m offered my first real view of Arkham City, a location five times the size of the original game’s island.

“Building out an open world game, obviously the number one thing that developers worry about is the fact that it’s easy to get lost. Getting lost is not a very Batman thing to do.” As Dax explains, the camera does a fly through of the streets to show me where I am, and where I need to be. Not to mention the best canonical gift to the open world design of a Batman game: the Bat Signal. This heavenly projection will guide you to your current objective, and can be moved if you change your marker on the map.

So now I know where I need to go to save Catwoman, but I’m standing above the skyline of Gotham City for the first time… she can wait. Dax pauses a moment then gives me a knowing look. “Ohh, alright. Well screw Catwoman then, let’s save Jack Ryder.”

And with that Dax explains to me the new glide mechanic. Holding A I can run, then jump, off the top of a building. If I pull on the RT while still holding A I can take Batman into a dive bomb from which, by releasing RT I can reclaim some altitude as I glide forward. It definitely took me a few (see: several) attempts to get used to, but once I nailed it flying across the city felt like second-nature. This is a major new feature of the game it feels fantastic, similar to the visceral feeling as air-dashing did in Prototype, but far improved.  Also, the glide can be pulled off just at the end of a grappling hook climb by double tapping A.

Once I get all three maneuvers, the boost, glide, and dive, I forge a new connection with the game. It’s hard to explain but trust me you’ll feel it as soon as it happens. “Now you’re playing the game. That’s what it’s all about… When you seamlessly get them all together – that’s when the game comes alive.” Dax is so right that I actually stop a moment to take it in. “You just had a moment didn’t you?”

I arrive on the edge of a roof overlooking a group of thugs picking on the Creeper. Clicking R3 allows me to identify one of the baddies as a Riddler informant. That means I need to clear out the threat to Jack, but never fully subdue the informant.

Just like in Arkham Asylum, I line up my target and initiate a long and punishing Glide Kick. “You’re going to kick this guy in the back of the head aren’t you?” Wait. “Blam-oooh!” On the street I’m reintroduced to the weight of Batman’s movements and the force behind each of his hits. He’s certainly not as nimble as Catwoman (though he’s still plenty agile), but each move feels powerful.

I vault over and (somewhat) peacefully counter the informant while taking down his friends. A quick grab of the throat and I’m rewarded with the location of three Riddler trophies. “There’s 436 of these.” Damn that’s a lot. It also brings up one of my issues with Arkham Asylum. I played through the game, and I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I rarely put myself out to do anything with Riddler because I didn’t feel it was worth the time. Apparently that wasn’t a common feeling among gamers. “I think Arkham Asylum’s probably an 8 to 12 hour game for competent gamers. This is a 40 plus hour game. That’s the play through times we’re getting at the moment.”

Some dives and glides later and it’s time for another fight. This time I hold down the RT as I execute my Glide Kick to augment the move into a much more ferocious throat-gripped face to concrete smash. From here it’s time to check out how the gadgets have been enhanced in combat. Holding down the LT and then hitting a corresponding button allows for explosive gel to be placed on the ground, and then remotely detonated. I always wondered why I couldn’t do this in Arkham Asylum. But even cooler yet, I go Scorpion on a thug by latching him with the Bat Claw before pulling him in for some up close punishment. All without breaking my combo meter.

With the group dispatched we hunt down a couple Riddler trophies. The first two are easy enough with Dax’s guidance. The third is underneath a car down on street level. I can grab it with the Bat Claw or use another new move, the slide. Pulling the RT while running allows Batman to slide underneath the vehicle and grab the trophy. With the valuables obtained I get a message from the enigma himself. He marks my map with the location of a hostage.

I shift the Bat Signal to my next location and head off. Down into a courtyard and over a fence I reach a green ? on a brick wall. My instinct is to switch to detective mode, but Dax clarifies its simplicity. “A lot of people over think it. Just go check it out.” And what do you know, it’s not a brick wall at all. Just a timber one painted brick. “[Riddler's] been busy, man. Out of all of the villains, he makes Joker look lazy.” A Batman puuunch through the wall and I’m in.

Electric floor? Check. Spinning razor blades? Check. Welcome to Riddler’s first puzzle. I won’t spoil the solutions for future players but it involves using the hack tool, running through temporarily safe pathways, and finding neon-green question marks. All within a strict time limit. But where I end is facing a large deadly pit. There is a wall at the far end and an opening midway on the right.

“Do you remember the Line Launcher? To save the hostage you need to do a new feature called the Double Line Launcher.” This new move allows Batman to begin moving toward one destination, then set a second line and change direction. It sounds a bit crazy with death so close but fortunately time slows a bit so I am able to line up my second shot and grab the hanging hostage.

An animated sequence appears and I set the controller down. “You think it’s over? This ain’t over by a damn shot!” The next thing I know I’m in a room, heavily outnumbered, looking up to a ledge where the Penguin is addressing me. This was a genuine surprise. Penguin’s new look is a harsh adaptation of the beaten villain. Instead of a monocle, his left eye holds the bottom remains of a broken bottle and his voice clicks through the filter of a protruding mechanical voice box. And the classic long cigarettes? “Our Penguin just likes to smoke fat cigars.”

Time for one last brawl. “So in Arkham Asylum the most thugs we could have attacking Batman simultaneously was about twelve. In Arkham City we’re currently flirting with twenty-seven.” That’s 15 extra enemies on screen at once and believe me, you notice the extra threats. The exchange is that the environment is, geometrically speaking, “cheaper” to allow for the cramming of so many dynamic enemies at once. I don’t even notice because there are suddenly three lightning bolts I need to contest.

I do not get the counter. Between one and three enemies are now able to attack you synchronously which requires the counter button to be tapped the corresponding number of times before you find three fists in your face. It’s difficult but fortunately was reserved for the beginning of the fight. Well, except for the double that I missed. And the one after that. With so much going on in combat, it’s an easy measure for ramping up the difficulty.

With the fight finally concluded my demo does come to its ultimate end. Sitting there with Dax, I’m laughing out how much excitement I just experienced and how much like a sequel Arkham City truly feels. It’s the Batman: Arkham line at its core, but with advancements and additions in so many appropriate places. I can’t think of a better way to have spent the evening or a better guide to take me through it. But that was only half of my time with Batman: Arkham City as I had another, very different, guided demo to experience the next day on the show floor.

Zafer Run

Friday afternoon has rolled around and I make my way through the Comic-Con throngs to the Batman hub near the center of the convention center. I just miss Dax as he is swept away by the hands of Public Relations to make a scheduled talk. But I’m not there for him anyway. It’s time to talk with Zafer Coban, Lead Animator, and make my way through the intended Batman: Arkham City demo.

I’m most interested in hearing about what it was like for Zafer and his team to face the challenge of adding additional complex characters in a sequel to a game heralded for its fluid animations. “It’s exciting as always. Batman in an interesting character, you get to do – especially for combat – cool new moves, strikes, takedowns, counters. It’s quite a challenge for us because we’ve done so much for the first game, but we wanted to double it for the next game.” With so many different fighting techniques, Zafer took inspiration from various forms of martial arts, specifically mentioning Tae Kwon Do.

Somewhat surprisingly though, it seems that working on the gliding and diving animations were some of the most time consuming. “We spent ages on that. We had one animator and one programmer, and they spent a long time to get that perfect. That’s the basis for how you get around the city so we need to make sure it feels right – and feels like Batman.” He points out to me how the cape dynamically changes shape through various actions, even coming to rest and hold Batman’s form as he lands from a glide.

As we set out to work through the main arc of the demo Zafer explains that Zsasz has returned from the first game and is now offering side quests through ringing phone booths. The nature of the quests and Zsasz’ narrative role remain to be seen but it’s good to know that there is even more motivation to explore the city.

I hop down into a fight and the refreshing feeling of realizing that most of the animations I’m seeing didn’t come up in the previous night’s playthrough. There is just so much variety and it’s all so context sensitive that each fight feels highly varied. One move I definitely didn’t see was Batman’s use of a nearby concrete half-wall as a destination for an unlucky thug’s mug. “That’s a new feature.” Zafer is absolutely casual about the fact that my mind, already blown by how many new animations are used in standard combat, suddenly has to process the idea that dynamic environmental combat interactions are now a regular feature. Hot damn.

So how could they possibly hand-animate all of this? My mind immediately moves to MoCap as the answer. “MoCap is an interesting strategy when it comes to animation. You really have to pick your fights to use that. With combat, we don’t use MoCap, because the combat moves you’ve seen – they’re very agile, very quick, and you have to have a certain feeling behind it. A dynamic feeling behind. It’s quite hard to capture.” Zafer told me that they had tried the MoCap route, bringing in professional martial artists to work on the combat. But ultimately it never felt right and so his team chose to use direct hand animation.

So I’ve been gushing about Batman’s moves for a while now, but how much more is there really in the game? “We doubled the amount of combat moves. There’s a whole new range of moves entirely.” I’m knee deep into a fight at this point and working on incorporating my gadgets more. “The hardest part [about gadgets] is making them feel right to the player. It’s one thing to get an idea into a game. But to make it feel right when the player presses the button and gets it – that’s the most challenging.”

Clearly encapsulating the feeling of Batman was always the greatest challenge for Zafer and his team. “It’s always tempting to deviate away and just focus on something that looks cool but isn’t linked in to Batman… We spent a lot of time with the gliding… It’s almost like a secondary character.”

To keep the playthrough in perspective, I’ve really just been fighting a lot to make room for the talking. Moving things along I head into a marked building.

And that’s where I take a scripted bullet. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to counter that!” While obviously joking, this does offers a good time for Zafer to show me how each mark that is made on Batman’s suit and cape throughout his various scuffles will remain on him. Until the very end of the game. But Batman doesn’t take getting shot very lightly. It’s time to go CSI.

Entering forensic mode I locate where the bullet hit the floor and mark it in the system. I then search for the entry point through a nearby window. With both marked, Batman can calculate the trajectory of the bullet and thus roughly where the shot originated.

I head outside and face first into another fight. What I notice hear is that midway through, the commotion of the brawl has actually drawn over another small group of wandering opponents. This allows for motivation in stealth takedowns if you’re trying to stay out of the redzone. And man did I come close. With at least four enemies left I managed to get myself beat down to the smallest sliver of health. “One more hit and that’s it.” This is why I don’t usually talk and play video games. Making use of the beatdown mechanic (stun and then repeated attack) I’m able to scurry out within an inch of my life. Someone behind me says, “Man, that was close.”

After a little recovery I’m up against another crowd, but with more determination than ever. “Stun someone then double tap ‘A’ toward them.” It’s a new move Zafer is describing and while I’m not completely sure of its necessity, looks really awesome. Batman swings the cape for the stun but then steps forward, leaps up, and kicks down the shoulders of the opponent. “That’s the aerial takedown. You can use it to bounce of other guys as well.” It seems less practical but more embarrassing for the thugs as I essentially jump across their heads, knocking them to the floor.

I now come face to face with Harley Quinn. She immediately charges in for a kick, but just like in Arkham Asylum, nailing the counter means nonchalantly tossing her against a wall. Cause Batman ain’t got time. I don’t know why, but I find this absolutely hilarious and I love that the team has decided to keep one of the few humorous aspects of the original game in Arkham City. Stunned, but conscious, Harley stands up and teases me about her new outfit before expounding on the situation.

There are several armed guards standing before me. If you played Arkham Asylum you know that guns equal almost instant death for Batman so I’m immediately suspicious of how I’m going to escape. The answer is traditional Bruce Wayne: a new tool. I slam down a smoke bomb which shrouds me long enough to grapple up to a nearby gargoyle. The gunners have lost me for now but they’re moving to stay points and patrols. It’s finally time to see how stealth plays in the City.

Batman has a few words to say about the situation and his confidence isn’t lacking. The first guard he notices has backed against the wall thinking he’s safe. But we know better. I hop to a gargoyle on the other side, drop down, and quietly approach the timber obstruction. With a swift smash Batman pulls the guard back and subdues him. I have to escape quickly as the sound has drawn unwanted attention. Fortunately there are soldiers still at their posts.

I sneak up behind another thug. Hitting Y allows for a stealth takedown, but if I’m feeling a little impatient (or maybe just a bit more violent) I can press X during the maneuver to speed things along and crush the opponent. Two left at their post, side by side. There’s nothing special about the action I take but Batman shows off his new double stealth takedown – the ol’ classic head knock.

It’s finally time to head up to the clock tower where I traced the sniper’s bullet earlier. The core is made of criss-crossing beams that I  grapple between. It reminds me of lightening lit confrontations with long falling conclusions. At the top I find the weapon. Using forensic mode I discover it’s being remotely controlled. That’s when the several television screens in the room pop on revealing none other than the Joker himself. He taunts me a bit and initiates his final trap. A series of explosives in the room arm themselves leaving me no other choice for escape…

As I crash through the clock tower window the demo takes over, just as Batman glides away from the inferno. “That’s how it’s done.”

Two very different demonstrations with two very different guides in two very different environments but in the end I know I got a true feel for what Arkham City is offering players. It’s through-and-through everything I loved about Arkham Asylum but with more and more and more. Some players, particularly those new to the series, are certainly going to get overwhelmed by the number of options during combat. But for them regular maneuvers will get them through, likely only being required to pull off an advanced tactic on very rare occasions. The added complexity is really for returning fans who feel they’ve mastered everything Arkham Asylum brought to the table. I’m certainly incredibly excited to link aerial knockdowns, beatdowns, explosive gels, Bat Claws, slides, rolls, environmental takedowns, and all around badass martial arts into one seamless combination.

Expect to live the Knight yourself when Batman: Arkham City hits stores October 18th.

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