Batman Arkham City … explore the streets of Gotham dressed in a silly outfit
Deep down, this is what many Batman fans have always wanted. To actually be the Dark Knight, perched atop a skyscraper, looking out through the night-time drizzle, at the sprawl of Gotham. Out there, lurking in stinking alleyways, are criminal gangs and super-villain loonies. Every direction is violence – but it’s up to us where to fly.
Although 2009′s Batman: Arkham Asylum was a brilliant action adventure that captured every contrasting aspect of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s iconic character, it was also a claustrophobic experience, housed within the corridors of a gothic madhouse. The big sell with Arkham City is that Batman is free to explore.
There is a guiding narrative, about Harvey Dent’s rise to power within a new prison town that has been carved from a chunk of unwanted Gotham real estate. But Batman can pursue other interests on the way. The Riddler is out there, marking the city with his symbols and laying out a series of tests for our hero. The Penguin, too, has shuffled grotesquely into play. The Dark Knight must joust with them all.
But, daringly, it’s not Batman we first inhabit when Asylum City kicks off. At the start of the game, we view a sequence set in Harvey’s campaign office, with two cronies investigating the psycho-lawyer’s safe. A window shatters and, through it, flies Catwoman.
Batman Arkham City
Suddenly, we’re in control of the Caped Crusader’s sexy nemesis as she takes on the Two-Face cronies. As with Batman, the combat controls are pared down and smoothly contextual – for now, she just needs X to strike and Y to counter. But there’s an immediate contrast: while the Bat packs a deliberate, almost lumbering weight behind every attack, Catwoman feels fast and athletic, she leaps and spins through the combat environment with exotic beauty, cranking out a succession of high kicks and scratches.
In her skin-tight leather, and with an astonishingly supple animation system, it is like some sort of S&M ballet performance – the sort of thing they put on at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in London to shock the middle classes, but many times more compelling.
“It is quite sensual,” says Rocksteady Studios’ marketing manager, Dax Ginn, understating dramatically. “Sometimes she’ll kiss her opponents before breaking their legs.” Yes, Rocksteady understands the Batman universe alright, and with control over Catwoman, we get to experience it from an even more morally ambiguous standpoint.
But when she’s caught inevitably trying to crack that safe, Harvey hangs Catwoman over a vat of acid in an abandoned courtroom. It is here he intends to hold a dramatic show trial, a PR event designed to recruit as many thugs as possible to his cause. He wants to rule Arkham City, and Batman has mere hours to prevent a murderous election campaign opener.
From here, we get the same gameplay section that Rocksteady Studios showed off at the Microsoft Showcase back in February (see our preview). Batman raids the court, takes out dozens of wise guys and saves the girl; although up in a nearby church tower, the Joker has Catwoman in the sights of a sniper rifle. “It’s dangerous around here,” she purrs as Batman thrusts her out of the line of the incoming bullet. “I like it.” Apparently, we’ll enjoy plenty more flirtatious interplay like this.
But rewind. Back out on the rooftop overlooking the courthouse we can survey the entire city, a mass of darkened tenement buildings and flickering neon signs; a vision as breathtaking and detailed as anything conjured by Christopher Nolan’s art team. From here, we can hit the triggers to open the cryptographic sequencer and listen in on communications between a security chopper hovering above and Hugo Strange, the warden of Arkham City. The A button decodes the frequency and lets us know that Catwoman is in there with Harvey. A Bat Signal illuminates the rumbling grey sky above the building. We know where to go.
Batman Arkham City
So I hold the A button and leap from the roof, initiating Batman’s flight mechanic. With wings outstretched, the Dark Knight can swoop over the city streets, using the left analogue to pitch up and down. The right trigger drops him into a power dive, and then pulling back on the stick just before he hits the ground lets him glide straight into an attack. Alternatively, targeting a higher point on a building and hitting the right bumper button fires the grapple hook; Bats can then land on the building or double-tap A to get a grapple boost and zoom higher into the night sky.
It takes some practise, but it becomes a wonderfully fluid 3D navigation system, and as in Neversoft’s excellent 2000 incarnation of Spider-Man, the city quickly transforms into a joyous aerial playground.
“It’s something the Batman movies have done well,” says Ginn. “Every now and again there’s a massively high production shot of Batman gliding through a city. We wanted to take the promise of that and transform it into an interactive experience.”
Inside the courthouse, I can use detective mode to scan the main courtroom and pick out any weapons Harvey’s chanting thugs are concealing. Looking up I spot a machine gun-toting guard hiding out on a platform overhead, so I climb the ladder, hit the right trigger to crouch, then X to perform a silent takedown – in this case a handy knockout smash. As in Arkham Asylum, all the combat set-pieces are structured in this way, allowing players the choice between smashing straight in, or properly scoping the area for stealth attacks.
Down on the floor, it’s a total scrum as baddies charge in from all angles. Always versatile and seamless, the combat engine feels even more fluid this time round, with Batman working the whole crowd simultaneously, a thudding kick here, a jab there, a nose-crunching elbow somewhere else.
The counter attacks are brutal too, with Batman chucking back projectiles or snapping an enemy’s swinging arm like so much brittle kindling wood. While the X and Y buttons do their job just fine, combos can be unlocked to provide a more devastating arsenal of accessible moves. The fights twist imperceptibly between player skill and choreographed excess; the system flatters you. It is thrilling to watch.
This scene ends with Dent temporarily vanquished, and Batman heading off to confront the Joker in the cathedral. The Microsoft Showcase demo took this further, getting us to a twisted reunion with Harley Quinn and finally to that bell tower, where the Joker has left a sniper rifle, a gloating video and – naturally – a bomb.
During my demo, there’s also time to track down a couple of Riddler icons, which are hidden around the city and lead Batman into a confrontation with the sadistic trickster. Some are protected by traps, others are hidden – I find one by smashing through a false brick wall into a dank alleyway. Here, an image of the Riddler projects across the background scenery, informing me that I am close to finding the doctor he has taken prisoner – but that I am unlikely to find him alive.
It’s a sadistic game, of course, and it adds another layer of darkness to the proceedings. “In Arkham Asylum, the Riddler wasn’t physically there, but he still had this amazing presence,” says Ginn. “Well, he is present in Arkham City, but he’s always like smoke, he’s like a ghost haunting you with projections. If you solve all his puzzles, though, you actually get to put your hands around his neck – which is a lovely feeling …”
And of course, we will also have the Penguin, battling his corner in the super villain turf war. “We don’t add characters for the sake of a head count,” says Ginn. “The Penguin is a really nasty bastard, but he’s also a collector. He resides within this massive museum in Arkham City and his exhibits include human beings as well as art and antiques – he also collects weaponry and has a huge military-grade artillery.
“You know when you come up against a gang of Penguin thugs, they’re going to have sniper rifles, they’ll have automatic machine guns – and for Batman that’s a significant threat; he’s a mortal guy after all. It allows us to deliver a very different kind of combat.”
Batman Arkham City
Ginn is keen to point out that, although Arkham City is set to feature an extended roster of familiar characters (there are more to be announced), it’s not going to feel like the later pre-Nolan Batman movies, where these great characters were reduced to bit-part heavies forming a homogonous threat. The Riddler, Penguin, The Joker and Catwoman all have their own objectives, and these are explored separately throughout the reported 50 hours of gameplay.
As Ginn explains: “Catwoman, for example, has heard a rumour that Hugo Strange has taken all of the prize possessions from all the super villains and stored them in one vault deep underground. From Catwoman’s perspective, that is the ultimate score, that’s what she wants – so her story is about breaking in and stealing all of this loot.”
And there is another force hovering in the background: Hugo Strange, the not-altogether-trustworthy warden. He commands a security team named Tyger and at first, they just patrol the city providing Batman with convenient intel; he can also grapple hook onto their helicopters to get around the city quickly. But that role will apparently develop.
“The deeper you get into the game, the more Batman and Hugo Strange’s paths start to collide,” says Ginn. “And that’s when the Tyger guards start to take more of a role. There’s a moment where people are going to go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ – there’s this whole switch in pace and it’s all to do with Hugo and the Tyger guards.”
He won’t say more. I’m left with that opening vision of Batman crouched above the city, surveying the gangs, the Riddler signs, the swooping searchlights. There is such a sense of potential. Rocksteady needs to get a tight storyline into this open environment, while still providing a true sense of potential discovery – we have to feel like this grand vision is really worth exploring beyond the sub-plots and icon collections.
But with the combat mechanic updated and seemingly sorted, and with a fascinating selection of characters to compete against, we’re already in intriguing territory. I know this much: on the second morning of E3, with a packed timetable of Triple A mega-sellers ahead of me, I had to be virtually manhandled away from the controller by Warner’s PR manager. The Dark Knight has returned.