During the Game Developers Conference , we got our first look at Batman: Arkham City. In the two years since Arkham Asylum hit shelves, the big bat has grown up, leaving behind the rubble of the sanatorium playpen and moved on to the sprawl of outdoor criminal pastures. Our first look at the sequel covered a lot of ground, but with open-world gameplay comes a level of unpredictability, and frankly, there were aspects of our demo that we were convinced warranted a closer look.
The move away from the corridors and confined spaces of Arkham Asylum to an open environment brings with it several challenges. Developer Rocksteady Studio's approach to pacing has been totally overhauled. Players will now be presented with open slather content where they can choose to either explore the nooks and crannies where evil lurks or, if they prefer, make a beeline for the main narrative's path. While the vast majority of the game takes place down on the streets and atop the buildings dotting the landscape, you will also venture indoors to find that the familiar combat mechanics and stealth from Arkham Asylum have been refined to take better advantage of the space.
Our demo began with Batman chilling on a rooftop by night, nonchalantly scanning the vista of the criminal hood below. Our moment of quiet reflection was broken when we found out that our feisty feline friend, Catwoman, was being held hostage by Two-Face inside a nearby building. Where previously the role of the sequencer gadget was to remotely disable force fields and crack electronic locks, the device has received an update to version 2.0, allowing you to scan the airwaves for radio chatter or input a specific frequency (which we'll come to later) to eavesdrop on the bad guys.
On our way to rescue Catwoman, we were given a look at the game's new interrogation--vision mode. Where previously players may have only been able to fire up Detective mode (or left it on since there was no penalty for its use), you can now switch to enable interrogation mode, using it to trace and highlight targets located around you. The tool now also shows a variety of important data; informants glow a different color, and the tool lets you know that if you can first beat all the other targets around the informant (by deftly countering, avoiding, incapacitating), you can then grab the informant and pump him or her for information. There's no formalized questioning system beyond your fists, but any intelligence gleaned from thugs is automatically added to your map for easy follow-up. Detective mode has also seen changes and now better identifies enemies carrying weapons, allowing you to plan your order of priority for takedowns. It also highlights their physical and emotional states, showing their heart rate and anxiety levels. Thinning the herd heightens their nervousness about being the next victim, and though we didn't see it in action, we're hopeful that this translates to avoiding even more itchy trigger fingers, as well as the need to free hostages before edgy captors can injure their prisoners.
Where previously the batclaw was primarily used to yank down walls, in Arkham City, it is a little more versatile. The example we saw fired it out to retrieve a Riddler clue that was located inside a trap that would shut if we walked too close to it. Likewise, Batsy's grapple can now also be used to drag enemies closer (not unlike Scorpion’s blade on a chain in Mortal Kombat), bringing the fight over to Batman so that the player can sock them in the kisser.
We pushed on through Two-Face's small army of goons outside the courthouse--all of whom were wearing masks supporting their leader's unique visual styling. Even the building had been remodeled to reflect Harvey's split personality, with half in pristine condition and the other half worn and grimy to match the rest of Arkham City.
Inside the building, Catwoman hung suspended by her ankles over a vat of acid. Taking out the machine-gun-toting guards before we made our grand entrance ensured we didn’t get shot in the ensuing skirmish. Once the fracas had died down and suitable revenge was doled out on Two-Face, we began a conversation with Catwoman--only to have it rudely interrupted when we pushed her out of the path of a bullet that crashed through a nearby window. Batman has a gadget for everything, and it wasn't long before we were using the trajectory of the shot to determine where our shooter was hiding.
Batman can glide around using just his cape, but because it's unpowered, players can gain momentum and altitude by dive bombing and then pulling up quickly. Circling helicopters made for an easy ride with a sweet aerial view, and after catching a lift, we headed toward the clock tower. Unfortunately, we made our approach at ground level, with our guide showing off another new skill in Batman's already impressive arsenal called "beatdown." Some of the enemies are armed to the teeth and others feature armor that gives even Batman's meaty fists a proper workout, so rather than endlessly swinging at them and hoping to get a good hit, you'll need to land an initial stun with the B button before unleashing a flurry of light attacks by repeatedly tapping X.
Inside the church, we were confronted by Batman's old friend and former Arkham Asylum resident, Harley Quinn. Believing her guards capable of finishing the job, she departed, leaving the four men with guns arguing nervously about who would shoot Batman and when. While they disagreed on the basics of how to pull a trigger, we used the window of opportunity to try out another new piece of kit: smoke bombs. After tossing one down and zipping away to the conveniently placed stone statue architraves skirting the roofline, we then plotted our next move.
Three new takedown moves have been added in Arkham City, and by sneaking up behind two targets, you can clang their skulls together to knock them out cold. Explosive gel marks its return, but rather than set up elaborate traps to fell walls, Batman has been pumping iron in the off season and can now simply punch through brittle surfaces, grabbing enemies and pummeling them into submission. If you like playing a little more stealthily, creeping up to a ledge now lets you grab the lip with your hands before swinging your legs upward. The result is a vicelike grip on enemies with your meaty Batman thighs, at which point you can flip them earthbound with a thud.
Leaving the bad guys nursing some mean headaches and having an unintended lie down, we continued on, heading up the spire to the tower where we expected a confrontation with Joker. Either the madman is smarter than the world's brainiest superhero (sorry Danger Mouse) or we expected far too much, too early. Arriving at the nest, we found a remotely fired rifle and enough explosives to level the building. Escape was the only thing on our mind, and we leaped through the stained-glass windows, majestically gliding to safety. Curse your tomfoolery, Joker!
On a nearby rooftop, we found a billboard that the Riddler had prepared for us that listed a set of radio frequencies. Tuning in with our sequencer kicked off a hallucinatory experience lasting about 30 seconds and made up of the images of spinning blades, cogs, and what appeared to be an Arkham Asylum uniform. Warner Bros. has confirmed that Riddler and other Batman baddies will play a more physical role in Arkham City, and while we don't yet know exactly how their interactions will play out or who you will have the chance to go toe-to-toe with, from our first look at the game, we're mightily impressed with what we've seen so far. We are looking forward to seeing more as the game approaches its Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC releases on October 19 this year.