E3 2011 Preview: Batman: Arkham City
Rocksteady Studios shocked the world with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum, a comic book game from a sophomore developer (who had previously delivered a game that was largely forgotten) - not really a combination that has traditionally been a recipe for success - and it was absolutely fantastic. The fluid combat, cool gadgets, atmospheric setting, spot-on villain depiction, and additional replay value made this game an instant classic. No, Mark Hamill's performance of the Joker wasn't as good as Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight, but the attitude, voice, and demeanor of Kevin Conroy's Batman in this game are more in line with the character I remember than Christian Bale's intense, gravelly style from the recent films. So in some ways, I feel like Arkham Asylum did Batman better than even a great movie like The Dark Knight.
You can imagine how excited we were to see the live demo of Batman: Arkham City at E3, and then go hands-on for ourselves. Opening up the action, mystery, exploration, and combat to a larger environment - a place that's been ripe for an open-world, crime-fighting video game experience for years - is precisely what a sequel needs, and it feels so natural. Batman can now use his cape to glide around the city and employ his grappling hook, Just Cause 2-style, to boost his airspeed and keep the flight going as long as he wants. And it's good thing that this form of travel works so well, since he won't likely be skyjacking helicopters on his way between destinations.
We got to see a bit of combat from the perspective of Bats, and there are plenty of powerful new moves to unleash, but the fluidity of switching between attacks, dodging, and counter-attacks are still here. The hands-off demo led us over to a section of the game involving the playable Catwoman - initiated when Batman "takes a break" near a collection of cats that are hanging out on some of the city's rooftops.
Catwoman's gameplay is definitely a bit different. She's better at stealth, and can crawl around on ceilings like the Alien did in the recent Aliens vs. Predator, and she can use her own set of tools to track guard movements and perform silent takedowns when the time is right. Her mission was to break into a vault; Poison Ivy gave her the information she needed to get in, but she also wanted Catwoman to retrieve a special plant that Poison Ivy wanted. Catwoman used pounce attacks from a low rooftop to attack some thugs on the street level, then descended into the sewers and on to the secret vault entrance. Catwoman quietly pickpocketed the three security keycards to open the vault, unlocked it, patiently took out the guards without raising any alarms, and proceeded to pick up and Poison Ivy's little special potted plant - and then drop the pot and crush the plant into the floor with her boot. After all, Catwoman only wanted was in a couple of briefcases next to the plant.
I want to stop here and talk about the visuals that Rocksteady has put together. We've seen open-world cities many times, but they've never been dripping in gothic architecture and the dark depiction you expect from Batman. The city is lushly detailed, both from the highest rooftops and down at the street level. I'm pretty sure the hands-off demo was run on the PC, as everything seemed to be in 1080p resolution, but the game still looked comparably great on consoles as well. Visually, Batman: Arkham City was one of the best-looking games at E3 this year, overshadowed in my opinion only by BioShock Infinite - and that could easily be debated, too.
Let's get back to gameplay. We switched back to Batman and our demoer headed to another area of the city to find the Penguin. This is a depiction of the portly little dude that's more like the comics, and a moderate departure over the version we saw from Danny DeVito, as he's British, ruder, meaner, and dirtier. Batman took on a number of thugs that the Penguin sent at him, using the signature nearly-top-down view to allow the player to easy decide which direction to dodge in, which characters to attack, and when to counter enemy swings. My own experience in going hands on sent me over to Two-Face to fight his minions while he took potshots at me, so I used a lot of dodge maneuvers to keep moving while I slowly took them out. Once I was done, Two-Face landed a shot on me that triggered a cutscene, and my hands-on time was done - because apparently, UFC fighter Chuck Liddell was there to get his son some time playing, too. If I'm going to get booted out of a demo, who better to cause it than someone like Chuck?
Our adventures with Batman resume this fall (probably October) on 360, PS3, and PC, and on Wii U next year.