Dax Ginn, Rocksteady’s Marketing Game Manager, has had a long day by the time I finally get chance to sit down and watch his Batman: Arkham City demonstration. Consisting of roughly 30 minutes of narration and consecutive gameplay, and involving the Dark Knight encountering not just Joker, but Two-Face, Harlequin, Catwoman and a whole heap of thugs, it isn’t just Batman who’s feeling the heat.
Give Dax his dues though, he fastidiously embarks on yet another run through – the final one of the show as it happened – even adding in one or two extra flourishes to end the event on a high, you know, as if watching in-game action of Arkham City wasn’t enough!
As the demonstration opens we find the Caped Crusader on one of Arkham City’s taller buildings looking down at a strikingly larger environment than was ever available in Arkham Asylum “it’s a space five times bigger than previously” explains Dax.
Arkham City is in fact an area of Gotham City siphoned off for ex-inmates of the asylum, a place for them to live unchallenged as long as they don’t migrate to the city-proper. Ne’er has there been such a concentration of scum and villainy in one location since Luke and Obi Wan went sightseeing in Mos Eisly all those years ago.
This isn’t exclusively the Joker’s dominium either, in fact Joker’s not doing so well these days, suffering from some strain of sickness for reasons as yet unknown (though clearly being transformed into a hulking monstrosity can’t do the body wonders). With Joker convalescing, Two-Face has wasted no time in gaining a foothold in the city, seeking an instant boost to his notoriety by taking Catwoman hostage; you know, the usual.
The first exhibition of combat we’re treated to is preceded by a demonstration of just how mobile Batman is in this sequel. Able to dive straight off a towering skyscraper, soar using his cape as a makeshift paraglider and even go into a free-fall; landing on to a hapless criminal with the impact of a missile.
The first fight we see involves introducing the bodyguards of one of the Riddler’s crew to unconsciousness. Asylum veterans will find the combat mechanics, that beautiful, almost ballet-like, system of defence, attack and counter, instantly familiar. Subtle improvements to the animations of Batman’s free-flowing style are obvious, as is extra variation to the finishing moves which punctuate the larger blows so well.
There’s also a new move, the ‘beat down’ which sees Batman letting rip with a sequence of heavy blows capable of felling even the most heavily armoured of foes; while the grapple can also be used to yank enemies in close mid-combo. Most notable is the increase in how many hostiles can be on show at any one time. IN this first encounter Batman has to deal with only guards, later however there’re 40-50 on screen at once but more on that later.
Once the Riddler’s henchman has been relieved of his bodyguard a quick press of ‘Y’ sees Batman grabbing him by the throat – needless to say he spills the beans and so tells Batman locations of all the nearby ‘?’ icons, an optional side-quest but a fun one.
Done with the interrogation Bats is off again, this time using the new grapple-boost to accelerate instantly to the zenith of a nearby high-rise; a nice touch which makes Batman feel suitably empowered.
Next another improved gadget is shown-off, specifically the cryptographic sequencer, now much more than simple hacking tool. This time around the sequencer can be used to scan local airwave chatter, eavesdropping on police and criminal chatter alike. This time around a quick scan reveals the location of Two-Face as we find he’s about to execute Catwoman – best go deal with that then Mr Wayne.
“You really know how to keep a girl hanging, Harv,” quips Catwoman in the introductory cut scene, as she hangs suspended over a vat of acid, Two-Face standing poised at her side, gun in hand. Sneaking into the area Batman takes time to survey the scene, able to see through walls and identify targets as in the previous game.
The big difference here however are the numbers of enemies on screen at a time, while Arkham Asylum might have had perhaps 12 at a maximum, we’re greeted with a posse of some 40+ here. Batman quickly identifies those who need taking out as a priority, a machine gun armed thug is dispatched with a silent takedown, before a machete armed bruiser in the centre of the 40 henchmen is dropped upon from a height.
Now, here’s the thing, in this demo Batman’s sudden appearance causes general chaos, prompting many of the assembled henchmen to make a run for it. “Ah, so there isn’t combat with 40 at a time at all”, you might say. Well, while the demo didn’t show such combat, Dax was by this point up for answering a few questions and he did intimate to me that Rocksteady hadn’t taken the trouble to create an engine capable of displaying so many onscreen characters for no reason, confirming that the final build would certainly see Batman facing off against whole roomfuls of enemies.
Whether that means new moves capable of downing multiple foes simultaneously, or the rather more second-rate option: that enemies will take their turn at having a pop at Batman, he couldn’t confirm however. Please Rocksteady, do the right thing.
For Dark Knight fans (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), it seems there’s a whole lot to look forward to here. Just to sum up the other highlights – this was a 30 minute demo after all – a quick grapple on to a nearby helicopter showed off the City’s size and the potential for exploration with sewers systems, rooftops and streets all accessible.
Scipted scenes while clichéd in the comic book style are often very funny –a scene in which four armed guards are left to finish off Batman if he “does any funny stuff” proving particularly great as the guards debate whether they should run or attempt to finish him ‘one, two, thr… do we shoot on three?’ worries one thug.
Meanwhile, Batman can now conduct double-takedowns, cracking together the skulls of two hapless foes, and even smash straight through weak walls, something he’d have previously been able to do only with the use of explosive jelly. Detective mode makes a comeback too, employed here to track the trajectory of a sniper round back to its source: the Joker.
Of course Rocksteady aren’t about to have Batman and Joker meet this early in proceedings, not when they’ve just made ‘being’ Batman so interesting, so it’s no surprise to find the sniper rifle housed in a room full of explosives. Batman’s escape through a stained glass window perhaps summing up the motto of Arkham City, free-flowing flexibility perfectly lending itself to depicting Batman at his strongest and because of that we can’t wait to see more.