Batman: Arkham City Hands-On Preview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 01:03pm 01/07/11 | Comments
AusGamers had a chance to get hands-on with Batman: Arkham City and this year's E3. Read on for our impressions...
It’s one thing to sit and watch an expert Batman traverser explore Arkham City for the thousands upon thousands of E3 goers, and listen to them awe in exasperation at the ease at which the Dark Knight can get around this daunting new stomping ground, and quite another to pick up the controller and send Batman into his challenging new world, on your own, with quite the same fidelity.
And it’s not that I’m a nub when it comes to Batman, because I’ll profess being all kinds of awesome at it (the one game I can boast such skills), it’s that Batman: Arkham City moves beyond the staple “sequel” moniker, and into territories that transcend mere updates to proven mechanics.
So many developers and publishers produce sequels that are simply the same game with a different skin or assets, but in Arkham City, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Rocksteady have gone all out here, expanding your stomping ground, and therefore your ways to experience said stomping. It’s bigger and more intimidating - as it should be - but so are your moves, gadgets and sensibilities as the World’s Greatest Detective.
This is something I discovered to much delight in getting hands-on with the game at E3. Everything was definitely familiar, and for the first few minutes I felt confident as Batman; bold even, until I attempted to perform his new infinite gliding abilities and failed miserably. There’s a real sense of challenge when performing this manoeuvre and an equally compelling sense of satisfaction when you finally pull it off. It’s pretty simple in theory: you essentially glide just as you did in the first game, only now you can perform a nose-dive to gain serious momentum, then when you’re ready, just bust out the glide again and pull back - like flying a plane. Before you know it, Batman is soaring. And if you’re losing speed or you’re coming too close to the ground, simply fire off Batman’s grapple at a higher ledge, double tap the A button and he’ll reel in super fast to your anchored spot, then just hold the A button down at the right moment and instead of coming to a stop, he’ll launch even higher and again, appear to be flying.
You can do this absolutely anywhere outdoors, and once I became versed in it, I equally became bolder and more brazen in my execution of the move; sometimes practically brushing the ground with my toes before firing off another grapple to launch away again. It’s an exhilarating addition to the game, and the perfect talking point for just how much it’s evolved from Arkham Asylum.
But this is to be expected with a studio like Rocksteady, who seem to understand what it is that drives this potential franchise, and it’s probably the most poignant thing about the team’s design ethos for the series - it centres almost solely around Batman, and the world then stems from everything he is and can do. The analogy I’ll use, which may be lost on some, is Miyamoto’s design of the original Mario 64. There’s no denying that game’s brilliance, and while you might assume it was built around Mario’s core moves, it wasn’t. Miyamoto created the game around the N64 controller, which was revolutionary for its time, but equally, that controller was also built around the game - there was a synergy with the two that went hand-in-hand which is why it was such a brilliant package.
Now, for the purpose of this parallel, let’s say Batman is the controller; his athletic abilities, gadgets and more are the centrepiece for everything else to work around and with; for you to be the Batman experience. However, all of what and who Batman is would be redundant without this carefully crafted world in which to exploit him. It’s an odd link to make in a preview, but if you ever played Mario 64, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, chances are you know what I’m talking about.
So take said synergy and amplify it ten-fold, and you have Arkham City. My demo actually opened with a panning shot of the skyline that is Arkham City; a small part of Gotham that has been converted into a residential jail of sorts, where its residents fight and terrorise amongst themselves rather than on the streets of Gotham proper. But we’re talking the world of Batman here, whose enemy-list is kilometres long and features some of the most criminally brilliant minds this side of... well, no where. All this means Gotham’s vigilant watcher needs to keep a close eye on what’s happening within Arkham City’s walls, and maintain some sense of order amidst the most controlled chaos he’s ever faced.
The aforementioned pan is a beguiling moment, especially when you make out Batman; perched as stoically as ever on a tall structure’s precipice, overlooking the absolutely enormous city before him. When the camera centres on him, we can look around a bit better, and even see Arkham Island off in the distance, where all this trouble began.
Just as in real-life, it’s been a while since the events of Arkham Asylum, and Arkham City is the brainchild of Mayor Quincy Sharp, who you rescued in the first game. It’s not known if there’s a darker, ulterior motive for the move, but at least Batman has all of his foes in one place to watch.
We’re not specifically playing this demo for story though, but rather to explore Batman’s new abilities in his new playground. As previously mentioned, it’s all very familiar and comfortable, and while in my interview with Batman Game Director, Sefton Hill, I asked him about their additions to combat, and how daunting it all sounded when studio head, Jamie Walker, was running me through it, the reality is for any seasoned Batman combatant, it’s actually not hard at all. You can now perform double takedowns, special combo takedowns, aerial attacks, leave gel explosive traps (even as part of your combo-counter), stylishly tackle three guys at once, counter projectiles, and use his grapple in even more devastating ways. In fact, we've been told there are twice as many moves as the original game, and twice as many animations added to cater for this. Moreover, the addition of Catwoman as a playable character with her own missions and dovetailing storyline allows for more expanded play as she has a similar move-set to Batman, but feels very different under your thumbs.
Again, there’s also a perfect balance here through stealth and combat, but there’s also a deeper-level of puzzle-solving, especially in the Riddler challenges. Jamie showed us a specific one that required two buttons being activated in close proximity to each other, but were both situated on walls far enough away that a standard touch and run attempt wouldn’t work, instead we had to perform a new move, which is a wall-vault to touch one and try and reach the other before the timer ran out and all without touching the ground. He told us there are plenty more missions like this, and that all the Riddler challenges were now much more difficult than just grabbing a hidden trophy, which is welcome news.
Despite the size of the game-world, there’s still a deep level of intimacy with it for the player. An example of this we saw was a run-in with Harley Quinn who then left Batman with five armed thugs. Jamie insisted that instead of just throwing a smoke-bomb (another new addition) and grapple to the ceiling, we stand and wait, because the thugs were only ordered to attack if Batman made a move. For the next minute and half, each of them spoke to both Batman and among themselves; eventually deciding to kill Batman themselves - the dialogue was deliciously Batman: The Animated Series (where the game’s writer, Paul Dinni got his Batman start), and proved that patient players and Batman fans are really going to get a lot out of Arkham City.
And finally, the detective element of the game has also been ramped up, leaving much deduction to the player, with only inner-monologued hints from Batman (again voiced by the awesome Kevin Conroy). Clues will be harder to find and you’ll definitely need your wits about you. It all coincides with the expansion of the game-world and its openess, despite there being a relatively linear single-player story to complete. It’s a fine balance many other studios fail to get right, but for Rocksteady Games, it almost looks too easy.
Batman: Arkham City will be hitting store shelves on October 19 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.