Monday, September 26, 2011

Batman: Arkham City Mega-Preview

It is one of the greatest times to be a Batman fan. The recent DC Comics reboot allows fans to jump into the Batman comics without fear of missing previous essential story arcs. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is finishing shooting and will arrive theaters next year, concluding the trilogy that took a fresh look at Batman. This October, however, fans will get a chance to step into the shoes of the Batman himself with the release of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to see multiple demonstrations and get some hands-on playtime of the game at different events. From all those experiences, the one thing that stands out to me is how deep the game is in its environments, characters, and gameplay. Batman: Arkham Asylum featured an explorable island filled with a staggering cast and a fluid combat system. Arkham City takes all of those elements and shatters them by comparison.

Besides the returning cast from Arkham Asylum including the Joker, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Bane, Arkham City adds Catwoman, Robin, Hugo Strange, Two-Face, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Talia al Ghul, Calendar Man, Deadshot, Solomon Grundy, and more. The inclusion of Solomon Grundy in particular notes the blending of magic and realism in this version of Batman.

At San Diego Comic-Con, writer Paul Dini talked about delivering real danger to a fantastical world. “I feel like it almost goes back to the stories for kids, fairy tales,” he said at the Batman: Arkham City panel, “It can be whimsical, you can have talking birds and animals and monsters but if the threat isn't real, if the ogre isn't going to kill the hero or the dragon isn't deadly, the rest of the story isn't going to work. It's like the whimsy compels the story along until you get to that moment, to the big finale. And I've always felt that Batman's world is sort of similar to that. You can have villains like the Penguin, who strut around in a tuxedo with an umbrella and Poison Ivy and all of the fantastic stuff she does, but unless there's a bit of a human in there, and unless there's a credible threat, then Batman himself doesn't work.”

Rocksteady began work on Arkham City late in the development cycle of Arkham Asylum, which is why there aren’t many clues about Quincy Sharp’s secret room in Arkham Asylum and the plans for Arkham City within. Creating a bigger version of Arkham Island was the biggest challenge for Rocksteady, but with the addition of the Sharp’s secret office, they cemented their design and direction for Arkham City. Connecting the two games was a bit of a contention for Warner Bros., who considered creating an animated short telling the story of Sharp’s vie for control of Arkham City, but ultimately decided with a comic to bridge the two games.

If you’ve played the first game, Batman: Arkham City will instantly feel familiar to you. The game uses the same control scheme as before, a design choice Rocksteady made intentionally. However, Arkham City isn’t just more of the same, it’s more of the same and new. Combat is just as fluid as before, moving from one thug to another, with a more generous window to counter attacks, and adding gadgets to the execution of counter-attacks. Batman can cartwheel away from opponents, leaving behind a dollop of explosive gel that, when detonated, will send enemies flying in every direction. Batman can also use the grappling line to pull an opponent towards him and finish him off with a clothesline knockout.

The actual city is the most dramatic change for Batman: Arkham City, and Rocksteady’s biggest challenge turns out to be their biggest achievement. Arkham City spans seemingly to scale creating an open-world area to explore. To get around, Batman uses his grappling line to launch himself into the air, gliding from building to building. He can then use a dive-bomb attack to gain momentum before pulling up and gliding again. It may sound like a slow way to travel, but I watched Rocksteady developer move from street-level to another building off in the distance in less than 30 seconds.

As I watched Batman traverse the streets and rooftops of Arkham City, I couldn’t help but notice the similar acronym AC shared with the Assassin’s Creed series. The verticality of the city creates a parity of ground and roof levels, with the roof level covered in grapple spots. Using counter finishers feels close to Assassin’s Creed and its sequel.

Batman: Arkham City and the Assassin’s Creed series may share similarities in terms of open-world environments and elements of combat, they don’t share the ability to play different characters (unless you look at Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and its dual characters of Ezio and Altair). For about 10% of Batman: Arkham City, you’ll be able to take the role of Catwoman. For the demo I saw, she has entered into an uneasy alliance with Poison Ivy to break into a vault and retrieve one of her orchids along with some precious jewels. Catwoman has all of the same abilities as Batman, but executes them in different ways. Using her thief mode, similar to detective mode, Catwoman can sneak around armed guards by crawling along the ceiling and then dropping down behind to take them out. She travels around the city using her whip, and uses bolas as her version of the batarang.

Batman: Arkham City will be available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 18. The PC version will release on an unspecified date in November due to a recent delay.

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