Batman: Arkham City preview

By Garnett Lee, Jun 02, 2011 7:15am PDT

At the beginning of the Batman: Arkham City demo the eponymous hero sits perched atop a building, surveying the city lain out beneath him. It's a powerful image. How can one man tackle such an expansive den of iniquity? On the horizon the outline of Arkham Asylum, site of the first game, can be seen. The section of Gotham that's been turned into the combination prison and insane asylum known as Arkham City that's home to this game is five times that size.

Yet Arkham City intends to retain its up close and personal character, particularly when it comes to fighting crime. Leaping down on unsuspecting henchmen, Batman swings into action. One of the goals for improving the combat in this sequel is to make the choreography of fights even smoother than before. The sequence flows from entering with some sort of dramatic navigational move like a drop takedown to fighting in the now familiar dance of punch, dodge, and counter to executing a finisher to take down foes.

That last blow delivers the same gratifying payoff as it did before. I slid right back into rhythm controlling Batman in almost no time. The lightning bolts over an attacker's head right before they come at you are back, and the window to counter and reverse that attack remains pretty open. The outdoor spaces afford ample opportunity to exit combat tactically with the grappling gun, and then re-enter with another flying move. The pace felt frantic, in a good way.

One of the main objectives for this demo was to rescue Catwoman from being dropped into a vat of acid by Two-Face. The first order of business is getting to the building in which she's being held. If I hadn't wanted to see the rest of what the demo had to offer, though, I might have just soared around the city. The way Batman gets around by firing his grappling gun, using it to slingshot him into the air, and then spreading his cape to glide feels just right. It's a blast to aim at ledge, get zipped toward it, and then pop the cape.

But Catwoman needed Batman's help. So I fought my way into the building, got to a balcony to watch Two-Face get in her face a little, and then dropped in to save her from an awful fate.

Missions like this rescue seem like they will be the bread-and-butter for the game, but it's how she got there in the first place the reveals another new part of Batman Arkham City. Two-Face caught her red handed, trying to rob him in one of the new sections of the game where you actually play as Catwoman. Consider her something of a special guest star; providing a new experience for about 10% of the game.

Catwoman isn't just a re-skinned version of the playable Batman. She moves with a lighter and somewhat speedier touch, but doesn't pack quite as heavy a punch. Her whip swing allows her to get around somewhat like Batman's grappling gun, but the range is much shorter. She also has a "thief mode" not unlike Batman's detective mode except that it only highlights things she'd be interested in stealing, which makes Catwoman a little more challenging to play in situations. She does, though, have an equalizer in the ability to use her claws to climb the walls and crawl on the ceiling.

Her climbing skills got put to good use in a section we were shown where she picked off the guards defending a vault one by one, dropping from the ceiling behind them to get a stealth takedown and then leaping back up to the shadows of the ceiling before being spied by the other guards alerted by the commotion. We were told there are four swaps to play as Catwoman which sounds like a nice comfortable amount to make a change of pace without becoming a distraction.

The open nature of the city also offers a lot of opportunity to take a break from the primary story when it gets fatiguing. Though they must be reusing assets to build out such a large city, I was impressed by how custom-built every section of the streets looked when I went exploring. And there are also side-missions, like the Riddler's challenge rooms. I found one of these by going to stop a crime in progress marked on the map. It opened up three new investigation sites, which after dispatching the thugs at each, gave me the location one of the game's newer, deadlier Riddler challenges.

Inside the challenge room, an acrobatic puzzle greeted Batman. Solving it required figuring out a way through room-spanning axles with spinning blades over electrified floor panels which could be momentarily shut down by hitting switches with the grappling gun. It came down to control and timing but the challenge was well balanced and fun test of my skill with the Caped Crusader.

With the content in the demo sections cleared I put the controller down but it was hard to do. From what I played it feels like the developers have really nailed the sense of being Batman, sailing around the shadowy heights above the city, ready to dive into the midst of any street thugs, and just as quickly disappear back into the sky. Couple that with a main story on par with the first game, Catwoman's special guest role, and the extra challenges scattered around the map and Batman: Arkham City looks like an impressive sequel.

Batman: Arkham City is scheduled to arrive on October 18 for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.

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