I never played the original Batman: Arkham Asylum. Sad, I know, but I'll get to it one day. I was always a huge fan Rocksteady's stylistic choices, however: Batman getting back to his roots as world's greatest detective, using fear as a tool to fight your enemies, and the unique mixture of Prince of Persia with Metal Gear Solid sounded like a sure-fire winner. It was, with both critics and consumers alike. So how will the sequel improve on that?
Well, I somehow managed to get into the secret back room at the Warner Brothers booth, and I played Batman: Arkham City for nearly an hour. Be very, very jealous. The first thing I was struck by was my man Jamie's wanton enthusiasm for the project. He went on about how great it was to work at Rocksteady, and they're really just a small indie studio full of people doing things they love. And then on the other hand they made perhaps the greatest comic book game of all time. Go figure.
But anyway, to the game! It opened up with a Catwoman battle (you can play as Catwoman in this one, doncha know), and the first thing I couldn't help but notice was just how fluid the combat was. It's pretty much a two-button battle system. X attacks, and Y counters. When an enemy is about to attack, lightning bolts flash above their head. Hit Y, and you'll not only avoid their attack in a variety of interesting ways, but you'll thrown him into his allies, or counter with a punch to the neck, or break one of his limbs. Batman may be known for never killing anyone, but that doesn't mean he won't mess your world up.
There is a lot more to combat than that, of course. The B button, for example does a stun move, which uses either Catwoman's whip or Batman's cape, which can then be comboed into a more powerful attack. There are also gadgets, and aerial attacks, and all sorts of ways to take out groups of enemies in the coolest-looking way possible.
The basis for Arkham City is that putting bad guys in the Asylum just wasn't working. They opened up the entirety of the island to the criminals instead, with tall walls around the entire open world, and you have an Escape from New York-esque prison island where basically anything goes. A lot of famous Batman enemies have taken up residency (Penguin, Two-Face, the Riddler, and others) as basically gang leaders - each has their own group of henchmen, and their own turf. The entire city is open to you at the beginning of the game, and it's up to you if you want to follow the storyline, or do a variety of side missions, or just glide around the city.
The storyline and side missions are all very character-based, so much so that many of the optional missions are giant, multi-hour quests that delve farther into the Batman mythos than any game before. As a fan of the comics, TV shows, and the characters in general, I am very, very excited for this. Batman has always been one of the most interesting characters in comicdom because of his dark, tortured, ridiculous enemies. That, and the fact that - at the base of it all - he is still just a man in a suit. No special powers. He just had the dedication and the discipline and the motivation to craft himself into a crime-fighting machine who also happens to be a billionaire playboy.
After beating up a group of henchmen as Catwoman, I switched over to Batman. Jamie from Rocksteady then explained a little bit about getting around the city. Pretty simple to fly everywhere. Hold A and walk off the top of a building to glide. Right bumper shoots out your grappling hook. Double tap A while you're grappling toward something, and instead of stopping, you will fly past it at incredible speed, a la Spider-Man. Then do a quick dive and pull back (like the cape in Super Mario World!), and you'll get so much air that you can actually glide from one side of the city to the other without touching the ground. Batman doesn't fly. He falls in style.
As Batman, I decided to find a few Riddler Trophies first. There are 400 of the things hidden around the city, and every so many that you collect unlocks some more Riddler death trap levels that you'll have to outwit to win. Riddler is unique in that respect, because he seems to be an almost completely optional enemy. I know there are 400 of the things, but they're hidden in ways that actually seem to make sense, unlike, say, the pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV, or the flags in Assassin's Creed which feel just that much more tedious with far fewer tangible rewards.
After learning how to fly and fight, I went to the courthouse to rescure Catwoman, as Two-Face had captured her. She was suspended above a vat of acid (classic), and Two-Face was making some speech to a crowd of his henchmen. From a window on the second floor (I snuck in), I entered Detective Mode by hitting the left bumper, which acts like a sort of Heavy Rain or Metroid Prime scanning mode: wire frames, skeletons, the works. If I didn't survey the area first, I wouldn't have seen the gunman on the third floor, who would have annihilated me if I had tried to just leap into the crowd down below and start fighting. I snuck up behind him and took him out silently, then leapt down and beat the crowd below.
Then Two-Face shot me in the head. Good thing I'm Batman. Catwoman and I took him down then tied him up with the power of love or something, then I saved her from being sniped by the Riddler through a window. She ran off, and I used my detective skills to triangulate the bullet hole in the floor with the hole in the window, determining that the Riddler must've shot from a tower in the middle of town. My next objective.
Before I took off, I noticed one other thing in Detective Mode besides the bullet's path: there was someone sitting in the basement. "Is that a prisoner?" I asked Jamie.
"That's Calendar Man," Jamie told me.
If you're not familiar with DC lore, Calendar Man is one of the single lamest villains in history. He only comits crimes on certain days of the year. Worse, he looks like this in the comics:
In Arkham City, however, he is messed up, and thoroughly creepy. He's in a cell in the basement of the courthouse, just sitting there. He's pretty beefy, and bald. There is a yearly calendar on the wall next to his cell, with various dates circled. Christmas Day, New Year's July 4th, some other days that I'm not sure are holidays. Jamie hinted to me that if you play the game on one of those specific dates (real world time), you might just have something happen with Calendar Man... That's an awesome way to keep players coming back to your game once a month or so, long after they've collected that final Riddler Trophy.
But now, my time with the game was coming to an end... But who else can say they played Arkham City for an hour? Not a lot of people, actually, and that's why E3 is probably the coolest thing I get to do all year. I think it's pretty safe to say that anyone that liked the first game will probably love this sequel, which seems - from what I've heard - to improve on the original in every way.
If you have any other questions about it, you can hit me up on Twitter, shoot me an email, or just leave a comment below, and be sure to stick around gamrReview and gamrFeed for even more E3 coverage, straight from the show floor. Oh, and in case you were wondering, all these screenshots of the game are brand spankin' new, too. Enjoy!