2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum set a new bar for super hero video games, a game unexpectedly great. Based on what we've seen of the sequel today, the developer of greater than expected Batman games is ready to shatter our expectations again.
Rocksteady Studio's and Microsoft offered our first gameplay glimpse of Batman: Arkham City in San Francisco today, a 20 minute demo that took Batman from rooftops to city streets, from courthouse to church, seamlessly and (almost) flawlessly. Rocksteady said Arkham City is "not a sandbox game, but not a linear game," but somewhere in the middle.
It may not be a "sandbox," but it's a big, convincing open world that might make the makers of Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed games a little nervous.
Sadly, we weren't able to play Batman: Arkham City for ourselves, but we can offer a play-by-play of the events of that demo, as controlled by its creators.
Rocksteady Studio's hands-off demo starts with Batman on a rooftop, gazing out at Arkham City, his new massive playground in which to fight crime. We're somewhere deep into this story already, with Catwoman in the clutches of Two-Face and with some of the game's dialogue carefully censored to protect us from spoilers. We learn some of this from Batman's cryptographic sequencer, which hacks into a transmission from Dr. Hugo Strange, ruler of Arkham City.
Batman's mission here is to infiltrate the Solomon Wayne Courthouse, in which Two-Face has set up a base of operations. For effect, he's burned one half of the building, leaving the other half in mint-condition. Batman leaps from his rooftop location, his cape instantly transforming into a taut glider. He divebombs, building up momentum, then pulls up to glide ever closer to his destination.
He perches on a sign that juts from a building, peering down at a group of thugs in the midst of assaulting reporter Jack Ryder, a cameo of sorts for DC Comics fans. The Rocksteady rep playing our demo explains that one member of the gang is an associate of the Riddler. He's highlighted with a green glow. In order to interrogate him, he must be the last one standing, meaning Batman must take on a cluster of bad guys, leaving one unscathed.
Batman leaps from his perch, dropping onto one of the thugs. What follows is graceful, flowing fisticuffs, familiar to Batman: Arkham Asylum fans. Batman brawls better than ever, double the number of combinations, according to Rocksteady. He can also use his Batclaw to pull enemies that are out of range close to him, then kick them away.
After interrogating the Riddler's henchmen, revealing new Riddler Trophies scattered about the Arkham City map, Batman makes his way into the courthouse. We cut to a dialogue between the halves of Two-Face, who has Catwoman suspended from a tether. She's hovering over a pool of menacing looking green acid, exchanging cheeky dialogue with an increasingly angry Two-Face.
"I'm sorry I've been a bad kitty," Catwoman purrs. "Untie me and I'll make it up to you."
Batman, near the entrance to the courthouse, surveys the scene with Detective Mode vision. It looks a bit more like the echolocation tech seen in The Dark Knight. It looks better than ever. We see the x-rayed outline of every thug in the joint, including one with a machete—he's standing next to the rope that's keeping Selina Kyle from her acidic doom—and a sniper one floor above Batman. Both are important threats and highlighted in orange.
We head upstairs, with Batman gliding up a ladder (this animation is like butter) then executing a silent takedown. He walks across a cable, above the crowd of henchmen. Targeting the machete-wielder, he drops, crushing him, causing most of the crowd to scatter.
Catwoman is freed, Two-Face humiliated. Another player enters the scene, with the Joker aiming a sniper rifle at Selina Kyle, a smiley face target focusing on her temple. Batman thwarts said attempt, then investigates the trajectory of the bullet in Detective Mode. That line points to a bell tower a few blocks away.
We head outside, with transportation appearing in the form of a helicopter flying overhead. Using the Batclaw, our hero zips skyward, getting clear view of the city. Detective Mode vision kicks in and we see the criminal population of Arkham City. They're everywhere. Some are armed. Civilians are in peril, an offer of a potential side mission. As Batman's gaze turns toward the bell tower, we still see the glowing trajectory of the bullet, pointing us to our destination.
Batman leaps from beneath the helicopter, diving toward the church, targeting a quartet of Joker's thugs. He power dives into a painful looking throat grab. That's one down. Then three more, including one heavily armed Joker lackey that requires a dizzying flurry of punches to beat down.
Into the church, we meet up with Harley Quinn. She attacks with a poorly thought out flying kick and is tossed aside by Batman. A real threat, four heavily armed bruisers, guns drawn, all have Batman in their sights. It's a standoff. Tensions rise and the four begin to bicker. Batman drops a smoke bomb and makes his escape, leaping to the rafters and surveying the situation from above.
In Detective Mode again, we get a lay of the land. The four have split up, two have taken hostages. Batman's inner thoughts about his strategy to defeat Joker's thugs inform the player of one way to deal with the threat.
We see a new trick Batman has learned. No longer does he need that explosive gel to break through weak walls. He's strong enough to do it himself, bursting through a confessional wall and yanking out a thug. The rest go down with silent takedowns and drop attacks. It's thrilling to watch, gorgeous to look at.
Batman heads to the top of the bell tower, discovering that, no, the Joker is not actually there. The only evidence of his involvement are a pair of mannequins, dressed like the Joker, each with a television for a head. The sniper rifle is remotely controlled, we learn, but thanks to Batman's bag of tricks, we pick up the frequency that controls it. A new lead for the great detective to follow.
Our demo ended with an explosion and a tease of things to come, leaving us wanting to see more—so much more—of Rocksteady's highly impressive Arkham City.