Of all the things that Batman: Arkham Asylum had going for it — and there were a lot of them — my favourite thing was the Riddler challenges. Placed throughout the game, these optional side-challenges ran the gamut from extremely easy to borderline impossible, and provided a welcome incentive to go off the path and explore.
I'm not that much of a completionist, but Arkham Asylum was one of the only games in which I simply had to collect 'em all; I spent ages assembling question-marks in some of those perspective puzzles, but the sweet reward of hearing the Riddler carted off to jail (as well as the *plonk* of the achievement unlocking) was worth it.
Last weekend at PAX, I swung by the Warner Bros booth to check out Arkham Asylum's upcoming sequel, Batman: Arkham City. I was guided by Zafer Coban, lead animator at Rocksteady Studios, the development team behind the game.
The demo started at the very beginning of the game, as the camera pulled into a sweeping shot of Two-Face's Gotham City hideout. Suddenly, the guards heard a noise… it's Batman! No actually, it's Catwoman. It was fun to play as Selina Kyle, flipping through dudes, wha-pishing my whip about, and generally being sexy and awesome as I pounded heads.
Immediately after that, I was given control of Batman himself, free to carom around Gotham City. After playing a quick hacking minigame with Batman's (improved) frequency scanner, I determined that Two-Face was holding Catwoman hostage in a nearby building. Via my own psychic powers, I also determined that this mission was the same one that I saw at GDC, and which everyone has already played, so I asked what else where was for me to see.
I had noticed the green question-marks painted on the walls and rooftops all around Gotham, so I asked Coban about how we could get into some Riddler challenges. He smiled and pointed me towards a nearby challenge, which he promised would lead to something "interesting", should I solve it. Sweet, I thought. I love interesting stuff.
A green glowing question mark stood on a circular pad on the wall, just above another couple of similar pads, which almost looked like… buttons. Nearby, a familiar green Riddler trophy sat on the street, protected by a mechanical cage. In order to get the cage to lift, I'd have to bounce Batman between the green pressure plates in the right order. I quickly grappled up to the rooftop and leapt off, and by aiming my glide just so, I was able to hit the first circular pad head-on. Immediately upon hitting it, I was given a button prompt, which caused Batman to pivot on the wall and jump in the opposition direction.
Gliding away from the first pad, I aimed towards the second one, and then the third, which was located flat on the ground and required a careful landing. It took me a couple of tries, and when I finally hit the pads in order, the cage popped open with a *ping* and the Riddler trophy was mine for the taking.
Coban guided me towards another trophy, which was thankfully a bit easier to collect. He also casually informed me that the game world of Arkham City will contain 270 challenges, and each time players collect a certain number of them, the Riddler will inform Batman where to find a new unlovable challenge room. So: 270 in-world challenges, and an undisclosed number of increasingly difficult challenge rooms. My inner Riddler-trophy addict did a little jig.
Upon grabbing my second trophy, the Green Guess-Master hopped onto my radio, tauntingly revealing the location of a challenge room, which promptly came up on my map. In a neat touch, waypoints in the game are marked by the Bat-signal, which allowed me to navigate towards them without the need of a mini-map. Needless to say, I am a fan of this design decision, since we all know how I feel about mini-maps.
Making one's way through Gotham City feels much more like Assassin's Creed than any of the navigation in Arkham Asylum — the areas are much more vertical, and at any moment there are around a dozen different grapple-points available. Basic locomotion is significantly different than Creed, though, and it takes a bit of getting used to; rather than using Ezio's free-run, players must use a combination of grappling and gliding. Fortunately, the end result is that Batman is far faster and easier to manoeuvre over great distances than Ezio could hope to be. In no time flat, I made it to the Riddler's hidden challenge room, broke down the false wall around it, and strode inside.
Once inside the Riddler's lair (really more of a satellite-lair), Mr Nigma himself appeared, projected on the wall by a hidden camera, taunting Batman onward in his trademark snide manner. Somewhere within this complex, he informed me, an innocent hostage's life hung in the balance, and the only way to save him was for Batman to successfully navigate the puzzles ahead.
The small hallway opened up into a huge warehouse, the floors of which were covered in electro-charged panels like the ones from the Harley Quinn "boss battle" from the first game. Spinning blades pushed and pulled across the room, and high above it all, an innocent victim hung by a rope, dangling just above his doom.
"Okay," I thought. "This is going to be easy." Then I walked out onto the electrified panels and died.
After reloading, I walked into the room again (skipping the cutscene this time) and remembered I should probably be using detective-mode. Flipping it on, the room went a familiar shade of metallic blue, and points of interest were highlighted in familiar orange.
I saw that I could use Batman's frequency analyzer to hack a nearby power box, which cleared a path of safe panels through the electrified floor. At Coban's urging, I hurried towards a safe space (a timer was running onscreen, after which the floor would be re-electrified) and quickly hit the "duck" button as a low-moving row of spinning blades came my way. To my surprise, pressing the duck button while running resulted in a power-slide, and I came perilously close to dying a second time before centering myself on a safe square out in the middle of the floor.
A quick toss of a batarang disabled a second power box and opened another path, this time leaving me up one level, standing on an outcropping 10 feet above the electrified. I proceeded to batarang another power box, scoot across a metal scaffolding to the centre of the room, and narrowly miss getting knocked off my perch by another set of rotating blades. (Batman's fairly cumbersome on-foot controls weren't helping things).
A final timed segment later, I made it across the room to a hallway, where detective mode revealed a weak point in the wall. I sprayed on Batman's trademark explosive gel, blew a hole in the wall, and made my way to a long hallway, which ran parallel to the large room beyond. The hallway itself was more like the top beam of a letter "T", with a door in the hallway's midpoint opening off into the main room, allowing a straight shot at the dangling hostage. But of course, there was a snag—the floor here was less a "floor" and more a "giant pit of buzz-saws with floor on both ends." Some gadgetry was going to be required.
Using Batman's line-launcher, I zipped myself across to a safe spot on the other end, but that left me no closer to getting through the door to my right to save the hostage. Coban stopped me and mentioned that all of Batman's gadgets are getting an overhaul in Arkham City, and that the line launcher was now able to redirect mid-line and fire a second line.
To do so, I fired the first line, then pressed the trigger to bring up the targeting reticule a second time while in transit. Time slowed down, and after a couple of attempts, I was able to centre my shot and put a second line down the "T" and just over the hostage's shoulder. Batman shot off at a 90-degree angle from his original trajectory, grabbing the hostage in midair and crashing through a conveniently placed window, back onto the streets of Gotham.
The whole challenge room was meaty and difficult, though as far as I could tell it was entirely linear. The sequence recalled nothing so much as the crypts from later Assassin's Creed games, and should prove to be welcome diversions from the action of the main game.
As a little bonus to my demo, Coban let me play through a Penguin-centric combat round, which highlighted the same fun, fluid combat as the first game, only a touch smoother, with better animations, and with more dudes to wail on. As a happy side-note, I can tell you that Nolan North's performance as Oswald Cobblepot sounds nothing at all like Nathan Drake from Uncharted. In fact, if I hadn't known it was North, I never would have even noticed.
So: the map is big, navigating it is fun, the cast of characters is large and varied, the gadgets are upgraded, and combat is even better than before. But of all of those improvements, it's the Riddler challenges that have me most looking forward to the game. Much like its caped protagonist, the original Arkham Asylum had a stealth-factor working for it. It was such a welcome surprise: Who the hell was Rocksteady, and where did they get off making such a spectacularly good Batman game?
Arkham City won't have that advantage, but it will have the benefit of a bunch of working, established systems, and a team that obviously cares a great deal about improving on an already strong foundation.
Signal shining bright leads the way to dark challenge Gleaming batarang