E3 2011: Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City is one of this fall’s most anticipated titles. The third-person action adventure game from UK-based Rocksteady Games is the follow-up to Batman: Arkham Asylum, the best Batman game ever made. While we’ve been eagerly poking around for news on the sequel since it was announced in 2010, Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady have been deliberate about what they’ve shown off.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cqP4li2wB8

Fortunately, with the game’s fall 2011 release on the horizon, the information is starting to flow more freely. We got a sneak peek at what Warner Bros. and Rocksteady will be showing off at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, and we have to say we’re even more excited for the game. While the game’s bigger scale, rich story, expanded combat system, and new cast of characters are all great reasons to count the days until Arkham City’s release, Rocksteady has been holding back one pretty big reason fans should be fiending for the game: playable Catwoman. And, to be clear, this isn’t “playable” in a special side mode like the Joker was in Arkham Asylum; this is “playable in the story” playable. We got an overview of this and a host of other new content during our sneak peek, which even included some hands-on time.

Our look at the game started with an overview of new content from Rocksteady’s Dax Ginn, who initially focused on showcasing the city and Batman. The demo kicked off with a quick flythrough of the city that ended with the dark knight hanging out on a gargoyle, as he’s known to do. Ginn noted the view from Batman’s perch, which showcased the troubled city in the foreground and, off in the distant background, Arkham Island. Aside from the cool visual, the vista underscored Arkham City’s size–it’s roughly five times bigger than Arkham Island. The extra space let Rocksteady enhance Batman’s move set to give you more options for getting around. This time out, you will find that in addition to grappling and gliding your way around the city, Batman will have an enhanced power dive tailor-made for getting around. The power dive is also very handy for dealing with enemies as part of the enhancement to combat, which now lets you fluidly combine traveling around the city and beating up enemies. As part of the demo, we saw the power dive segue into a mighty stomping of foes and traditional hand-to-hand combat.

Like almost everything in the game, combat has been significantly enhanced. The power dive and enemy stomp combo we saw was just one of a variety of ways you’ll be able to deal with enemies. The system has been beefed up to allow players all manner of options that are right in line with what you’d expect Batman to do. One of our favorite examples was a very cool combination move that had the caped crusader grappling up to a ledge and immediately grappling again to fling himself into a mob of foes and begin the kicking of butt. The combat enhancements also extend to finishers, which have seen two key upgrades. The first thing that impressed us was the broader variety of options to finish off a foe, which included using the grapple line and batarangs in creative new ways we approve of. The second was a new context-sensitive mechanic in combos that, in true Batman fashion, works in some environmental improvisation. In the middle of a particularly painful combo string that had Batman knocking foes around on a rooftop near some railings, the dark knight made use of the railing as part of a wince-inducing flourish.

Once Ginn was done highlighting combat, he offered a quick look at the enhanced exploration options in the game, which yielded random goods such as clues to investigate using Batman’s detective vision mode, random street crimes that could be stopped, and trophies left by the Riddler, which appear to be laid out in even more challenging ways. The demo offered a convincing taste of the city’s broader scale and how well Batman’s new moves work in it. Ginn wound down the Batman portion of the demo by heading over to a roof that had a conspicuous group of cats hanging out. Once Batman was near the cats, a new context-sensitive option, titled “take a break,” appeared. When the option was selected, a cutscene was triggered and Catwoman popped out from the shadows, as she does, and gameplay shifted to her.

As he began to maneuver the feline fatale around the city, Ginn noted that one of Rocksteady’s key priorities around the character was to think about how she would uniquely interact with the city. Obviously Catwoman is a complicated lady who’s not quite a hero but not a villain on the level of the Joker. In the end she’s pretty much out for herself and sees Arkham City as the perfect chance to do what she does best: thieve like there’s no tomorrow. The chaos of Arkham City provides her plenty of opportunities to do that. This ties in to her part of the narrative, which is very distinct from Batman’s. The team wanted to ensure players wouldn’t feel as though they were controlling Batman with a curvier skin. As a result, you can expect decidedly different ways to get around the city, examine the environment, and fight with enemies. Since she lacks a nifty cape and grapple line, Catwoman will take a much more physical approach to getting around that relies on her trusty whip, parkour-like moves, and good old-fashioned climbing and jumping. The demo highlighted the nimble and graceful way Catwoman will get around and teased what appears to be a scoring system for how she moves around. During the demo, as Catwoman picked up speed and made her way across rooftops, we saw point totals appear at points during her leaping. Ginn noted that the points will be awarded based on a player’s skill for moving through the city.

In keeping with Catwoman’s grabby ways, she’ll have a secondary vision mode a la detective mode, but with a slight twist. Given her priorities, she’s not really one to sweat all the fine details Batman would when looking at the city as a detective would. Instead, the feline antihero has thief vision, which highlights all the useful info she’ll need to steal. You’ll see what to steal and relevant points to help you steal it.

Finally, while she’s agile and stealthy, there are times when the leather-clad thief has to just bust out her whip and kick in a few heads. The demo showed off an encounter with enemies on the street that saw her use her hands and a modest array of three gadgets, including a bolo, to deal with her foes. Her combat moves were a fluid mix of punches and kicks, given a slightly vampy twist, which ended in some painful but oh-so-cool-looking finishers.

Ginn noted that while you’ll play as Catwoman only for a tiny portion of the main story, she’ll have her own mini progression path that will let you upgrade her moves and gadgets using experience earned from taking out enemies. In addition, you will be able to use her to explore the environment and snag unique Riddler trophies only she can reach.

Once Ginn’s basic overview of Catwoman was done, he showcased one of the story missions she’ll take on. Unlike Batman, whose altruistic narrative has him focused on keeping Gotham safe, Catwoman is more on the opportunistic side. Her part of the story will revolve around stealing the stolen goods. While she may wind up helping some folks along the way, it’s clear she’s not going to go out of her way. The mission we saw focused on her finding and robbing a vault filled with just the kind of stuff she’s after. The first part of the mission saw her dealing with a group of Tiger Securities thugs guarding the manhole she needed to go in. Once they were stylishly dispatched, she moved closer and saw a series of vines conveniently left for her by Poison Ivy, whom Ginn noted she’d entered into an “arrangement” with earlier. Besides serving as markers for where to go, the vines let Catwoman access new areas, such as the sewers.

Once Catwoman was in the sewers, the action took a stealthy turn because she needed to break into a heavily guarded vault. The first part of the level focused on pick-pocketing patrolling guards and showcased a unique and handy move for her: the ceiling climb. Rather than slink around Solid Snake-style and avoid the guards, Catwoman just took to the ceiling and dropped near them for some old-fashioned pick-pocketing. Once she acquired the security keys needed, she climbed her way into a nearby control room to open a vault holding what she was after. Once the vault was open, the guards went on alert and needed to be quietly taken out, which allowed Ginn to showcase Catwoman’s unique takedowns. With the guards dispatched, she entered the vault to claim her prize. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and she wound up with a gun to her head, which is where the demo ended.

As he wrapped up the demo, Ginn shared a few more details on what to expect from Catwoman in the game. Her narrative will make up only about 10 percent of the whole game, which will amount to only a handful of switches to her for the story. However, you’ll want to invest some time with her and engage in unique side missions to earn experience to level her up as well as collect those Riddler trophies.

Following the presentation, we had the chance to get some hands-on time with the game as well and were happy to see how well Batman controlled. The core mechanics from the first game are still in play in Arkham City, but control feels tighter. The simple but effective combat system feels better than ever with the new moves that are pretty easy to pull off. In exploring as Batman, we came across some new timed Riddler puzzles that required some quick timing to defuse bombs along the roof.

Playing as Catwoman ended up being a bit more brief than we would have liked, since her playable portion in the work-in-progress version of the game was just a brief fight with thugs in a room. The sequence let us get a feel for how she handles in a fight. Unsurprisingly, she’s faster than Batman and has a lighter feel overall. We were able to pull off some lengthy combos almost immediately thanks to her speed.

The visuals in Arkham City appear to be well on their way to surpassing the high standard set by Arkham Asylum. The city is a living environment that easily qualifies as a new character in the game. Lighting is fantastic in the game, and the city interiors and exteriors play with light to good effect. Comics fans will appreciate the attention to detail being crammed into the city, especially little touches like a poster for a canceled performance by The Flying Graysons. On a more practical level, there appear to be loads of cracks and crevices to explore. While not every place you look will yield something, we’re impressed that they’re there. As far as the man himself, Batman has never looked or moved better thanks to fluid animation and the enhanced graphics engine. The new moves fit smoothly into the caped crusader’s brutally elegant fighting style. Catwoman fans fretting that Miss Kyle might not get the same amount of love given her guest-star status in the game can rest easy. Catwoman’s slinky and brutal moves appear to be hitting the same quality level as Batman’s.

Batman: Arkham City continues to impress us with Rocksteady’s smart moves on the design front. The team clearly “gets” Batman and appears to be well on its way to delivering another satisfying adventure. The addition of Catwoman is a nice touch that’s well thought out. She definitely plays differently, and we’re happy to see she has a modest amount of upgradability. We’re very happy with the addition, although we’ll be fanboys for a moment and say we’re a little sad that the second playable character isn’t Nightwing or Robin. But there’s always the next game, right? Given the new content we’ve seen in Arkham City, we’re even more excited for the game now. The dense city and variety that are being teased have us fiending to see more. Batman: Arkham City is slated to ship this October for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. Look for more on the game next week during our E3 stage show.