As a seemingly random comic book-licensed action game, Batman: Arkham Asylum had virtually no expectations to meet. As the sequel to Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, Batman: Arkham City has a hell of a lot more to live up to. It's been tempting to label Arkham City as a known quantity--the first one was so good, how could the sequel be anything but better?--but I have to admit some skepticism about this follow-up after I played it at E3, where the frame rate out in the open world was poor, and the new grappling and flight controls didn't immediately click for me. Could it be that Arkham City might actually be underwhelming in any way?
Nah, probably not. Half an hour with the more-or-less finished game earlier this week, and--big surprise--I'm back on board. Arkham Asylum felt like such a tightly designed and perfectly paced action game, with its back-and-forth Metroid-style progression through a succession of areas, that Rocksteady's ambition to wrap all of the new game around a big urban open world seemed like it might stretch thin what made the first game so good. But what I got to see and play of the open world in this latest demo was tentatively encouraging.
Granted, I saw very little of that open world. This was the sort of tightly controlled press demo that intends for you to play only one specific part of the game, and that part was a story mission a couple of hours in where Batman has to infiltrate a foundry to track down Harley Quinn and rescue a doctor she's holding hostage. So I didn't get to spend a ton of time exploring Arkham City itself, but at least I was out there long enough to see that the game's performance outdoors is now nice and smooth, at least in the 360 version I was playing. And the flight controls--particularly where you grapple onto a point high up somewhere and then use your upward momentum to keep going past the grapple point and straight into a glide--have gotten a little easier to pick up.
Gliding around is all I really got to do in the open city, since my objective was already locked in and time was short. Whatever there is to occupy your time while you're out in the city, I can at least tell you that once you're inside a major location like the foundry, the game is straight-up Arkham Asylum. Transitioning into the foundry was a matter of soaring right over the lip of the building's giant smokestack and gliding down through the hellish inferno at the bottom. (How else would Batman do it? He's Batman.)
The flow of gameplay when you're in a complex interior like the foundry is identical to the last game--creep into a room, scan the position of enemies with your detective vision, soar up to a gargoyle, then laugh like a maniac while you taunt, harass, and pick off the goons one by one. But a few minor improvements and additions to this formula stood out to me in the few minutes I had to play.
- You can target specific limbs on enemies with thrown weapons like the batarang. At one point from my perch high up, I kneecapped one of two goons to disable him long enough to swoop down and knock out his buddy. By the time the other guy was ready to get up... well, he didn't get up.
- Detective mode isn't the catch-all it used to be. We've heard in the past that Rocksteady was trying to ensure players don't play through all of City with Detective Mode on, the way some people did with Asylum. (Why you'd want to miss all that art design I don't know, but that's beside the point.) That mode is still plenty useful for scanning a room full of enemies, but now you lose most of your other HUD elements when you turn it on, depriving you of some other vital information. Best to find a balance and only use the enhanced vision when you need it.
- There's a new gadget called the REC, or remote electrical charge, that lets you manipulate some mechanical devices in the environment in two directions. The best example was a gigantic hook that you could pull back one way, then push in the other a few times in a row to build up momentum so you could smash through a wall with it. The REC can also be used to open some specific doors remotely, and things like that.
- There are some massive regular enemies to fight, like a hulking one-armed thug who wielded a hammer. While I absolutely loved Arkham Asylum's melee combat and I think it perfectly captures the essence of how Batman should fight a group of goons, I didn't actually try the old one-two on the hammer guy, since the REC also has its uses in combat. You can zap a single enemy to confuse them so they start wildly flailing and attacking everything nearby. Some subtle electrical persuasion caused that hammer thug to take care of a whole bunch of his cronies for me.
- You can scan inaccessible Riddler trophies into your map. This is probably only valuable to people who want to get every last thing there is to get, but like the melee combat, Arkham Asylum's collectible trophies and challenges were best-in-class, so I'm on board to get it all once again. As long as you can see a trophy, you can mark it for retrieval later, once you've got whatever requisite gadget or ability you need to actually get to it. Rocksteady says there are over 400 Riddler-related trophies and challenges, and that getting them all is probably a good 10 hours in itself. The Riddler is an actual character in the game, you may have heard, but finding and completing every last trophy and challenge is required if you want to take him down. I'm in. You?
Oh, hey, did I mention the Joker flat-out dies at the end of the section I played through? Once you've completed the foundry mission, you come upon Harley sobbing over an unresponsive Joker flat-lining in his wheelchair. I got a little more insight into the core plot driving this game--it calls back to the runaway mutation the Joker went through at the end of Arkham Asylum, which is apparently now slowly killing him, hence the kidnapped doctor. Or quickly killing him, I guess, since he appears to have croaked barely two hours into the game, which is roughly how far in Rocksteady says this sequence takes place.
I don't doubt for a second the Joker will actually bounce back shortly in some fashion, assuming that was even really the Joker sitting in that chair in the first place. If the game's developers considered this any sort of truly pivotal plot twist worth keeping hidden, they wouldn't have shown it to the press, and instead Rocksteady's Dax Ginn seemed almost giddy for me to see it, though he wouldn't answer any questions about what exactly was going on. If nothing else, it's evidence there's more going on with Arkham City's storyline than meets the eye. That's just one more of the many things that are getting me really excited to finally play Arkham City when it hits consoles in just a few short weeks.