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Bats, Cats and Penguins: Hands-on with Arkham City

The Dark Knight's returning to the world of gaming, and he's bringing friends. Sort of. We played Arkham City and quizzed Rocksteady over everything you could ever want to know.

If you told me a few years ago that I'd be obnoxiously referring to all of my worldly possessions as “Bat ____” in anticipation of a Batman videogame, I'd have laughed at you and then said, “But seriously, putting all my stock in HD-DVD was a good idea, right?” And if you'd then told me – somewhat tangentially – that I'd be frothing at the mouth to play as freaking Catwoman, well, I'd have probably pointed you to EA's variation on the theme and let it perform the grievous crimes against humanity for me. The future, however, is strange. No, we don't have jetpacks or sentient robots, but we have one damn good Batman game. And based on what I saw – and played – during E3, a second's definitely on the way.

The demo I saw opened with Batman perched atop one of his trusty roof gargoyles, nearly invisible against the backdrop of Arkham City's absurd enormity. He then proceeded to go flying off into the night, entering freefall and snapping back into glider mode at will, because – let's face it – even physics are scared of Batman. After a quick joyride, he landed on a rooftop that was largely nondescript, except with one key standout: kitties! And while my yearning for Shenmue-esque kitten-raising minigames often borders on “completely unreasonable,” Catwoman's brisk appearance was a nice consolation prize.

So, how does she play? Well, the demonstrator immediately sprang toward the nearest building, and Catwoman scaled it like a mix between a Crackdown character and Spider-Man. Catwoman, then, isn't merely a re-skin of Batman with more lives and fewer biceps that are frequently mistaken for errant locomotives. She's different, and that's precisely why Rocksteady thinks she's a perfect fit for the game.

“We picked Catwoman because she's so different from Batman,” game director Sefton Hill told VG247. “She has that moral ambiguity that Batman definitely doesn't have. So we felt that was a really interesting contrast to Batman. And obviously her style of movement and combat and gadgets is very different from Batman as well.”

“I mean, this is definitely still Batman's story. We found it really interesting to introduce a new character. Really, it starts with the story itself. We had a really interesting story to tell with Batman and some Catwoman elements in that story, so we start with trying to create a classic Batman story. So we felt like 'This is a really strong story, and Catwoman's kind of interwoven into the story. It'd be really cool if we could actually play those Catwoman moments for ourselves.'”

"Catwoman has that moral ambiguity that Batman definitely doesn't have."

Keeping in line with that philosophy, Catwoman's on the scene when the story demands it, according to Hill. And – true to her love of sneaking, skulking, and only occasionally getting strung up over a vat of Evil Liquid by Two-Face – Catwoman definitely won't hog the spotlight.

“So basically the stories are kind of seamlessly interwoven. So if you want to take all the main sequences in the game, you're probably looking at 25+ hours of play. I would say Catwoman's around ten percent of that – just to give you an idea of how much is in the game,” Hill explained.

Cat scratch fever

Catwoman's not a “bad guy,” per se. That does not mean, however, that she can't be a terrible person. The mission I was shown saw her infiltrating a high-security vault with some outside assistance from Poison Ivy. The two had brokered a brief cease-fire, you see; Ivy agreed to open up the vault on the condition that Catwoman would retrieve her precious plant from its cold, metallic prison.

Before Catwoman could complete her uncharacteristically good deed, however, there were guards to attend to. And – given that they were patrolling in a city populated entirely by superpowered psychopaths – they smartly chose to carry assault rifles. Cats, as we all know, don't like water. Little known fact, though: they're also not particularly fond of guns.

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A gameplay trailer showing off Catwoman's

Fortunately, Catwoman – while perfectly capable in hand-to-hand scenarios – is less of a close-quarters type anyway, so she opted for her bread-and-butter: stealth. But Catwoman's not Solid Snake or Sam Fisher. She does things her way. So she soared up to the ceiling, where she silently stalked her prey one-by-one. Clawing her way through grating as though gravity was merely optional that day, she positioned herself directly over a hapless guard. Then the terrifying part: she lowered herself with her whip, gripped the poor guy's neck with her boots, and – snap – one less guard.

With the dirtywork done and her would-be captors significantly less alive, Catwoman cracked the safe, strolled in, and quickly sighted Ivy's piece of dastardly agriculture. There were no moral choices or last-second changes of heart here, though. Catwoman – as I mentioned earlier – is kind of a terrible person, so she swatted the plant onto the ground and drove a heel into its shattered remains for good measure. So basically, totally uncool – but in really cool way.

The Dark Knight returns

After that, it was my turn to put Arkham City through its paces, so I snatched a controller and – I'm proud to say – only showered a few bystanders with a refreshing mist of anticipatory spittle. First up, flying: it's entirely momentum-based, so you simply hold one button to plummet and release it to deploy your cape and “bounce” off the air instead of the pavement. As with Arkham Asylum's deceptively deep basics, it only took me a couple tries before I was piloting Batman like a pro. The grappling hook, meanwhile, added an extra layer of complexity, allowing me to aim at a surface and zip past it for extra momentum.

All told, it felt fantastic. Given a less hectic demo schedule, I probably would have opted to ignore all that silly crime-fighting stuff and just slingshot off buildings for a while. But alas, it seemed that rounding up all the villains in the same corral actually wasn't a good idea, so Batman needed to punch some sense back into the situation.

After interrogating a thug who spilled his guts the second he remembered he didn't enjoy being choked to death, I soared off in the direction of a Riddler mission. Since it was extremely early in the game, it mostly took the form of a fairly basic giant-sawblade-avoidance puzzle. However, I also got to try out the upgraded zipline, which can now fire off a second line mid, er, zip. Apparently that's the plan for all of Batman's old gadgets, too. You'll have the whole set from the get-go, but with smart tweaks that make them feel nice and fresh again. Will one of them explode into a motorcycle? We can only hope (and have Commissioner Gordon on speed dial).

After that, the demo cut to a scene in which The Penguin – flanked by some rather large amalgams of steroids in man costumes – cornered Batman inside an old, gothic building. “I'm what you might call a collector,” he said as crowds of caged prisoners jeered in the background. However, Penguin's a very picky collector, and, well, “Today, 'best' means whoever can kill you.”

"Every decision we make, it has to be, 'Would Batman do this?'"

Before I knew it, I was brawling with 30-or-so prisoners, most of whom had apparently declined their invitations to Assassin's Creed's School of Polite One-by-One Attack Etiquette (And Crocheting!). Fortunately, a quick multi-tap of the counter button meant I could intercept up to three attacks at once and punish would-be assailants with cringe-worthy brutality. Batman may not be a superhero, but I don't know many normal people who can cartwheel off one man's shoulders right into two others' squishy, unprotected faces. Beyond that, it was business as usual, except for – oh god – did I just break that man's leg with my bare hands? Is this what they're putting in videogames these days? Why hasn't anyone tried to ban these things?

Zero to hero... to zero?

Obviously, Arkham City looks fantastic. Only time will tell if Arkham Asylum's few rough edges – boss fights, for instance – have been rounded off, but it's hard not to feel optimistic. Similarly, there are still question marks over side-mission variety and other pseudo-open-world staples, but I've yet to see any red flags. And so, fittingly, when asked why modern society's drowning in superhero media and whether we're finally reaching a saturation point, Hill proposed a simple catch-all answer: quality.

“I think it's partly that there's always trends; there's always fashions – a zeitgeist about what's popular. And I think that – in a lot of ways sort of driven by Batman, driven by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and also X-Men films and stuff like that – as those things get bigger and more successful, more people move onto that stage,” he explained.

“It's the same with anything: it can be oversaturated. It's going to [come down to] whether the market's there for it. I think it's all about the quality as well. As long as the quality remains high – and like you said, the quality's been really high on a lot of recent superhero films. They are superhero films, but they're also just great films. The Dark Knight is such a great example. It's a classically great film that just happens to have Batman in it. But I think whether you like Batman or not, it's still a really great film. As long as the quality's there, I don't think there will be oversaturation.”

That in mind, Hill and co are keeping their eyes on the prize. It's tempting, of course, to throw in the kitchen sink and dazzle potential players with every gimmick under the sun, but for Rocksteady, focus is priority number one.

"We're never going to dumb down the game."

“I think, for us, the key objective is to always make a game that's authentic to Batman. Every decision we make, it has to be 'Would Batman do this?' And then the second part of that is 'Is it fun to do?' Everything that goes in the game has to go through those two filters. And if something does, then it makes it into the game. Those are kind of our very simple base ideas of what should go into the game,” said Hill.

“Batman has loads of gadgets. He has loads of abilities. He is an incredibly multifaceted character. We can't take any of those out and still call it a Batman game. So we're never going to dumb down the game. What we're hoping and what we believe is that if you make a really good game, the gamers are going to come to that. They're going to come to that, enjoy it, and learn it. And we do try to make it accessible, but we'll never dumb it down.”

Batman: Arkham City ships for PC, PS3 and 360 on October 21.

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