With Batman's latest launching in the US today, Stace Harman takes a spoiler-free look at the grim majesty of Arkham City in the company of the Dark Knight and Rocksteady's Dax Ginn.
I certainly don’t envy those charged with picking out 2011’s Game of the Year.
Just a scant few hours spent with the various pre-release builds of Batman: Arkham City, combined with the powerhouse foundation of Arkham Asylum, is enough convince me that Batman will be stalking the upper echelons of the contenders for 2011’s best game. Though if Gotham’s stalwart defender is its Dark Knight, it’s perhaps Arkham City itself that is the shining star.
This build plays out after the E3 footage that saw Batman help Catwoman escape Two Face’s machinations. Here, the Bat is tracking Joker back to his hideout but little else will be said of the story details that come to light during the hands-on; I refuse to be the person that spoils any of the plot for you.
Perched atop a beam, far above the debris-strewn streets, amidst neon lights and cluttered rooftops, is where we begin. My initial impulse is to rotate the camera, first through 360 degrees and then again more slowly, looking not at Batman but at the cityscape around him - drinking in the detail, savouring the freedom to set off in any direction and anticipating the visceral feeling of diving headfirst into the dark maw of Arkham city.
There’s the very real and immediate feeling that this is a playground quite unlike the intelligently structured but restricted space of the asylum. If you ever stood on the bluffs of Arkham asylum’s grounds and looked across the water at the city beyond, the feeling of being unshackled and set free in this little slice of psychotic hell is an exciting one.
And it only gets better when you start moving. The enhanced fluidity with which Batman negotiates the environment illustrates Rocksteady’s awareness of the pleasure to be had simply from traversing this more open landscape.
Combinations of moves enable the Bat Claw to act as a launcher: instead of grappling to the ledge of a building, a simple button-hold allows zip-line momentum to be maintained as Batman vaults beyond the ledge and into a cape-assisted glide. From here, the Bat can land a swooping takedown or maintain air time with the new dive and climb manoeuvre.
During these acrobatics, it’s Batman’s Unreal-Engine-3-bulk that provides the counterpoint to temper any potential unsatisfactory feelings of weightlessness. It’s this same solid bulk that ensures that wherever you chose to land: be it rooftop precipice or thug’s cranium, the connection is solid and satisfying.
As you joyfully cavort beyond the rooftops, the risk of missing action unfolding on the streets below is mitigated by your radio transmitter that picks up any nearby dialogue, alerting you to interesting events that may be transpiring below.
Some of these might concern the game’s critical path but many others will provide extra-curricular activities to pursue. It’s an elegant solution that ensures you do not feel obliged to descend to street level every few blocks to check that you’re not missing out on anything.
“Arkham Asylum was a focused experience and had a very claustrophobic feel,” begins Rocksteady’s marketing manager, Dax Ginn. “We always knew where the player would or could be at any given time, because you start at one point and end at another via a linear path. In Arkham City you can really go in any direction and so we had to redesign a lot of the systems that we had before.
“We’ve overhauled the game structure, the combat, and the narrative structure. Aspects of Batman’s gadgetry have been completely redesigned to be appropriate to the open world game that we’ve made”
Better by design
By now, it’s common knowledge that the effectiveness of Detective mode has been toned down from the first game. Rocksteady wants to ensure that players who may have seen much of Arkham Asylum’s grim glory in grainy X-ray vision will be able to appreciate Arkham City’s more varied landscape in the way in which it was intended.
But what of the rare, ill-advised design choice made by the team the first time around? Ginn insists that little from Arkham Asylum stood out as requiring the attention that Detective mode did, but surely few would claim that the boss fights - in particular the Titan-fuelled Joker finale - were of the same exemplary quality as the rest of the game.
“The situation with the boss fights in the first game was a production reality more than anything,” responds Ginn. “The way they were scheduled meant they didn’t come online until late in the process and so we didn’t have as much polish time with them as we might have liked. This time around we’ve front-loaded them so that we started them a lot earlier.
“One that really springs to mind is Mr Freeze, that’s a very cool fight. He’s a massive robot, effectively, but he’s also a super-intelligent scientist and so the boss fight really explores both of those elements: if you get a hit on him he analyses the method you’ve used and changes the environment so that you can’t use the same tactic twice.”
Much of Batman’s arsenal from the original game is accessible at the beginning of Arkham City, though more toys will be available throughout the campaign and you’ll be able carry these over into the new addition of New Game Plus.
One of these new gadgets is the R.E.C (Remote Electrical Charge) – a device that’s used for solving environmental puzzles but also has some useful applications during combat. Elsewhere, tweaks to one of the most fluid and cinematic fighting systems in videogames provide deeper integration of Batman’s gadgets during brawls and enhance, rather than break, your combo bonus. It’s also now possible to employ simultaneous takedowns, useful in both the frenetic melee mode and for when stealth is of the essence during the predator-mode sections.
Before I had back out, squinting into the sunlight, I ask Ginn whether he thinks it’s been beneficial having both of Rocksteady’s Arkham games launch far outside of the release windows of Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman films. A cinema blockbuster increases brand awareness, but does it also devalue a game, regardless of its quality, due to a long history of film tie-in disappointments?
"It’s just a great time to be involved with Batman. I think he’s in a very sweet spot across lots of mediums."
“Admittedly, the history of games of movies isn’t a hugely positive one,” he ventures. “It’s a genuine theory – as a gamer I’m always a little sceptical of games of movies and as a developer I now understand why: it takes a long time to make a great game and generally movies don’t take so long. Trying to deliver a game of a movie to tie in day-and-date means you have very little time to make the game. I think that’s a real shame because games that could’ve been great often get forced out before they’re ready.
“To be honest, it’s just a great time to be involved with Batman. I think he’s in a very sweet spot across lots of mediums so we’re thankful to be able to make a contribution to that and that gamers and Batman fans find our stuff to be of a high quality.
“More than anything, I’m just glad that I’m able to watch the movies as a Batman fan and that I don’t have this added pressure of ‘Oh god, how do we turn that into a boss fight!’”
Playing Arkham City makes you feel empowered, even when things don’t go to plan – as they didn’t several times in my hands-on – Batman has the tools and willingness to get his hands dirty that ensure he can get the job done, be it with silent stealth or bone-breaking brutality. Arkham City looks to give players plenty of opportunity for both.
To echo the opening sentiment: I certainly don’t envy those charged with picking out 2011’s Game of the Year.
Batman: Arkham City launches on PS3 and 360 on October 18 in the US, October 19 in Australia and New Zealand and October 21 in the UK. The PC version has been delayed until November this year.