"Batman: Arkham Asylum" was my personal pick for the best game of 2008, so any potential glimpse at the follow-up sends pangs of enthusiasm through my core. Thankfully I got more than a glimpse at this year's Game Developer's Conference, as Rocksteady and Warner Bros. were on hand to show off the latest build of "Batman: Arkham City." It did not disappoint.
Wide Open Spaces
The build of "Arkham City" being shown at GDC featured a portion of the very first chapter. Batman sits perched on a nearby rooftop when he gets a call from Alfred. Seems that Two Face has taken Catwoman hostage in a nearby courthouse and is preparing to execute her. In the first game, you would've had little choice but to go straight after her, but in "Arkham City," there's more of an encouragement to dawdle.
"Arkham City" takes place in a large, walled-off portion of Gotham City which has basically been converted into the new Arkham Asylum. Of course it doesn't take long before the inmates take control and Batman is sent in to put down the threat.
While the map doesn't cover the whole of Gotham City, it's a massive chunk. Dax Ginn of Rocksteady confirmed that the game map is five times bigger than the one in the first game, and a lot more open. "In the first game, it was 80% outdoors and 20% indoors. We've flipped that," he said.
The Gotham City streets are wide open and full of dangerous alleyways and street corners, and right from the start of the game, you're free to explore that 80% of outdoor space. Batman's glide has been approved to allow him to travel around quicker, complete with a swoop and lift technique similar to Mario's cape in "Super Mario 64." He can also latch onto helicopters and use them as a secretive means of transport.
The Riddler Is Back For More
As I mentioned, the game encourages you to dawdle rather than go straight for your main objective. There are side missions scattered throughout the map which are usually tied in to what The Riddler is planning for the city. In one, a hostage situation on a street corner required that you save Jack Ryder, a side character in the Batman series, from a set of thugs. While you could knock all the thugs out, if you manage to keep the leader conscious, you can interrogate him after the fight and learn the location of Riddler trophies on your map. Knock him out by accident and you'll have to find them on your own. This is basically an enhanced and more interesting take on the Riddler's treasure map from the first game. Achievement addicts should have plenty to chase after.
New Combat Options
The basics of combat haven't changed much since the first game, though some additions have been made. You can new integrate your grappling hook in the middle of a combo, dragging enemies within striking distance. There's also a new "beatdown" move used for taking down enemy shields wherein Batman unleashes a flurry of punches into a foe's midsection. A bit painful to watch, but hey, they chose this life of crime.
Predator stealth sequences return as well, and you'll have to make use of gargoyles and traps to outmaneuver armed guards. Batman's learned a few tricks on this front, too, as you can slam two guards into one another for a double takedown, or cause a guard to pass out from a leg choke. You also won't need explosive gel to get through walls anymore: Batman simply punches through them. After all, he's Batman.
Gotham, A Nice Place To Visit...
The most notable aspect of the demo was how much work was placed on the environmental tech and art design in the game. The streets are filled with grim neon lights and graffiti, while buildings capture the charm of the villains that inhabit them. The courthouse, for example, is half burned and charred while the other half is pristine, an indication that Two Face resides there.
Based on this first demo, it appears that the core of the "Batman: Arkham Asylum" experience hasn't changed all that much, but Rocksteady has basically enhanced all of the elements that worked while making the game even more wide open and explorable. "Batman: Arkham City" is still planned for a fall release on 360, PS3 and PC.