Batman: Arkham Asylum is easily one of this generation's best brawlers; making fantastic use of Batman's rich mythology, license and setting to create a truly superior stealth action hybrid. The open-world sequel ranks amongst many gamers' most anticipated games of the year, and from what I got to play during my hands-on session at E3, Arkham City richly deserves its preorders.
Perched high on the rooftops overlooking Arkham City, the caped crusader is duly filled in on the new state of affairs. Strange, the original warden of Arkham Asylum, has been given free reign by the government to expand the prison into a massive, sprawling ghetto where the criminals are free to form gangs and kill each other off, but the word on the street is that he's in league with the Joker and planning something huge. Batman is convinced that Catwoman will know more about the situation... but he'll need to locate her first.
This introduces us to the first new gadget: a radio frequency scanner that can tune into the various broadcasts dotted around the city. Doing so is as simple as bringing up a map and selecting the broadcast area upon which you plan to eavesdrop, and upon tuning into the nearest frequency, I was rewarded by some mellow easy listening from Gotham City radio. Undeterred, I selected the larger broadcast, which turned out to be an ongoing aerial reconnaissance on the courthouse building by the GCPD. Two Face's goons had successfully captured Catwoman after she stole some merchandise from them, and were planning to enact a sham trial and summary vengeance in order to cement their reputation as the most dangerous gang around. The police were ordered to stand down and let the situation run its course, but Batman correctly realised that he needed to free his erstwhile new ally from certain death in order to find out more about The Joker's machinations.
There'll be more than just main quests and soundtracks to find using the scanner. The Riddler has significantly upped his influence since the last game, and has recruited a network of informants that can be located in hard-to-reach locations. Once Batman interrogates these finks (after beating seven shades of hell out of their entourage), they reveal the location of Riddler Trophies that each present a unique and cerebral platforming challenge to secure. Netting a number of these collectibles will ultimately attract the attention of the Riddler himself, who then unlocks a challenge room that forces players to rely on detective-mode based puzzles and a deep understanding of the more subtle platforming mechanics to overcome. The hovering Rocksteady Studios developer was quick to point out that Batman: Arkham City will challenge players to use their brains just as much as their quick reflexes, and we can't wait to see how this factors into the core gameplay as well as the side missions.
No time for that, though. Catwoman is in trouble, and to reach the courthouse in time, Batman has to scurry and glide across the open-world rooftops using the new and improved movement mechanics. Numerous grapple points make reaching new heights an absolute cinch, and the improved glide allows the caped crusader to cover entire city blocks in a matter of seconds simply by running off platform edges while holding the right button. Getting around Arkham City is as flowing and intuitive as its combat system, and naturally, this was about to be tested by a group of goons standing guard in front of the building.
Apparently most objective locations will offer multiple points of entry, but hungry for action, I targeted an enemy from half a block away and triggered a glide takedown using the slick conext-sensitive command. The Rocksteady rep chimed in to mention that the brawling now has an emphasis on engaging huge teams of multiple opponents, and after breaking my descent on an unwary goon's spine (awesome), the motley squad surrounded me and pressed the offensive. The attack key triggers a flowing selection of punches and kicks that can be instantly switched between multiple attackers, and feels even more immediate and responsive than its competent predecessor. As before, enemies telegraph incoming attacks with a floating on-screen icon, which allows you to deliver a devastating counter with a simple tap of the Y or triangle button. A lunge with a baseball bat soon turned into a swift disarm and devastating uppercut. Enemies aren't afraid to initiate attacks simultaneously (sometimes up to two or three at a time), but rather than being a terrifying new challenge, Batman can now deliver multiple counters and takedowns against weakened foes.
The visceral thrill of grabbing two would-be assailants, throwing them against each other and piledriving them into the ground will simply not get old, and Batman's extended selection of counter animations mean that there's plenty of hurt to go around.
Infiltrating the courthouse soon led Batman to the rafters above the courtroom floor, where Catwoman was dangling precariously over a vat of bubbling acid awaiting her trial. Two Face was positioned behind an aggravating bulletproof screen, but the court teemed with minions that were armed with a selection of melee weapons and knuckle dusters. A quick scan with the revamped Detective Mode (more on that later) informed me that on of the goons was packing a sawn-off shotgun, and naturally I opted to initiate a drop takedown from my lofty position. The minions bravely fought back... to little avail. There's no getting over just how devastatingly effective the tweaked combat is against even huge crowds of bloodthirsty assailants.
A fun (and skippable) cutscene and conversation ensued between the three iconic characters (featuring plenty of satisfyingly OTT dialogue), resulting in Catwoman being freed and Two Face making his escape. Unfortunately the peace was shortlived, as a smiley-faced laser sight marked the appearance of The Joker who nearly perforated the two heroes with a high-powered sniper rifle. His location was as-yet unknown - and it was time to test out the overhauled detective vision to trace the trajectory of the bullet back to its source.
Interestingly, the Detective Mode has actually been downgraded rather than improved - or nerfed to use the correct terminology. Players insisted on spamming the vision mode to remove the element of surprise in the first game, and Rocksteady has drastically reduced the level of detail you can see as well as the actions you can perform while it's active. Put simply, you're extremely vulnerable while using it; meaning that Detective Vision is now a tactical and passive tool rather than an exploitable no-clip mode. Gimping aside, it was still more than capable of deducing that the offending bullet was fired from the top of a nearby tower, to which I travelled with all due haste.
The rest of the demo showed off some more combat (yay) as well as the ability to evade or plain ignore groups of henchmen thanks to Arkham City's new open-world structure. It's much quicker to glide over them to your next objective, but engaging can reward you with informers who can be savagely interrogated for new sidequests and intel about the main missions. Smoke bombs let you stun and flank teams of more powerful henchmen (especially gun-toting goons who can dispatch you in short order), and upon meeting the delectable and derranged Harley Quinn in the tower, my time with Arkham City was at an end.
Batman: Arkham City isn't a "me too" sequel that's content to rest on the success of its forebear. Rocksteady have built upon every single aspect of the original whilst adding a huge amount of new, satisfying content, and frankly, this is set to be one of the biggest success stories of the year. Be sure to tune in for our follow-up content... same BatTime, same BatChannel!