Batman: Arkham City – 1 Hour Gameplay Impressions
Batman sits perched on the lip of a dilapidated tower block in the heart of Arkham City, looking out across the polluted crime-addled streets below. After just narrowly rescuing Catwoman from execution at the hands of the maniacal Joker, our hero is hot on the lunatic’s trail.
To the bottom of our screen, a prompt beckons us to glide down to the city streets below, but we look out cautiously, surveying the landscape for the best route to Joker’s lair. The scene is overwhelming, and our guide, Rocksteady’s Dax Ginn, urges us to take the plunge.
Spotting an adjacent rooftop in front of us, we press A and we swoop into the perilous sprawl below. Welcome to Arkham City, home to what is confidently one of the greatest sequels of the generation.
Bigger location, bigger in scope. This has been the direction for Rocksteady Studios since development started, and if you’re a fan of Batman, as well as the rogues gallery of villains out to kill him, then you’ll be on cloud nine with Arkham City. While our whopping hands-on session begins a few missions into the plot. We’re given a little refresher to set the stage.
Batman: Arkham City opens with the player controlling Catwoman. Two-Face is out to publicly execute her to gain major kudos in the criminal underworld, and Batman is on hand to save her hide.
However, mere moments after a daring rescue, Joker tries to assassinate her with a sniper rifle from a nearby bell tower, and tracing the bullet trajectory to the church, finds the abandoned gun rigged to blow.
Smelling a rat, Batman hacks into the weapon and finds a radio frequency that traces back to Joker’s lair. The chase is on, and it’s at this point we take control and experience, first hand, why Batman: Arkham City is shaping up to be nothing short of a revelation. Without further messing around, we’ll cut right to the action.
Arkham City couldn’t be further removed from the claustrophobic, labyrinthine network of Arkham Asylum. It’s absolutely massive, and houses many designated turfs that are under control by each villain.
As the whole city is essentially one big penal colony, you can’t traverse the main walls without getting gunned down by police watchtower guards. It’s an obvious fencing mechanic, but it makes sense in this world.
Moving across the city at speed is a pleasure, and you really do feel as agile and as tactical as Batman himself. You can glide off high vantage points to kick enemies below, or use the grapple gun to zip line up to ledges. Holding down the glide button mid-zip line will thrust Batman into the air, giving you a jolt of height to scale the city further.
Using Batman’s frequency scanner, we start zoning in on the sniper rifle’s radio signal. But thanks to some incredibly smart stage design, and tell-tale graffiti, we realise we’re getting dangerously close to Joker territory and even closer to kicking the hornet’s nest.
The closer you get to a villain’s lair, enemies that once had baseball bats and lead pipes, now wield savage assault rifles capable of tearing Batman apart in mere seconds. Bad times.
By using cover and heading to high ground, we manage to avoid alerting the mass of thugs guarding the lair, and we zip line up to the roof to pinpoint the radio signal. It turns out that Joker has been hiding out in Sionis Steel Mill and is desperately sick following his Titan overdose at the end of Arkham Asylum.
His deranged squeeze Harley Quinn has been kidnapping Arkham City’s medical staff to force them into curing his disease, and it’s our job to try and recur the doctors and take down the Joker before he recovers.
Inside The Lair
Once inside the steel mill, Arkham City falls back into the tense claustrophobia of the first game. It’s a maze of lava infested pump rooms, dark metallic corridors and wider chambers suitable for stealthy ‘Predator’ sections. Clambering our way down the vast chimney stack, it’s clear that environmental hazards will play a bigger part in Arkham City.
Making use of loose walkways and rubble, we navigate our way down the plant while avoiding the searing hot lava below. Some walkways are red hot, so Batman cools them down using the Bat Claw to open some nearby water ducts.
The way Rocksteady has blended navigation, puzzles and Batman’s gadgetry together makes for a formula not too dissimilar to both the Metroid and Castlevania series, which is no bad thing in our book.
Venturing deeper into the complex, there are many small puzzles that task Batman with hitting door switches with his Batarang throwing blades.
The mechanic remains mostly unchanged from Arkham Asylum, but you can now ‘hip fire’ at speed, which locks onto nearby puzzle elements or the closest enemy. It’s much slicker, and removes the need for precise third-person aiming.
Spotting a patrol armed to the teeth, we decide to play it safe; taking to the air ducts in an attempt to avoid confrontation. It’s also wise to keep Batman’s detective vision on while faced with enemies, as thugs wielding firearms are highlighted in orange. These are the guys you definitely want to take down stealthily.
But then again, while the stealth approach can be fun, getting up close and personal can be even sweeter. Rocksteady’s combat mechanic in Arkham Asylum was ace, and it really nailed down Batman’s penchant for quick, disarming strike and brutal takedowns. Arkham City keeps most of the mechanic intact, but adds in a few new tricks too.
Sneaking up behind the two guards with rifles, we hammer them with a simultaneous double takedown, smashing their heads together in a brutal fashion. The key here is to get in close, take someone down and use your grapple gun to zip-line back to the shadows before anyone knows you were there.
Again, is the same formula as the first game, but the enemies can’t be shaken off as easily this time, and unexpectedly, we notice that the thugs have one of Arkham City’s medics held hostage in a room in the corner of the chamber.
If they see Batman, they’ll kill her, so we take to the rafters swooping down on stray guards and using air vents to sneak up behind goons undetected.
If you’ve played Arkham Asylum, chances are you will be familiar with this set-up. Nothing much has changed, but then again, the format worked so well first time around, Rocksteady would be mad to dick about with it now. After we save the medic, we spot one of Arkham City’s newest gadgets lying on a table; the Remote Electrical Charge, R.E.C Gun.
Those Wonderful Toys
Yep, we said gun. It’s a cardinal sin to give Batman a firearm, giving his distaste for them, but hold your horses, it’s not a lethal weapon. Instead, it’s more of a puzzle device, and a bloody neat one at that. Aiming the R.E.C at a nearby shutter control panel, we can open and shut the door at range. So far, so basic.
But you can also use the R.E.C to magnetise metallic objects, opting to either pull or repel other items in the vicinity. We eventually work our way to a large warehouse floor, complete with long hooked chains hanging from the ceiling. Above us is the barred doorway to Joker’s private quarters, which are completely sealed.
Magnetising a girder with the R.E.C, we use a positive charge to pull the chain in, and then switch to a negative charge to repel it at speed. Repeating the process a few times builds up momentum, and eventually the large iron hook smashes open the door to Joker’s room above.
We’re in! Well, we would be if it wasn’t for the 20 guards who come spilling out of the room. One of the gang members is a complete monster wielding a sledgehammer. Using the R.E.C, we shock the thug, which sends his body spasming and his arms flailing, causing him to accidentally batter nearby enemies with his weapon in the process.
With confusion in the ranks, we quickly dispatch the crowd with quick jabs, counters and disarms. Batman can also stun enemies with a few quick swipes of his cape, opening up opportunities to unleash bigger strikes.
After cape-stunning the large goon, a prompt appears for us to spam the attack button, unleashing a massive flurry of punches, which sends our combo into overdrive.
Spoilers Ahead (no really, skip to the next section if you hate spoilers)
With a floor full of unconscious criminals, we zip line up to Joker’s room to find him weak, thin and flatlining in his chair due to the Titan in his system. Harry Quinn is on her knees beside him, hitting out at Batman for pursing Joker all these years and eventually driving him to death.
We check detective mode just to be sure and yep, Joker is in fact, stone cold dead. Is this just another trick, or could this be the mother of all surprise twists? Unfortunately, our demo ends right there.
With Hugo Strange billed as Arkham City’s key villain, could Rocksteady have the nerve to kill off Batman’s nemesis so early on in the game? We’d applaud them for it, but something tells us we haven’t seen the last of the nut-job just yet. Still, it’s a neat twist indeed.
The Killer Sequel? (no spoiler here, we promise)
When Batman: Arkham City was first announced, we were excited, yet cautious of Rocksteady’s ability to trump its stellar work in the first game. After all, Arkham Asylum was only the studio’s second title since it was formed, but an immense one at that.
After playing this extensive slice of the core plot, we came away confident that not only will Arkham City surpass the original in every way, but that it will be a strong contender for 2011’s game of the year.
With at least 40 hours of gameplay promised, a wide range of challenge rooms, and hundred upon hundreds of Riddler trophies for you to find, there is real substance beneath Arkham City’s grimy veneer.
Rocksteady looks set to deliver an experience that will consume your life for months after launch, and the fact that the team produced Arkham City in the same time as the first game is nothing short of incredible. It’s simply stunning.
The studio has truly done the Dark Knight’s legacy proud by sticking to the gothic style of the comics, as well as delivering the explosive action and thrilling stealth you’d come to expect from the franchise. It’s the mother of all super hero games, and best of all, it’s only a matter of weeks away.