Batman has fought his way through "Arkham Asylum" and stopped the Joker's fiendish plot...but can he possibly tackle an entire city teeming with crime? We'll find out this fall, when "Batman: Arkham City" arrives in stores for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The game is taking center stage this weekend at DC Comics' booth in the center of the Comic-Con International in San Diego show floor, and Comic Book Resources managed to stop by to see how it was shaping up.
The demo begins with Batman standing on top of a building, overlooking all that's happening beneath the Gotham City skyline. He's seeking Catwoman, who was captured by Two-Face and his thugs while attempting to steal from his vault. Batman uses his transceiver to pick up a radio feed, with a helicopter pilot speaking to Hugo Strange, the mystery man who runs Arkham City. Their conversation is cold and brief, with the pilot explaining that Two-Face wants to execute Catwoman as a show of power, and Strange lets it pass. Batman, unwilling to let her die, springs into action.
Upon jumping off the building, we got to test out Batman's expanded movement abilities in "Arkham City." Along with being able to grapple onto specific points on structures (and zipping in even faster with a double-tap of the jump button), he can also use his Bat-cape to fly. You can glide by holding down the A (or X) button, and moving him left or right depending on where you want to land. One new feature, however, is being able to pick up speed and fly higher. While keeping the button held down, you'll hit the right trigger, which will take Batman into a nosedive. Release it and pull up on the analog stick, and you'll be able to swoop higher into the air off the gained momentum. Being able to transition between gliding and grappling is excellent, giving Batman a lot of freedom to move about the city.
Rocksteady Studios representatives were on hand during demo sessions, and they explained there's a lot of exploration to be done in "Arkham City." Along with following the story points, there are also side quests Batman can complete to earn points and unlock new abilities and combat skills, along with Riddler Challenges. These challenges range from small, easy-to-solve puzzles to more diabolical traps that resemble something cooked up by Jigsaw from the "Saw" films. (We didn't get to see those just yet, sadly.) Gameplay time ranges from 20 to 45 hours, depending on how many quests you undertake.
Anyway, back to the demo. After swooping our way through the city, we made it to the courthouse in the center of Gotham, where Two-Face has placed Catwoman "on trial," letting a flip of the coin decide her fate. Upon arrival, Batman finds that a straight run into the room would be suicide, not only because of the 40-plus thugs on the ground, but also the gunman watching everything above. Using diversionary tactics, Batman sneaks up on the guard, takes him out and creates fear-inducing havoc that clears out most of the room. At this point, it's easy for you to swoop down, take out the remaining thugs and save Catwoman. (However, she ends up saving herself, and with a well-timed shot from your grapple gun, Batman puts Two-Face in a similar spot.)
But the demo didn't end there. A sniper bullet is fired into the hall, barely missing Catwoman. She manages to clear out, and Batman has to deduce where the bullet came from in order to track down the shooter. This is where the returning Detective Mode comes into play. Tapping the left bumper button activates the mode, which lets you view items that you can interact with, as well as enemy locations and other small details. Using this, Batman analyzes the bullet holes, seeing that it came from a nearby church tower.
So after maneuvering back through the city and dispatching some clown face guards in the tower, Batman finds Harley Quinn, dressed in some sexy new duds and keeping four gun-toting thugs as backup. She leaves and orders her men to kill you, but thanks to a well-placed smoke bomb and your grapple line, you're able to vanish and survey the scene by jetting above. The four thugs position themselves throughout the church, with two standing at the main hall and the other two holding hostages on opposite ends.
No amount of fisticuffs can save the hostages' lives (of course there are hostages, and the thugs will fire upon seeing you), so you'll have to use Batman's stealth techniques to take them down. One new addition is the ability to use a Double Takedown with two thugs close to each other. Simply drop down behind them (after grappling over to the appropriate stone gargoyle -- yes, they're scattered all over the place, just like in "Arkham Asylum"), get close and hit the Y button. Batman will then perform a double headbutt, similar to what Michael Keaton dished out in "Batman Returns."
As for the other two thugs, you'll have to get around them and take them out from behind. With the first, you can either swoop down with a glide and grab them from the platform with your legs, or sneak in through a floor grate and knock them out. With the second, there's a new "breakthrough" technique, where Batman can bust through wood walls and grab someone unexpectedly. We prefer the subtlety of the exploding gel from the first game, but hey, whatever gets the job done, right?
After defeating the thugs and saving the hostages, Batman makes his way up the tower, only to find a remote-controlled sniper rifle, surrounded by figures posing as the Joker -- and a ton of dynamite. Joker appears on television screens and informs Batman of his little death trap, starting a countdown. He manages to escape through a window (which you can do by approaching it and pressing A) and fly away just as the tower explodes. And that's where the demo ends.
Overall, the demo gave us an idea of what to expect from "Batman: Arkham City" in terms of stealth gameplay, free flight and combat. In fact, the fighting engine seems to be a little smoother this time around, with Batman able to chain together slick-looking punches and kicks in multiple directions. The counter system once again makes a return, so you can stop a thug's incoming attack and slam him to the ground. What's more, you can involve some of Batman's cool toys in combat, including the grapple line. Grabbing someone and hurling them to do some damage is awesome.
Rocksteady has done wonderful work with this engine. The outdoor environments are absolutely fantastic, as you can see Gotham's skyline for what looks like miles and miles. Even if you just stay in flight for an hour or so, there's plenty to see. The animation is incredibly smooth, especially when Batman starts fighting off thugs in combat. (It's almost like he's taking part in a violent ballet.) The other characters, including Two-Face (designed to resemble his appearance in "The Dark Knight") and the sexy one-two punch of Harley Quinn and Catwoman, stand out, as well. Nothing beats having lethal women romp around in leather.
Likewise, the audio sounds terrific. Kevin Conroy delivers his lines as Batman with trademark gravitas, rarely missing a beat. We barely got to hear Mark Hamill as the Joker, but he sounds delightfully malicious when he does pop up. The other voice acting is spot-on as well, particularly Catwoman, whose playful dialogue comes through in a purr-fect manner. (Mind the pun.)
"Batman: Arkham City" is available for play all weekend at the DC Comics booth at Comic-Con, so stop by and give it a look. It's shaping up as an incredible sequel to "Asylum," and a must-have for casual players and comic book aficionados alike. Oh, and be sure to pre-order the game from the nearest Best Buy kiosk, as well -- you'll score the bonus Robin challenge maps along with a free shirt right there on the floor.
If you're not attending Comic-Con this year, don't worry -- this Dark Knight will be rising everywhere on October 18.