Hands On with "Batman: Arkham City"

Released in 2009, "Batman: Arkham Asylum" was a comic book game for the ages. Rocksteady Games shook off the failures from the Dark Knight's past, creating an adventure game that took advantage of all of his utilities and talents. It also got major boost from Paul Dini's mostly top-notch story, along with the voice talents of the legendary Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, among others. It's still a worthwhile play today, though it may soon be eclipsed by the forthcoming sequel, "Batman: Arkham City."

Every ounce of ambition that went into the original game looks to be making a return in "City," along with several new features that will make it even more playable, thanks to a bigger area to play around in (a city compared to the confines of Arkham Asylum) and several new abilities, including flying powers.

The story takes place one year after the events of the original "Arkham" adventure. Quincy Sharp, the warden of the closed facility, has taken credit for stopping the Joker's rampage, despite Batman's efforts. This has since landed him a mayoral position, and rather than build a new prison to keep dangerous criminals out of Gotham, he instead quarantines a section of the city, surrounding it with walls ("Escape From New York" style) and placing the psychiatrist Hugo Strange in charge. Bad move, as he has a spooky agenda all his own, one that could bring the city to its knees.

Batman pays no mind, figuring that the newly built Arkham City is getting the job done. However, he observes from a distance, wondering just what Strange might be up to. The game's events kick into high gear when Two-Face, looking to gain some political ground within the prison city, snags Catwoman during a heist and opts to execute her, to show off his true power. Due to his prior relationship with her, the Dark Knight finally sees his chance to see what's happening, and dives into the city...

The first thing players will notice about the sequel is how much bigger it is. As we stated earlier, you're not just limited to indoor areas, such as a cathedral and a courthouse. You're able to roam around outside through Arkham City's streets, stopping any criminals that get in your way and investigating for clues throughout each of the missions. There are miles of terrain to cover here, and you can easily zip up to rooftops, since most of Arkham City's buildings come equipped with gargoyles - a grappling hook's best friend.

In addition to running around on foot and gliding, Batman also has the ability to fly. Granted, he can't flap his arms like a bat and keep in the air, but he can dive towards the ground quickly, for about a second or so, then regain his stature to swoop back into the sky. He can also grab onto patrolling helicopters to get around, surveying everything pretty handily and then getting the drop on any enemy squads that are nearby. His outfit enables him to keep stealth on hand, which he'll need to get the jump on armed thugs.

Along with his physical abilities, Batman still has a number of goodies on his utility belt. His batarang once again makes a return, and players can hold down the throw button to control its direction as it's in flight. The exploding gel that was such a hit in "Arkham Asylum" should also be back, and a descrambler enables him to tap into radio feeds to gain clues towards his next mission. It's a matter of holding it in the right place, like in the first game, long enough to gain the signal.

And of course, Batman can still kick plenty of ass in a fight. As in "Arkham Asylum," the combat system runs buttery smooth. The Dark Knight can chain together punches and kicks like a pro, and a quick tap of the counter button lets him grab an opponent mid-attack and slam them to the ground. Combos work a little better this time around, with more moves that can be unlocked over the course of the game.

Still, there are some situations that call for something more discreet. While Batman can easily handle five or six thugs in a room, bigger crowds require something stealthier. For instance, during one mission, Two-Face holds a trial for Catwoman, who's hanging over an acid pit. About 50 or so thugs are looking on, with a few carrying guns. So Batman has to sneak around and find something to his advantage to scare the group off, rather than attempting a pure physical approach. Fortunately, the game's heads-up display gives players a good idea of what they can and can't interact with in a stage.

The game's story will last several hours, and also pits Batman against a number of old adversaries. Despite his weakened condition from his battles in the first game, the Joker returns, ready to dish out some more malice. (And yes, Mark Hamill once again returns to voice him, in true top-class style.) In addition, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn (in sexy new duds) and Talia al Ghul are expected to appear in the game, along with the recently revealed Penguin. Other villains should show up as well, including a possibly returning Bane (he has yet to be confirmed) and the vicious Black Mask (who will have his own challenge map within the game).

Fans of the original "Arkham Asylum" will no doubt remember the Challenge Maps, little rooms where players could either beat up thugs in the fastest time possible, posting top scores to online leaderboards on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network; or take on stealth missions, disarming guards without alerting others by using tricks of the trade and shadows to their advantage. These maps will once again return in "Arkham City," with a slew of new challenges for Bat-freaks everywhere.

Only this time, expect the stakes to be raised. Along with typical Challenge rooms, the Riddler also returns, and he's got some fiendish new designs that actually use human prey. It's almost as if he's taken a cue from the "Saw" movies, coming up with Jigsaw-like contraptions where Batman has a limited amount of time to save innocent folk, while avoiding becoming a human shish-ka-bob. We haven't seen these in action just yet, but a few hints and clues indicate that these will test even the strongest parts of the Dark Knight's will.

Players control Batman for a majority of "Arkham City," but there are times when other characters become available. At E3 last month, WB Games revealed that Catwoman would be playable in certain parts of the game, beating up bad guys with her physical prowess and whip. We also recently reported that Best Buy was getting an exclusive Challenge map pack featuring Batman's partner Robin, complete with a clean-cut look and a deadly bo staff. No word yet if these will be available for regular download, but we don't see why not, since previously exclusive retailer map packs were eventually made available to the public.

We're also wondering if the Joker will once again have a series of exclusive maps, similar to the ones he had in the PlayStation 3 edition of "Arkham Asylum." He provided a nice change of pace from simply controlling the Bat, thanks to his wacky (yet deadly) contraptions, such as a kaleidoscope to view patrolling officers and chattering teeth. Here's to hoping.

"Batman: Arkham City's" design is quite loyal to the original game. Even though the level design has expanded, the same style of design holds true to the original "Arkham City." Characters look strikingly familiar, and the stage set-up as a whole stays true to the Dark Knight's vision. Even the smaller rooms, such as the Joker's booby-trapped clock tower (which Batman barely escapes before exploding) are strikingly detailed, right down to the little humor items that Joker decorates his hideout with.

As for audio, expect a sweeping Batman score to do with the dramatic events in the game, along with convincing sound effects. Of course, the voice cast is once again game, with Conroy and Hamill returning to their respective roles, and other quality voice actors filling in. We're still not quite sure why Arleen Sorkin isn't providing the voice for Harley Quinn, but Tara Strong is a strong sound-alike.

Last but not least, expect a greater story with "Arkham City." Penned by "Batman: The Animated Series" veteran Paul Dini (who also did "Arkham Asylum") the story will have plenty of surprises - such as how Hugo Strange knows about Batman's alter ego, multi-billionaire Bruce Wayne. You'll just have to play the game to find out.

"Batman: Arkham City" has so much going for it right now, it's downright scary. The original game set some pretty high standards for how a comic book game should play out, and yet it'll look pedestrian compared to this effort. Prepare to be blown away once October 18 rolls around. That'll be the day that the Dark Knight truly rises again.

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