Wake up in the city that never sleeps
When Rocksteady Studios Batman: Arkham Asylum launched in 2009, few could claim to have seen it coming. What many predicted would be yet another mediocre superhero saga quickly proved the cynics wrong, garnering as much critical praise as nearly any game in recent memory. That its sequel looks even more impressive comes as somewhat less of a shock; what remains unexpected, however, is how fantastically polished Arkham City looks with nearly five months left in development.
“Moving the design of the game into a game world of this structure meant a fundamental rethink for us in terms of navigation, in terms of combat, in terms of villains,” says Rocksteady’s marketing game manager Dax Ginn as he demos the game at GDC. The presentation begins with a birds eye view: Standing atop one of many skyscrapers, Batman surveys the dense metropolis that is Arkham City, stretching out far into the distance. “It’s a situation you never had inside the confines of Arkham Asylum,” continues Ginn. “This sense of power and freedom was something that lay at the heart of our vision for the game.” Floodlights scan the night sky, and the city below buzzes with activity. Ginn points to a courthouse; upon closer inspection its clear someone left one half of it untouched, while the other side is in shambles. Its clearly the work of legendary villain Two-Face, and also Batman’s next objective.
To get a better read on the situation — a necessary step in a game that clearly requires thoughtful choices rather than simple frenzied action — turn to Batman’s frequency scanner. Upgraded from the original, it now lets Batman hack into any local frequency to gather relevant information. A nearby patrol helicopter unwittingly informs me that Two-Face has kidnapped Catwoman, and has plans to kill her.
And I’m off, in style: The caped crusader leaps from the building ledge, making use of his new dive mechanic, which lets him generate momentum to keep himself in the air (think: flying squirrel). En route to the courthouse, I witness an assault taking place in the city streets, which leads to a brawl and the capture (and interrogation) of an informant; this is an open world, with a linear story threaded through it. Later, peering down at the courthouse, I see several thugs congregating outside and make my presence felt.
While these fights are impressive, Rocksteady has saved the best for last: Inside the courthouse, I see Catwoman hanging over a vat of boiling acid, with Two-Face and a large crowd of enemies overlooking the proceedings. The crowd of nearly 50 is significantly larger than any seen in the original game; a number of them are carrying melee weapons and highlighted in yellow, while those carrying guns glow red. With 20-something enemies to fight at once, its a matter of prioritization: After taking out the upstairs guard with a silent take-down, the punch-up downstairs capably demonstrates Rocksteady’s improved fighting engine. Combat takes on a smart, steady flow, with attacks taking place in all directions, and serves as a reminder that the developer does this better than anyone.
On his way out, Batman hitches a ride on the bottom of a patrol helicopter, providing a sweeping panorama of the game world. Or at least the portion that’s aboveground: a sewer system runs beneath the city, and plenty of buildings can be scaled as well. The Riddler, a remote-controlled sniper rifle, smoke bombs, and a series of new take-downs — both stealth and otherwise — are just a few of the surprises Rocksteady has in store. But more than anything, its about the ride: “We told a really tight story with Arkham Asylum, Ginn says, and we want to do that again.”
PARTING SHOTS: The first Rocksteady Batman took gaming by surprise, but with a successful title under their belt, all eyes will be on the dev team as they seek to raise the stakes in this incredible open-world adventure. From what we’ve seen, they’re well on their way.