Eurogamer Expo 2011: Batman: Arkham City Hands-On Preview

by on September 30, 2011

After two years of waiting and more “reveal” trailers than the entire Hollywood marketing machine produces in a decade, Batman: Arkham City is little more than a month away from release.

A PR avalanche has seen the game’s villains publicised, the sidekicks leaked and, in all likelihood, every one of the game’s many secrets has been fed to the greedy public. OK, possibly this is a little, teeny-weeny, exaggeration, but nonetheless Arkham City’s publicists have willingly given up information and secrets that many gamers would have loved to discover for themselves.

Have Rocksteady, in their excitement at producing one of the most wanted games of the year, shined too bright a light on a hero who has always worked best when surrounded in shadow?

Standing in front of the Batman menu screen, under the glowing bat-signal in the din of Eurogamer Expo, was still exciting, despite the feeling of knowledge and familiarity that comes from having read a hundred Batman: Arkham City press releases. Being dropped into Arkham City, Batman perched high atop a monstrous gargoyle which looked down over the rest of the giant city and onto an almost dysmorphic courthouse, was simply overwhelming. The vista was neon-on-black, high contrast, decaying and violent, but unlike its predecessor, there were no walls, no cliffs, nothing to impede the path of the Bat. Rocksteady have already mentioned a structural change from Arkham Asylum to Arkham City and they confirmed it again at Eurogamer Expo. Gone is the Metroid inspired structure, with its emphasis on backtracking into old areas with new tools, and in comes a far more open-world structure, with the entirety of Arkham City the Dark Knight’s playground. This a fundamental switch, one which promises to change the feel of Rocksteady’s Batman experience, but during this short demonstration, it was impossible to feel all of its repercussions.

However, it did have one immediate effect; it dispelled a myth.

Batman: Arkham City still has some secrets. Rocksteady’s team on hand at Eurogamer Expo insisted that every corner of Warden (now Mayor) Sharp’s open air prison will be full of personality and that the player will be motivated to play tourist in every corner of the game world. Starting Arkham City had the stomach-tightening sensation of opening an examination paper only to realise you had forgotten to revise and now, in front of you, is a giant paper full of questions and mystery to which you might have small pockets of knowledge, but it is too big, deep and complex to truly understand.

Making for the courthouse seemed the only sensible option. The demo points there strongly and to refuse would just mean getting lost in a city without a map. Reassuringly, when diving from the rooftop into a crowd of foot soldiers, getting stuck into a freeflow combo, everything is right where you left it. Moment to moment, despite the overarching, structural changes, Arkham City feels like Rocksteady’s Batman. The counters and attacks are as intuitive as ever and the development team have clearly done nothing to ruin a combat system that was already the perfect complement to the game’s main character. That isn’t to say the system hasn’t seen any tweaks; it is now possible to add extra hits to counter attacks, dealing extra damage whilst leaving the player vulnerable to attack. Also, stealth moves, which appear to be more seamlessly integrated into the flow of the gameplay, can now be augmented; with the press of a button Batman can turn these lengthy animations into a quicker, noisier takedowns if he needs to dispatch someone immediately.

The approach to the courthouse shows other areas of the game that have been tuned for Batman’s free-roaming adventure. Small tweaks to movement, examples being controlling the angle of descent of Batman’s dives and using the Batclaw whilst in mid-air, show that Rocksteady aren’t just cutting and pasting the core mechanics of the previous game onto the hugely different structure of the new title. This Batman maintains his hulking momentum but, like a true student of martial arts, has gained speed and agility to go along with fighting prowess.

Though he certainly isn’t as nimble as the other star of the demonstration: Catwoman. Her inclusion in the game is no surprise, and neither are her playable missions. These have been confirmed for some time, as has the fact that her levels represent about ten percent of the total gameplay available in Arkham City. However, at Eurogamer Expo, Rocksteady were explaining how she and Batman will link together in the story. Trying to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, Catwoman and Batman both have their reasons for being in Arkham City. Occasionally, these reasons cause their paths to overlap and at these points they share the narrative. Again, the game’s story holds many more secrets than Rocksteady have revealed in their trailers and the question of why Catwoman is snooping around and what of the madness of Quincy Sharp will all have a bearing on a tale that promises to be over twice the length of the previous game.

So, will Rocksteady look back after the release of Arkham City and rue their slightly voluble approach to publicising the Batman, particularly when compared to the quiet strength that the first appeared with. The answer is a definite “maybe”.

But what is clear, even for a short sojourn into the prison city of Arkham, is that Rocksteady are hiding more cards than they are showing. And possibly the north London developers have been too self-effacing with some information. The studio, who had one of the sleeper hits of 2009 with Arkham Asylum, had the courage to blow up a formula that had served them so well and craft a new type of Batman experience. It retains the moment to moment feeling of the original, with combat, stealth and graphics which are superbly familiar, but also has a new, intimidating, exciting atmosphere that comes from the knowledge that there is a city to explore and, where before it felt that you knew everything about it, it has become clear that you have so much more to discover.

Batman: Arkham City is set for a November 21st release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.