A fifteen-minute menagerie of cats, bats, and one nasty flightless bird.
"Anything you want, we've got it." Bold words, even by E3's overblown standards. But, unless what you want is to drive the batmobile or a less gamey version of detective vision, Batman Arkham City is what you want. The original was my own personal game of the year, so more of the same is as close to what I want as the developer's going to get without allowing me to produce the project myself. Even without my direct involvement, the game still benefits from new moves, new gadgets and new characters.
E3 not only gave me a chance to play the game, but also to see a lot of the new features courtesy of a 15-minute live demo. Starting with a close shot of a large sign for Arkham Asylum, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the enormity of Gotham City. The cluttered chaos of the city is apparent right away and this opening shot says more with its muted color palette and lighting than any voice over ever could. It also says a great deal about scale as the camera closes in on a barely distinguishable caped figure crouched atop a gargoyle outside the Gotham City Police Department. He stares off the right, to Arkham Asylum out in Gotham Harbor and then leaps into the air to glide across the city.
This is going to be good.
Not only can Batman glide as he could in the previous game, but he can also perform a power dive by gathering his cape around him and falling towards the street. Even better, he can use the grapple gun now to launch himself up into the air. Get good enough at it and you can traverse the entire city without once touching the ground. But there's more on Batman's mind than just getting to and from well-known sites like Crime Alley or the Courthouse.
Turns out the grapple has a few more uses. Batman uses it to grab a ledge. He zooms up, vaults onto the roof and smashes into one of four convicts waiting above. Arkham City is a much more open game than Arkham Asylum, so Batman has many more options to approach combat this time around. The moves are also more varied. Once the three other cons see their friend smashed into the roof, they move to attack Batman. The combat is just as fluid as ever, but this time around Batman can also use his grapple to perform special finishing moves.
While the real Batman is tireless in his pursuit of criminals, the games assumes you might want a break from time to time. After finding a few cats loitering on a particularly romantic rooftop, Batman soon attracts the attention of Catwoman, who swoops in and makes a few suggestive remarks. Remembering that he's got a Bat-cake in the Bat-oven, the Caped Crusader drops off the roof leaving the player in charge of Catwoman.
You'll alternate between two stories in Arkham City. As Batman, you're on a quest to recapture the inmates who escaped at the end of the last game. But as Catwoman, you're more than content to use the chaos and confusion in the city to advance your own interests. In this case, Catwoman is on the hunt for Hugo Strange's vault, which is rumored to contain all the valuables confiscated from the Arkham inmates.
In contrast to Batman's swooping and swinging, Catwoman is a much more tactile mover. She leaps from rooftop to rooftop, often using her whip to latch on to nearby ledges, but she's much more connected to the buildings and streets than Batman is. Her perspective allows you to appreciate the street-level details of the game, which are every bit as impressive as the highrise views enjoyed by Batman. Catwoman's also got her own tricks in combat, from tossing incapacitating bolas down on enemies to literally whipping them into unconsciousness.
After taking out the guards outside the sewers leading to the vault, Catwoman heads underground. Poison Ivy's agreed to use her plants to help break into the vault if Catwoman will help her reclaim a certain rare orchid and you can see the massive vines which have torn apart the walls leading to the vault. Still, it's not an easy matter to get in and steal the orchid. There are four guards patrolling the vault door and Catwoman needs to get three of their keys without their notice if she wants to get the door open. If they catch her, the whole system goes on lockdown.
To get the keys Catwoman will rely on two new tricks. First is Theft Vision. Like Batman's own detective vision, theft vision will highlight things that Catwoman can steal. In this case Catwoman just needs to get behind a guard and get close enough to take the key without being noticed. But to get around their patrol routes she'll need to rely on another trick - crawling on the ceiling. Latching on to the chicken wire like mesh of the ceiling, Catwoman can crawl above the guards, dropping down to swipe keys and, once she's got the door open, using special takedowns to incapacitate the guards. Some of the new takedowns can take out multiple guards at once as Catwoman bashes their heads together.
She eventually makes her way into the vault, grabs Ivy's orchid, then throws it to the ground and stomps on it.
Back to Batman, he's made his way into a large and imposing building, the kind where you just know it would be awesome to have a gigantic fight against loads of poorly trained enemies. Up on a landing an escaped inmate rushes out begging for help. A shot rings out and he falls dead. Behind him, holding his trademark umbrella is none other than the Penguin. In keeping with the Arkham style, his monocle has been replaced with the bottom of a glass Coke bottle, which looks like it's been pounded into his eye. He and Batman exchange a few threats, but Penguin's goons are holding a police officer hostage, which limits Batman's options.
Then Penguin issues a challenge to the dozens of goons who suddenly emerge around Batman; the Penguin only works with the best, he says, so whoever kills Batman can have a place in the Penguin organization. Duly motivated, the crowd closes in around Batman, who proceeds to wail the living crap out of all of them using a variety of new counters and combos and grapple-powered finishers. When the dust clears, the Penguin is gone, but the night isn't over yet.
So, still no Batmobile (yet), and still some illusion quashing overlays, but like the man said, I want it and they've got it.
Batman: Arkham City will be released October 18.