Eurogamer Expo 2011: Batman: Arkham City hands-on
I’ll admit it, I still haven’t played the first title all the way through, yet. There’s no excuse, I just never bothered. Having heard so much about it from friends and other journalists, I willingly let it pass me by. Playing the follow up title this weekend gave me the chance to discover what all the fuss was about, and see why the gaming world lies in anticipation for this eagerly awaited sequel.
A group of grizzled, scarred and mean looking thugs talked amongst themselves, the camera following their movements and cutting to and from their superb facial animations. The leader barks his orders in a low, gravelly voice, the glint in his eye possessing a surprising sum of detail and realism. These henchmen were guarding something important, and were cautious of Batman appearing from the shadows. Even with a strict time limit I never attempted to skip any of the talking. It all added to the tension and helped set the scene. My playthrough of the demo was spent just as much in the cutscenes as it was pounding Arkham’s scumbags into the dirt.
And of course, it helped that it looks gorgeous too. Then a loud smash rang out as a figure in black swung down behind them. “Batman!”, they shouted. But it wasn’t Batman, it was Catwoman, and the first playable section let you test out her claws. Scratching at their faces and bringing arching kicks down upon them soon tipped the fight in my favour. The combat is incredibly smooth and retains the crunch that the first game was renowned for. Every fist, foot, knee, head and elbow connects with convincing force, complimented by detailed audio design. There was one standard attack and a parry; that’s all I used. Hitting the attack command created long-running combos that were different every time, the AI choreographing the movements in a way that resulted in not a single visible frame between one animation ending and the next beginning.
It was silky-smooth, with Catwoman ducking or flipping over every incoming attack that was successfully parried, slashing at their eyes or thrusting a knee up into their abdomen in return. Anyone could look like a professional when playing this game, yet it never feels cheap or that control is being removed from the player. It’s a perfect balance and now it’s easy to see why the original is a title I really must catch up on. After a bout with Catwoman, control moved over to the man of the moment himself – Mr Bruce Wayne.
Arkham City is fleshed out, filled with Gothic detail and the reek of a city in decline. Gliding from a building, I swooped down and - in slow motion - smashed both of my boots into the cranium of an unsuspecting thug. With five of his friends turning in shock, I landed the first punch which hit with a cracking sound as they attempted to encircled me. Batman’s attacks had more force than Catwoman’s but lacked that elegance, grace and exaggerated catwalk strut. Once I’d taken out these vermin I entered the Renaissance inspired court building.
In this scene, I had to move above the enemy and take out an armed guard in silence. Once complete, I swooped down into a crowd of hooligans acting as the jury in a sick trial curated by Two-Face (who looks brilliant, though how he doesn’t get an infection in that eye I’ve no idea). The crime on trial was attempted theft. The accused was one Ms. Selina Kyle, hung upside down above a bubbling vat of acid whilst still managing to remain ice-cool in her Catwoman outfit.
Once the fight and corresponding cutscene was over, the pace took an intelligent turn as I had to use forensic tools to assess what had just happened. Where had that bullet landed and through which window did it make its entry? While the clues were laid out, it was an enjoyable break and one that was perfectly complimented by superb voice acting. With the facial animation and direction without fault, the first-class voice performances are the cherry on the cake. All the lines were well verbalised and carried a delivery that showed the actors had loved their roles, really getting into the idiosyncrasies of their characters and spitting or rolling every word from their tongues.
Once the forensic investigation was complete, I left the courtroom to enter the city once again. This time, however, I was free to swing and glide across the rooftops, looking for a vantage point to enter the local church where my next objective was waiting. Once I’d made my entry, skipping stealth for some more close-quarter fighting, I entered the church and the final part of this demo.
Here was the only nuisance during my time with Batman: Arkham City: a checkpoint that replayed an unskippable cutscene. Nothing major, but if it’d been the fourth time of failing and having to watch it, it would have become a rather irritating and unnecessary sore on this beautifully realised city.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is on target to achieve its promise of improving on every aspect from the original. The character design is great, facial animation convincing, voice acting superb and the combat easy to implement and instantly satisfying. It’s going to be an incredible time to be a gamer over the next few months, if not a moral panic for our bank balances.