Theoretically, nothing was preventing Rocksteady Studios from releasing a glorified expansion pack as their sequel to critical darling and gamer favourite, Batman: Arkham Asylum. Slap together some new levels, introduce a few new villains, and voila - the rivers of gold would flow once more.
However Rocksteady opted to go back to the drawing board from a level design perspective with Batman: Arkham City. As the name suggests, the game’s scope has broadened. Arkham City is a sprawling, criminal-infested suburb walled off from Gotham via sinisterly bureaucratic finagling. The rules for occupants of Arkham City are basic: do whatever you like within the district’s walls but should you try to escape, you’ll be killed.
The setup will matter more when the game is on sale. But the impact of Rocksteady’s move to a city layout is relevant to gamers right now. The Arkham City experience is both indoor and outdoor. You get the rich interiors we first saw in Arkham Asylum, only now the caped crusader is equally free to roam the city.
Sandbox or no?
Exploring the great outdoors is one thing, but you won’t find Rocksteady describing Arkham City’s gameplay as “open world”. You can traverse the entire breadth of the city if you please, but the experience remains a very directed one.
“When you talk about genres - about sandbox and linear and whatever is in between - the important thing for us to focus on was a sandbox game has connotations of playing around and setting your own pace,” Rocksteady marketing manager Dax Ginn told us. “Doing what you want, when you want... that really runs against the grain of what we think a Batman experience is.”
“At no point do you feel as though you’re collecting 50 things just to kill a bit of time while there’s this crisis going on you need to be resolving,” he added.
Rocksteady are playing their cards close to their chest still, however Ginn did explain one obvious benefit of opening up Arkham City’s terrain.
“To think about the degree to which it is sandbox - it really comes down to navigational freedom. But in terms of what you can do in Arkham City, it’s very driven by the way Batman interacts with the other characters,” he concluded.
This freedom of navigation, Ginn says, is something that was missing from the acclaimed prequel.
“Arkham Asylum, for all the things it did brilliantly, was a very highly focused, highly choreographed experience,” he noted. “The big challenge we set for the development of Arkham City was to take the experience to the next step and offer players that freedom to determine their own destiny - where they go and what they do. “
Before we jump into the meat, it’s got to be noted Rocksteady has exerted a high level of control over what it’s shown so far with Arkham City. There have been no hands-on demonstrations for media, only guided gameplay demonstrations run by Rocksteady staff.
Even so, it’s hard not to be impressed by how Rocksteady set the stage for showcasing Batman’s outdoor debut. The brooding vigilante takes in the murky sweep of Arkham City’s decrepit vista from a lofty vantage point. The framerate remains smooth as he sweeps his gaze across 360 degrees of architecture below.
And then all of a sudden, he’s flying. Well, gliding. Arkham City uses a flight and momentum-based model to good effect. With his cape streaming behind him, Batman gains velocity by plunging down, before swooping up and soaring on updrafts. We’re told it’s entirely interactive, and to prove the point our demonstrator grapple-boosts - hurling a grapple into a building above, and using the leverage to fling Batman higher. This technique can enable players to traverse the entire city, we’re told – and if you happen to end up in a dangerous region populated by bad guys wielding automatic weapons, well, that’s the peril that comes with navigational freedom.
There’s more to getting around the great outdoors than being a human hang-glider however. Batman has an array of points he can cling to, leap off or fire tightropes to. Street signs, building facades, even a handy helicopter are all viable vantage points. All are entry points for your next bout of acrobatics.
While we’re out
The other star here is Arkham City. People concerned about whether the outdoor setting could match Rocksteady’s proven chops at making indoor levels have no cause for alarm. The building’s facades and streets ooze criminal character - just as well given the majority of the action will take place there. This isn’t just throwing a skybox over a bunch of buildings, this is a city equally loaded with lights and the light-fingered - and it works every bit as well from ground level as it does from the air.
We’re given a good sample of Arkham City’s inside/outside game in our demonstration. Batman needs to get hold of Catwoman, who herself has been captured by Two Face - the sympathetic comic-book villain showcased in The Dark Knight.
Each faction in Arkham City not only has its own turf and territory, the underlings and the architecture reflects the visual motif of their leaders. In the case of Two Face, the exterior of the court building he occupies is half pristine, half in ruin. His henchmen affect a similar split personality look to boot.
Batman reconnoiters the building from a distance, and the game interface helpfully gives a rough threat assessment of the bad guys guarding the building, pinpointing the armed over the unarmed. After dispatching the guards, Batman enters the building and the detail level is every bit as high from out on the street. You’re in a proper building, not just a few polygonally-challenged spaces. We see rich textures, realistic lighting and all the eye candy from the first game. A later visit the lair of another villain displays the same level of commitment to detail.