The announcement of Batman: Arkham Asylum was met with little fanfare. Like so many licenses, the Dark Knight had never before made an easy transition to games. Nor did the proposition of development at Rocksteady ignite the public’s imagination – at that time, the studio had one title under its belt, the agreeable if forgettable Urban Chaos: Riot Response on PlayStation 2.
Of course things are radically different for Rocksteady now. Even if the accolade of “most critically acclaimed superhero game” is this industry’s equivalent of winning a fist fight against a classroom six-year-olds, there are few who would deny that Arkham Asylum earned its position on numerous “best of 2009” lists.
As a result, the burden of expectation on the game’s imminent sequel, Arkham City, is greater than anything the developer has experienced before. Far from wilting however, Rocksteady appears capable not only of matching such high expectations, but of exceeding them.
Arkham City’s E3 demonstration began by highlighting the scale of the gaudy and decrepit Arkham City, a criminal ghetto in which Gotham’s most notorious villains have been shuttered until they inevitably cannibalise one another.
A black fleck perched atop a gargoyle, Batman appears insignificant against the scope of the setting. However, as he descends to the filthy streets, Rocksteady’s attention to detail shines: a poster advertising the Flying Graysons Circus adorns a discrete wall; the Monarch Theatre and the adjacent alley where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by an opportunistic young criminal have both been faithfully recreated.
But Rocksteady’s vision of Arkham City and Batman’s expanded skill set has been well documented in recent months. Instead, the studio sought to highlight an altogether new feature last week in Los Angeles: the addition of Catwoman as a playable character.
Catwoman’s scripted introduction in the presentation was marked with an innocuous tabby cat meowing for attention on a rooftop. Approaching it, we were prompted to hit X to “take a break”, at which point the Dark Knight descends and the femme feline takes over.
Unsurprisingly, Catwoman’s goals in Arkham City are wholly different to Batman’s. When the overflowing Arkham Asylum was shut down and its inmates were reassigned to Arkham City, their wealth was sequestered and buried beneath its streets. Catwoman’s intention is to profit from the discord and petty squabbling amongst Gotham’s criminal masterminds. A master thief by trade, she seeks to steal as much of it for herself as she can.
As such, her skill set and arsenal is somewhat different to Batman’s. When navigating, Catwoman uses her whip and has a much larger jump available to her. Creeping to the precipice of a building, we see some of The Joker’s thugs below. Large red claws appear on our heads-up display indicating we’re able to perform a long-range takedown. On the ground, Catwoman employs bolas at range, and her extraordinary reflexes and agility up close.
It makes for dazzling combat but her character isn’t designed for the kind of sustained fighting players can expect when controlling Batman. If she can, Catwoman avoids brawling altogether, preferring instead to use stealth and quietly take out her targets one by one.
Framing the passage of stealth play we were shown, Catwoman has entered into an uneasy alliance with Poison Ivy. Ivy has given Catwoman the means to access a vault via her underground passages in exchange for securing a rare lily within.
Whereas Batman has detective vision, a kind of X-Ray mode that highlights important data in order to piece together a crime scene, Catwoman has the rather more straightforward thief vision. Much like Batman’s mode this highlights both armed and unarmed threats in the vicinity. Unlike Batman’s, it also points out what can and cannot be stolen. In order to access the vault, Catwoman must secure three security cards from three heavily armed guards.
In order to avoid both detection and a subsequent fire fight that she’s unlikely to survive, Catwoman must make use of a distinguishing skill: the ability to crawl on ceilings. Doing so, we silently procure the necessary access cards from the unsuspecting security detail standing vigilantly in front of the vault.
Upon entering the cards into a nearby computer, the bewildered guards begin patrolling the area. One by one, Catwoman silently dispatches the guards before making a triumphant entry into the unlocked vault. Inside, the callous cat discovers and casts aside Ivy’s lily, taking instead her own prizes and departing back into the night.
As Rocksteady’s Dax Ginn explains below, Catwoman’s inclusion in Arkham City is to provide a gameplay counterpoint to Batman, to offer a different perspective on what will become a familiar setting. Should her narrative be seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of Arkham City, Catwoman’s inclusion will not only prove welcome, it may well be inspired.