The Knight Shift

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It has been said to the point of exhaustion, but I donít think it is possible to mention Batman: Arkham City without first heaping loads of praise on its predecessor, Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was the ultimate Bat-fantasy and set the bar high for every superhero game that followed. To that end, developer Rocksteady didnít have to make many improvements to the sequel and rested on the previous titleís success.

Instead, the team decided to open up the gameís world. Arkham Asylum was a great experience, but was it was an incredibly guided and claustrophobic one. With Arkham City, Rocksteady is giving players an entire city to explore.

With both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary out of commission, Gothamís new mayor and former Arkham warden, Quincy Sharp, has turned a section of Gothamís slums into the appropriately named Arkham City. The facility is an open-air, city-sized prison for Gothamís criminals. Inmates are free to do whatever they want within the cityís walls as long as they donít try to escape.

Sharp installs Hugo Strange, a psychiatrist with an unhealthy interest in Batman, as the cityís overseer. Strange knows Batman's secret identity and though he could retire off what he would make by selling his secret, he is more interested in learning what makes the Dark Knight tick. Strange is also rumored to be helping the Joker recover from his run-in with Batman.

The E3 demo took place in two parts, a 15-minute hands-off preview showcasing some of Batmanís new moves as well as the optional Catwoman sequences. For more information on that section, check out Robert's (Geck0) impressions here. The other part included hands-on time with the new navigation mechanics, combat tweaks and redesigned Detective Mode.

Inside the cityís walls, Gothamís high profile criminals have set up shop and are recruiting followers. One of the suitors is Two-Face, who has captured Catwoman and is planning a public execution to win the support of Arkhamís citizens.

The demo opens with Batman perched atop a building a few blocks from the courthouse where Two-Face is holding trial. It is hard to not be impressed with the sense of scale Rocksteady has managed to implement. When the demo starts, Batman is a small speck in a much larger environment. While Arkham Asylum only teased a dense cityscape, Arkham City is delivering an open city roughly five times the size of Arkham Island.

It all starts with a message from Alfred, who fills Batman in on what is happening at the courthouse. From there, youíre given complete freedom on how you want to proceed. You can take off for the courthouse and rescue Catwoman, or take a trip around the city. Riddler trophies are back, though this time youíll have to work a little harder for them. Rather than looking for clues, youíll need to track down the Riddlerís henchmen and interrogate them. Inmates will also cough up clues pointing Batman to other side-quests. You can also visit several famous Gotham locales including Crime Alley, the spot where Batmanís origin began.

There are the Catwoman missions, which tell a tale that runs parallel to Batmanís story. At any time during the game, you can find a group of cats perched on a rooftop and jump into Catwomanís story. You arenít required to play as Catwoman; her story is meant to give players a break from the Batman sections.

Back to my perch overlooking the city, I decided to head straight for the courthouse. Batman can glide though the streets of Arkham with deft ease, using his grappling hook to snag buildings to gain more air and propel him further through the streets. The system reminds me a lot of the grappling hook/ parachute combo used in Just Cause 2. I was easily able to quickly move down the street en route to the courthouse. A one point, I accidentally hit the wrong button, sending me plummeting to the streets below. But, with a press of a button, I was able to launch a lifeline to a nearby building and pull myself back above the city.

I ended up across the street from the courthouse and was prompted to pull out the Cryptographic Sequencer to hack in on the guardís radio chatter. Batman begins the game with all of his tools and upgrades from Arkham Asylum and will gain new toys over the course of the game. Although not used extensively in the first game, the Sequencer will be vital to figuring out whatís happening in the city. Youíll be able to hack into Strangeís signal or find out what other criminals are doing.

After listening to the criminals discuss what was happening inside the courthouse, I flipped to the new Detective Mode. The reworked mode is in direct response to criticisms leveled at the original. It was too helpful and there was little strategic reason to turn it off. The new system is still important to gameplay, but the amount of information it offers is limited to showing where enemies are and if theyíre armed.

I was able to spot a handful of guards outside the courthouse. A group had clustered around the entry, though I also spotted two armed henchmen patrolling the perimeter. Deciding they were a priority, I swooped down on one and quickly took him out before grappling back up to my perch. The tussle was enough to alert the second guard, who then called his group of buddies in to investigate. Seeing no other option, I dropped into the heart of the group.

Batman can take on more enemies at a time and has a new arsenal of takedown moves. He can also use gadgets, like the Batarangs and grappling hooks, during fights. You can also disarm thugs and use their weapons against them. At one point, I grabbed an opponentís baseball bat and, with one swift motion, pulled it out of his hands and cracked him over the head with it.

The new combat system is a lot of fun, but I was really impressed with the responsiveness of the controls. Theyíre incredibly crisp and have a nice bit of what I could only describe as ďcrunch.Ē Thereís little delay between the button press and the on-screen action and I could jump between tactics without much of a hangover from previous moves. The area that really stuck out is the counter system. I had a hell of a time trying to pull off counters in Arkham Asylum, but was able to rattle them off with little trouble in Arkham City.

The new combat system was put to the ultimate test once I got into the courthouse. I dropped right into the middle of the rally, just in time to save Catwoman. Outside, I had to deal with a small group of around five thugs, but inside, I had to go against at least a dozen or more well-armed and fired-up henchman.

After a short interlude between Batman and Catwoman, I had to use Detective Mode to figure out where to go next. Near the end of the fray, a sniper shot pierced a nearby wall, nearly hitting the duo. Using Detective Mode, I was able to search the area for the slug. From there, I had to use my enhanced vision to figure out the bulletís trajectory. Although I am willing to admit the show floor isnít the ideal place to play any game, I actually found the situation a bit confusing. Although the overlay showed a bright green area, I had to scan a smaller group of blue-hued spots. They were hard to find and, had I not had someone else watching the demo with me, I might not have seen either the slug or the entry point, which directed me to a nearby church steeple.

After both presentations, it is clear that Rocksteady is putting everything they can into Batman: Arkham Cityís development. Most of the changes are small tweaks, but have a major impact on gameplay. Based on what I played, I canít wait to get my hands on the final game when it ships this October.