The Joker is dead, long live the Joker.
One thing stood like head and batarang above all else during our recent hands-on session with Batman: Arkham City. A lifeless Joker flopped over in a chair, oxygen mask over his face and two words on the accompanying life support machine’s display… Status: Deceased.
Fade to black. Demo ends.
Surely the Joker is not dead? Surely this is just a tease on the part of developers Rocksteady? Surely DC wouldn’t allow the Joker to die? Surely the Joker will jump out of the chair, launch an attack on Batman and play him (and us) for a fool? I hope so.
Rewind 20 minutes. We’re standing hunched over on a gargoyle some 200 feet above ground level. The city of Gotham spread out before us in a sea of dark streets, imposing skyscrapers and gothic architecture. It’s the dead of night – in Arkham City it’s always night. Punctuating the darkness is the dim glow of broken down neon signs and flickering flames of burnt out cars – this is a Gotham under the control of the villains.
And not just any villains. Arkham City is intent on throwing everything and everyone at the Caped Crusader – Joker, Penguin, Zsasz, Bane, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Riddler, Mr Freeze and more are all waiting to take that cape and stuff it down your throat. In this particular section of the game it’s Joker that concerns us.
From our gargoyle perch we glide, zip and jump our way between, over and along buildings towards the factory Joker has usurped and transformed into his own twisted house of fun and games. Compared to Arkham Asylum the act of gliding is diverse and provides a sense of freedom, you feel as much a ‘bat’ as you do a ‘man’. Given the open world setting, gliding is essential in navigating quickly and efficiently. Emphasis that has been placed on creating a world that’s built up as much as it is built out, meaning travelling at altitude is the faster (and flashier) option.
The act of diving straight down towards the floor before opening up your ‘wings’, using your speed to launch yourself back up high into the air, and gliding to your preferred destination is one that makes you feel simply badass. Really, there’s no other way to put it.
By incorporating gliding with your grappling gun you can make your way around the city without ever setting foot on terra firma – if you find yourself coming up just short of a rooftop, just shoot your hook into a nearby ledge and zip forward. Enough messing around trying to find the best camera angle to show off how badass we look while gliding, it’s Joker we should be worried about.
How would Batman enter Joker’s factory? In the most difficult manner possible, apparently. Here, that means diving down through a chimney stack and managing to land on the smallest of platforms to avoid being consumed by the molten metal that waits at the bottom.
Inside the factory proper the first thing we witness is the abuse of an innocent emergency services worker (either fire service or medical staff, not sure which) who has been thrown to a group of thugs by the ever-jolly Harley Quinn. Unfortunately our path to her rescue is blocked pending the deactivation of a few vents blasting out skin-meltingly hot air.
A few well aimed (read: auto-aimed) batarangs at medium-distance switches later and the vents are off. Back in thugville, however, the emergency worker has gone to places unknown. With the lady out of the room, this represents a good chance to brush up on our hand-to-hand skills. The core combat mechanics are identical to those in Arkham Asylum in that you need to mix attacks with counters and dodges to keep your combo chain high and the enemies down.
Because enemies that are about to attack you are highlighted with a dull blue icon above their head, the learning curve for combat is fairly generous – essentially, when you see the icon hit the counter button. Of course, that’s a statement coming from someone who has completed Arkham Asylum twice through. Newcomers may take a while to grasp the flow of combat, but it will be a short while rather than a long one.
Arkham City also features enemies with yellow icons above their heads. These represent attacks from particularly strong enemies that can’t be countered so easily. Instead they must be avoided, put off balance, and then attacked. A yellow icon means hold the counter button and direct Batman away from trouble, do so for long enough and you can follow up with an attack of your own. In this particular battle the part of ‘strong enemy’ was played a one-armed behemoth with luminous green hair and a giant hammer, a reject from London Fashion Week.
Joining the combat mode are the predator sections, in which stealth is the name of the game. All of your abilities from the last game return – glide kicks, silent takedowns, vertical takedowns et al – and are joined by a few new ones.
The Remote Electrical Charge (REC) is a long-range taser gun that electrifies enemies and anything metal they’re carrying. Yep, you guessed it, ‘REC’ someone carrying a metal pipe and anyone unlucky enough to get in their way as they’re flailing around is going to find themselves lit up like a Christmas tree as well. It makes for great entertainment as you sit and watch from your shadowy perch.
Then there are grate takedowns which enable you to hide under the floor and dispatch of foes above you, the remote controlled batarang, the explosive gel and all manner of gadgets available for the creative player to wreak havoc with.
There’s also a new magnet gun of sorts that allows you to manipulate various electro-magnets in the factory and either attract or repeal metallic items towards it. One such example of this involved attracting and repelling a hanging metal hook with the correct timing to create enough momentum for it to swing out and smash through a high doorway.
Grapple up to the doorway. Climb in. We hear Harley Quinn crying. Joker is dead…