The weight of expectation is something we're really aware of, and we feel it every day," says Rocksteady's Dax Ginn after 30 incredible minutes with the latest build of Arkham City. "But coming out of Arkham Asylum, we've got a lot more confidence as a studio. We're not worried about making a great game - we know we've already done that." Their confidence is justified.
Arkham Asylum might be one of this generation's best games; an expert blend of solid core mechanics, great storytelling, beautiful environment design and a clear love of the subject matter. It's proof that even under the constraints of a license, it's still possible to create something unique.
With such solid foundations already in place, it would be insane for Rocksteady to start again from scratch. So Arkham City isn't a leap in a bold new direction, nor does it introduce any wildly different gameplay mechanics - instead, they've taken everything we loved about the original and given us more. There are few images in popular culture as iconic as Batman's silhouette framed on the Gotham City skyline, and it's the first thing we see as Ginn loads up the game.
As we stare saucer-eyed at the screen, he spins the camera around, revealing the staggering detail of the game world. Monolithic skyscrapers tower in the distance, choppers buzz past shining spotlights on the litter strewn streets below, neon signs flicker, Batman's cape ripples in the wind... It's all astonishing to look at.
"We want to give players a sense of freedom this time which, when you think about it, is perfect for Batman. He's the kind of character who should be able to make decisions about where he goes and what he does," says Ginn. Yes, Arkham City is open world, where Asylum was a linear roller coaster of set-pieces and boss encounters.
This whole city - an expanse of Gotham that's become a makeshift asylum, housing thousands of dangerous criminals - is unlocked from the start. "Interiors are locked to specific missions," says Ginn, "But 80% of the game takes place on the streets. This means you can begin the game and just start exploring." But can Rocksteady give us this much freedom, yet still tell a compelling story? "Plot is really important to us, so side-missions won't be like, 'Collect 50 of these random things,' they'll be tied directly into the narrative - like 'track down Zsasz' or 'interrogate the Riddler's informants'. So you'll always feel like you're part of an overall plot arc, whether you're following the core story or not."
The biggest change to the way you control Batman is that he can now fly. Technically he's gliding, as he did in the first game, but now when you're about to slow and lose altitude, you can nose-dive, build speed and remain in the air indefinitely. You can also snag distant objects with your grappling hook - including passing helicopters - to slingshot yourself forwards for an even bigger speed boost.
As you swoop around the city, you'll occasionally spot people on the streets below being beaten by thugs. They need your help. Saving them might yield the location of a secret or garner unique dialogue from characters such as TV reporter Jack Ryder (also known as the villainous Creeper), but it's all optional. "If you're flying down a street and you don't save one of these guys the first time, they'll still be there later.
But the whole game world is changing all the time. Remember the Poison Ivy stuff in Arkham Asylum and the way it changed the environment? There's a similar dynamic here. The turf war erupting on the streets between the various factions might alter entire districts, and that'll affect which side-missions are available."