Previews

Arkham City exposed: Batman's beautiful future

A mammoth hands-on with the eagerly anticipated sequel...

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The floor buzzes, the blades turn, and Batman zooms right through the centre, scooping up the hostage like a supermarket Bag For Life. Our line isn't going anywhere, though - just back to the entrance. Oh. Collision imminent, Batman dropkicks through a previously unnoticed window, landing back in the hallway with a considerable flourish. The hostage is grateful. Of course he is. The poor fool. As just evidenced, we are clearly the goddamn Batman.

But we're not done yet. After this, Arkham City delivers the coup de grāce. A loading screen takes us to Gotham's Natural History Museum. Treading its destroyed corridors, we know what's coming - or we think we do. Oswald Cobblepot. The Penguin. The route leads into an open ballroom, thugs grinning, eyeballing and shouting down at Batman on the ground floor.

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On a balcony, Penguin makes his entrance. Rocksteady's take on the character retains his trademark elements - the monocle, the sharp attire, the umbrella, the silhouette - but recreates him as a saltier, hardcase street level maniac. The monocle is now the end of a bottle thrust into his face... it's too dangerous to remove it, but he kind of likes it anyway. The suit is shabby, unwashed and threadbare. The elegant cigarillo is now a blunt stogie. But the shape is the same. Then he speaks.

In perhaps Rocksteady's boldest reimagining yet, the Penguin is a cockney geezer. "I'm sumfing uv a collectah," he says, giving Batman all the time in the world to take in the overwhelming odds and the leery grin. Monologue filled with boasts and greed, this Penguin's a powerfully built and clearly lethal figure, the short stature morphed into squat muscle. In Arkham City's lore, Penguin's been there from the start - when Quincy Sharp sent over the hard-cases to evict him, the Penguin killed them all. So they fenced him in with his goons. As a 'collectah,' his boys get some of the heaviest weaponry around.

With his talk over, the Penguin sends his gang straight at us. In our biggest fight yet, what must be fifteen to twenty thugs rush to surround Batman. This battle shows one of the main changes to the combat system - multiple parries. Asylum's enemies politely waited their turn before attacking, but in the City up to three can attack at once, and you've got to press parry for each one.

It sounds easy, but this simple change-up makes crowd scenes much more of a challenge, forcing single, double and triple taps into the normal flow. This was the only section of the demo in which we got a beating although - being Batman - we survived with one hit left. Pow! Bodies everywhere, the Penguin disappears like smoke and Batman stands in silence for just a moment before the screen fades to black.

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We've all played Arkham Asylum. Except that guy over there. But even he's thinking: is this really that much improved? In the hands there's no denying it feels familiar. But AC rises far above its foundations. Batman is even better, for a start. His motion has all of the visceral grace of before, but his moves are even greater.

Part of it's the improvement on what was already an exceptional animation system, one that sees him catching blows and handing them out in exactly the right places, seamlessly moving through a group with brutal efficiency. And part of it is the new moves - who doesn't love a diving chokeslam? Another part of it is that gorgeous gliding system - offering new freedom and mobility, but losing none of his weight and presence.

But the biggest thing of all is the setting. The most important thing about Arkham City is Arkham City: the Asylum worked fine for a one-shot, but Batman's natural home is on the streets and roofs of Gotham. Skyscrapers next to burned-out crack dens, dingy alleyways, wrecked cars, dead-eyed muscle... and a cry for help from somewhere dark. That's Batman. You can almost hear the music swell.

It's tempting to suggest this is going to be The Dark Knight of superhero games, but that would do it a great disservice. Arkham City doesn't need comparisons to movies, comic books or TV. Perched atop a gargoyle, looking out across Gotham from dizzying heights before diving down, this feels like nothing so much as Batman's own beautiful future.

Article originally appeared in PSM3 Magazine. Order PSM3 here and have it delivered straight to your door

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