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Batman: Arkham City Hands-on [PAX Prime 2011]

So far, I've gotten an opportunity to share with you the majority of my personal top-picks from PAX Prime 2011. However, there's one that I haven't yet touched on... and you know what? There's really no better time that the present. Stopping in at the WB booth on the show-floor of PAX, Corey and I managed to tag-team a play-through of the demo of Batman: Arkham City.

The demo we played tossed us right into the thick of it, launching us into the center of the city scape. There was a brief introduction (which mainly consisted of "hey have you played Arkham Asylum?"), and then we were pretty much let loose on the city to do as we please. I started out the demo, and the first thing I saw was a bright green question mark... which I immediately turned all focus onto. As an old-school fan of the Riddler, and a lover of everything that WB has been doing so far with the promo trailers/ARG for the character online, I was eager to see exactly how the Batman/Riddler interaction turned out in-game.

The other great part about seeing something on the horizon, and deciding "hey, I want to go to there" was that it meant an opportunity to get a bit of play with the new gliding mechanic. I'm happy to say it's as satisfying as I would have hoped. It played a LOT like Just Cause 2's parachute mechanic, in that you'll be using the grapple-hook to reel yourself towards objects, then launching sky-ward. Where Batman breaks from JC2 though is that at any time you can also dive-bomb towards the pavement below... which nets you a whole bunch of speed and can carry your flight on further without the need to grapple.

After playing around with the flight mechanic, I made my way over to my original target, the question mark, and set to work solving my first puzzle. It was a little weird getting back into the swing of Batman honestly... I'd spent so many hours with the title before, but there have been so many other games in-between that I honestly was quite lost on the first challenge. It turned out to be as simple as tossing a batarang through an exposed vent... but you would have thought it was a damned rubix cube by the amount of time I spent studying the lay-out in 'detective mode'.

Once I had received my first Riddler trophy, I was teased with the knowledge that 'if you collect two more Riddler trophies, The Riddler will call you directly'. Well... I knew in an instant what I was going to do. So I struck out in search of more. The next challenge was even simpler (pressing a button, seriously, that's all there was to it). But it was the gate-way to the real sweet-spot of the game-play demo for me: The Riddler's kill-room.

This is something that's been teased a bit in a few of the more recent trailers, basically a large room designed with all kind of death-traps that test Batman's mind and reflexes with the end goal being to save someone on the brink of destruction. The room I entered was about the size of a hanger, with an electrified floor, giant spinning razor blades, and a dude strung up by his wrists in the center of it all.

Starting out, the first challenge - the floor - was easy enough to solve. On the wall immediately beside the door which I'd just passed through to enter the room, there was a panel that could be 'hacked' by one of Batman's gizmos. Interestingly the 'hacking' system has changed some-what, and now you control the two analog sticks independently to match up two halves of a word (in my specific case "conundrum"). This would, in-turn, cancelled out a specific path on the floor a period of about 30 seconds, allowing me to run through the challenge room towards the next part of the puzzle; while avoiding the giant razor blades and being careful not to step off the path to an electrical death.

The next challenge was a little easier. All that was required to deactivate the electricity on the floor for a run to the second section was a tossed batarang. Of course, with The Riddler though, nothing is that easy. This part of the challenge room was all about reflexes... I had to move quickly along the path, while being aware of where the blades were at all time (if they made a pass, I had to hit the 'duck' button quickly to avoid being torn in two). A quick hop up a series of stacked blocks, and it was on to "level two".

Again, fairly straight forward as far as activation... Another Batarang knocked a button to seize the electrical spasms of the floor and it was a straight run across the narrow bridge to cross to the other side. At the other end though awaited a bit of a twist, as I had to bust out the zip-line before the blades blocked the path, or the electricity started up again to zip to the final section of the challenge.

The last room was two parts - first required some explosive gel to reveal another section where the remote batarang would be navigated towards a button, up and over a fence. - Then finally was a large gap where the game revealed one of the many changes that has been made to the mechanics of the old gear that Batman takes around with him.

Using the zip-line again, I was told that there'd been a change made: Now you can zip-line twice. This means that while you're mid-swing with the zip-line you can release, change direction, and then fire again. So, I gave it a go. Firing down range I zipped quickly towards the opposite wall, but half way down the trip spotted a hole-in-the-wall that pointed directly at the civilian tied to the ceiling. Releasing and re-firing with a quick change of direction (aided by a 'bullet-time-esque' slow motion moment) I soared through, caught the civilian and crashed through a window on the far side to freedom.

It's as much fun as I hoped... and The Riddler challenges are going to easily be the highlight of my personal play through of the game when it finally launches.  

"But Casey," keen readers will be asking about this point, "didn't you say you and Corey TAG-TEAMED the game?"

Why yes, yes we did. Because while The Riddler challenges are what I'm most interested in, Corey's one of those super-humans that spent time acing every single challenge from the first game. His reflexes and abilities with the combat system are the stuff of legend... so when the screen jumped to the introduction of the Penguin and our guide suggested this was "our opportunity to see what we can do with the combat system" I yielded to his superior aptitude for Bat-combat.

The combat plays like we all remember, it's as fluid and cinematic as before. The timing is tight, and when you get it on lock-down it is a thing of beauty. But of course, with a sequel this big, you have to up the ante... and I'm pleased to say the tweaks they've made to the combat are pretty satisfying

The first thing that was immediately noticed was the change to the counter-system. If you played the first game, you probably remember that one of the coolest things about the hand-to-hand was the ability to press a button with the proper timing and counter and incoming attack. What's better than that? Well... countering two people of course! And they didn't just stop there either; you can actually counter up to three on-coming foes at the same time in Arkham City. All you need to do to unleash this new-found power is press the button, quickly, the corresponding amount of times. So, if there are two people rushing towards you, tap the Y (X360) button twice and you'll dual-counter them. It was something that I hadn't been expecting. We'd seen people being taken down three-at-time in the trailers... but I was sure it was more of a 'sneak and assassinate' maneuver. Seeing it mid-combo stream from Corey the first time made my jaw drop.

One other change that was shown, to the combo system in specific, during our play through was the ability to wield gadgets during the battle. Corey used it to draw gel quickly on the floor between blows, setting up a trap-explosive on the ground and detonating to tune up a couple of his on-comers while continuing his 20+ combo string on the remaining baddies.

Whenever a great game like Arkham announces a sequel, there's always the question of how you're going to improve on it. I'm happy to say that City builds on everything that made Asylum great, and then takes it up to the next level. I personally cannot wait for the full release of this one, and I'm sure Corey is going to go for another 100% as well.