Preview: A quick look at Batman: Arkham City's Challenge Maps turns into a discussion about a whole lot more...
Batman: Arkham Asylum is an example of an obvious franchise starter that was teeming with easy sequel potential. Arkham Asylum breathed new life into an existing IP, but had enough wrong with it that any inevitable sequel would have the possibility to impress out of the box by simply fixing some key things. A wholly addictive experience, Arkham Asylum was kept away from the lofty heights of gaming perfection by repetitive boss battles, an ultimately disappointing end showdown with The Joker and, ironically, the feeling that it held itself back for a sequel by not giving obvious key villains a more central role.
I got to have some hands-on time with the Challenge Maps of Arkham City and had a bit of a chat with Paul Crocker, lead narrative designer at Rocksteady, about the soon-to-be-released sequel.
They were only showing off a couple of Challenge Maps, and I only had time to play one of the combat-based challenges as Catwoman. According to Paul, players can expect, “twice as many animations, twice as many combat moves and you can use all your gadgets in combat.” There was definitely a noticeable fluidity to the combat on the rooftop Challenge Map and an impressive variation in the sheer number of available smackdown options.
As with Arkham Asylum, you’ll rely on a combination of evade, counter, strike and stun moves to fell foes. Counters are just as effective as before when trying to keep your combat multiplier rolling, but enemies don’t stand around and attack individually. Instead, they’ll attack in twos or threes as the difficulty ramps up; but then, you can charge up the ability to perform a triple takedown that we didn’t get to see, but Paul assured us “looks pretty cool”. Melee and thrown items can also be countered, which adds a practical way to keep your multiplier alive when enemies are at range. Better yet, if a thug is stunned, you can enter what Paul called “a beatdown phase” that brutally pummels a prostrate enemy into submission.
As with the original game, the Challenge Maps are story-less, but they do have an overarching cohesion in how they’re handled. Paul referred to them as “the Riddler campaign” but was quick to reiterate the absence of narrative and emphasise that they exist in their own bubble, quite separate from the main campaign. The Riddler, it seems, is a bit dirty about how Batman had him arrested at the end of the Riddler Challenges (if you, like me, hunted all of them down) in Arkham Asylum and is out for revenge.
Paul extrapolated on this point. “We have the Riddler campaign itself, which is the Riddler getting revenge on Batman for the events at the end [of Arkham Asylum] where you’ve tracked him down and the police got him, so he’s quite pissed at you and this is his revenge and that revenge pretty much involves him taking hostages, putting them in death machines and making you figure out solutions to save them. They’re really satisfying, and a really strong puzzle aspect of the game where you’re using your gadgets and having to think like Batman, but they’re in these unique spaces. And it also means that by the time you’ve completed those you get to put your hands around the throat of The Riddler and beat the living hell out of him, which is what we want to do with all the villains in the game. We want you to get that satisfied moment of literally planting your fist through their face at the end. That’s our goal, hopefully we’ve achieved it.”
There’s also more of an emphasis on environmental takedowns this time around, so expect to be smashing plenty of thugs’ skulls against solid objects. Paul also touched on an interesting inclusion that lets you customise how the Challenge Maps play out in order to achieve higher scores. “You’re effectively able to customise the rules of the fight in a way that you think will let you get a higher score, such as the player activating the ability to punch through shields, but at the expense of health. We think there are about 2,000 combinations of modifiers you can attach to the fights.”
From the outset, Paul wanted to make it clear that Catwoman wasn’t merely a reskinned version of Batman. “Catwoman has an entirely unique move set and she fights very, very differently than Batman. Batman is all about brute force and building up speed; Catwoman’s always fighting, got a whip, but you feel more vulnerable and also that you’re playing as this really sexy character.” Paul expanded on this point. “Rocksteady will never just reskin a character—separate to the skins of Batman—when you play as Catwoman you’ve always got a unique set of moves that no other character can have.”
Having seen my fair share of Batman combat, Catwoman certainly possessed her own brand of justice delivery. Apparently, she’s also “more morally ambiguous than Batman”. This doesn’t mean she kills, but she doesn’t seem to have a problem with messing up thugs’ faces with her steel claws.