Batman: Arkham City hands-on preview Joker dies at the end?

Before you get too upset, you should know that that headline isn’t a spoiler. Not really. The “end” we’re referring to isn’t the end of Arkham City, but of the latest demo we played through earlier this week, which we’re told is set relatively early in the game. When it concluded, however, there was little doubt that Joker – or at least someone who looked an awful lot like him – was deceased.

Long before that, though, we began the demo in the middle of Arkham City – the dark, thug-infested prison district created out of the slums of Gotham – just after the events of the E3 demo. If you’ve been following the game, you may remember that that ended with Batman following the path of a sniper’s bullet to a bell tower, which turned out to be full of explosives. Batman escaped the explosion (naturally), but not before tracing the signal of the remote-controlled rifle – and it was that signal that guided the early moments of our demo, becoming stronger when we pointed Batman in the right direction.

Determined to do a bit of exploring first, we started into a glide off the ledge Batman started on, and got a quick tutorial on how best to navigate Gotham’s skies. With the press of a button, Batman folded in his cape and went into a power dive, sending the street below screaming up at us. Pulling out of the dive gave us a sizable boost upward, and got us a little closer to a ledge that we could grab onto with the Batclaw. Double-tapping A (on the 360 version) gave Batman a speed boost as he zipped toward the ledge, which vaulted him right over it and let us resume gliding.

It took a little while to get used to, but pretty soon we were traveling across the rooftops more or less effortlessly. (If you’ve traveled much in Just Cause 2 using just the parachute and the grappling hook, then you already have a rough idea of how this feels.) Apparently, it’s possible for Batman to swing around like this indefinitely, never touching a flat surface – but for now, we had somewhere to be.

As we swung low near the ground, a squad of thugs gazed up at us from the street. Or maybe they were paid thugs; as we soared overhead, we heard a bit of radio chatter between Hugo Strange, the twisted psychiatrist who’s become the de facto ruler of the city, and his paramilitary goons. Strange’s instructions: keep an eye on Batman, but don’t engage him for now. Whether they worked for Strange or someone else, the thugs on the street started shouting about how Batman was chicken (and made chicken noises) when it was clear we weren’t going to dive down to the street and attack them.

For now, we ignored them, because right across from them was a tenement building with one side covered entirely in question marks – a sure sign of a Riddler puzzle. We swooped in close to investigate, but were warned away by our handlers, who said that the puzzle was a difficult one, and that we only had so much time. Nevertheless, we poked and prodded at it for a few seconds – but finding no hint of what we were supposed to do to solve it, decided to resume exploring.

Heading away from the signal, we found our way to Krank Toys, a disused factory (is there any other kind in this game?) on the waterfront. Here, we ran into the now-friendly (but still heavily accented) Bane – and one of the game’s side missions. While Arkham City still has some of the semi-random collectibles you’d expect after Arkham Asylum, like the Riddler’s puzzles and trophies, it apparently won’t feature dozens of meaningless collectibles for Batman to stumble onto. Instead, the team decided to add a bunch of smaller collection quests that fit better with Batman’s character. In this case, Bane asked Batman to collect and destroy six canisters of the mega-steroid Titan serum, while he did the same with six others. Clearly, Batman didn’t trust the hulking wrestler, but if the man who broke Batman’s back is a co-op partner, then he can’t be that bad.

Eventually, the part of the city we were in gave way to Joker’s territory, which added a nightmare of clown faces, balloons and other carnival trimmings to the already bleak-looking city. It was around this time that we ran into a patrol of Joker’s goons on a rooftop, and decided we felt like pummeling something.

Combat in Arkham City plays out more or less like it did in Arkham Asylum, which is to say that thugs will surround you, and little icons will flash over their heads when they’re about to strike. That’s your cue to hit the “counter” button and gracefully punch their faces in just as they move to do the same to you (you can also do this to thrown projectiles, letting you hurl them right back at their owners). Most thugs will go down after you’ve beaten them enough, but taking them out of the fight quickly requires a ground takedown once you’ve stunned them – and while those finishers are flashy, they also leave you vulnerable to attackers for a few crucial seconds. If your timing’s right and your enemies are close enough, it’s also possible to take down two thugs at once during combat, although those opportunities were rare.

Interestingly, it turned out to be impossible to simply knock thugs off of rooftops; if we slammed one too close to a ledge, he’d simply hit an invisible wall and get back up seconds later. A little disappointing, maybe, but it just wouldn’t be right if Batman actually let the perps tumble to their deaths. It’s apparently possible, however, to string the goons up and dangle them upside-down from rooftop ledges, Dark Knight Returns style, but sadly we weren’t able to pull that off during the fight.

Continuing our pursuit of the remote signal brought us to Sionis Industries, a huge, decrepit steel mill that the Joker had turned into his headquarters. Landing on its roof, we found token resistance in the form of a few thugs; once they were down, Batman called up Alfred for help with finding an entrance. It seemed the only way in was through the factory’s central chimney, which we grappled up to – leading Bats to automatically flip in and start gliding down into what appeared to be a very active furnace.

Thankfully, the computer was in control at this point, and once we’d regained control of Batman – who’d settled on a narrow little beam – we hopped over to a little pathway that led away from the fiery pit. After clambering over a few pipes and using the Batclaw to open a huge, watertight door – thereby cooling another furnace with a huge gush of water, and giving Batman a jet of steam to glide up on – we were in. And soon enough, Harley Quinn was addressing a herd of Joker goons from above a big, open arena while we watched, safely hidden in a ventilation passage.

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