It wasn't until 72 hours later, when I flew home and resumed an old save file in Batman: Arkham Asylum that I truly appreciated the innate quality of brawling I experienced in Batman: Arkham City, a game I missed at E3 but, at long last, got my paws on at Comic-Con 2011.
In Arkham Asylum my thumb was married to the Y/triangle. I countered the crap out of everything coming to me, much like I resort to counter kills in Assassin's Creed I and II. With proper timing (and you are given a generous window) it's an undefendable attack, and in Arkham Asylum, where the goons practically line up to take their turn, you could theoretically dispose of a crowd of a hundred using nothing but it.
Arkham City doesn't nerf the counterattack but it does give you strong, and I mean strong, incentive to go for more robust takedowns and combinations, chiefly through the integration of gadgets into your fighting styles. As a cloud of baddies hovered about me, I leaned on the right trigger, tapped X (or square) and Batman cartwheeled out of the way, leaving explosive gel like a plop of deadly doggie doo for these numbskulls to step in. After a moment, the same button sequence set it off, sending anyone in the area flying. If it finished off the last guy in the group, this was done in close-up and slow-motion, to great comedic effect.
Same goes for the grappling line. Right trigger and triangle/Y snagged the baddie and dragged him toward me; laying on X/square delivered a clothesline elbow to the kisser that was immensely satisfying to witness as my compatriot from Rocksteady Studios, the game's developer, supplied excited over-the-shoulder commentary, like it was an MMA bout.
None of this is in Arkham Asylum which was a very good game in its own right. So much of the time, a sequel to a licensed IP like Batman is assumed to be more of the same. Arkham City isn't, and that's before we get to the more open-world qualities of the game.
In regular combat, Batman still acts and reacts with a preternatural skill which you'll see after a very short learning curve on the controls. There was a palpable sense of not knowing one's strength, but it didn't venture into invincibility the way I feel with the counterattack in Arkham Asylum. Taking down a group of eight foes felt like work, given that counterattacks, despite their visual impressiveness, didn't result in debilitating damage. To really finish someone you have to resort to the old-school right trigger-triangle/Y takedown, provided you had time or space, and that risks getting a baseball bat or a pipe in the head.
That said, conventional stand-up combat has its advantages, too. Batman, in Arkham City has a contextual dual takedown that is breathtaking to behold the first time you pull it off. If you catch two enemies in the same space when you strike, Batman will lean into both baddies, palms to their faces, and drive them into the pavement. The room where I was playing was filled with driving music, so I didn't hear the audio payoff, but I imagine it adds to the satisfaction.
The rest of the game shows a respectable expansion of its predecessors' principles. It's more open-world than Arkham Asylum, for starters, giving you the feel of prowling the night for trouble, on your terms. Early in the game, I began with a set piece involving Two-Face and Catwoman in a courthouse (half of which was trashed, the other pristine) and then moved immediately to continue the story at my leisure, running to the basement to encounter Calendar Man (who has a nice content unlockable tied to your system's clock) and then outside to pick fights with thugs, and then to put a stop to one of the Riddler's plans, which exist as evergreen pursuits outside the main narrative.
I was unable to firmly master two new controls, however. One is a zipwire-to-launch command, in which Batman grapples to a ledge and, soaring into the air, takes off and glides from the landing point. You pull that off by hitting RB or R1 to grapple and then, as soon as Batman is airborne, hitting A/X twice. For shorter grapples, the timing can be tough to master. I was told Batman can get around the city using nothing but this glide/launch mechanic but that might require several hours of play to master.
The second was a dive-bomb attack that I still can't clearly articulate. As Batman is gliding, you lay on a button (I forget, sorry) and then pull back on the stick. I had a hard time registering which stick and what button, but given some time alone with it, I'm sure I can pull it off.
Batman: Arkham Asylum won a lot of praise for making beat-em-up combat feel like a superhuman talent. Arkham City expands on this, in addition to opening the world around you for exploration. I'm still winding up that old savefile in Arkham Asylum, but it's mostly to tie off all the narrative loose ends before City arrives, so I can return my attention to what I learned of it at Comic-Con. I really can't wait for this game.