Now, okay. Do keep in mind that this is "Comic Book Death" we're talking about here, which is only slightly above "Anime Death" in terms of "deaths that don't really count". But sad to say, it does look as though very early on in Batman: Arkham City, the J-man will bite the big one, and we'll spend the majority of the game free from his jolly jeers.
Let me back up for a moment. While the premature demise of the murderous mummer was certainly the biggest news of my most recent hands-on with the game, there were a few other things worth sharing as well. I sat down with Dax Ginn, marketing game manager at developer Rocksteady, to work through a later section of the game. I picked up where I left off at my PAX hands-on—Batman had saved Catwoman from Two-Face and tracked the Joker to the top of a clock tower, only to discover the room to be empty… other than some explosives.
In a nice touch, loading screens now feature a "previously on Arkham City" slideshow similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It was nicely informative, and got me up to date on the story so far.
I took control of the bat as he looked out over the walled-in confines of Arkham City. By using a radio signal tracker, I could follow the Joker's radio signal, which I traced across the rooftops towards his hideout at Sionis Steel Mill. The radio tracker also allowed me to overhear the radio conversations of the thugs on the ground, which organically fed me information on what was currently going on in the story.
I find it particularly nice that Arkham City has no mini-map. (You'll remember that mini-maps are not my favorite thing.) In their place, player-designated waypoints turn up in the game as a bat signal, which is viewable from anywhere. In no time, I had arrived at my destination, ready to kick ass. My mission: find the Joker, and discover what his mysterious "Protocol 10" was all about.
After clearing out the guards patrolling the chimneys poking up from the mill's depths, I climbed up to the very top of the highest smokestack and dove in. Batman is all balls, I tell you what—dude leapt over the rim of the chimney and dove straight down towards the pool of molten steel at its bottom.
As I made my way through the ducts under the mill, I heard Harley Quinn holding forth in the rooms above. Apparently, she had kidnapped a female gotham EMT and was planning to force her to fix the J-Man. I made my way around a large arena of sorts, where a large group of Joker's thugs were surrounding the poor EMT. As I circled the room out of sight, Harley introduced "Mr. Hammer," the huge sledge-wielding goon last seen in that cool Joker trailer that was released about a week ago.
I should talk for a second about Detective Mode, which I used quite a bit while making my way through the mill. Several people asked about it after my last preview, so I payed special attention to it this time around. Ginn told me that they were taking steps to keep players from using Detective Mode for the entire game (as some reported doing in Arkham Asylum), but that it was a challenge coming up with ways to do so organically. As he said, "Batman isn't going to have a 30-second cooldown timer on his visor's detective mode." So instead, some situations will be difficult to deal with with it turned on—in particular, combat will be much easier without Detective Mode, and with it on, opponents' blows will knock static into Batman's headset and make things much more difficult. I certainly used it a lot, but only to figure out puzzles. For most of my time playing the game, I had it turned off, and the game worked just fine.
Anyhow, back to the action. Before Mr. Hammer could drop his giant weapon on the EMT, Harley intervened—they couldn't kill her, since they needed her to help the Joker. She was taken away, and I followed after them. I came upon a large enclosed space patrolled by a grip of armed goons, and so it was time to do that whole Arkham Asylum thing and take to the rafters and eliminate them one by one. Gargoyle fans will be sad to hear that Asylum's ubiquitous stone monstrosities did not turn up in the steel mill, replaced by girders that served much the same function.
I had a freakin huge assortment of gadgets at my disposal, which Ginn assured me wouldn't be available at this point in the game. As he put it, this gave me a sense of Arkham City's new game+, which allows players to go through a second time at a higher difficulty with all of their upgrades intact.
After subduing all of the guards, I did a sweet flying kick through a window into the room where they were holding the EMT and freed her. Batman then went over to the smelter and pulled some serious engineering skills, coming away with an all-new gadget: the Remote Electrical Charge gun, or "REC."
In combat, the REC works a bit like a taser, emitting a blast of electricity that stuns enemies in place or sometimes causes them to spasm and attack the people around them. Out of combat however, its applications are far more varied and interesting. Batman can use the REC to operate all sorts of machinery in the gameworld. Aim it at an automated door, for example, and you're given the opportunity to remotely open or close it. A bit later on, I was able to control a giant crane-hook by firing the REC into the control panel at its base.
The REC will work in every location in the game, not just Joker's steel mill, and I got the sense that it is going to be the basis for a lot of good environmental puzzles.
I made my way back out to the large, thug-filled room from earlier, this time going out into the vents just beneath its floor. Arkham City features a contextual camera that pulls up when players let go of the Right Trigger, allowing a good view of the space above batman. I popped up in the middle of the room just behind a couple of goons and used a double takedown to knock them both out.
After that, the fight was on—it was that familiar blend of punching and countering that made combat in Arkham Asylum so much fun. I remained struck by how combat in the sequel moved even more smoothly than the first game, and the gadgets gave me many more options to attack. A quick snap of the right trigger in combat looses one, two, or three batarangs, which stun enemies and knock them back. Combining the left trigger with the X, Y, and B buttons fired off either the REC, the grappling hook, or Batman's combat gel, and a double-pull of the right trigger let off a freeze grenade that stuck enemies in place.
Holy plethora of options, Batman.
After a minute or so of fighting, Mr. Hammer joined the fray—I wasn't able to take him down using conventional punches and kicks, so I hit him with a few electrical rounds from the REC instead. When hit, he spazzed out, swinging his hammer all willy-nilly and taking out a few of the lesser thugs in the process. Once he was the last man standing, I rushed him and performed a triple-stun using Batman's cape, then closed in for a button-mashing punch-fest. That knocked him right out, and the room was clear.
The Joker was near, and the answers about Protocol 10 seemed within reach. But from above, I heard Harley crying. "What you're about to see," Ginn said, "you can report on, but you can't ask me any questions about it."
Entering the room, I could hear the sound of a flatlining EKG mixed in with Harley's cries. "You," she said, feral with anger.
"Get out of my way, Quinn," said Batman.
"Leave us alone, B-man," she said through tears, "Just leave me with him."
"I said move!" Batman roared, pushing her out of the way.
"This is all your fault!" she cried, "Hounding him for years, and you beat him to a pulp! And for what? Why are you so... mean?"
And then, the camera cut in close on Joker's limp body, lolling back in a life-support chair as the screen beside him showed a flat line and one word: "Deceased." And then the demo ended.
So. He certainly appeared to be dead, but when it comes to comic book villains (and particularly the Joker), death is pretty far from permanent. I do think this is a sign that the Joker will play a far less central role in Arkham City than we had even though, but I'll never count the tricky bastard out. After all, I never did find out what Protocol 10 was… and something tells me it'll be fairly important in the game.
Arkham City is looking like one massive game, full of things to do and dudes to punch. I got a quick, accidental look at the list of characters in the pause menu and saw what looked to be an absolutely huge number of characters, though I wasn't able to really catch any new ones before we headed back to the game screen (I did see a character model for Viki Vale, however). Between the new game+ and the expanded, occasionally tiered challenge rooms, Batman fans are going to get one hell of a lot of game in a couple of weeks.
But alas, it looks like most of that game will be sans Joker.
Rest well, killer clown
wind down your chattering teeth
you laughed last, and best