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E3 2011: Batman: Arkham City - hands-on with the Bat AND the Cat

A dark, familiar figure slinks through a study lined with books, older paintings and leather furniture. The figure removes a painting and finds a safe, where the object of desire awaits. Suddenly, the figure's surrounded by a half-dozen henchman, each wearing gnarly monster masks that cover half their faces. The camera swoops back revealing Catwoman and then places you in her shoes to steal valuables from other criminals and administer beat-downs of a more graceful nature than you're accustomed to.

Batman: Arkham City – sequel toArkham Asylum, winner of our 2009 Platinum Chalice Game of the Year – spends zero time throwing you into a mix of new and old. The surprising prologue is set in Arkham City's courthouse, where you'll begin the game playing – nay, owning – as Catwoman. We noticed nothing different in the button placement from the previous game; X to attack, A to evade, B to stun and Y to counter. And if you remember Asylum's combat being fluid, fast and fun, then you'll be eager to hear just how awesome it was to utterly destroy thugs as Catwoman.

Of course, Catwoman doesn't have the same overpowering brawling animations as the Caped Crusader. Her controls feel slightly looser than the nimble tank that Batman is, yet her responsiveness doesn't feel compromised at all. It felt comfortable slipping back into the old controls. We had her hopping over baddies' shoulders, stunning them with her trademark whip and finally closing out the combos with a high heel to the face – in trademark slow-motion of course. With everyone down, we were free to investigate the safe. A cutscene played out showing Catwoman finding a strange microchip and inserting it in a smartphone of sorts. We weren't clear on how or why, but Two-Face quickly appeared and subdued the feline female by aiming a gun at her skull.

CUE TITLE. And then the game starts for realsies. As the Dark Knight, you stand atop a building overlooking a portion of Arkham City. We activate our improved Cryptographic Sequencer – all of your items are available from the start – and zero in on a frequency, which leads us to the Courthouse location. Our current objective is to save Catwoman from Two-Face. Buuuut, this is a fairly open game world and we’re excited about that. So as much as we fear for Catwoman’s imminent death, we say nuts to that objective. Let's go exploring.

Surely you've heard by now that Arkham City is an open-world game with side missions, different gang territories and more to explore than in Asylum. This map is huge and there's always a couple of objectives to sniff out including random kidnappings, citizens needing saving from thugs, and the returning Riddler trophies.

We opened the world map and set our viewpoint marker for a different portion of the city, where Jack Ryder was being assaulted and set about swinging our way to his location. Now that you have an entire city as your playground, it feels more natural to use the Batclaw to scale buildings and ledges. Combined with your glide (and a helpful helicopter or two), you can actually traverse the entirety of Arkham City without ever stopping or hitting the ground. It feels just as exhilarating as when the PS2-era Spider-Man games gave you New York to swing around in.

We dropped down with a speedy power-dive, momentarily knocking out a baddie. As noted before, combat feels just as smooth as the original with Batman gaining approximately twice as many combat moves and animations. An icon floating over one of the thug's head designated that he was the leader of this group. We were instructed to beat him up last (by the demoer), which was surprisingly difficult. These donnybrooks have you hopping over enemies' heads and countering anyone coming your way with a bat, so it felt strange to turn tail and not beat someone up. We're happy we did because once we smacked him down, Batman lifts him up by the neck for a cutscene, which prompted the baddie to divulge info on the whereabouts of a few Riddler trophies. Sweetness!

We weren't told how many trophies would be in the game, but the measures you must go to reach 'em scale in difficulty once again. An early “puzzle” we saw had us standing on a pressure-plate, which activated a trap around the trophy to open. We then used the Batclaw to snatch it and pull it towards us. Simple, but again, this must be the first trophy in the game. Another was lodged under a few precariously stacked cars. We took off running towards it and hit the Slide button, enabling us to drift through the cars and nabbing us a trophy. We're eager to see what puzzles and hard-to-reach locations are in store for us.

Deciding to ignore the kidnapping in progress, we turned our attention to the Courthouse. We easily dispatched the guards outside and made our way through the front door. Let's use this area to discuss Arkham City's art style. Once again, each area that a villain occupies will have a style that complements the character well. The Courthouse is no different. You immediately see the differences in the interiors. The left side of the government building is decadent and polished, appearing as though no anarchic reigns of terror have touched it. The right side is a charred, barren mess. Portions of the structure have caved in and are inaccessible. Bravo to the art team.