"Batman: Arkham Knight" begins with an exodus. People are fleeing Gotham City in droves after the villainous Scarecrow has threatened to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.
"The only people left on the streets are the sort that enjoy the chaos," growls the voice of police commissioner Jim Gordon, as the camera pans over the nearly-empty city. "And not enough good people left to stop them."
We watched a demo of the first twenty or so minutes of upcoming video game "Batman: Arkham Knight" at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Press weren't permitted to play "Arkham Knight" ourselves. Instead, Rocksteady's social marketing manager Gaz Deaves played the demo, which constituted the first 20 or so minutes of the game's storyline but with a few modifications to show off some of Batman's new abilities.
While Deaves played, Rocksteady's marketing game manager Dax Ginn filled us in on even more of the game's backstory.
"Arkham Knight" opens 12 months after the events of "Batman: Arkham City," released in 2011 and the last "Arkham" game developed by London-based Rocksteady Games. (In the interim, Montreal-based developers WB Montreal released a prequel, "Batman: Arkham Origins.")
Crime is on the decline in Gotham, as a direct result of the major character death at the end of "Arkham City." But that abruptly changes when the Scarecrow reappears.
Last seen in the 2009 game "Batman: Arkham Asylum" (the first in the "Arkham" series), Scarecrow spent the intervening years plotting his revenge on Batman. Now he's reappeared, allied with the worst of Batman's rogues gallery and threatening to unleash a fear-inducing toxin on all of Gotham.
The weapon, and the exodus it causes in the game's opening scene, is clearly a convenient way for the developers to ensure the only characters Batman meets on the streets are either thugs or directly related to the story. Still, it works well for creating a believable city without having to design and render hundreds of citizens.
After the opening scene Batman's first objective is to rendezvous with Commissioner Gordon of the Gotham Police Department. When Batman arrived on the police headquarters' roof the game seamlessly transitioned to a cutscene in which Gordon asks Batman to track down a missing military vehicle.
After a quick run through a gorgeously rendered Gotham City with extraordinarily realistic lighting and shadow effects, Batman finds the vehicle and the demo's first fight scene begins. The "Arkham" series' signature free-flowing combat was immediately recognizable as Deaves unleashed a series of attacks on the group of thugs trying to break into the vehicle.
Deaves showed off a few new moves as well: When Batman first jumped into the fight, he was able to throw his "Batarangs" in mid-air, and once on the ground he could grab thugs' baseball bats and other weapons and use them to attack. With the "throw counter" Batman could also block an enemy's punch and then grab that enemy and throw him into another.
Later in the demo, Batman is able to take three unsuspecting armed enemies down at once in a move called a "fear takedown."
Ginn later told Tom's Guide that these abilities won't actually be available this early in "Batman: Arkham Knight." They were just unlocked for the demo in order to show them off.
After the fight by the military vehicle, Batman calls his signature vehicle, the Batmobile, and hops inside.
"The Batmobile sits at the heart of everything we've done in 'Arkham Knight,'" said Ginn, adding that the power of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and gaming PCs (for which the game will eventually release) is what allowed the Batmobile to finally appear in the "Arkham" games.
Ginn said that Batman can summon the Batmobile to him at any point in Gotham City and zoom at high speeds through the streets. At any point Batman can also eject himself from the car and spread his cape so the forward velocity propels him to breathtaking heights.
Now behind the Batmobile wheel, the Rocksteady folks showed off a mission involving the villainous Riddler. Throughout the game players will be challenged to complete dangerous underground racetracks in the Batmobile in order to thwart Riddler's schemes.
This is uncharted territory for Rocksteady, and since we didn't play the demo ourselves we can't comment on how the controls feel, but racing in the Batmobile sounds awesome. These sequences appear to be optional, however, so "Batman" fans who don't like racing games won't be forced to play them.
Finally Batman made his way to the Clocktower, a well-known location to comic book fans and the home base of superhero hacker Oracle, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon. Unbeknownst to her unsuspecting father, Barbara has stayed in Gotham to help Batman take down Scarecrow and the other villains.
In "Arkham Asylum" and "Arkham City" Oracle was only a voice over Batman's radio. "Arkham Origins" briefly featured a fourteen-year-old Barbara. Barbara rolling out of the Clocktower's shadows in her wheelchair in the "Arkham Knight" demo marks her first in-game appearance in the series.
What's more, Ginn said that she and her father Jim Gordon, and the relationship they both share with Batman, will be a central focus of "Arkham Knight."
Barbara analyzes a sample of Scarecrow's fear gas Batman has secured, and then sends him on to his next objective. That's when Batman encounters the titular "Arkham Knight."
An entirely original character to the Batman mythos, the Knight appeared at the very end of the demo, where in a cutscene he appeared to shoot Batman in the back. The demo ended with Batman on the ground, the Knight's boot on his chest and his gun in his face. The screen then fades to black just before a gunshot sounds.
All in all, the demo took about 20 minutes. We did notice a bit of stuttering in the framerate, and the game crashed once, but Ginn said Rocksteady has yet to do the bulk of its optimization and the studio has plenty of time to make performance improvements before "Arkham Knight" comes out at the end of 2014.
We'll know more when we can actually play the "Arkham Knight," but we were definitely impressed with the graphics, the sheer scope of Gotham City, the range of new and beloved characters and, of course, the Batmobile.