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Batman: Arkham City doesn’t really rock the boat, content instead to offer up what is essentially an improved and expanded version of the last game. Apparently, sometimes that is more than good enough.~Aaron Izakowitz
Batman: Arkham City
When Batman: Arkham Asylum came out in 2009, it was a revelation. For decades, gamers had been conditioned to assume that any game based on a licensed property, particularly a superhero, would be at best decent and at worst execrable. Asylum ignored all that, vaulting from relative obscurity to become a surprise Game of the Year contender and making Rocksteady Studios a top-tier developer overnight. Now, two years later comes its sequel, Batman: Arkham City, and the circumstances surrounding its release could not be more different. While Asylum had everything to prove, City has the perhaps even more unenviable task of trying to top its exemplary predecessor.
Arkham City more than rises to the challenge, and it does, paradoxically, by taking the safe path. This is the very definition of an iterative sequel, with very few if any changes to the formula that made its predecessor a success. The environment is bigger, you have more tools, the combat has been improved with more combos and more varied enemies, you face more of Batman’s iconic villains, and the Riddler challenges are more numerous and more devious. It is what fans wanted and expected.
It is also an astonishingly good game; unquestionably one of the best released this year. While this is perhaps more a testament to the quality of the first game than anything, the fact remains that Batman: Arkham City renders Asylum utterly obsolete, and makes it look easy.
The story kicks off six months after the events of Asylum. Following the total breakdown of order on Arkham Island, the city of Gotham has cordoned off an entire district and converted it into a sort of megaprison, the titular Arkham City, with the megalomaniacal Professor Hugo Strange in charge. Surprisingly, Arkham City soon descends to the state of “wretched hellhole,” with Gotham’s supervillains rapidly setting up rival factions to vie for supremacy in the prison and forward their own nefarious ends.
At the game’s outset, Bruce Wayne finds himself arrested and framed under ill-defined pretenses (more on this later). Before long he has donned the cowl and cape from within Arkham City and set out to get to the bottom of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Hugo Strange and his own incarceration. The plot, as you might expect, only spirals outward from there, and before long many prominent members of Batman’s rogue gallery have a part to play, including the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, a few others I shouldn’t spoil here, and of course, the Joker.
While Arkham City qualifies as an “open world” game, it is not really a sandbox. Other than fighting random goons, there isn’t a whole lot to do if you are just wandering around. Rather, it is closest to something like Assassin’s Creed II. You always have a single story objective to work towards, but as you grapple, glide, and fight your way across the city, smaller, quick objectives will reveal themselves. By far the most common of these are the Riddler trophies, which are scattered quite liberally across the city, and many of which are in plain sight but require you to solve some sort of puzzle or riddle to obtain. Beyond these, there are crime scenes to investigate, bullet trajectories to recreate, Riddler informants to interrogate (which reveal the location of trophies on your map) and, for some reason, holographic rings floating in the air to fly through. It can all be a little overwhelming at times, but fortunately it’s all completely optional, and it’s always clear where to go next if you are only interested in advancing the story. Even better, if you see a Riddler trophy that you don’t feel like tackling immediately, you can now tag it and it will appear on your minimap, a very welcome feature.
Once on a story mission, things become very similar to the first game. Stealth and hand-to-hand combat are both back mostly unchanged, with some added wrinkles. In stealth mode, for example, certain enemies might have a signal jammer which disables your detective vision, or a thermal vision upgrade which allows them to see you even when you are hiding in the rafters, which will obviously influence your plan of attack. Combat sees similar additions. Goons equipped with body armor, riot shields, knives, and stunguns are all in the mix, each requiring a unique approach. Fortunately, your arsenal has also been expanded. The game’s story thankfully does not contrive some reason to strip Batman of all his abilities at the beginning, so you start the game with a healthy range of options, and your toolset only grows over the course of the game.
Once you complete the campaign, which took me somewhere from 12 to 15 hours with moderate sidequesting, there is plenty of additional content on the disc to keep you coming back. The Challenge modes, both combat and predator, return largely unchanged, complete with online leaderboards. A new addition is what they are calling Campaigns, which have a string of different challenges to be played in a sequence, with optional modifiers to either assist the player, such as regenerating health, or provide an extra challenge, like a time attack mode. There is also a New Game Plus, which lets you play through the game with all your upgrades and trophies unlocked but retools the game somewhat to provide an extra challenge. On top of all this, there is a huge amount of supplemental material including concept art, character biographies, and a lengthy history of Arkham City, all of which are unlocked by collecting enough Riddler trophies.
Again, in many ways these are exactly the sorts of enhancements and tweaks that we have come to expect from a sequel. It’s true that Batman: Arkham City doesn’t really rock the boat, content instead to offer up what is essentially an improved and expanded version of the last game. Apparently, sometimes that is more than good enough.
In short: Batman: Arkham City, is really, really fun. It’s so fun you will literally yell in disbelief at how sweet whatever you just did was, and you will do it a lot. It’s so fun you will make your roommate/significant other/whoever walks into the room watch you play it so that they, too, can appreciate just how awesome you are. I can think of very few games that are more satisfying to just play. Simply traversing the city, using your grappling hook to fling yourself into the sky and then divebombing and pulling up to gain momentum, is an absolute joy. The predator sections of the game are even tenser than before, with the enemies’ new gadgets robbing you of what little security you once had. The rhythmic combat system, which at first seems like a button masher but which ultimately rewards careful observation and focus, remains the best brawler that I’ve played, period. Whether you just race through the story missions or take your time to explore all the extra content to its fullest, the game is expertly paced, invisibly propelling you forward. Layered on top of all this is a satisfying progression system, which provides you with a new ability or gadget just when you feel like you have mastered the game.
As in the first game, Rocksteady has taken a fantasy that, let’s face it, everyone has had at some point in their lives and made it as close to a reality as anyone will ever experience. Every aspect of the game’s design reinforces the notion that you are Batman. His strength is in his careful planning and execution, and if you are impatient or sloppy in Arkham City, you will be punished. You are stronger and smarter than everyone else, but you are not invincible, and few games make you feel so powerful in such a tangible and realistic way.
This pervasive sense of Batman-ness extends into the game’s presentation. Its world is an alchemic combination of elements from the comics, the animated series, and the various movies (even Joel Schumaker’s monstrosities have something to contribute), creating something familiar, yet distinct enough to stand apart from any of those universes. The new character designs are excellent, Mr. Freeze in particular. The game is not afraid to drift into the fantastical, indeed reveling in it at times, yet the universe feels gritty enough to give the characters’ actions some weight.
Vocal performances are also generally pretty sharp. Mark Hamill reprises his outstanding performance as the Joker, who finds himself in an unusually vulnerable position this time around. The Riddler remains incredibly obnoxious, as befits the character, with his constant taunts and boasts. The new characters, for the most part, make a strong impression. Unfortunately, nameless thugs have uniformly terrible dialogue and acting, constantly spouting off lines that no person in the world would ever say, shouting exposition at the top of their lungs for any passing Batmen to pick up on, and yelling ridiculous taunts to Batman as he flies by or hunts them from above. It’s not quite Splinter Cell: Conviction bad, but it does infringe on the authenticity of the game’s atmosphere a bit.
While the premise and setting are very effective, the actual plot has some significant problems. The most immediate concern is that the game’s writers seem to have forgotten to include a beginning. The central conceit of the game, that Gotham would rededicate an entire district for a prison, run by known madman Hugo Strange, is pretty outlandish, even for a comic book property, and this is only made worse by the total lack of explanation. There is a comic book that comes with new copies of the game that fills in the gaps between the last game and this one, but if you haven’t read it (as I hadn’t, and as I suspect many won’t), or actively sought out information on this game online, then the opening of this game will be very confusing, and indeed many things are never explained at all. The plot’s twists and turns can at times feel a little contrived, like they exist solely to get Batman to a new location, particularly towards the beginning of the game. Some of the characters’ motivations also don’t really make a lot of sense under scrutiny. The ending, while better than that of Arkham Asylum, is a little abrupt, and ends on a fairly lazy cliffhanger.
More significant problems lie in the game’s handling of Catwoman. She was a major part of its presentation and marketing, and we’ve known for months now that she would be a playable character. This is indeed true, as there are a handful of episodes strewn throughout the game in which you control Catwoman. Unfortunately, these episodes are all very short, and it turns out playing as Catwoman is a lot like playing as Batman but without any of the gadgets that make playing as Batman enjoyable. She has very few combat options compared to Batman, and she gets around more or less just by pouncing really high. Her stealth sections are entirely dependent on her ability to jump up and hang upside-down from chain-link ceilings and then descend on enemies when they are isolated, which…is not a thing that cats do. Also, what kind of building has chain-link ceilings? Beyond that, Catwoman herself is annoying, with absolutely no depth beyond making pointless cat jokes and flirting lamely with everyone she sees.
There is another, rather ugly, aspect to Catwoman’s presence in the game. In an effort to curb used game sales, Rocksteady (or, more likely, Warner Bros.) have chosen to lock off the Catwoman portions of the game with a code included in new copies of the game. What this means is that the first time you play the game, you will have to enter this code and then download around 250MB of data, just to play a part of the game that was clearly meant to be there the whole time. This is after the requisite patching and, on PS3, installation. If you didn’t buy the game new, you will have to buy the Catwoman DLC for $10. While the Catwoman sections are the weakest part of the game, I feel like their absence would result in some confusion, and it’s disappointing to see what was clearly intended to be an integral part of the game gated behind an anti-used game sale measure. It’s more annoying than anything, but I sincerely hope this does not become a trend.
Despite all of these problems, the fact remains that Batman: Arkham City is an absolutely stellar game. Its story issues, while substantial, do absolutely nothing to temper the quality of the overall experience. From its thrilling open world traversal to its hair-raising predator sequences to its unparalleled melee combat system, every element of the game reflects dedication to the source material and the talent and expertise of Rocksteady Studios. It’s a tour de force that cements their position at the top of the industry. At the risk of sounding gushy or hyperbolic, Batman: Arkham City is the sort of game that will remind you of why you like videogames in the first place.