Title: Batman: Arkham City
Platform: 360, PS3, PC (to be released)
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Review By: Eric Stuckart
When it was released, 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was perhaps the greatest superhero game ever made, and for good reason. It was stylish, stuck to the source material pretty closely — despite the ending getting a tad bit too video gamey — courtesy of Batman scribe Paul Dini, was graphically impressive, and had some excellent voice work, bringing in Batman mainstays Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to voice the titular character and the Joker.
Now, that would all be for not if it weren’t for the gameplay, which did a damn fine job of making the player actually feel like the caped crusader. One of the greatest feelings that Arkham Asylum was able to evoke was that of combining action, adventure, stealth, and subtle detective elements into the gameplay to create something that was not only fun to play, but highly addictive as well. In all honesty, the only problem that many players had with the game (ending non-withstanding) was the fact that the game was limited to Arkham Island, which meant that most of the action took place indoors, save for the random encounters on the small stretches of land between the buildings of the asylum. Fortunately for bat-hungry gamers, Arkham City took the fight to the streets, and what a fight it is.
Following up 18 months after the end of the events in the first game, society as Gotham City knows it has taken an even greater turn for the worse, with former Arkham warden Quincy Sharp having become mayor of Gotham, and the city needing to requisition a walled-off section of the city to place the inmates from the now-destroyed asylum, as well as inmates from Blackgate Prison in a free-for-all prison city, managed by Dr. Hugo Strange, who is now the warden. To complicate things, Sharp, along with Strange, has pretty much turned the city into a military state, using a private military team, Tyger Security, to patrol the civilians. Anyone that speaks out against the status quo, along with anyone with potentially dangerous knowledge, is thrown into Arkham along with all the criminals, to fend for themselves.
Furthermore, Strange knows Bruce Wayne’s identity as Batman, unbeknownst to him, so when he starts rallying to put a stop to Arkham City, he’s promptly thrown into the prison as well. However, he’s not locked in there with them; they’re locked in there with him. And by him I mean the God-damned Batman, who plans on finding out what’s really going on. With a huge ensemble cast of some of Batman’s most well-known (and some lesser-known) villains, and be it part of the main story or a bit part in a side quest, they all fit into the game quite nicely. Most impressively, the story of the game manages to tie up all of the loose ends from the first game, not only making it make sense on a whole, but redeeming the somewhat odd turn of events at Asylum’s finale.
Playing like an extremely refined version of its predecessor, Arkham City steps everything up tenfold, from mere size — City is reportedly five times larger than Asylum — to the sheer amount of things there are to do in the city. However, it’s the small things that really add to the badassery that this game brings along. The game features a number of side quests to supplement the main campaign, but one of my favorites center around saving random political prisoners from street thugs in the game. While it doesn’t brush up against some of the more complex ones in the game, there is no greater sensation than saving an innocent man’s life from some heartless thug in a dark alleyway, and I don’t think that there’s one that feels more like a quintessential Batman move in the whole game, except for maybe the whole flying thing.
Going into that, Rocksteady really did a great job fine-tuning Batman’s flying mechanics. Not only does he grapple with ease — for the most part, at least — but gliding from rooftop to rooftop with him feels smooth and natural, and gives the player another option when getting into the thick of things when trying to face down the countless number of criminals that he will encounter throughout the city. Also, unlike last time around, many of the Bat’s tools and gadgets are already equipped at the beginning of the game, but fear not; there’s plenty more to gain and upgrade throughout City‘s duration.
Also refined is Rocksteady’s freeflow combat system, which generally feels smoother, but also allows Batman to use gadgets in combat, something that really changes up the whole game, giving the player almost infinite options when taking on large groups of enemies. Toss in the inclusion of ice grenades later on in the game, and the possibilities are endless. However, with more options in the fighting comes a tougher class of criminal. The AI has been improved greatly, and enemies are much more aggressive and tougher on the Dark Knight, but the challenge never feels unfair. To be completely honest, if a player gets overtaken by the enemies, he’s not using the rhythmic ebb and flow of the combat mechanics to their advantage. That’s a bitter pill I had to swallow quite a few times myself during the game, but it made a better player out of me.
Another thing that was completely reworked in Arkham City is the Riddler’s presence in the game. While he’s leaving his riddles and trophies throughout the city, much like last time around, they actually are tied into an extremely addictive side quest involving a group of hostages that he kidnapped and planted into demented, Saw-like deathtraps throughout the city. There’s 440 riddler challenges, and the hunt is split up into predetermined numbers of challenges — trophies, riddles and physical challenges — before you can save each of the hostages. While the 400 required challenges to beat the side quest is a bit of an undertaking, Batman can now mark any trophy that he sees on his map for retrieving later. Also, after initially triggering the quest, Batman can see any thugs in the city that work for the Riddler and interrogate them in order to find out the location of every riddle solution and trophy. This presents another challenge, because the only way to interrogate a thug is to make sure that all the surrounding cronies are taken out first first, should there be any. While the location on the map might not always telegraph the solution or hiding spot for the trophy, it makes things a little interesting.
Last but not least, the game also includes a small handful of missions featuring Catwoman, provided the player bought the game new. While I really hate the whole idea of locking out content to second-hand buyers, they can pick up the DLC for ten dollars if they really want it. The content is compelling to a degree, but her character felt more than a little weak during some of the more heated battles, and considering that she only has six upgrades to her character as opposed to Batman’s bevy of unlockables throughout the game, it left a little to be desired. On the other hand, a handful of the Riddler Trophies can only be found with her, so it’s a bit of a must for the completists out there. Don’t get me wrong, I loved how different her character controlled, and her moveset was inspired, but it just seemed like too small of a taste to really be substantial. If her involvement in the single player totaled to more than 10% of the entire campaign I’d be shocked.
Much like last time, Arkham City also features the challenge rooms, which give players more combat and stealth practice should they choose to do so. Personally, I’m more of a fan of the predator challenges myself, as they force the player to really think outside of the box as to how they take out enemies, but they’re a worthy complement to the single player campaign. The more compelling addition to the game, however, is the presence of a New Game Plus mode, allowing a player to play through the game a second time with all of the upgrades he earned the first time around. Rocksteady did do it a little different than most folks, though. Unlike most New Game Plus modes in other games, there is no difficulty setting; rather, the game plays out in what felt like Hard Mode on the first playthrough, albeit with the aforementioned upgrades. As I hinted at earlier, playing in New Game Plus really forces a player to learn how to use the combat system to his advantage, as trying to just button mash through the fights will result in nothing but frustration, blistered thumbs, and quite possibly a broken controller. That being said, clearing out a room of twenty-odd thugs while stringing along combos like there was no tomorrow is an unrivaled blend of ecstasy and adrenaline.
When Arkham Asylum came out, it set a bar so high that many gamers likely didn’t imagine that Rocksteady would be able to top it, but I think that they did so and then some. To say that there is a wealth of content to be found in the single player campaign alone is an understatement, but the fact that so much of it feels compelling and not added into the game to merely fluff it out only speaks to the meticulous attention that the studio paid to the game during development. Not only that, but the game is visually stunning, bringing the city to life in a way that not even the comics can rival, and the voice acting is superb. Simply put, Arkham City is not only one of the greatest games to come out this year, it’s one of the greatest games that has come out this console generation, and it will stand as one of the absolutely greatest superhero games ever created. Game developers, the line in the sand has been drawn. Get crackin’.
For more info, batmanarkhamcity.com