2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was not just a landmark title because it was really, really good, it’s also one of the very few games in recent memory to take a super-hero license and use it well. Arkham Asylum was a faithful adaptation of the Caped Crusader, one where players actually felt like they were Batman as opposed to just slapping his moniker on a bland brawler and calling it a day.
Developers Rocksteady clearly have a deep love for the Dark Knight and when the follow up title Batman: Arkham City was announced last year at Spike’s Video Game Awards fans eagerly began salivating at the prospect of another chance to be Batman. Did Rocksteady follow up Arkham Asylum with a worthy successor or should they be locked up?
Arkham City takes place a few months after the events of Arkham Asylum and opens with Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne holding a press conference outside the prison walls. After the failure of Arkham Asylum to contain the prisoners and stop the Joker’s rampage, one Professor Hugo Strange (a name that “fills you with confidence” as one inmate quips) successfully coerced Gotham City into sealing off and converting a large section of the town into a maximum security prison under the control of Strange and his mercenaries.
Having all of his arch enemies running around mere minutes from Gotham City doesn’t sit well with Bruce Wayne, so he attempts to petition the city into shutting down the prison when his conference is raided by TYGER operatives and he’s thrown inside the jail, only to find out that Hugo Strange knows his secret. On the run, and mere hours away from Strange’s mysterious “Protocol Ten” plan, Bruce suits up and endures a night in Arkham City.
Much like Arkham Asylum, City plays like the most punishing Batman graphic novel you’ve ever read. Batman is beat up, knocked unconscious, blown up and has many more sinister things happen to him before the evening is out. He weathers it all with his stoic bad-assness, but the game definitely makes you feel for the poor guy. Catwoman also stars in her own side-story that runs concurrently to Batman’s and helps flesh out some of the aspects of the tale that Batman doesn’t get into. It’s a great change of pace as Catwoman handles differently than Batman and can use different techniques both in and out of combat. Her section also contains Arkham City’s best equivalent to the Scarecrow moments of Asylum (Batman has his moment too, but I feel Catwoman’s is better) and that adds a very nice incentive to play her story, although you can miss it.
Arkham City’s plot has a lot of awesome twists and turns and features even more villains than Asylum (plus a few cameos) and works them all into the story masterfully. Batman’s main goal is to stop Strange, but standing in his way is a few of his enemies from Asylum along with Penguin, Mr. Freeze and Two-Face, to name a few. All of the super-villains are locked in a turf war in addition to trying to kill Batman, so each gang leader has his own motivations and it’s up to you to figure out what they are. As the game progresses you bounce all over Arkham City’s brilliantly crafted streets and lower extremities, dipping into the Batman lore that Rocksteady draws on so well. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome and wraps up just when you want it to, progressing from act to act with a blistering pace. When all is said and done, you’ll have the feeling of having played not only a great Batman story, but a great video game tale as well.
Helping you along in the game is a vastly improved assortment of gadgets, some you may be familiar with and a few that are new to City. You start the game with most of the tools you ended Asylum with and the inventory only gets bigger from there. There’s a few sequential upgrades to a couple of your doodads, and manipulating your stash can become a bit cumbersome at times. There is a quick-fire option for your most essential gadgets so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming, but this aspect could have used a little tuning up.
Batman’s combat has also been vastly upgraded this time and he has a whole new assortment of moves in his repertoire. When you’re not picking henchmen off from the shadows, the fighting is still the basic one button to hit, another to counter set-up that is was in the first game, but it goes so much deeper this time. Like Asylum, there’s a leveling system where each level gained bequeaths you a talent point to spend on Waynetech which goes either to your suit, your gadgets or your fighting skills and it’s in that last tree that you’ll unlock some of the really cool stuff. You can now counter multiple attackers from the outset and some of the newer pieces of your arsenal can force enemies to attack each other, leaving you free to deal with bigger foes. Batman also has new ways to deal with firearm-wielding brigands as you gain a new device that can jam guns remotely, or you can pull the gun apart piece by piece. Freeflow fighting is well done and intuitive, offering mastery with only a few bouts of practice. Spinning from foe to foe delivering Batman’s brand of justice has never felt better, so Rocksteady should be commended for improving a system that was already pretty tight to begin with.
There’s so many ways to deal with the combat and Predator (as the sneaking sections are called) encounters, even more than the game can advise you of. Using the disarm move will instantly rid a shield-wielding enemy of his protection and knock him out, something I didn’t even know was possible until I read it outside the game. This brings me to my only big sticking point with Arkham City before I get back to how amazing it is, and that’s that the game either holds your hand too much, or not at all. Sometimes button prompts stay on the screen for entirely too long, or Batman’s audio will continually remind you to get back on mission when you want to stay and explore for Riddler trophies. Other times, you’ll be wandering around clueless until you stumble across the solution to your conundrum through either blind luck or just using your gadgets one by one until something clicks. Like I said, this is a small nitpick, but no game is perfect.
Arkham City still stays pretty close to its roots, but the world is now much, much larger, allowing you to explore freely and come back to areas when you have the right gadgets. The design of Arkham City is also quite engaging, carrying the same feel that Asylum did, that sort of hyper-gritty cartoonishness reminiscent of the animates series. The game looks amazing, probably surpassing even Gears of War 3 for best use of the Unreal Engine. Snow drifts down and melts on Batman’s cape as you glide through the city streets, looking for thugs to attack or side-quests to do.
And there are a ton of really good side-quests, so much so that you’ll often get sidetracked from the main quests to go do another task like finding the serial killer only to get derailed and collect Riddler trophies or talk to Victor Zsasz on the phone. There’s a lot of content in Arkham City, and when you add the 400 plus Riddler trophies to it, the amount of hours you can put into the game gets engorged pretty quickly, and that’s before getting to New Game +.
Yes, even after doing Arkham City’s story and side-quests, you can restart from the beginning with all of your gear and experience (including collected Riddler clues) and try Arkham City in a new difficulty. Thugs are harder, you face tougher enemies earlier and the counter icon is turned off, meaning that you have to pay close attention to the animations. Then, once you’re done that, you can do the Riddler’s Revenge challenges with both Catwoman and Batman.
The thing about Arkham City is, even more so than Asylum, it just makes you feel like Batman. Whether it’s skulking in the shadows, winning against impossible odds, facing the rogues gallery to end all rogues gallery or solving homicides, you won’t be able to resist playing this game for hours on end, tackling side-quests and finding Riddler clues when your mind tells you that you should have gone to bed hours ago. I haven’t been sucked in by a game like this all year; every waking moment of my day is dedicated to drawing Riddler puzzles on paper trying to solve them so I can rush back home and nab the trophies, or just impatiently counting down the clock to when I can boot up my system again and become the Dark Knight.
There are so many pleasures in this game that it’s really hard to single out which one stands above the rest. Having a more open world (and the ability to glide around it seamlessly) adds to the feel that’s already present from the outset. Batman is an apex predator, and everything you can do in Arkham City echos his confidence and the way he effortlessly tackles even the most complicated of tasks. Even one of the bigger faults with the first game, the over-reliance on the high-tech Detective Vision, has been subtly tweaked this time so you’ll only look through that filter when you need to. I don’t know how Rocksteady did it, but they turned a part of Arkham Asylum that was so essential that people proclaimed they spent too much time using to another part of the arsenal that has its set usage instead of being overwhelmingly applied to every situation.
Despite a few minor nitpicks, I can’t award Batman: Arkham City anything other than an S. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel after Asylum, it just makes the natural evolution into one of the best games ever made and certainly the best one to feature Batman. It’s a rare game indeed that produces the feeling that Arkham City gave me while I was playing it and I hope I’ve done a good enough job conveying that here. If you’ve been on the fence about this game or want to save it for later…get it. Right now. You won’t be disappointed.
So that what I thought of Arkham City! Has anyone else played it? What did you think?
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