Batman: Arkham City Review
For PS3, Xbox 360, & PC
By Walker Banerd
How do you follow up an undisputed success? As Hollywood has shown us, sequels are tricky beasts. Games have a stronger track record than movies for continuing franchises, but difficult choices remain. Reinvent the wheel, or bring more of the same? Introduce new characters? Change the look of the game? Stick with what made the original work, or push forward with redoubled ambition? For Rocksteady Studios, following up the consensus best superhero game ever made means going bigger, deeper, darker, and better.
When I revisited Batman: Arkham Asylum on this very site just over a month ago, I made the case that the bar was set very high for Arkham City. But this is no sophomore slump. Arkham City, while not without flaws, clears the bar set by its predecessor with room to spare.
As the story begins, only the most essential facts are revealed. In the months following Joker’s revolt at Arkham Asylum, former warden Quincy Sharpe has been elected mayor of Gotham City. Mayor Sharpe’s most controversial act has been to wall off a small section of Gotham, throwing all criminals, supervillains and otherwise, into the superprison under the watchful eye of the menacing Dr. Hugo Strange. Bruce Wayne is leading a protest against the fascistic facility when Strange has him arrested. Now inside Arkham City, Wayne’s costumed alter-ego must unearth the deadly secrets of the prison before Strange enacts the ominous Protocol 10.
Right from the start, it is clear what is different from Arkham Asylum, and what has stayed more-or-less the same. The gadgets are back, and in a big way. Batman starts with as many toys as he had at the conclusion of the previous game, and the arsenal builds to over a dozen. There are new quick-fire controls for gadgetry, but there are so many options that it is incredibly difficult to keep track of which is which.
The top-notch melee combat is not significantly changed, which is obviously a good thing. There are more options in combat now, but the basic attack/counter system is still at the heart of the fisticuffs.
There are even more armed thugs to deal with, and due to the amount of time spent outdoors, the stealth sequences are often more dynamic. In Arkham Asylum, a stealth battle almost always involved swinging from gargoyle to gargoyle in a closed room with 4-7 thugs. In Arkham City, you might plan your attack from an adjacent rooftop, or have to work your way across multiple levels of a building’s exterior. The variety allows for creativity, and particularly with all the gadgets and attacks at your disposal, each player could choose an entirely different approach than the next.
The major flaw of Arkham Asylum was sub-par boss fights, and unfortunately this has only changed to a limited extent. There is an interesting amount of variety to the early boss battles, where Batman’s foes will adapt to previous attacks, requiring fresh strategies throughout. These fights are definite improvements. Unfortunately Arkham City ends just as Arkham Asylum did: with the worst type of generic pattern-based showdown. The cliché maneuver of jumping out of the way to trick your opponent into crashing into the wall behind you even makes a cringe-worthy appearance. While disappointing, this is the only major weakness to an otherwise stellar game.
The second flaw I pointed out in my Arkham Asylum review was the disproportionate power of detective mode. This has been improved exactly in the way I had hoped. Detective mode is only useful in Arkham City in situations when it should be: surveying rooms of thugs, looking for clues, etc. The humility shown by Rocksteady adapting to criticism is the sign of a franchise that values quality over pride. Good on them for making those changes.
Another returning element is the “one long night in one location” story structure. The substantial story mode is masterful and continually surprising, demonstrating both reverence for the Batman canon and original creative thinking from the story designers. A trip into the sewers gets a touch too trippy for my personal tastes, and two major threads of the story don’t quite intersect in a satisfying way in the final act, but these are minor quibbles.
The story is particularly brilliant in its managing of tone all the way through to its beautifully dark conclusion. There is a perfectly sustained atmosphere of dread throughout Arkham City. No matter how bad things are, it always feels like something even more sinister is just around the corner, and it usually is. If Arkham Asylum was at its core a haunted house game, Arkham City is what happens when Batman escapes the haunted house, only to find that the world outside is just as terrifying. It is practically full-on dystopia. Batman has a bad habit of simply abandoning defeated or unconscious villains, but what else is he to do? They’re already in prison. This dilemma puts a compelling weight on Batman’s oath to not kill, in a way that often feels forced in other stories.
In addition to the story missions, there are hours upon hours of fun to be had above, on, and underneath the streets of Arkham City. There are several stand-alone side missions, some of which hint at where the story might go in the next game. The side missions are not as numerous as in most open-world games, but they are substantial and fun, not the usual peripheral mission fodder of unimportant fetch-quests. Several of these adventures include appearances from villains both obscure and A-list, demonstrating once more how deep Rocksteady’s grasp of the Batman universe goes. They have done a surprisingly good job done of keeping the full roster of villains and allies secret, so I won’t ruin anything here. Rest assured, this cast easily dwarfs Arkham Asylum’s lineup.
The Riddler challenges also add hours to the game. In fact, there are so many of these trophies and puzzles – some of them requiring quite a bit of thought to solve — that it is hard to imagine anyone other than the most hardcore gamers ever running out of new content to explore. The Riddler challenges are even more rewarding than in Arkham Asylum, because solving riddles is connected to its own side story, involving hostages caught in diabolical traps.
All this extra content would not be worth anything if Arkham City were simply not a fun place to spend time. Thankfully, the basic task of getting from point A to B is a joyous act, as Batman glides, grapples, and dive-bombs his way from rooftop to rooftop. The interiors can be a bit frustrating to navigate, particularly after the story has ended, but the exteriors are truly magnificent.
Another addition that adds variety and depth to the gameplay is the inclusion of Catwoman as a playable character (free with new copies, or purchasable from the Playstation Store) While Catwoman’s over-the-top sexuality and plunging neckline are indicative of the adolescent gender representations that still plague video games, there is some fun to be had in her story. There is a particularly cool twist towards the end that should leave players in confused disbelief for a few minutes.
All I will say is this: turn right the first time. It’s worth it. After the story, you can switch between Batman and Catwoman, in order to explore a new set of Riddler trophies and a few extra objectives. I don’t expect players to spend much time as Catwoman though, because unfortunately she’s not much fun to get around as. Her awkward combination of jumps and whip-swings are no match for Batman’s fluid grapples and glides.
Arkham City looks about as good for 2011 as Arkham Asylum did for 2009. That is to say the graphics have improved as much as they should, but the visuals are still more of a vehicle for gameplay and story than a draw in themselves. The character models look great, particularly the inmates, who now have more variety and detail. The animations are still a strength, fluid and visceral as ever. The lighting and art direction also stand out, as they help maintain the gloomy menace of the rundown Gotham streets.
As in Arkham Asylum, audio is an important part of the game design, and the attention to detail paid off once more. A couple new additions to the voice cast are a bit dull, but this is still Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s show, and they are fantastic once again. Sound effects are not only well realized, but also informative. For instance, knocking an inmate unconscious creates a different sound of impact than an attack that they will recover from. Batman taps into multiple radio frequencies, so the player is provided with a constant stream of chatter from inmates and guards, as well as the occasional voicemail from the Joker. The overheard discussions add great detail and flavour, with discussion of story events side-by-side with gripes about the weather.
While Arkham City does establish threads that imply a third game, it feels in many ways like the culmination of a series. And I do mean this as a compliment. It draws significantly on the previous game, and then takes the scope and stakes to an apocalyptic scale. It is hard to fathom where the story can go that will top this one, but with Arkham City, Rocksteady has solidly established the franchise among modern gaming’s very best.