Believe it or not, there was a time when games based off of comic book characters meant that you were in for a pretty sucky experience. Well, actually, for the most part that is still true, but there was one shining exception: 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum.
For the first time, a developer understood the subject matter, and created something that transcended the lackluster comic book game genre. It had wonderfully choreographed, button-mashing combat, sided with stealth elements, and detective-like problem solving. Not to mention amazing technical specs (the game was simply gorgeous!) and never before did you actually feel like you were the character you were playing. It wasn’t just the best superhero video games ever created; it was one of the best VIDEO GAMES ever created.
Flash forward to 2011. As expected, it was time for developer Rocksteady to come up with something new for Batman to do. But how do you top the near-perfect Arkham Asylum? How about letting the inmates out to run a whole city? And that’s exactly what they did.
The story of Batman: Arkham City picks up shortly after Arkham Asylum. In an effort to streamline the “rehabilitation” of Gotham City’s ever-growing number of inmates, now-Mayor Sharpe has given Dr. Hugo Strange a cordoned-off section of downtown to create a super prison. But all is not what it seems, and of course, Batman needs to get in to investigate.
What follows is an incredible opening cinematic, and a story that leads Batman deeper into the mystery of Arkham City, and deeper into the madness that makes up Gotham’s criminal element.
Batman: Arkham City takes all of the elements of Arkham Asylum, and ramps it all up well past 11. There are more Riddler Challenges, more classic villains, and the world is bigger. Much, much bigger.
The previous game took place on an island, primarily in one building, the Asylum. Arkham City puts the player smack dab in the middle of a city overrun by evil. Instead of one structure, there are many, and most of the city is open to you from the beginning of the game, which allows for exploration and thug-beating for XP.
There are familiar villains, such as the Joker and Two-Face, and B and C-list villains that you interact with, such as Deadshot and Mad Hatter. In fact, Rocksteady broke the bank when it comes to Batman’s rogue’s gallery. I found myself audibly gasping as new villains appeared. Some with major roles, others just as a vehicle to initiate a side quest, but as a fan of the source material (ie. comic books), I was loving every single appearance.
Batman has new gadgets that aid him in his journey, as well as a larger supporting cast of characters also ripped straight from the comic books. Joining trusted butler, Alfred this time is Oracle, Robin, and Catwoman.
In fact, Catwoman is not only a playable character, she factors into the main story, which gives the game another dimension. Catwoman is unlocked via a code that is included in all retail copies of the game, and can be purchased separately for used copies.
This is a much better idea than the “passes” that other publishers (Looking at you, EA) force you to buy to get full enjoyment out of a used game. Give or take, you can play the game without Catwoman, but seeing as downloading her changes the beginning of the story, I highly recommend utilizing her, and if you went used, purchasing the code. It is money well spent.
Catwoman has her own side story, as well as her own Riddler Challenges, and other unlockables. For the manic completist, how can you not have her in your game?
What makes the Arkham games so special is that Rocksteady has figured out a way to make the player feel like Batman. Even though combat is handled by rapidly pressing one button, and countering with another, the variety – and the fluidity – of the moves feels like a dance, and the excellent sound of the grunts, and of the impacts – especially as you take down the last guy in a brawl, make it satisfying from beginning to end.
Never once did combat get boring or tedious, and in the latter half of the game, I found myself swinging through Gotham looking for a fight. And if combat did get close to becoming stale, then Rocksteady would give you a stealth scenario, which allows you to pick off each bad guy one by one while operating from the shadows. Again, this is how Batman operates, and the player gets to experience it firsthand. Rocksteady nailed it. Again.
As I mentioned before, there are new story specific gadget upgrades that you discover as the game progresses. In fact, there are a lot of the hidden Riddler trophies you cannot get early in the game, and you have to go back to collect them only after you have unlocked the newest gadget upgrade. This is just one of the ways that Rocksteady keeps you moving in and throughout the city.
Also, there are over a dozen side quests that don’t affect the main story, but give you valuable XP for more upgrades, unlockable trophies, and character art and profiles, and help flesh out the dark, twisted world of the Batman.
Most times, you can go off and handle a side quest without missing a beat in the main campaign. The quests vary from simple hide and seek games, to riddle-based puzzles that force you to think (you know, as a detective should).
Unlike other games where side quests are tedious, and only serve to stretch a short game, the side quests in Arkham City are some of the best parts of the game.
There are 400 (?!) Riddler Challenges in the game, so there is always something to do, or something to search for. You know, in case chasing the Joker around gets boring.
Graphically, the game is beautiful. The frame rate runs at a smooth 60 and even though the game takes place primarily at night, during a slight snowfall, the screen doesn’t flutter and the environments don’t pop in and out.
The trash-littered streets, and dark, ominous alleys look wonderful, and the architecture of the buildings is classic “Gotham City.”
Enemy thug and street gang models are varied, and it never feels like I’m beating on the same guy each time I got into a fight. There is also a good variety in the types of weapons that the thugs use, which forces you to switch up your technique, sometimes in mid-combat. Again, that’s what Batman would do.
One issue I had with the previous game was that I felt I missed the beauty of it because I spent an inordinate amount of time in detective mode, which breaks everything down to x-ray-like visuals. I know that this was my choice in how I played the game, but I always wished that I didn’t have to rely on that mode so much.
In Arkham City, detective mode is more of a tool, and less of a way of life. I give Rocksteady credit for creating a more balanced game, so I didn’t feel I “had” to be in detective mode for the majority of the game.
The music score is powerful, borrowing hints and elements from the scores of the Nolan and Burton bat-films, as well as the classic Batman: The Animated Series. Good music in a game can incite emotion while playing, and let me tell you, this score builds to a crescendo when necessary, and creates emotion. It’s easily one of the better game scores I’ve heard in a long time.
The voice acting is top notch, with veteran Bat-actor, Kevin Conroy once again giving Bruce Wayne/Batman his soul. And Mark Hamill’s Joker remains one of the greatest voice roles ever created.
There isn’t a multiplayer element in Arkham City, but there are various challenge maps that pit your button mashing against waves of thugs, or crimes that only a detective like Batman can solve. Expect more DLC, including playable characters like Robin and new costume variations for Batman, Robin, and Catwoman.
Sometimes, a great game comes around and a writer will throw around hyperbole ad nauseum. And sometimes, a game comes around that warrants the praise piled upon it. Batman: Arkham City is that game. Once again, Rocksteady has executed the near-perfect experience of allowing the player to live, think and fight as Batman.
With a bigger world to explore, more villains, more secrets, riddles, just more everything, Batman: Arkham City is the perfect sequel. And, to date, the best game of the year.
Shop for Batman: Arkham City on Xbox 360, PS3 or the PC for a discounted price at Amazon.com (October 18, 2011 release date).