Review: Batman: Arkham City
DC Comics has recently rebooted 52 of their much-loved (erm, most of them anyway) stable of characters in what they’re calling ‘The New 52′. Some of the comics, including Batman, have been going a very long time (Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 before going on to get his own publication the following year) and as a result can be confusing to new readers due to the vast amount of backstory and large cast of characters. So DC have set out to draw new readers in by starting all 52 ongoing comics again at #1. It’s also intended to make the characters and world more modern and accessible, although the backstory hasn’t been completely wiped out as important publications, such as Batman’s excellent The Killing Joke, still remain canon. Personally I always shied away from ongoing series of comics as I felt like there was far too much backstory to catch up on and I wouldn’t know what the hell was going on, so I’m glad I can now insert myself into this universe and I’m really looking forward to regularly reading at least a few of the 52. I’m particularly liking the main Batman comic so far, and I’m of the opinion that many things can benefit from a refresh if it’s done right, so that’s where we come to Rocksteady’s Batman games.
Let’s face it, superhero games have a bad history. Everyone remembers the horror of Superman 64, even if you’ve never played it you’ve surely been subjected to the YouTube videos, and while certain superhero games hit the mark (Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions was pretty good) the genre had become stale for a long period before everyone dropped their jaws in stunned surprise when Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham Asylum back in 2009. Arkham Asylum was a god send, rebooting the genre and proving to the world that a video game based on a superhero can rise above the torrents of crap out there and stake it’s claim to becoming one of the greatest games of the modern era. In fact Arkham Asylum is one of the few games in the past few years that I can safely say I had very little issues with. Everything Rocksteady did with that game was spot on and it was pure pleasure to play, but could they up the scale and repeat the feeling of the first game?
The story begins with Bruce Wayne giving a speech outside the walled off Arkham City. With Arkham Asylum shut down after the events of the first game the Gotham authorities had to find somewhere else to put the criminally deranged and for some unknown reason they thought it was a good idea to seal a section of the bustling metropolis and throw them all in there. Hugo Strange is the new ‘warden’ (Strange is one of Batman’s first enemies, even appearing several months before Batman’s iconic Joker) as Arkham Asylum’s warden, Quincy Sharp, has now become Gotham City’s mayor. Batman is using his influence as Bruce Wayne to get the new jail shut down, but during the speech Hugo Strange’s goons arrive on the scene and throw everyone into Arkham City. With Wayne now inside he quickly don’s his Batman costume – thanks to Alfred firing a capsule full of gear into Arkham – and sets about trying to find out what’s going on inside Arkham and why Strange has such a big interest in the inmates.
From the moment you step into Arkham City it’s dripping with atmosphere. Gotham is a dark and dreary gothically tainted place and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the place has never seen a glint of daylight in its entire existence. While Arkham City isn’t massive as far as open world areas in other games are, it’s brimming with detail and paints a picture of a city that is past its glory days and is crumbling around you. In fact large areas of the area are flooded, with buildings slowly sinking into the depths of Gotham’s murky waters. The ‘Amusement Mile’ area of Arkham City glows with neon signs advertising the past glory of ‘Gotham City Casino’, or the sordid delights of ‘Live Girls’. In the ‘Industrial District’ a decrepit fun fair has become ‘Joker’s Fun Land’, ironically located in one of the most visually unappealing places you can imagine – a steel mill. Across the city twisted plants choke an old hotel, hinting that behind the currently locked gate you’ll encounter Poison Ivy. Meanwhile Penguin has focused his base of operations in an old museum, the old exhibits lying forgotten and replaced with the Penguin’s own twisted view of reality. Gliding around the city is a dream, and makes you wonder just how you coped with movement in Arkham Asylum. You can now glide huge distances by alternating between dive bombing and shooting back up to zoom across the insane city. Once you upgrade your grapnel gun you can also use the buildings to gather momentum, feeling a lot like the grapple used to cover distances in Just Cause 2. It makes Arkham Asylum feel like a leisurely stroll through the park; albeit a very dark and grimy park that clearly needs to hire someone to clear up all the crumbling architecture and bodies of thugs lying around the place.
The architecture is only half of the detail that has been excruciatingly woven into Arkham City’s landscape, with the people who inhabit this deadly place providing the remainder. The aforementioned villains have their own nooks and crannies; and you’ll end up meeting the likes of Mr. Freeze, Two Face, the killer Zssaz, the deranged calendar man, the insane mad hatter and a host of other famous batman villains. While Arkham Asylum had it’s fair share of villains most of them never appeared in the game. You’d find their cells, such as the iced over chamber that housed Mr. Freeze, but you’d be left wondering what it would have been like to meet and fight them. Arkham City changes all that, but could be accused of trying to throw too many Batman characters into the pot. I’d disagree with that, as it provides variety and little side stories that provide a break from the main story. Plus, they’re portrayed superbly such as the insane ramblings of Zsasz and the cockney British accent of Penguin (voiced by Nolan North, who proves his startling range once again). However, once again Mark Hamill is the star of the show with his excellent portrayal of Joker, who’s hilariously sadistic throughout the game. Even the games thugs have a lot of personality to them, and as you glide around Arkham City you’ll catch conversations between them about the situation or how hot they think Harley Quinn is. The only downside is that most of them sound pretty similar, so they could have done with a few more voice actors when it came to the little guys. Once you’re done listening to them you can always plant your foot in their face, and it’s even more satisfying to do this than the last time around.
One of the best things about Arkham Asylum was the combat, making taking out a large group of enemies almost effortless but extremely gratifying. Combat in Arkham City feels even more free-flowing, and if anything, makes you feel like you’re traipsing around the pages of a comic book where the combat is surely top of the list. It’s designed to be accessible to anyone, placing much emphasis on only two buttons, yet intricate enough to engage more hardcore players in striving for the most graceful looking and mistake free combat imaginable. As before it’s all about timing, hitting X will plant a fist in their face but constantly tapping it won’t get you anywhere but having a thug’s boot planted firmly in your back. As before you have to watch for the blue alerts above a thugs head, indicating they’re about to hit you so you should quickly counter it or lose your combo streak, but now you also have to watch out for enemies throwing items at you or holding blades. If you’re wanting to rack up huge combos then you have to be increasingly on your toes, and you also have to incorporate the different types of thugs you have to take down. Some have body armour on, requiring you to hit a combination of buttons to literally beat the crap out of their body, while others have shields that need removing before you can hit the thug behind it. Moreover you can incorporate gadgets into each fight with their ‘quickfire’ mode, which gives you a bonus to the experience points Batman receives at the end of each fight. Pressing two buttons will have Batman drop an explosive which you can detonate whenever you feel there are enough thugs around it to do the maximum damage, or you can freeze an enemy with the freeze gun to free yourself up for the rest, or you can electrify them…etc. While there are an extensive range of ways to take down enemies in combat the amount of button combinations can get a little overwhelming, so while the basic combat moves are simple enough, it becomes a task to remember what button combination does what action, but thankfully there is a tutorial for each move available in the upgrade menu and if you have hints on then the game will often prompt you what to press to take down a certain enemy. All the experience gained in taking out enemies – and other actions, such as destroying a vast variety of objects around Arkham City – will eventually level up Batman and allow you to choose from upgrades you’ve unlocked. This can be an upgrade to a gadget, such as giving your Batarang a sonic mode that will distract nearby enemies, or simply upgrading Batman’s armour to protect in from melee or ballistics. All in all it’s hard to grow tired of the combat as the fluid animations and sheer joy at pulling off the perfect combo is enough to make you approach each group of enemies with a smile on your face.
Like Arkham Asylum the game’s boss fights try to be just as spectacular. The Scarecrow boss fights in the first game we’re real stand outs, and it seems like Rocksteady has tried to emulate this in Batman’s current outing. Unfortunately it doesn’t have quite the same effect, and if one thing can be said about all the bosses in the game is that they’re far too easy and it never really feels like much of a challenge. Mr. Freeze is probably my favourite boss as it requires you to use your brain a bit, well, for a while anyway. Mr. Freeze learns from all your attacks, such as forcing him to walk into electrified water (which he promptly freezes up) or attacking him from the air (which he also freezes up, meaning Batman can’t use his gliding ability) and it’s a joy to figure out all the ways you can take him down. That is until the game outright tells you what you can do to defeat him, although I’m pretty sure turning the hint system off will disable this. There is variety to the bosses, but this variety unfortunately doesn’t ever really equal challenging.
So the challenges are left up to the Riddler, who returns from stumping you in Arkham Asylum to stump you to an even greater degree in the city. Stand on top of one of Arkham City’s tallest buildings and you’ll be able to spot Riddlers telltale green question marks scattered everywhere the eye can see. Finding them is the easy part, but actually grasping these miniature trophies requires some thought and a gadget or two. For instance, a question mark might be enclosed inside a long steel cage that, upon first sight, seems impenetrable. Sometimes it’s a case of moving a ball with the required gadget, navigating through the maze to reach a switch that allows you to go inside and grab the trophy. Other question marks may require you to hit switches in a particular order, or stand on a pressure pad and have a short time to get to the question mark that was previously enclosed. If you can’t figure out how to get the trophy, or it requires a gadget you don’t currently have, then you can thankfully tag it’s location on your map to come back to it later. There are also environmental riddles that give you a phrase when you enter an area; such as ‘Arkham City is not the place to be rich or famous. Bruce Wayne has never felt quite so wanted‘ or ‘This question can only be answered from an unusual perspective. Can you get yourself there?’ (This ingeniously uses the detective mode to allow you to align a question mark with its dot, but you can only do this from a certain perspective). Each one makes you scour the environment and allows you to take in the incredible detail of Arkham City’s landscape. Finally there are the Riddle Rooms, in which the Riddler has kidnapped someone and trapped them in a room where a riddle has to be solved in order to save them. An example is a room with an electrified floor, the hostage tied to a chair on a platform hanging above. The solution is to hit switches on the wall with your batarang, which deactivates sections on the floor for a short period and allows you to carve a path towards a lift on the opposite side. You can actually cheat in some of the rooms, such as running straight across the electrified floor even though you take a large hit to your health, but the Riddler will berate you and it isn’t half as satisfying as working out the puzzle for yourself. All-in-all there are over 400 Riddler related challenges, which is plenty of content to keep you and your brain busy for a long while.
It always seems like there’s something else popping up on the map for you to glide your way to and engage in another side mission. Whether it’s using Batman’s detective skills to scan a murder scene for clues, answering phone calls in the nick of time to try to track down the deranged serial killer Zsasz, finding Titan containers for Bane, saving political prisoners from assault; or simply destroying cameras, joker balloons, joker teeth, penguins… and gasp for breath… there are plenty of side activities to keep you engaged and if you’re me a little concerned that you should probably be progressing with the main story more if you’re going to get the review submitted sometime this year.
After completion of the main story you could try your skills out on the challenge rooms. These range from combat challenges (which have you taking on waves of thugs), predator challenges (stealthily and silently take out a room full of thugs) and finally the pretty tough Riddler Campaigns. These have you taking on three challenges while having to contend with the likes of low health or time limits. All of these are a great way to test and hone your skills for the main game, or simply stand alone as further content if you want a break or are done with the main story. Completing the game also unlocks new game plus, which carries over all the upgrades and gadgets you unlocked in your first playthrough but makes the game harder and eliminates any hints. Finally there is also the Catwoman DLC; giving you all-new story missions, her own set of Riddler challenges and a unique way to play the game (in the interests of full disclosure we didn’t get a DLC code so I didn’t get chance to try the DLC out). It’s a long game when you factor in all the content that’s on offer. In fact it’s almost as long as this review, so I think it’s about time I draw this to its inevitable conclusion.
Batman: Arkham City is very similar in style and control to Arkham Asylum, and if you’ve played its predecessor you’ll be very much at home from the get go. So it’s here we come back to the original point about whether or not change is always a good thing. Arkham City didn’t drastically change the formula at all, Rocksteady stuck to what they did best and simply improved and expanded upon their original vision. The core gameplay remains the same, but why mess with something that was damn good in the first place? There are small pointers that somewhere down the line, like the Batman comics, it could become stale and overly complicated but that will be an argument that rises if Rocksteady intend to make more Batman games. Arkham City is the perfect stopping point, but that’s not because the game is bad but rather that it’s hard to see how Rocksteady can top this without repeating the same formula again. Don’t ruin it by churning out another sequel, there’s more than enough content here to satisfy the majority and also give them a taste of what near gaming perfection is like. It both imitates and improves upon its predecessor in every single way, so in essence it’s the complete Batman package.
Review: Batman: Arkham City Results
What we liked:
A richly detailed world that has plenty of treats and surprises hidden in its nooks and crannies.
Gratifying and varied free-flowing combat that makes you feel like you're jumping straight into the comic book.
A massive amount of side quests, extra content and a whole host of Batman characters that are superbly voice acted.
What we disliked:
The boss fights can be far too easy.
The camera can sometimes go a little funny during combat or talking to people (Batman's head blocked my entire view of a person during one conversation).
The same voice actor seems to have been used for the majority of the thugs.