Review: Batman: Arkham City

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As the sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game lauded by many as the best title of 2009, there were concerns that Arkham City would just be a quick slop job designed to cash in on the success of the first game.  It is probably the case that to a degree the quick development cycle had something to do with Warner Bros. repeatedly sending emails to team leaders entitled “FW: Strike While The Iron Is Hot” with some of the subject reading “Make us money now or you’ll all be making the next Green Lantern iPhone game.” But, rushed from management or not, Batman: Arkham City shows no lack of quality or content.  Rocksteady has done the nigh-unthinkable: They took a great game and made it better.  Anyone who likes Batman, open world action adventure games, or fun, within a video game context, should pick this up.

If there is any major drawback to the game, it is how the story is set up.  The events of Arkham City take place months after the events of Arkham Asylum and there is no satisfying explanation of what happened in the first game.  A “previously on” two or three minute cinematic would have eased new players more into the world.  This problem also extends to the events in the comic book miniseries DC published as a prelude to the game, and the plethora of exclusively digital comics that filled in aspects of the story (there are some references to these in the game, which is neat for the few omni-consumers out there).  To a degree these events are explained in the game, but never in a way that will satisfy anyone who wants the full narrative from what is on the disc they bought.  Anyone picking up the City game can enjoy it fully without having played the Asylum one, but the developers clearly assume that you have already played it.  If you haven’t, you should.  It’s great and can be picked up on the cheap now.

For those who haven’t seen any of that stuff, the basic setup to the events of Arkham City is that a significant section of Gotham City has been walled off and all of the inmates in Blackgate prison and Arkham Asylum have been set loose in this area.  Guards patrol the area in helicopters, but only interfere when someone tries to climb the walls or otherwise escape.  All of the chaos is monitored by cameras and the maniacs are allowed to police (read: kill) each other as long as no one tries to leave.  The measure is popular with the public since it has been enacted largely because none of Gotham’s usual super-criminal suspects have escaped to destroy lives and property values.  Bruce Wayne does not agree with the policy and is thrown into the jail for speaking out against it.  Wayne becomes one of many political prisoners trapped in with the thugs and predators of Gotham.  Wayne discovers that Batman’s old enemy, Hugo Strange, is behind the construction of Arkham City and plans to execute the ominous sounding Protocol 10 the night that Wayne is captured.  Our hero dons the iconic cowl, Wayne is presumed dead at the hands of criminals, and the game begins after a short introduction section.  The events of the game, like those in Arkham Asylum, take place over this one pivotal night.

For anyone that doesn’t know characters like Batman or The Penguin – it’s technically possible that someone grew up in a cultural vacuum and needs help deciding whether to purchase a disc for their talking box attachment that has a guy with a cape on the cover – there are Bio pages that unlock as characters are encountered that give background story and noted abilities of each of the main characters and villains. Realistically, just about everyone knows the core Batman characters, even if you’ve never read one comic book, but characters like Hugo Strange and Mr. Freeze, who play heavily into the story, might be new. The Bios allow the story to develop without a bunch of unrealistic in-game exposition.  Batman and the allies he speaks to on the radio don’t need a refresher course on who Solomon Grundy is, they’ve encountered the immortal Frankenstein dude at least three hundred times.  As an extra bonus for comic book nerds, each one of these entries contains information as to every character’s First Appearance in Legends of the Dark Knight, Detective Comics, or one of the other ba’gillion Bat titles, similar to the entries in publications like the DC Comics Encyclopedia.

Upon donning the cowl and being called to save Catwoman, the first thing players will notice is the gorgeous backdrop of Gotham.  The city has a breathtaking skyline, filled with billions of dollars worth of brightly lit skyscrapers, with helicopters and other signs of life and prosperity evident.  Looking to the horizon gives the impression of a hopeful city that is far more active and vibrant than Manhattan. Then, players will focus on the area around them.  The walled off part of the city made into a prison has been allowed to deteriorate into a hellscape of grime and anarchy.  It is almost as if the entire enterprise is a psychological experiment gone to its most extreme, far beyond the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The environments are richly detailed and contain exaggerated edifices that are reminiscent of the comics and set pieces in the Tim Burton Batman movies.  The character designs are re-imaginings of classic characters made to look all the more sinister.

Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprise their roles as Joker and Batman and do their usual character work.  For me, these two will always be the voice of their respective iconic character.  The Penguin is not the hammy Burgess Meredith or the circus creature played by DiVito, he is a nasty, viciously cruel English gangster who intimidates men into following him.  Mr. Freeze, as per his character, is introduced as a sad man trying to save his wife.  But upon donning his advanced cryogenic suit, his voice becomes cold, monotone, and robotic.  Perhaps the obvious thing to say, but it gave me chills.  Even the voices of random thugs talking about the events in the game are well done and amusing.  Although it does sound like Gotham is populated by the same three henchmen.  The voice work in this game is top notch and really helps to sell the story and create an environment of madness and despair.  In Arkham, even the hero constantly skates the edge of the abyss.

The so-called Freeflow combat system is the main way that Batman provides a whuppin’ to the denizens of Gotham’s new open concept air prison.  Unlike most third person action heroes who focus on dodging attacks while taking on a handful or enemies, or hitting more than one enemy at a time with swords affixed to Olympian chains, the caped crusader is just a man with a few wonderful toys.  And unfortunately, sometimes as many as twenty mooks are going to try to kill him with their bare hands or lengths of pipe.  Which makes sense to a degree. He is vastly outnumbered and apparently thugs don’t talk about the time Batman single-handedly beat up a dozen of his said thug’s homies at once.  The way that you can pull off these feats of martial prowess with Batman is to essentially punch and kick one enemy a few times, and then while he is reeling from being hit in the face by a man trained to physical perfection, punch another one to momentarily stun him.  Do this over and over again until Mrs. Wayne’s favorite son resembles a pinball bouncing between all of the thugs. Occasionally enemies will try to attack and a halo will flash over their head, indicating a need to press the counter button.  Rapid succession of hits on multiple targets and successful countering are required for pulling off exceedingly painful looking finishing moves that will incapacitate a criminal.  These all look like either an arm, leg or nose and teeth of the villain is broken.  As Batman never kills, it is lucky for him that no one in comic books has hemophilia.

The stealth aspect of the game largely remains the same from 2009, and is similarly not as compelling as the combat.  Whether inside or outside, occasionally the caped crusader will have to take out enemies one at a time while remaining undetected.  If there is some mechanism that I am unaware of that makes him invincible, there wouldn’t be any need for stealth, but as Bruce Wayne does not appear to have the technical ingenuity of Tony Stark, the Batsuit does not deflect bullets. Sticking to the shadows is required when there are a lot of goons with rifles and shotguns because guns kill the non-super-powered super-hero real quick.  Most of these sequences take place with a set number of henchmen in a large room tasked by a super villain to do something. When an enemy is taken out, the others start to hunt down Batman.  A variety of gadgets allow him to place traps or distract guards so that they can be separated and taken out individually.  As they are picked off one by one, they start to freak out more and more, and their boss taunts and threatens them over loudspeakers or the radio due to their inability to just kill, one, guy.  The last man standing is never a happy camper and it can be devilishly fun to listen to him anticipate his impending beating.  In most situations, instead of getting a Game Over when discovered, Batman can either grapple to the strangely convenient number of interior stone gargoyles perched on the ceiling to escape gunfire, or drop a smoke bomb to either escape or incapacitate a guard.  It’s a little hard to swallow, jumping to the ceiling constantly and the guards not always looking up, but at least the game is not necessarily broken up with a load screen upon getting caught.

It wouldn’t be a Batman game that I would want to play without gadgets.  The developers must share this feeling as this game has gadgets galore.  There are the classic batarangs and the famously unrealistic pocket-sized grapple hook gun that makes an iconic bang and whiz noise as two hundred and fifty pounds of billionaire and utility belt are hurled upwards.  Newcomer gear is also present, like a gun that shoots electrical charges to stun foes and reactivate dead electronics, and a device that jams firearms.  Many of these can be used in combat to take single enemies out efficiently and for a variation experience point bonus, but are not effective means of eliminating groups of foes.  Which is a good thing, because if Batman could just use his gadgets, there would be no reason for him to fight or sneak around.  As goals are accomplished and foes defeated, XP is granted to improve Batman’s technological arsenal and increase the amount of combat moves available.

The first game was largely indoors, which is not the case here.  Most of your time will be spent outside getting from one location to the next, tracking down clues, and doing side missions.  There are several indoor environments, but the “hub world” to these contained levels is substantial.  It was possible to just run around in the Asylum, but as there is a lot more distance to cover here, a new mode of transport is needed.  Thankfully, the game is not ‘Grand Theft Gotham’.  Batman can use his cloak to imitate his name sake and glide from the top buildings.  To increase his flight time, he can use the grapple hook mid-flight to gain altitude from one of the seemingly infinite grapple points.  If nothing is around, he can enter into a dive for a short time and then come out of it to gain some additional height.  Going around this method is impressive and far faster than running.  It really lets you feel like it is possible that Batman can patrol the city without a vehicle, as with the right amount of skill, he can go from one side of the city to the next without touching the ground. Very occasionally the game on the Xbox 360 will pause for five seconds or so as it loads the rest of the city the best half of the dynamic duo swept into, but this is not common.

The Riddler was in the first game only insofar as he justified the gobs of collectible shiny trinkets scattered throughout the environment.  He would also offer actual riddles, the solution of which was something in the game world to be scanned and was often a play on words.  Others would require cleverly lining up a green question mark that could only be seen at the right angle.  Edward Nigma is back in Arkham City with a vengeance.  The scan/environment riddles are still there as are the collectible Riddler Trophies, and there are far more of them than there were in the first game.  These are neon green, question mark shaped items that very much stand out in the usually drab and dirty Gotham streets.  Some are just sitting out in the open, waiting to be grabbed, while others will require the right use of all of Batman’s gadgets to gather.  The narrative justification for Batman taking time out of his busy night to gather all of these clues is that the Riddler has kidnapped several people and will only reveal their locations after Batman has completed enough of his challenges.  Once decoding their location, actually saving the hostages requires solving the deadly puzzle room where they are held.  For those interested in collecting items in open world games, or just those who want to wipe the smug grin off the Riddler’s face and drive him over the edge by proving you’re smarter than him, getting all of these collectibles can be great fun.  Far more fun than collecting static orbs or other dull hidden objects that dot most open world games.

As there are a ton of these collectibles, it might be seen as frustrating to have to track all over the world just to find that last trophy.  You could go download a map on your smart phone or just print a map off the internet, but there is an interesting in-game mechanic. All across the world are groups of thugs up to no good.  Some of them, after a certain point in the story, will glow green.  This signals that they are Riddler informants.  If all of the other goons in the area are taken out and the informant is still conscious, Batman will interrogate him about Nigma’s activities.  In terms of in-game effect, successfully leaving these men for last will put on the game map the locations of the nearby trophies you have not collected.  Handy if you want to gather them all.

In addition to the main story to complete and Riddler challenges to beat/solve, there are a host of traditional open world side missions slathered with Shark Repellant from a yellow utility belt.  Races take the form of running from one phone to the next within a limited amount of time to prevent the exceedingly creepy sociopath Victor Zsasz from killing a hostage (his “little piggies”).  A Pilotwings-y augmented reality relay mode places overlaying virtual circles within the world by way of the Bat Cowl, which allows Batman to practice his cape gliding skills.  And then there are a few other mysteries to solve, such as tracking down the assassin Floyd Lawton (aka Deadshot) by following the trajectory of his kill shots to the places he fired from to look for clues.  There are these and many more side activities, and I found them all entertaining and engaging.  Other Bat-fans might just want to get on with the story and skip these side missions.  They’re neat and add value to an already weighty package, but are not integral to the core experience.

Fully divorced from the campaign are a series of modes wherein Batman and the DLC gang of characters can practice beating up people as well as sneaking up on them.  These are score-based modes which allow for difficulty modifiers to be heaped on for extra challenge (i.e. one hit and you’re dead).  Score is granted based upon how fast things are done and with the variety of skills used in melee or not being spotted in stealth scenarios.  The combat is good and the sneaking action is fine, but I did not find this mode compelling enough to justify a lot of time.  There are Trophies/Achievements associated with score domination, but other than that, not much pull.

Selina Kyle’s alter-ego, the Catwoman, is also a playable character within the City… For most people.  She plays somewhat different from the dark knight, but the mechanics are not wholly alien.  Using a trademark whip instead of a grapple hook, she can climb the side of a building.  There are separate Catwoman story episodes which take place after certain beats in the main story and they intersect with Batman’s actions in game, but they feel fairly divorced from the main plot. The reason for this probably has to do with the fact that this pussycat is the “buy it new, don’t buy it used” incentive.  Anyone that does not buy a new copy of the game, will not get to enjoy combat that is mechanically the same as Batman’s, but animates as one would expect a sexy cat burglar in skin tight leather to animate.  Nor will they get to look for the couple dozen Riddler trophies placed just for her.  While she would be an admirable “add on”, offering a variant on the great core action and a little side story, it’s not an add-on.  The feminine feline was pitched as a core feature in the preview materials of the game.  Stripping her sections out to discourage used game sales feels cheap and made it so that her sections are not fully integrated into the main game.  Frankly, you can buy it used and not miss a lot.

The new DRM aside, this is a game that should be played.  If you just finished Arkham Asylum, you might want to let your Batphone go to voicemail right now and call the Commissioner back in another six months.  Arkham City is a great game, to be sure, but it could be a little much to play these games back to back as the visual style and core gameplay is the same.  But anyone eager for more Batman will find an engaging storyline as well as genuinely fun side missions.

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Pros:
+ Fantastic visuals
+ Inspired adaptation of Batman’s Gotham
+ Generous amount of side missions and optional activities tied to the narrative

Cons:
– Catwoman content feels tacked on
– Poor setup to the story

Affiliate Links:
Buy from Amazon or eStarland

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360; also available for PS3 and PC
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: PS3/Xbox 360 – 10/18/2011; PC – 11/22/2011
Genre: Action Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.