Batman demonstrates a unique way of removing gum from his boots.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum hit store shelves in August 2009, critics hailed the gritty epic as the best superhero game of all time. Considering the Caped Crusader’s virtual past of lackluster licenses, Rocksteady Studios had very few challenges to overcome. Two years later, after spending the past few days battling mortal enemies in Batman’s latest sequel, I’m proud to say Batman: Arkham Asylum is the second best superhero game ever made.
Batman: Arkham City begins twelve months after the Joker’s coup of Arkham Asylum. A massive, walled-off prison has been erected in the heart of Gotham, containing every manner of schizoid and super villain from Batman’s past. The gang’s all here, including Zsasz, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Riddler, Penguin, Bane, and many more, but unfortunately for the Dark Knight, being a masked vigilante makes him a prime target for every man he put behind bars. After a ceremonial opener, Bruce Wayne finds himself locked within the city’s barbed wire walls. Can Wayne’s alter ego bring order to chaos? How does Hugo Strange know Batman’s real identity? What exactly is this “Protocol Ten” the mad doctor plans to enact? To mention further plot details would venture into the realm of spoiler territory, so I’ll keep this brief. Arkham City’s narrative rivals the best storytelling in the comic book hero’s history, and the foreshadowed ending tops the work of movie genius Christopher Nolan.
But Batman is not the only unfortunate hero to find himself confined with Arkham City. Catwoman plays a miniscule role in the city's fate, too, and her story interweaves with the Bat’s. Her missions comprise a sole five to ten percent of the total package, instead focusing on the "disagreement" (to put it nicely) between her and Harvey Dent. Despite her stature, the feline fanatic’s combat prowess is not to be underestimated. She maneuvers about her surroundings with cat-like agility. Her acrobatics and hand-to-hand combat are more stylistic than Batman’s, but her gadgets lack the originality of the world’s greatest detective. Catwoman’s whip is her main battle companion, serving to stun or pull enemies in closer for more fury swipes. Sadly, her four missions are tied to launch DLC. I could complain all day about online passes and how they only make sense from a business perspective, but my time is short and my voice has worn thin.
Catwoman is more than capable of holding her own in a fistfight.
In Arkham Asylum, there was little deviation from the main path when not soaking in the dark atmosphere. But within the ramparts of Arkham City, it is a whole new nightmare. Do I put an end to Zsasz’s telephone terror, or rescue a politician held hostage? Maybe I should destroy some leftover Titan canisters or brush up on my augmented reality training. The multitude of side missions ensures players always have the option of parting from the main objective. To say Arkham City is a full-fledged open world, however, is a blatant lie. Many indoor areas are locked until Batman invents the gadget that grants him access.
I feel this next point needs little explanation, though, but it bears mentioning: Arkham City looks gorgeous. The gothic architecture stained with graffiti, the law enforcement choppers polluting the skyline, and the numerous armed patrols of “Gotham’s Most Wanted” bring the Dark Knight’s world to life outside one's imagination. Despite his reputation, not even Batman is impervious to damage, as tears in the vigilante’s suit reveal a bloodied, muscular physique beneath, and the indoor environments look just as impressive as they do detailed. The major villains have laid claim to the city and cast a respective territory in his or her visage. Penguin displays his “statues” (read: corpses) in the museum showcases, Joker decorates the local steel mill with funhouse bobby traps, and the Riddler paints the town green with his signature question marks.
Of course, the voice acting is nothing short of phenomenal, and the all-star cast remains faithful to the characters’ established personalities. Catwoman is consistently flirtatious, Two-Face speaks in contradictions, the Riddler babbles in brainteasers, etc. Listening to the musings between these comic book heavyweights brings back memories of the early-90s TV show, Batman: The Animated Series, but it's still hard to believe the same man that once blew up the Death Star voices the psychotic Joker. Moreover, each hero and villain has a rich, multi-decade history detailed in the extensive bios, concept art, and statues.
The Clown Prince has seen better days.
But contrary to the enemies' numbers, the Caped Crusader proves he is more than a match for the standard assault of henchmen and human science experiments with nothing but his fists and gadgets. Although the fundamentals of combat remain intact, there is a new wealth of non-lethal options to explore. Batman can now counter multiple incoming attacks, take down two lesser thugs at once, and preemptive strikes, like gliding dive bombs, provide breathing room before the real fight begins. Quickfire gadgets both new and old are just as handy for solving the myriad puzzles as they are for incapacitating groups of enemies, too. Freeze grenades root goons to the ground and form an ice bridge during navigation, the Electrical Charge briefly stuns adversaries and opens up motorized doors, and the Batclaw strips assailants of their weapons and makes an excellent tether during rafting sequences.
The upgrade system also evens the odds against larger crowds. Dispatching inmates, collecting trophies, and destroying cameras, balloons, and Joker teeth offers experience. And with more experience come more enhancements to outfit Gotham’s hero. Various armor permutations increase Batman’s resistance to bullets and melees, while combo takedowns up the power of his punches tenfold. Calling in a swarm of bats to disorient henchmen or dismantling firearms mid-combo adds a new dimension to the gameplay as well.
Despite the image, there is little hand-holding in the midst of combat.
Now one complaint most cited among Arkham Asylum critics was the constant use of Detective Mode. The asylum was a fascinating penitentiary of secrets, though the world was frequently seen in shades of blue and gray. Arkham City ratchets down the necessity of this feature during exploration, and many criminals do not recognize Batman until he is breathing down the back of their necks anyway. Detective Mode is still an invaluable tool for scanning Riddler’s clues, tracking enemy movements, and locating breakable objects, but players that want to simply glide between rooftops and gargoyles need not worry about dying to random enemy encounters.
While Detective Mode may have been Arkham Asylum’s biggest downfall, this feature easily saw the most action during the highly praised Predator sequences. Stalking my prey’s movement, leaping out of a floor grate for a surprise attack, and then disappearing back into the shadows is thrilling. Any time I failed to clear the room without being detected, I felt I had lost. Although I could have grappled up to the nearest ledge and continued the hunt without penalty, I instantly restarted from the last checkpoint. It is not in Batman’s nature to be sloppy. This game of cat-and-mouse is not just limited to the confines of indoor spaces, however, but expands to include the open city. Prioritizing targets by taking out snipers before tackling the infantry is both essential and satisfying.
A silent takedown from behind is always better than the head-on approach.
Furthermore, New Game Plus gives players reason to revisit the sequestered Arkham City with all the gadgets and trophies nabbed during their first playthroughs. But there's a catch? Standard enemy encounters are more varied – meaning Batman may encounter knife-wielding and gun-toting felons sooner – and the counter indicator is turned off. Believe me when I say there is hours’ worth of replay value here. My two separate playthroughs, tallying a solid 30 hours of dedication, netted me 70% total completion. Since then, the Riddler’s madness has kept me glued to the controller, as my OCD compels me to uncover the 400 secrets left for Gotham’s guardian.
But unlocking enough of the Riddler’s secrets grants access to the infamous challenge rooms in which to test your reflexes and anger management between a mixture of both stealth and combat. The twist is the inclusion of modifiers, which alter the gameplay to help or hinder challengers. For instance, Gadget Malfunction disables all gadgets during combat and scrambles Thief vision when playing as Catwoman. Replenishing Health, however, slowly heals your character over time. Meanwhile, custom challenges allow gamers to select their own modifiers set to the trials they wish to complete.
Interrogating agents of Riddler will yield hidden trophy locations.
Batman: Arkham City does not reinvent the wheel of its predecessor. Instead, Rocksteady's latest project is a culmination of the refinements that made Arkham Asylum great, with the subtle flaws patched out. I tried my hardest to scrutinize any imperfection in the presentation, yet I encountered no glitches, no crashes, and no freezes during my dark, semi-open-world adventure. I’m almost hesitant to call Arkham City perfect due to the unparalleled polish, too, but this is no doubt a pinnacle that every comic book license should strive for. If you are still reading this review and haven’t been sold yet, let me offer you four more helpful words of advice. Go. Buy. This. Game. I could recommend Arkham City on the story, combat, puzzles, graphics, and voice acting regardless of the protagonist. Batman just makes the experience all the more awesome.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: October 18, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC