Batman at his greatest
I remember when I beat Portal 2 for the first time I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about it. This wasn’t due to the game having done things poorly or having a lack of emotion, no, my indecisiveness towards it came from the fact that it had been so long since I had encountered perfection. This same feeling, this stunned awe perhaps, was the first thing I felt when the credits hit the screen. There was sadness, alongside this awe, that crept up inside me that only comes once and a while, only for the truly special games, when I realized that I won’t be experiencing this for the first time ever again. This is Batman: Arkham City, this is one of the truly special ones.
When Arkham Asylum hit the scene there really had been nothing else like it ever before; sure there were third person brawlers out there, and yes there were more than a few stealth games, but Asylum did everything so well. The combat was hard hitting, fluid, and required skill, the stealth made you feel like a predator, and the game was dark, funny, occasionally scary, and above all else it was fun. Upon hearing that a sequel was in the works, the announcement for which came mere months after AA was released, I was doubtful that there could be enough for Rocksteady to improve on to make a sequel that wasn’t just a rehash of its predecessor. And while Arkham City does not change a whole lot of the Batman formula, it adds and improves upon virtually everything that AA did so elegantly.
The game opens with bang that leaves the players unsure of what exactly is going on. Many questions are raised within the first 5 minutes of the game, all of which are major questions. How did they get a giant city prison built in Gotham? Who is this guy running the place? Thankfully though all of these questions, or which there are many, are answered as you progress throughout the story. This gives the game a welcome and rewarding flow because the more you play the more you begin to understand what exactly is going on. And what exactly is going on? Well I won’t discuss that because, as I said above, this is a game that you should see from beginning to end with as little knowledge as going in as possible. Suffice it to say the game has a great opening, never drags in the middle, and has a surprisingly powerful ending, and will last you almost exactly 10 hours if you critical path the game.
One thing that Arkham Asylum did so well was the constant unlocking of new gadgets for you to use and the integration of these gadgets into combat. At the beginning of City you already are blessed with a large number of these gadgets, but what’s better is that you unlock and earn so many more gadgets that by the end of the game you’re somewhat amazed that Batman can carry all of these things; he must have one hell of a tool belt. Like Asylum, as you acquire each new gadget you are taught, with great effectiveness and without it ever feeling like a tutorial, how to use these gadgets both in environment traversal and combat. These gadgets range from freeze bombs to an electric bolt shooter, and virtually all of which can be used in combat.
As for the combat in Arkham City, not a whole lot has changed since Asylum because, well, it was pretty damn near perfect to begin with. That being said, Batman has learned some new moves since the incident at the Asylum, such as being able to counter two enemies at a time. There are also several new enemy types, including shield wielding thugs, and big one armed, hammer wielding, Eastern European thugs, that require special moves to take down. For the shield thugs you need to get above them by stunning and jumping on top of them, or for the one armed thugs you need to stun them with electricity and beat the crap out of them while they’re dazed. These new enemy types, combined with the new gadgets and the increased usability of these gadgets in combat make nearly every encounter play out a bit differently and allow for huge variations in how you can beat up guys.
The same can be said for the stealth gameplay. In Asylum, when tasked with a stealth room, you were able to play out each of those mission by doing virtually the same thing to each enemy, thanks mainly to the gargoyles and the lack of enemy variation. However in City, while there are fewer of these scenarios, they play out very differently from encounter to encounter. This variation comes primarily from the enemies as some can be carrying backpacks that disable your detective vision, while others may be wearing night vision goggles that allow them to spot you up in the rafters. The slew of new abilities and gadgets, such as smoke bombs that allow you to slip away unseen, make for much less predictable and frankly more fun stealth encounters.
Another thing that Arkham City does surprisingly well is getting you to be creative with what you are able to do. This ranges from environmental traversal to Riddler puzzles, they all are much better at getting you to use your plethora of gadgets and it makes for a much more varied experience, whereas in Asylum you could comfortably use the same three things to do just about everything.
Speaking of variation, boy is there a ton of stuff to do once you have completed the main story. There are about a dozen fairly involved side missions, over 440 Riddler trophies/puzzles to be solved, which range from simple trophies to rescue missions, and random events that you can drop in on, such as saving a political figure from some lousy thugs. While the main story is around 10 hours, completing everything else will easily take you another 15-20 hours, and you’ll enjoy it all.
As an aside, for those that loved the Scarecrow sequences in Asylum, rest assured there is a very brief, wonderfully surreal encounter that tops everything that the good Dr. Crane threw at you in the first game.
Something that Arkham Asylum did rather poorly was its boss encounters. The majority of the boss fights were encounters with pumped up Titan thugs, or even worse, Titan Joker at the end. Thankfully, Arkham City manages to do boss fights a whole lot better. While you will still encounter the occasional Titan thug, they are only ever thrown at you in an extreme combat encounter, never as a boss. Quite surprisingly each boss encounter is vastly different from the last, some involve explosives, some involve fists, and one particularly great fight against Mister Freeze needs you to get fairly creative with all of you gadgets. This is a very welcome change because each boss fight in Asylum was infuriating, whereas in City each boss fight is actually pretty enjoyable, never really tough, but never super easy, and genuinely satisfying.
In nearly all comic book movies the sequel is jammed full of unnecessary villains that usually detract from the film. In Batman’s case Arkham Asylum had a fair number of villains that you encountered, around six if I recall correctly, so I initially worried that City would be overwhelmed by villains. Now there are a lot of Batman’s villains that you encounter in the game, but most of them are very brief appearances, bordering on cameos. Thankfully Rocksteady manages to portray each villain extremely well, in similar fashion to Asylum. All I knew of the Penguin was Danny DeVito, all I knew of Mister Freeze was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and both of those portrayals are god awful, atrocious, and embarrassing. But in Arkham City, Rocksteady manages to make Penguin a very believable, short British mobster, pain in the ass, and they manage to make Mister Freeze a surprisingly likable, intelligent, broken man with some understandable and sympathetic issues. I appreciate a good villain in entertainment as they can truly make something great, in City’s case; there are many very good villains, all of whom are dramatically different from the last.
Now a good game with great gameplay, great campaign, and great characters wouldn’t be as good if it didn’t look and sound fantastic, thankfully Arkham City nails both of those departments. The whole of the game is lavishly detailed, wonderfully rendered, large, claustrophobic, and a pleasure to look at. It also helps that the game runs very smoothly, has little texture pop, although there is some as it is the Unreal Engine 3, and has super-fast load times.
Also like Asylum, there is some truly phenomenal voice acting. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy as the Joker and Batman steal the show once again with fantastic, believable, emotional performances that sell the characters. But there is also the always surprising Nolan North, the voice of Nathan Drake from Uncharted, who gives out a really surprising and unrecognizable performance as the very British Penguin. Seriously, you can never tell once that this is Nolan North doing his voice, it’s pretty impressive. Aside from great voice acting, there is just a ton of voice work in general. Thugs say way more than they did in Asylum when you are beating them up or hunting them from above, and they are constantly bantering with each other as you fly above them in the sky. It makes for a much larger feeling game with, once again, a lot of variation that stops that game from ever getting boring or old.
I could probably keep talking for a long while about all the great things Batman: Arkham City does, like how your suit gets beat up, or how there are a lot of crazy people in this game, including Batman himself and how subtly Rocksteady conveys Batman’s mild insanity, or how mature the game is despite its Teen rating, but I have to point out the one gripe I had with the game. Catwoman. Not the character, but how Warner Brothers decided to handle the playability of the character. To play as Catwoman you have to enter your online pass that comes with new copies of the game, now that doesn’t bother me because I get games new, but if you don’t redeem that code, or if you rent the game or buy it used, you miss out on parts of the story. Now I will say that the Catwoman parts of the campaign are not vital to the experience. Story wise they add very little and the combat with her is not nearly as much fun as the combat as Batman, but nonetheless, it is a low move for Warner Bros. to exclude parts of the campaign, despite them being fairly useless.
I say with confidence and without hesitation that Batman: Arkham City stands out as one of the very best sequel ever made. It easily can stand among the best of the best and I can say that everyone should play this game. No matter your interest in Batman, you will leave this game a true fan of The Dark Knight, a true believer in the masterful abilities of those at Rocksteady, and with an understanding that video games this special are really quite rare.