bulby33's Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360) review

The bar has been raised again by this incredible sequel.

The industry sort-of changed in 2009. We, as gamers, are accustomed to seeing licensed video games ever year, mostly stemming from a movie release or a contract agreement. The release of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, however, completely changed the game. It was, for all intent and purposes, the single best Comic-Book inspired game ever released. So good, in fact, that it garnered high critical and commercial acclaim, while receiving multiple year-end awards for gaming excellence.

How did it “change the industry”? It changed the way we look at licensed games. If a talented developer like Rocksteady can pump out this Batman game, completely out of nowhere, why can’t other studios do the same? It’s not like we’re asking much here—we just want our games to be fun. Licensed games, however, usually aren’t fun. This is why Arkham Asylum was so special—it wasn’t just fun, it was absolutely phenomenal.

The question now becomes this: because expectations have suddenly changed for Rocksteady and other licensed games to come, how has Rocksteady’s sequel, Batman: Arkham City, come together?

It’s quite fucking awesome, in fact. More to the point, it completely out-does Arkham Asylum in nearly every facet. And if that wasn’t enough, Rocksteady may have created the best game of 2011 while they were at it. Not an exaggeration; Batman: Arkham City is the real deal.

I’m kind of a sucker for a lot of things, but one aspect of video games I completely admire are open-worlds and fun combat. Batman: Arkham City is that, basically. It doesn’t just take place on a single island anymore, it actually takes place on a cut-off area of Gotham City, now called “Arkham City”. Basically—a district of the city turned into one mega-prison. It does sound like bad idea, yeah, but the game understands that. Everything makes sense. But you won’t care—flying through the city as Batman has never, ever, felt so damn badass.

The basic premise behind the narrative is, well: Batman villains, and there being a lot of them. Basically Arkham City houses the most ruthless and methodical villains in the Batman mythos ranging from Joker and Two-Face to other minor character like Deadshot and Mad Hatter. Every villain has their say, whether its Two-Face taking over the old Courthouse or Penguin dismantling what was left of the museum, pretty much everyone wants Batman dead one way or another.

Just the sheer amount of characters in Arkham City is absolutely staggering. One after another you’ll can pretty much check off the list one by one of Batman characters. The only bad thing to come of this is that not one of the characters truly feels like the ultimate bad guy. Pretty much every hour of the 12-15 hour game is something completely different. Sometimes you’ll be fighting through a Steel Mill to get to Joker, or next you’ll be sneaking you way through a Police Station hunting down Mr. Freeze. It’s sometimes overwhelming, almost like they should have saved some characters for the next game, or maybe for add-on DLC.

Though when all is said and done I truly felt like Rocksteady used all of the characters the correct way. Nobody felt left out, but nobody felt too in-your-face. The boss battles were epic, and the banter between Batman and his surrounding cast is completely awesome. This is a Batman fan’s wet dream. It pretty much has everything you’d want.

As a game Batman: Arkham City is extremely well designed. The city consists of four districts all with varying themes and environments. But each district also features an indoor area, sort of the like the indoor areas of Arkham Asylum. Think of it this way: an open-world city on the outside, and Arkham Asylum-type levels on the inside. The indoor areas are what you expect: short, linear pathways with some more open areas to tackle enemies in the predator-like style.

The two distinctive ways of playing Rocksteady Batman games are back: fist-fights and predator sneaking. Both of which are still incredibly addictive, and both have received some upgrades in the sequel.

Most of what made Arkham Asylum’s hand-to-hand combat so much fun was how it felt like a puzzle; the way you had to be quick on your toes to press the corresponding button to the flow of combat. Ultimately it made you, as Batman, feel like the biggest badass in history. Well, this is all back but with some new tweaks. Quick-use items are now more apparent and easier to pull off. So throwing a batarang isn’t the only thing you can do. You can now throw freeze bombs to immobilize enemies, and you can also set explosive gel on the group to take out multiple enemies at once.

But you’ll probably have to be more strategic this time around. It’s not just X, Y, B, X, Y, B, since there are more varying enemy types and ways of taking them out. Some enemies, for example, wear heavy armor and the only way to take them out is with a series of quick strike attacks after stunning them. Enemies can also carry shields (which are sometimes doors off of cars which I thought was pretty funny). Here you’ll have to stun and jump over them to drop their shields.

The combat was already so good in Arkham Asylum that Arkham City’s combat doesn’t feel much different. The added dimensions of enemy types and new moves feels like the right step for Rocksteady to take. It’s not revolutionary; it’s evolutionary.

The predator-style rooms are back in Arkham City, too. These room are filled with enemies (usually armed with guns) and you have to take them out, silently, one-by-one. Like the combat, not much has changed other than enemies having different sets of armor and abilities. Some enemies now have goggles which can catch you hiding on top of a gargoyle, while some enemies wear backpacks that can disrupt your Detective Vision.

Detective Vision has seen a little bit of an overhaul in Arkham City. It was one of those things in Arkham Asylum where you wouldn’t turn it off because of its usefulness of keeping it on. It doesn’t feel the same this time. It turns off most of your HUD, and it doesn’t have the same range as it did before. It’s also much darker, so turning it off right after a scan is needed most often than not. It’s still a useful device, though, as I mostly used it for the predator rooms to calculate the enemy’s positions.

You’ll also need detective mode for the bazillion Ridder trophies Rocksteady has crammed into the game. Riddler trophies are items you find around the environment that give you experience once found, but have a new reason to be collected in Arkham City: side quests.

Like other open world games on the market, Batman: Arkham City has a multitude of side quests to find and complete when your not saving the world in the main quest-line. Sometimes you’ll have to stop crimes on the street and sometimes you’ll encounter a mysterious watcher or investigate a crime scene. The Riddler side-quest mentioned above is probably the most engaging of them all, though, as it has you collecting most of the Ridder trophies to save hostages captured by the Riddler himself.

These quests quickly became my addiction when I wasn’t distracted during the main story stuff. I would go hours upon hours of game time just searching through the city for things to destroy, things to take, and people to fight. They all feel involved, too, like they were all meant to be played at some point in the campaign, not some silly fetch quest just to give you a little more XP, though, completing these quests do, in fact, earn you experience for leveling and progressing your characters.

One of the newest and probably most significant aspects of Arkham City is the addition of a new playable character: Catwoman. Catwoman plays a lot like Batman—the combat, for example, feels nearly identical. The only difference is that Catwoman doesn’t have as many tricks up her sleeve as Batman does. She can’t use smoke bombs or bat claws, and her whip doesn’t make traveling as much fun as Batman. Her campaigns don’t happen too often, though, and most of your playtime with her can be short if you please. I personally didn’t like using Catwoman very much, and is probably the worst part of the entire game.

Arkham City has a very well executed presentation that includes a beautiful landscape, amazing character design and animations, plus an epic soundtrack. It all runs great, too. The voice acting is absolutely top notch, the effects are tremendous, and the city is a treat to look at. Flying through the air as Batman feels smooth and responsive with no frame-rate hitches or slowdown. This is a package that has been carefully constructed, and nothing feels out of place. The density of the city is jaw-dropping as you’ll literally find something in every nook and cranny. It’s unbelievable how well everything looks in such a tightly compact environment.

Batman: Arkham Asylum set a bar for years to come for licensed video games, but Arkham City just demolished that bar completely. If this is not the single more engaging and most well crafted comic-book inspired game to date, then I don’t what is. Losing yourself in this incredibly detailed world is easy, but getting yourself to put it down is the real challenge. It’s not just a good licensed game, it’s just a great game in its own right. And stacked up against this year’s finest, I don’t know how it can be beaten.

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