More Batman? Yes. Better Batman? Sadly, no.
Let's get this out of the way right up front: yes, Batman: Arkham Asylum is my favorite game from 2009. And no, Arkham City is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is largely the same fantastic game we were treated to a couple of years ago. It pains me to say, then, that I didn't entirely enjoy my time with the Dark Knight's latest outing. There were frustrating elements to the game and a lack of the same cohesiveness that ultimately make it a solid sequel that pales in comparison to the masterpiece original.
I won't go into details about the setting and core gameplay, etc. about Arkham City. You can find that out just by reading Jeff's review. Instead I'm going to talk about my view of the game and my personal experience with it, and what I enjoyed and what I didn't enjoy. Hopefully it'll be useful to somebody.
So what did I like about the latest Rocksteady release? First off, the game is outstanding from a visual perspective. There is a great amount of detail and fluidity to everything that simply watching this game is a joy. The game also has the same essential structure that worked so well for Arkham Asylum - quality combat, Metroid-esque exploration and progression, and tons of side missions to accomplish. There are some fun new gadgets and combat has received a few tweaks that make it feel more dynamic and fluid all around.
The new villains and allies we see in Arkham City are particularly great. Catwoman is portrayed excellently with a great look and a fun style of gameplay in the few short sections she's playable. The Penguin is voiced marvelously by industry hero Nolan North and is a great character. Other fun enemies to see are Dr. Strange, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and others that I won't spoil here. There are returning enemies that are great to see again. The developers were certainly not afraid of throwing a ton of new faces into the story.
That no-limits attitude comes at a cost though. The central story in Arkham City is pretty threadbare and ends up being nearly nonexistent. There is a central bad-guy or two, sure, but all the story beats seem disjointed and a bit unfocused. In Arkham Asylum, The Joker was obviously the central threat and made an amazing nemesis to work against, even with other villains showing up here and there. In Arkham City it mostly feels like these guys make appearances just because. You fight them a bit, figure out some purpose you share, and end up helping out most of them in some way. It sort of devolves into a series of fetch quests a lot of the time, though it tends to keep the execution of those elements pretty interesting.
I have to say the one biggest complaint I have about Arkham City is based purely around navigation. When in the outdoor city, getting around is easy enough. But due to poor mapping and bad directions, I was constantly bewildered at where I could even enter a building (even if I'd been there before) or I'd end up deep underground somewhere and have no sense of where I had come from. The more-linear design of areas in Arkham Asylum tended to keep you on a straight path that was pretty obvious, but there are a lot of large, complicated areas that made my head hurt after a while in Arkham City. Over the course of my roughly two weeks of playing the game to completion, I probably stopped playing for a long period of time three or four times just because I got so frustrated and couldn't figure out how to get back outside. The useless 2D maps didn't help at all. A simple arrow or Dead Space-like guideline would have been much appreciated.
I also found myself frustrated far more often by cheap enemies than I was in Asylum. New dodging techniques against blade-wielding enemies are poorly explained and I didn't understand them until late in the game. There are armored enemies, guys with shields, dudes with giant hammers...at times the room was literally swarming with guys and I could barely keep up with it. It caused a lot of cheap deaths and frustrations, despite the well-designed combat. One major complaint I have about the controls is it's really hard to target one specific guy among many - something you have to do when one or two of them are wielding guns.
The controls sometimes have lag issues that I noticed as well. There is a semi-priority on animation in this game that ended up meaning that Batman would dive too late or not shoot out his grapnel line when I wanted to, or straight-up wouldn't counter guys even though I had successfully done the same thing time and time again. Sometimes fleeing from combat or getting out of a nasty situation is straight-up impossible because it won't react right. It wasn't a frequent problem, but it cropped up enough to cause a fair number of deaths.
As for the side stuff in this game, some of it is really good. The Riddler is back and some of his riddles are fun and devious. There are lots of side missions to accept from other characters too - and some story threads will only be viewed upon seeking those out. That said, there are WAY too many Riddler trophies, random objects to destroy, etc. The first game already was pushing it with its number of trophies, but now there are so many of these things to collect, and they unlock bonus missions and combat scenarios. It's really annoying. Also, rescuing "political prisoners" is no fun at all and just serves as another annoying thing to get in your way as you're traversing the environment.
Some other things, like the small number of new gadgets and the questionable usefulness of said new gadgets, or the overbearing HUD elements when you get a new move or combo upgrade, or the lack of explanation of how to best get from one part of the city to the other (can you maintain your flight by grappling? If so, I never figured out how...) really put a damper on an otherwise high-quality experience with lots of great moments. Also, that Catwoman DLC that comes with new copies of the game is reasonably fun, but ultimately not that central to the plot or the gameplay in general. Catwoman just isn't as fun as Batman generally, though she has some unique moves she can pull off. Her navigation is poorly (rather, never) explained, and involves timing-based button presses...but she can clamber all over certain ceilings, so that's fun I guess.
My last complaint has to do with the Batman character in general, and how regardless of how awesome he is, he just won't kill the most dangerous and horrific of his enemies. I understand that as a vigilante, he is in a bad position to be able to straight-up execute his enemies, but at the same time the lengths Batman goes to to ensure that the most cruel, vile, and murderous of the psychopathic nemeses he faces don't die is really quite ridiculous. He throws himself out of windows to save villains from death, talks about how one particular villain needs medical care after being stabbed TO the person who stabbed him (perhaps the weirdest, and worst, scene in the entire game) and many other ridiculous, and frankly, unbelievable scenarios. Some of my greatest heroes who were wonderful, righteous men were not afraid to kill when they knew they were in the right and they were defending the life, liberty, and property of others. How many hundreds has The Joker alone killed? How many more will he? Why does Batman go to such great lengths to prevent anybody from killing him then? And how good can you feel about "stopping" these bad guys when you really aren't doing anything to prevent them from doing it again? Geez, at least make sure that Gotham's government will carry out capital punishment on these lunatics. Something.
But I digress. Despite the shortcomings and disappointments, overall I enjoyed the experience. I like Arkham City, but it's unfortunately no Arkham Asylum. It's a great adventure and has lots of memorable moments, but I can't help but lament that this game is another example of a game this year that didn't live up to it's great predecessor's glory. Whatever the case, this is definitely more Batman, but sadly not better Batman.