The Arkham Experience Is Still Unmatched, Even Two Years Later
There was a time when Batman games were viewed with contempt. Like most of the licensed drivel that publishers would pass for games, these experiences were often short, under developed, and untrue to the methods of the world's greatest detective. It is for precisely this reason that gamers were so skeptical when Rocksteady announced Batman Arkham Asylum. Of course that game released in 2009 to heavy critical acclaim and even received numerous Game of the Year nods. But was Arkham Asylum's popularity partially a result of the low expectations fans held for it? With Batman Arkham City, Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady deliver a swift roundhouse kick to the doubters, proving that lightning can indeed strike twice.
From the very first moments of Arkham City I was on the edge of my seat. This is a game that wastes no time in establishing its conflict and fleshing it out with infamous villains. After a memorable tutorial level you'll be thrust into the city large tasked with tracking down Hugo Strange, the man behind the creation of Arkham City. The impoverished prison city, created from the ashes of the ghettos of Gotham, is now home to the world's most infamous criminals, and Batman will quickly be sidetracked in his search for answers by cameos from The Joker, Penguin, Two Face, Catwoman, and many others. The story weaves numerous threads into a compelling whole, taking what on their own would be fairly dull stories and lending them gravitas by integrating them into the larger plot.
Of the villains, Catwoman plays the most significant role. The anti-hero is actually playable for those who order the game new (or buy used from Gamestop, as the retailer has cut a deal with Warner Bros. to include codes in its used copies,) and her story intersects with Batman's at several key moments. It's a fairly significant chunk of game to wall off behind an online pass, to such an extent that I find it hard to imagine the story without her. If I had to pick out one flaw in Arkham City, it'd be the awkward online integration. Catwoman requires a code and a constant internet connection to play. Worse still, every time I downloaded content in the background, the game would pause upon completion of the download and kick me out to the main menu, even if the downloads had nothing to do with this game. I can't tell you how distracting it is to be thoroughly immersed in the game one moment and kicked out to the menu the next, especially when I'm only downloading a small demo or something of the sort.
Awkward online integration aside, Arkham City runs smooth as silk. The controls remain largely the same as last time, although this time around Batman has access to a few new gadgets and must contend with a few new enemy types. The most significant upgrade seems but a minor one upon first glance; by double-tapping the A button during a grapple, you can make Batman speed up and maintain his momentum through his grapple, flying off the other end and soaring higher than before. Combined with a new dive move that's great for building momentum in the air, it's easy to soar across the entire city. Flying above the criminal scum below, you'll feel like a real superhero.
Combat has a similar flow to it. Although little in this regard has changed since the Dark Knight's last outing, chaining together combos by countering enemy attacks remains just as satisfying as it was before. There are even more options this time around thanks to numerous gadget upgrades. Freeze bombs can be tossed at the feet of a thug to freeze him temporarily in place, while quick-fire explosives can be thrown out to knock enemies to the ground. A new enemy type equipped with a riot shield will require quick dodges and precise attacks to take down, while another new enemy type armed with a knife forces you to hit a direction on the analog stick while dodging to effectively circumvent his blade. Combined with the Titan-infused brutes and taser-wielding baddies from Arkham Asylum, combat can feel quite busy. It's almost never overwhelming, though, and even when enemies start picking up guns and coming at you with knives, there's always a counter for every attack.
Of course, if you find yourself fighting a lot of enemies you may be missing the point of Arkham City entirely. The fisticuffs are great, sure, but the real thrill comes from taking enemies down stealthily. Creeping up behind enemies, luring them into traps using your gadgets, and swooping down from gargoyles high above their heads are all viable and satisfying ways to make you feel like the ultimate predator. Gargoyles are no longer the safe haven they were before, however. Certain enemies will use night vision to spot you on your perch if you don't stay still, and a tricky boss battle with Mr. Freeze ices over the perches, rendering them useless. In other rooms, enemies will lay mines in an attempt to fortify their position, forcing careful movement and astute observation.
Takedowns have been improved since Arkham Asylum. You can still swoop down from a gargoyle on rope and leave unsuspecting thugs dangling upside down from your perch, which remains one of the most fun moves to pull off in the game. Other additions are equally rewarding, though. Double takedowns are now possible and help thin out the crowd quickly. Ledge takedowns have also been expanded upon, and they comprise some of the most visceral and brutal hits of the game. An average gamer won't utilize all of these numerous combat options much in one playthrough, encouraging experimentation in the game's combat rooms. Even if you don't use every gadget, every takedown, and every combo, it's important to know that they're available. The variety in combat and the freedom to choose your methods are what make Arkham City so much better than other action games.
The story missions, while fantastic, eventually must come to an end after around eight hours. Luckily, there are tons of side missions scattered around the city that comprise dozens of hours of gameplay. Some of them are your typical open world objectives, stopping muggings, finding hidden items and the like. Many others are far more complex, and center around a specific villain or two. These character-central side missions are some of the best around, and although many of them can be broken down into mere fetch quests, they are bolstered by the personalities of the villains around whom they revolve. Stopping Zsasz from murdering innocent civilians has a totally different feel from tracking down Deadshot and his victims, even if from a gameplay standpoint your methods will be quite similar. Including side missions like these is a great way to bolster the villain count of the game without making it feel too overcrowded, an issue Arkham City deftly sidesteps.
Finally, if the game's cavalcade of side missions and collectibles still aren't enough to satisfy you (perfectly reasonable, given the quality of the gameplay,) challenge rooms make a triumphant return. Contrary to the open world freedom of the main quest, these challenge rooms task you with very specific objectives in a confined area, and require an almost surgical precision to pull off successfully. All of these rooms revolve around taking down enemies either silently or in hand to hand combat as efficiently as possible, and advanced levels demand intense memorization and numerous tries to achieve perfection. These instanced battles aren't why I come to Batman games, but they definitely have a strong following as evidenced by numerous YouTube videos and leaderboard scores. If you love challenge rooms, Arkham City has you covered, with even more being released as DLC at a steady pace.
AArkham City is one of those rare games that contains huge amounts of content and executes it all with nary a hitch. Rocksteady balances numerous villains and plot threads with all the skill and dexterity of a superhero, giving each character a time to shine in the spotlight before moving the plot on to the next. The engaging story is bolstered by some fantastic voice acting, which booms from the speakers in a suitably dramatic fashion, and the gameplay is every bit nimble enough to keep up with the demands of the plot. The real triumph of the game, though, is in its prioritization of player freedom, even in the relatively linear framework of some of its levels. There are numerous ways to approach every instance of combat, and it's this variety that allows Arkham City to remain entertaining no matter how long you play. With this game, Rocksteady has proven that their success with Arkham Asylum was no accident; they know Batman, and they know quality game design.