Batman Arkham City: Strange Days and Dark Knights
As a game that was greatly anticipated following the surprise ’09 title of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City is a sequel that had a lot to live up to. The bar was set pretty damn high, so, was this title the cherry-on-top of an amazing, surprising franchise?
Well…yes. However, even though Arkham City is a game that does a lot right, the lightning in a bottle effect of the first Batman game all but shattered any chance of this sequel ever surpassing it. That being said lets dig into the Dark Knight’s newest adventure.
Arkham City begins with billionaire (of which he reminds us, the smug bastard) Bruce Wayne, making a public appearance condemning the new super-prison built within Gotham, housing every criminal from both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate, both locations carried across from the previous game. His speech is short lived however, as he is attacked, arrested and led into the city by the new antagonist for this game: Hugo Strange, the doctor in charge of the facility. He tells Bruce that he knows he is Batman, and any attempts to stop Strange’s plan will result in the rest of the world knowing this fact too. Being thrown into the facility, and after a few rather painful looking beat-downs, and a run-in with the Penguin, Wayne dawns his Batsuit and prepares to discover the truth behind Strange’s plan, the mysterious Protocol 10, all while looking out at the most heartbreakingly beautiful view of the city, as a fresh snowfall descends, whether an omen or a freak occurrence, it immerses you in the game from the get-go. However, the game’s acts, as it were, split into three sections; never seem to maintain a solid, coherent story, as the promising beginning leads into a relatively poorly constructed mid-section. The linear storytelling of Asylum was far superior to this, though City has many more tales to tell, its main plot seems disjointed, like nobody could figure out what the game should actually center around. If you bought Arkham City new, you also gain access to the Catwoman DLC, which will get its own section in the review.
Arkham City has changed many of the aspects Asylum used in its campaign. Arkham City is, in fact, a whole city, filled with warring factions with allegiances to some of the most iconic rouges in the Batman gallery, such as Two-Face, Penguin, and, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime himself, The Joker. Traversing the city itself, which is pretty damn big, will require the use of Batman’s cape, which he uses to glide across skyline. New mechanics allow for greater glide times, as now Batman can dive, and pull up, gaining altitude for greater gliding distances. Along with this new mechanic, some of the old gadgets return for use straight away, like the Cryptographic Sequencer, explosive gel, and the iconic Batarangs. But these are not the only gadgets Batman will gain throughout his mission. More new and interesting gadgets are obtained in key points throughout the game, and they all have a purpose. Unlike Arkham Asylum, gadgets are now more important to the overall exploration of the game, for example, one of the new weapons discharges an electric pulse, which can open or shit shutter on doors, allowing the player to access previously sealed areas. Every gadget is important, as they all have a use in obtaining Riddler’s secrets, trophies and riddles throughout the game. Detective mode makes a return although this time around it can be jammed by certain enemies. Its implementations for side-missions are impressive, helping to validate its existence.
Combat is more refined, giving Batman a more fluid feel, and the XP system returns, allowing players to upgrade their armour to better resist both physical attacks, and bullets, along with extra gadgets and bonus special moves and takedowns. The counter system is more refined, allowing for up to three different attackers to be repelled at any one time. Gadgets can be used in combat as well, thanks to a new two button quick deploy for specific gadgets, which are handy because in this game, enemies are diverse, and have a large supporting group that, while out of sight, will come to help if they hear the sounds of fighting. Stealth has always been an aspect of Batman, but because of Arkham City’s open-world design, stealth is now more difficult to achieve. Takedowns need to be swift; attacks need to be meticulously planned, and an escape plan is always needed in case things go wrong. While this all sounds great in theory, many of the previous elements that made Arkham Asylum feel like the player controlling the man who is the night have been shunned. It’s a natural evolution, given the design choices, but even in more compact areas indoor, the game never truly allows for the stealth elements that made its predecessor great. Again, the gadgets will come into play during stealth sections, but it always seems to fall flat, as enemy patrol routes always seem to have an annoying field of view, spotting unconscious allies from the other side of a rather spacious room. It isn’t something that can ruin the game, but in certain sections, the poor design of levels can really kill the immersion as the player is discovered and forced to change tactics on the fly. Again, not a totally negative thing, but some sections seem designed for stealth, and the overall mechanic does seem to fall apart if not done perfectly.
The combat itself, the arrays of punches and counters, is much more fluid than the previous game, although it still suffers from the same issue: irritating combo dropping. A majority of the time, the player will drop a combo because of a strange understanding that Batman has with a controller, as sometimes, he’ll flat-out refuse to point towards a new enemy, or instead punch or kick in the opposite direction. There are some moments when the combat system falls to pieces, with what seems to be severe input lag, leading to the player missing counters that were simple to block. It’s strange, and happens at random times, but it isn’t totally uncommon and seems like a pretty odd oversight on a developers part, seeing as the combat rarely changes. Another issue is the painful length of combat takedowns, which are needed to defeat the hordes of criminals faster, as this game seems to grant every type of low-life scumbag the stamina of a world heavyweight champion. All of these issues are frustrating, and since you’ll be thrown into a lot more combat situations than Asylum, this can cause the game to wear against the player’s patience. Along with this fact, armed enemies are now ten times more difficult and dangerous, as they shoot on sight, and without any proper cover, Batman is pretty much screwed, as even with full upgraded bullet-proofing, he still takes a hell of a lot of damage. The only way to refill the armour gauge is to takedown these enemies, which is a fairly tall order, as the sound of gunfire will draw every gun-toting maniac to that position.
Graphically, Arkham City is amazing. The stylistic choices from Asylum are carried over and improved in every way possible, leading to this game being one of the best looking on the Xbox 360. The game is dark, gritty, and really gives the player the feel of an even more dank and shady Gotham, under a new prison sheen. The character models are excellent, there are some unappealing lip synchs, but the voice acting is solid, with Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Joker before his retirement, Kevin Conroy, who as always delivers on his definitive Batman voice, and a special mention to Grey DeLisle, who delivers a sultry, sexy voice performance, worthy of the character model of Catwoman. Every voice actor sounds convincing, and it really gives the player a sense of immersive play. The city is well detailed, with some of the most iconic areas in Batman lore to visit and get nostalgic about, right before some unforeseen thugs try to crack your skull open with a pipe. Buildings range from tall and well kept, to board up, and to straight-up dilapidated. Everything has a nice diverse feel to it, coupled with the fact that exploration wields new and interesting secrets, and makes this game one of the best looking and immersive experiences that can be bought. Enemy variations are fairly diverse; thankfully the masks that they wear help dispel the sense that every enemy looks alike for no reason. However, I have to mention that there is some pop-in at times, most noticeably in the first real overview of the city, when blimps seemingly appear out of nowhere…inconsiderate bastards that they are.
Soundtrack-wise, City has some amazing music, orchestral and deep, against the gritty backdrop of Arkham City, it delivers an experience that very few games can manage. With swells and drops at pitch-perfect moments, the game delivers every moment with a feeling of ‘this is the definitive moment…or maybe this one instead’, as the scores help to pull the player into every aspect of the storyline, filling the music with the emotional perfectly matching the moment.
Mission structures work roughly the same as they did in Asylum, with main missions being highlighted on the minimap, along with a full map screen in the menu. However, Arkham City brings something new to the table: Side-Missions. But these aren’t some throw-away missions, oh lord no, we’re talking side-missions with their own stories, some of which intertwine. There are murders to solves, political prisoners to save, psychopaths to hunt down and capture, mysterious people to track and discover. No side-mission is unimportant, and for the Batman fan, there are some real whoppers in this regard. Some of these missions could last the entire game, disrupting the player as they attempt to find the next main mission location, and they’re always interesting. There are one or two missions that have only one aspect to them, but they always stand and deliver with amazing details and great design choices that make them worthwhile. Augmented Reality training allows the player to take part in challenges to help control their gliding skills better. They give XP and an interesting upgrade for a gadget to help you get around the city more quickly.
Main missions structures are, as said before, roughly the same as Asylum, but with one big, impressive and welcome change: Boss fights are now amazing. Asylum has a major issue, where the only decent boss fight was found in the Scarecrow sections. In City, this problem has been rectified for the most part. The first ‘boss’, the Penguin, is a frustrating as all-hell experience, with no real indication given of what to do with a relatively new gadget you’ve received but never used until that moment. But following that, the game delivers a number of very impressive and creative boss fights that quickly overshadow the poor initial encounter. This is extremely welcome and a great step up in terms of gameplay. However, the Riddler trophies and riddles make a return. Now these are simply not for me, I’ve never felt like they were particularly well designed, but placing over 400 different riddles and trophies in-game is far too much. The ‘challenge’ is also superficial, as more often than not, the way to solve puzzles isn’t complicated, just hard to spot. Riddles more often than not require a proper line-of-sight, but this automatically falls down because of the diverse design of the city itself. They don’t so much feel rewarding upon completion as frustrating for being in the way. Implementation, again, is the main problem with these challenges.
As in Asylum, there are challenge maps in the Riddler Challenge mode. These vary from combat challenges, to stealth and even campaign challenges, mixing the two elements together. These stealth challenges are actually much tighter than the main campaigns, so it’s always nice to play through them if you miss that aspect. For some, much like me, all challenges serve to do is give the player mild entertainment for a few hours, but a large some of people love these kind of modes, so I guess it’s an acquired taste. You can pick more than just Batman in this mode: Catwoman has her own challenges, the same with Robin, if you got the preorder code, and even Nightwing, but only through paid DLC, each with their own variations on iconic campaign levels. Along with this mode is the New Game Plus mode, unlocked after defeating the main campaign. In this mode, you have all your gadgets and upgrades, but the game itself is harder…insofar as the bullet damage is nearly tripled, rendering any upgrades pointless, and the combat no longer has prompts, so counters have to be executed from sight…this is not difficult, just irritating, as the combat isn’t so much made more challenging as it is made more frustrating, as in this mode, input lag can literally kill you. It seems to put a damper on an already challenging game, and makes for some annoying moments, as a lot more of the goon squads are armed with guns, which are Batman’s Krytonite.
Catwoman is quite an unimportant part of the overall game, but still, she is part of it. She plays like a more flexible Batman in combat, employing three separate types of gadgets. She is much faster than Batman, but has to traverse building by climbing the walls, gaining altitude by means of button-press timing. Her story is pretty inconsequential, with only four, relatively underplayed chapters. She can, however, climb on mesh and wire attached to ceilings, giving her a more stealth based element than Batman, as she lacks upgrades and has a very small amount of health. She has her own Riddler trophies to collect, and her Boss fights are ok. Really, you could live without her.
For all of the sheen and amazing atmosphere that Arkham City delivers, with its colourful tableau of villains, amazing side-missions, excellent open world design and overall amazing feel, there are more than a few issues that make it feel slightly less polished. Given the fact that Arkham Asylum was so popular, this game might never have been able to live up to its predecessor, but if the gripes had been ironed out, this would have been the perfect game.
- Engaging atmosphere
- Excellent voice acting
- Detailed character models
- Excellent Boss fights
- Great implementation of detective mode in missions
- Diverse gallery of enemies and iconic villains
- Beautiful soundtrack
- City setting is well detailed, filled with secrets and iconic locations
- Side-missions are a welcome addition
- Excellent graphically
- Combat is faster and more fluid
- Story is interesting
- Story lacks cohesive structure at times
- Combat can flat-out fail
- Enemies are damage sponges
- Combat-takedowns are far too slow
- Catwoman is relatively pointless
- Riddler challenges in campaign are far too many in number, and aren’t so much challenging as they are about having a specific item or lining up your sight
- New Game Plus seems to be a ‘hard for the sake of it’ mode
Arkham City should have surpassed Asylum is every conceivable way, however, it can only really land on-par, as some questionable design choices, and some poor implementation of some elements prevent it from surpassing the first title. That being said, this is an amazing game, with far more positive elements than negative ones. A definite recommendation.
WTF? Moment: Who needs shark repellent when you can just punch the thing right in his face!