Batman Game Gets Bigger, though Not Without Issues
Batman: Arkham City (PS3)
As far as sequels go, Batman: Arkham City is a big one. Compare it to the prequel Batman: Arkham Aslyum, and you’ll quickly find that everything about Arkham City is bigger and grander in scale. Before you were investigating an asylum; now you got what seems to be a city to explore. As the back of the box states, that’s five times the size of Arkham Asylum. That’s not all though, because along with the increase in size of the game’s playground, everything else became more too: more collectibles, more gadgets, more enemy types, more combo moves, more challenges, and more characters.
Batman: Arkham City features lots of characters. With DLC there are more playable characters, including Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing, and they all have different costumes they can put on. Then there are the villains. Save for a few, it’s like all the villains of the Batman universe are here. The game starts by introducing The Penguin, letting you beat the crap out of him, but soon, the prison city becomes open to explore, and you’ll find that it’s overrun with criminals and their masterminds. Expect to come across famous villains like Mr. Freeze and Two-Face, but also obscure characters that only die-hard Batman fans would really be familiar with, which include the likes of Calendarman, Mad Hatter, Hush, and Deadshot.
Basically, Arkham City is the ultimate Batman game. You can’t expect a bigger better sequel than this.
Well, in theory I suppose you couldn’t, but oh the other hand, there are many times during my playthrough of the game where I felt frustrated and wished I was playing the prequel Batman: Arkham Asylum instead. To me, the thing that makes Arkham City so tedious at times is the same thing that makes it so much grander than its prequel: its open-world nature. I mean, yes, it’s awesome to leap off a tall building, flap open Batman’s cape and glide, but at the same time, that’s what you have to do any time you need to go somewhere. A good number of side missions are about gliding around Arkham City. The perfect example is the side mission Cold Call Killer, in which you have to track down Victor Zsasz’s location by getting to a ringing payphone booth within the time limit. Also, because the middle “restricted area” of Arkham City is guarded by these tall fortress walls which you can’t land on or grapple onto, you’ll find yourself having to go around this area many times. There’s no denying that gliding around Arkham City - especially after you attain the grapple boost ability - can be great fun, but it can also get tiresome having to glide so much.
There also were a number of times I felt frustrated trying to figure out how to enter a building. The game uses different markers to tell you where to go next and how to get there. Early on in the game I have to find Mr. Freeze, and since he’s going to be located in the coldest place of the city, I use this thermal device that displays increasing numbers in blue if I’m going the right direction and decreasing numbers in red if I’m heading the wrong way. Most times, there’s a small indicator displaying how many meters I’m from my destination, which my movements will increase or decrease. Complemented with a map screen I can access anytime by pressing the select button, this system works well. I don’t really have an issue with how the game shows me where to go. Even so, there were so many times when I needed to enter a building, I would spend a good amount of time frustrated, puzzled as to where the entrance was.
It might be because much of the traveling is done gliding high up in the skies and running on rooftops while the entrances are usually at ground level. The few times in which I had no trouble starting a mission were when the entrances were in higher places, such as when I had to enter Joker’s hideout by diving into the building’s smokestacks. Thinking back of all the entrances, they were designed like puzzles. I suppose you can argue it’s a clever way to make you use your newfound gadgets and abilities, but a lot of times, it just felt unnecessary. For example, there are two times you have to enter the police station. Both times the way you enter the building is different. The first time, you have to find a small metal gate and fire an electric charge so that it opens a gate just large enough for you to slide under. The next time you have to enter the station, you have to go towards the side of the building that faces the coastal waters and grapple your way to the building’s second floor back entrance. It’s bad enough most of these entrances are obscured by other taller buildings surrounding them but for them to hidden in such a manner is not great design. Figuring out how to get from here to there is fun when I’m already on a mission inside a building, but frustrating when trying to start one.
For few side missions, the hardest part is figuring out where the entrances are. This is especially the case for the mission “Heart of Ice,” in which I have to find Mr. Freeze’s wife. The map shows her to be held hostage in this factory building. The entrance door is locked though and there are no ways in from the roofs or from the vents. The only way inside involves the use of freeze grenade to create an icy raft to ride on and of explosive gel to blow a hall in the wall. Once inside the building, you just have to beat a couple of goons and that’s it. That’s pretty much the side mission. Riddler side missions work pretty much the same way. Batman has get to the locations where Ridder’s holding hostages. Good luck trying to find the entrance, but after you do, consider the mission accomplished. It just feels really weird that beginning a mission is more work than actually doing the mission.
Thankfully, the main story missions themselves are designed rather expertly. Once you enter the building and start the mission, it’s like playing Arkham Asylum, but with more gadgets to utilize. The pacing is similar, having you go through a couple of small rooms or corridors by having you figure out which gadgets to use and then there’s a large room filled with enemies with many opportunities for sneaky takedowns. Just as before, expect vents to crawl in (and you still have to repeatedly tap the X button to prop open the vent doors), weak walls to use explosive gels on, and gargoyle statues to grapple onto. I’m still loving this pacing, though I’m left a bit ambivalent about how much more tech savvy the enemies have gotten.
On one hand, it’s a fun challenge trying to stay undetected from enemies armed with shotguns, heartbeat sensors, and thermal goggles. Theirs guns can be countered once with a smoke grenade, making you practically invisible for a short time, and their goggles become rather moot once you gain a suit upgrade, but damn those sensors, they are a pain. See, about an hour or two into the game, most of the enemies start wearing these sensors that go haywire when a comrade gets knocked out. This means that once I do a silent takedown on someone, I have to quickly flee the scene and stay undetected because groups of them are now going to come and investigate the body I just knocked unconscious. This really breaks the flow of things. I love stealth games and I’m extremely patient with them, but having to wait until the group of enemies start separating, even I can lose my patience and just start going crazy. With a lot of upgrades and gadgets to help me out, going crazy usually worked fairly well, but there are just as many times when I ended up with a game over screen, and a 3D model of a Batman villain insulting me.
Perhaps the game would have been way too easy if enemies remained unaware if one of them got knocked out quietly way off in the distance. I can’t say for certain if I would have preferred that. What I can say is that because of the way Arkham City is, a lot of those stealth arenas can be a bit grating.
I might be wrong on this but I think the goons of Arkham City are better armed than the ones in Arkham Aslyum. It’s been a long while since I last played AA, but I remember that even in the later parts of the game, there still were a number of areas in which I could just drop into a group of enemies armed only with melee weapons and just start beating them up. Granted, there’s still a lot of hand-to-hand combat involved in Arkham City because you’ll always encounter them in the hub world outside the buildings, but I felt that in the later parts of the game, the main story levels are mostly guarded by goons with guns. That’s probably why the moment that really stands out to me during the final acts of the game’s story is when I have to fight a group of enemies, most of whom are armed with pipes, electrically charged batons, gas canisters, and riot shields. Well, two had assault rifles but they didn’t really use them once the fight started. It’s that scene where Batman has to get to the top of the Wonder Tower and he finds a couple of hostages tied up and crouching in front of a huge TV screen. Doctor Strange is talking on the TV screen while I as Batman try my best to beat up this aggressive group of goons.
Speaking of hand-to-hand combat, it’s pretty much the same system first featured in Arkham Asylum. Batman finds himself surrounded by a mob, and one or two will try to attack and that’s when you can press the counter button and watch Batman block and dodge and flip around like a martial artist on acid. Second time around and controlling Batman do these crazy awesome moves still feels powerful and badass. On the first playthrough of the game, every time an enemy’s about to do an attack there appears these colored squiggly line above his head. The squiggly lines will be blue most of the time but it’s important to watch out for other colors because Arkham City features many different kinds of enemies.
Each type of enemies must be taken out differently. The guy with a riot shield for example cannot be countered and Batman can only hurt him by doing an aerial combo (O, X, then X button). Enemies with electrically charged batons have been featured in Arkham Aslyum before and same as last time, they can only be attacked from behind. There’s this huge ugly sucker with a hammer you need to stun using the remote charger device. Another huge guy with a sickle arm needs to be attacked by a cape stun combo. There’s a good amount of variety, making combat feel pretty fresh and unique, at least initially. Towards the end of the game, all enemy types will be grouped together, and those kinds of fights were awful awful chores. It gets difficult, but not the fun kind of difficult.
Just as there are more enemy types, Arkham City also has a lot more boss fights. The side missions feature main viallains, but even the main story levels themselves have a good amount of boss battles. They’re still rather mediocre and repetitive, requiring you to roll around a lot, tap a shortcut button to use a gadget, and then do a beatdown, and do the same thing two more times. Still, I think the boss fights in Arkham City are a big improvement over the ones in Arkham Asylum. The fight against Mr. Freeze stands out. It’s so creative. You’re confined in this area filled with a lot of takedown opportunities, and you’re going to need almost all of those opportunities because Freeze doesn’t fall for the same thing twice. For example, if you drop on him from the skies, you’ll get him good but then when Freeze regains his sense, he freezes your cape so you can no longer fly. Attacking him from the back is a good tactic but once you do so, his backpack starts spewing out icicles so now it’s impossible to attack his back. That’s just two examples. I think it’s one of the best boss fights this generation. The only other games of this generation featuring as creative boss fights would be... Hmm... MGS4? God of War III? Demon’s/Dark Souls... Can’t think of anything else now.
The thing that detracts from Freeze boss fight though is that in terms of the game’s plot, it made no sense at all.
Now come the spoilers, which will be underlined so you can skip them if you wish.
I understand Mr. Freeze is a Batman villain but up to that point in the game, Batman has pretty much done everything Freeze has asked him to do. It was because of Batman that Freeze got his suit and gun back from The Penguin. Batman nearly died obtaining the blood of Ras Al’Ghol so that Freeze can use it to develop a cure for the Titan Syndrome. Freeze knows Joker was the one who kidnapped Freeze’s wife. The most reasonable thing for Freeze to do would be to ask Batman to rescue his wife and then demand that’s the only way he would give Batman the cure. Instead, Freeze gets all upset, and tries to fight Batman. As a gamer, I absolutely loved having to fight against Freeze like that, but thinking about it, it was made possible at the sacrifice of good storytelling.
This part of the game’s story stands out so much to me because I feel the narrative of Arkham City up to and beyond that point was pretty cohesive. It was a kind of disorienting how so many villains just popped in only to become trivial so quickly afterwards but even so, each appearance and defeat of a villain drove Batman that much harder to find that cure, and to really put an end to the Joker. Ra’s Al’Ghol showing up to kill Dr. Strange atop the Wonder Tower and revealing that he was behind the whole charade all along too was just absurdly disorienting but it didn’t break me out of the game’s universe like Mr. Freeze having the sudden urge to fight Batman. If not for that moment, I think I much preferred the story of Arkahm City over Arkham Asylum’s, especially because of the ending. It’s shocking not only to Joker but also to me and probably most other viewers out there that at the end of the day, Batman still would have actually given that cure to Joker and let him live. Joker didn’t believe that though. He thought this time Batman would actually let Joker die. That was the Joker’s final error in judgment, making the ending of the game so powerful. When the credits hit, I kind of didn’t know what to feel, to feel victorious that Joker was now gone, or kind of guilty that it ended that way. And boy, how about that shocking twist at the end? That totally came out of nowhere and hit me right in the balls. I winced and when I came to my senses, I was like, “Oh wow, so that’s what happened.”
Overall, except for a few moments that just feel so out of left field, like why Freeze fights Batman, Arkham City’s story is compelling. And dark. Boy is it dark. Whereas Arkahm Asylum begins with a triumph of Joker being captured, Arkham City begins with the defeat of Bruce Wayne himself beaten, and imprisoned, his Batman identity no longer a secret to one of the main villains. From there on, the story only gets more and more twisted and Batman more and more beaten. By end, I wondered how Batman could still glide around as there are so many holes in his suit and on his cape. I enjoyed the story of Arkham Asylum but with Arkahm City, because of the whole vibe and direction of the narrative, I was so strongly driven by this urge to see more what happens with Batman. It’s a game I couldn’t not finish.
That’s not to say that the story of Arkham City is amazing, but I just found it very driven. It may not win any awards in storytelling and I’m sure it doesn’t deserve any, but it makes you care, and on top of the great gameplay and great graphics, that means a lot.
That’s pretty much all I have to say about Arkham City. It’s a game I rented from Gamefly so I unfortunately did not get to play Catwoman sections. I’m sure it’s great fun, but I’m just left curious how it plays and how the Catwoman’s story ties into Batman’s, if it does at all. I’m trying my best right now to find a job and stay afloat as an unemployed bum, but someday, I’ll have an income and I’ll buy the game to find for myself how Catwoman plays. Robin and Nightwing I don’t really care too much about cause I feel like they would play very similarly to Batman.