Just as excellent as the first game, if not better
2009’s best game was also its most surprising one – Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was a game that rose out of the cesspool of comic book games with its incredible graphics, excellent combat, terrific voice acting, and levels that offered lots of exploration. Fortunately for us gamers, developer RockSteady understood why Arkham Asylum was such a great game, and they have matched their previous feat with another excellent experience – Batman: Arkham City. When it comes to graphics, voice acting, dialog, combat, and exploration, Arkham City is as good as just about any game from this generation.
The biggest change from the first game to the second game is the new setting. Whereas the first game took place in the somewhat claustrophobic environments of a massive prison, Arkham City takes place in an open-ended environment. There are still a lot of large buildings that you can enter and explore, but you spend most of your time in this game outside. While you are out there, you get to take in the breathtaking scenery; Arkham City is a gorgeous game, both technically and artistically. RockSteady puts every other developer who has used the Unreal Engine this generation to shame. Arkham city features a rich color palette and an unbelievable amount of detail across its huge geographic area. Just perching on a rooftop and getting a 360 degree view of the lit up skyline is an experience in and of itself. The game looks pretty good everywhere you go. No two city blocks look the same, and for that matter, neither do any two rooms inside a building. In ten hours of Arkham City, you will be exposed to more art assets than the entirety of the Mass Effect series.
A major bugaboo of open-ended games this generation is that they have been rife with copy-and-paste and lots of boring filler. Arkham City is much better than most of its peers in this department. Granted, the design isn’t quite as tight as it was in the smaller Arkham City, but it is still very strong. There are tons of collectibles in the game, but unlike most other open-ended action games, they are fun to find. Arkham City has lots of side missions, all of which revolve around villains of the Batman comics who are up to no good. Each set presents a mini-storyline, which makes them satisfying to finish. The great side missions are one of the aspects of Arkham City that put it above most other open-ended action games. Even a lot of games that I enjoyed, like Assassins Creed 2, aren’t nearly as good in this department.
One of the fun parts of Arkham Asylum was navigation of the environments. Arkham City is even better, because the huge outdoor areas add a parkour element to the gameplay. Thanks to his grappling hook, lots of tall buildings, and the ability to glide for hundreds of feet, Batman can navigate the city with a speed that makes the Assassins Creed protagonists look like old ladies by comparison. If you have read my other reviews, then you know that I have been extremely dissatisfied with the direction of games the past five years. One positive development, however, is that some series like Infamous, Assassins Creed, and Saints Row have built superb environments that offer not just a lot of acreage, but a lot of verticality too. Arkham City is, perhaps, the pinnacle of that achievement.
Even with open areas, Arkham City manages to stay strong with its stealth-action gameplay. The Batman Arkham series, ironically (and somewhat depressingly), is more fun to play with stealth than any recent “stealth” game like “Splinter Cell: Conviction” and the awful “Dishonored”. Enemies roam or guard areas in small packs, and you have all sorts of tools to take them down one by one – gadgets and abilities that allow you to creep around out of sight, swoop in, and KO a guard before his panicked goon buddies even realize that you were there. One of the defining traits of Batman is his ability to terrorize criminals with his almost superhuman stealth and combat abilities. Batman can sneakily take out goons one-by-one, or he can break half the bones in their bodies (but don’t worry, he doesn’t kill anyone). The crowning achievement of this series is its ability to give you this experience. You become Batman.
You also get a chance to play as Catwoman in this game. Catwoman has a few abilities that Batman does not have, like the ability to climb on grated ceilings. There are some Riddler trophies set up just for her, and she has a few of her own combat moves. She also makes lots of double entendre quips. For the most part though, the game is the same and it is just the character that is different during the brief Catwoman periods. It is still good, but these parts don’t provide the variety that you may have hoped for.
RockSteady wisely kept the combat the same as it was in the first game. Some of the special moves might have changed, but for the most part, combat is a delightful beat down. There aren’t a lot of button presses involved, but the combat is surprisingly complex and it requires some skill. It is also very visually impressive, as Batman sports a nice arsenal of martial arts moves that he used to kick, punch, flip, block, and counter punch enemies into a pulp. Enemies are relatively smart, and they will do stuff like pick up weapons off of the ground if you have disarmed other bad guys. What weapons they are using drastically affects how you approach them. Baseball bats don’t do a lot of damage. Guns, on the other hand, make a prolonged engagement virtually impossible.
Arkham City also features a rudimentary experience and RPG system. By finding hidden items, punching out bad guys, and fulfilling quests, you gain levels and assign skill points. It isn’t a very complicated or deep system, and it won’t affect your play style much, but it still adds some value. The upgrades are useful and immediately noticeable, which is saying something. With lots of RPGs, you have to gain ten levels to notice a difference in your abilities. Making level-ups satisfying is yet another way in which Arkham City does a feature better than games that supposedly specialize in that feature.
If there is one drawback or downgrade from the first game, it is that the writing isn’t quite as good. The first game was campier. This game is darker, more violent, and a little coarser in its language. I thought that the first game was perfect in its tone. This game seems a little in appropriate at times, and the atmosphere suffers as a result. For example, there is one part where, over your radio, you get to listen to a guy scream in pain as his hand is frozen and destroyed. It’s not that I am offended by this material – the problem is that this sequence is out of place. It is the kind of thing that would have fit better in the Christopher Nolan movies.
The villains in this game, for the most part, are still excellent though. You get to meet The Joker, Solomon Grundy, The Riddler, Harley Quinn, Bane, Mr. Freeze, and more. They all look terrific and are brought to life with great voice acting. Each villain has as much content as the main boss in most games, which is saying a lot. Variety has been a major casualty of this generation, and that is why Batman: Arkham City is so refreshing.
There aren’t a lot of criticisms that can be leveled at this game. There is nothing that it does that isn’t at least good. Exploration, combat, puzzle-solving – they are all very good. These elements are all solidly glued together with a cool setting, excellent graphics, and great use of the Batman fiction. Arkham City is the best game that came out in 2011, which was at least a decent year for games (compared to 2012 or 2010). It is a game that anyone should play, and one that truly deserves the 5/5, A++, and 10/10 ratings that it has received.