There was a time when the Batman license was a joke in the realm of video games. Plagued by a long list of awful games, hopes were low that the iconic comic book franchise would get the game it deserved. Fast forward to 2009 when Rocksteady, an unexpected contender, released Arkham Asylum to critical acclaim and massive commercial success. They had found smashing success where others only found failure. Was it just a fluke, or will they achieve similar success even after altering the formula for the highly anticipated Arkham City?
Publisher: Warner Bros.
ESRB Rating: T
Released: October 18th [NA; 360 & PS3], November 15th [NA; PC]
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Version Reviewed: PS3
My experience with the opening hour of the game had me concerned. Subtle chimes and the understated mood music of Arkham Asylum gave way to the epic orchestra so easily recognizable in most triple A titles of today. Everything is packed densely together; buildings, enemies, gadgetry, etc. Most worrisome to me was the schizophrenic pacing of the early game. You’re thrown into the action straight away as Bruce Wayne being arrested and processed into the walled off section of the city now designated as a prison. Within minutes you’re already fighting large groups of thugs and bouncing from villain to villain. Within the opening hour, you face mobs as big as some of the later encounters of Asylum, encounter Strange, the Penguin, and foil Two-Face. It’s all a little disconcerting. The section with Penguin hardly seems necessary, and the encounter with Two-Face feels rushed.
It’s only after this hectic opening that the game really begins to feel like the Arkham Batman we know and love with Batman piecing together the story by following leads all across the city using a slightly retooled detective vision that discourages the player from leaving it on at all times and ruining the games aesthetic. Hugo Strange has been put in charge of Gotham’s latest attempt to corral all the villainy, and Batman is rightfully suspicious. At the beginning, all you know is that Strange knows Batman’s identity and that he will soon enact ‘Protocol 10.’ To make matters worse, the Joker is deathly ill – the fallout from his use of the titan formula in the previous game – and he plans to coerce Batman into finding a cure for him by poisoning the citizens of Gotham with his infected blood. This isn’t even accounting for the insane assortment of villains from Batman’s rogues gallery, each with their own agenda. The stakes are much higher this time around, and the conclusion absolutely floored me.
There are two major twists at the end, and they are polar opposites in terms of their effectiveness. On one hand, the situation with Hugo Strange is not quite what it seems, and the revelation is not necessarily incomprehensible, but it also isn’t setup particularly well, and didn’t seem particularly necessary. The other twist is far too cool to even risk spoiling minor details. It is well integrated, brings in an unexpected yet welcome new face, and eagle eyed critical thinkers can piece together some very early clues to figure out what Rocksteady might have in store for the game’s final scenes.
I have a few more grievances to air with the story. Quincy Sharp gives up control to Hugo Strange who is now able to enact his crazy people, at the behest of his ‘powerful friend,’ without opposition. Batman didn’t think to look into this situation with Strange and Sharp before everything could go wrong? Also, why give up valuable city assets like museums, courts, etc., just to house criminals. If Gotham, and presumably the federal government, is willing to permit something like this, why not just save the expense and theatrics and execute some of this repeat offenders? With full access to phones and weaponry, and security not having full air control as evidenced by Batman being able to glide through the air and call the batwing in, what’s to stop any of these villains from escaping easily? The answer to all of these questions is that, “it’s necessary to facilitate the game existing,” but that answer isn’t satisfying given that the game does an otherwise outstanding job of setting up an interesting story and neatly tying up all the loose ends.
While Joker and Freeze are given full arcs and are proven once again to be deep and interesting characters, some of the other antagonists of the game are not given the same treatment. Penguin, Strange, and a handful of others are handled adequately, but most of the other villains seem to be just for show. In trying to pay homage and provide ample fan service, Rocksteady stumbles and fails to flesh out many potentially interesting characters.
I’m torn on the side missions. I usually loathe side quests because they simply feel like filler lodged into the game in order to justify a bullet point on the back of the box that reads, “hours of replay value!” This isn’t the case in Arkham City. Each side mission scattered around the city is unique and has its own miniature story arc, and most importantly they kept me wanting to play them. Unfortunately, some of the side quests suffer from the character handling issues I just described. While I loved tracking two of my favorite Batman villains, Hush and Deadshot, and I was grateful just to see them outside of the comics, the lead ups to the confrontation with these two villains were far more engaging than the interaction with the characters.
Bane, a deadly combination of cunning and brute strength in the comics, is still as interesting as an eggplant outside of the comics, and his entire side mission is riddled with severe plot holes and ends anticlimactically. Still, most of them kept me submerged in the world of Arkham City, and the Riddler’s in particular is so deep and substantial, and provides so much insight into the character of Edward Nigma that it threatens to steal the spotlight from the main story.
The city itself is dirty and gorgeous at the same time; the gritty morose skeleton of a city strung with neon, and hollowed out to facilitate a free-for-all makeshift prison. It’s full of life and easter eggs that demonstrate how deeply Rocksteady adore Batman’s fiction. On top of the side missions, riddles and trophies return (over 400 of them), and they are all small, often fiendishly clever, puzzles which may test both your reflexes and your intellect.
Like most things, Rocksteady took the “just add more,” approach to combat. There are a significant number of new enemy types each requiring a specific tactic to overcome, and brawls are generally much bigger.
The free flowing combat was mashy before, and that hasn’t changed, but it is also gorgeous to watch. It’s been made deeper, if you choose to pursue that depth, with the quick-use system for gadgets in which you can use your gadgets quickly in combat. For example, hitting L1 + square in combat will cause Batman to do a flip and lay down explosive gel which you can immediately detonate, and the upgrades are much more interesting than their counterparts from Asylum, but it’s still much more about the visual spectacle than being deep. You’re still mashing square/triangle for the most part, but watching Batman soar from enemy to enemy, suplexing and kicking airborne thugs into another group of thugs like an MMA ballerina keeps it from feeling as repetitive as it actually is.
When I saw how much bigger the brawling sections were I was worried that perhaps Rocksteady had neutered some of the brilliant stealth play from Asylum in order to focus on the beat-em-up sections. It didn’t take long for the game to assuage my fears with a section where I was free to develop my tactics on the fly and approach problems from multiple angles. I started by singling out a patrol by hanging upside down, and luring another away from two thugs guarding a doctor with the noise from a sonic baterang, who I ambushed on the first floor. From there, I found a destructible wall that lead to either a vent or a walkway. The walkway allowed me to get on top of the room where the doctor was being held so that I could detonate some gel over the remaining guards and take them both out at once.
What impressed me the most about AC’s stealth sections was how reactive the AI was. During the subway section I came into a room with a few overpasses and some subway cars, and 5 armed thugs. The first thing I did was grapple up to the ledge of an overpass where 2 were patrolling. I took one down from the ledge, and then the other, and then grappled up to a gargoyle. From that point on, the guards kept carefully checking each ledge to make sure they didn’t suffer the same fate. The game is full of little details like this.
One of the major criticisms of the first game were the boss fights which consisted primarily of ‘big guy charges at you, you hit him in the head so he hits a wall, beat him up.’ On the contrary, the boss fights of Arkham City feel like multi-layered, unique experiences, and the fights are specific enough to each baddie that no sense of who the villain is is lost during the battle.
The penguin isn’t much of a threat by himself, so he’ll resort to other means to stop you, and once you actually close the gap physically he is helpless.
One of my single favorite moments from Asylum was the end of the Killer Croc sequence in which Batman ends a chase by baiting Croc into a trap which he laid at the very beginning of the level because it demonstrated Batman’s ingenuity and not necessarily his raw strength. The only problem with this sequence is that it’s out of your hands. The player wasn’t given the freedom to feel brilliant by planning such a trap. The analogue to the Killer Croc fight in Arkham City is the fight against Mr. Freeze which deals with that criticism by having Freeze adapt to your every move. You start the fight noticing the very obvious things that you can do; popping up from floor grates, taking him down from a ledge, sneaking up behind him, but these options are exhausted very quickly, and taking him head-on is impossible. It’s not only a brilliant boss fight, but it’s the culmination of Rocksteady improving upon the flaws present in the first game.
Before I start to close this rather long review out, I just want to praise the voice acting which is stellar at every turn. Kevin Conroy will always be the definitive voice of Batman, Mark Hamil’s Joker is iconic, and Maurice Lemarche nails Freeze. Even Tara Strong who replaced Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, to mixed reception, is perfect, and Arkham City deserves a lot of love for the voice cast alone.
I had some other criticisms, but looking back, they don’t seem that important. The opening of the game gave me reason to be concerned, but by the end the experience that I got was not at all inferior to that of Asylum. That doesn’t mean City is immune to criticism, but major flaws are few and far between, and they typically only exist as a result of the game’s incredible ambition. It’s difficult to appreciate just how well implemented this game’s ideas are, and how cohesive everything is despite the density.
It would have been far easier for Rocksteady to fail completely than to succeed marginally, and yet they didn’t just succeed marginally, they triumphed stunningly.