- Batman Arkham City
- CLR [rating:5]
Release Date: October 18th / November 15th on PC, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Genre: Free-Roam Batman Simulator
ESRB: T for Teen
The Stars are Bright with this Dark Knight – BIF BAM BANG POW! – Deep in the Heart of Gotham!
Back in 2009, gamers were worried. Though Chris Nolan’s excellent films had done much to make the good name of Bruce Wayne once again relevant to the average American, the same couldn’t be said of the Dark Knight’s status in gaming. For along with last century’s Red Sox, Batman games had been under a nasty curse: they were simply terrible, and had been like this , since, well, pretty much forever, and even had one exception (the first NES release) in order to prove this rule.
So if you were one of the many folks who saw trailers for the upcoming Batman Arkham Asylum and decided that you weren’t going to get fooled again with the next cape and cowl criminal circus, you can be forgiven for abstaining. Especially since the game was coming from little known British developer with one obscure game to their name, Rocksteady Studios, and that inspired about as much confidence as letting Joel Shumacher direct the next film installment.
That the game was good was as surprising as a batarang to the back of the head, but the fact that it was probably the best game of 2009 was a downright miracle. Here was, after twenty years, a Batman game that was not only fun, but actually understood exactly what made him an interesting character; letting players experience every aspect of being an orphaned billionaire who spends his nights dislocating limbs while dressed as a blind flying mammal.
But that was then, and this is now. The sequel, Arkham City is upon us, just in time for a Long Halloween. Is it a pitch perfect follow-up on par with The Dark Knight, leaving fans in an ecstatic haze like Poison Ivy’s perfume, or does it bring a Bat-Credit Card to the table and break their hopes like a venom powered knee snap ?
At the end of the night-long escapade that was Arkham Asylum, Batman put most of the escaped inmates back in custody or traction, shrugged off some Scarecrow fear gas, rammed Bane into the sea with his car, and stopped Joker’s tenure as a homicidal version of the Hulk with a punch so hard that the forthcoming Wayne manor piano recital was put on indefinite hold. Now it’s one year later and Quincy Sharp, former Warden of Arkham, has successfully run for Mayor of Gotham, partially under his platform of, “I will be harder on crime than a SAT exam given to six year old chiseling his answers on boron carbon nitride paper.”
To this end, Sharp walls off a decaying section of Old Gotham and sticks every single criminal and ne’er do well the police and recently hired TYGER military contractors can find inside its confines. Calling this travesty of justice “Arkham City”, its more internment camp than asylum; prisoners roam free within as guards focus not on keeping order, but on making escape nearly impossible. Of course this isn’t truly the work of Sharp, but of one Dr. Hugo Strange, Warden of this dictatorial gulag and a close confidential advisor of the newly elected Mayor, and far more importantly, one of the few people to figure out that Bruce Wayne, the protesting billionaire Strange has just arrested and thrown into Arkham City, is the true identity of the vigilante known as Batman.
Thus the stage is set for the World’s Greatest Detective to discover exactly what’s going on in Arkham City, and end Strange’s reign before the night is up. He’ll just have to contend with almost every notable member of his Rogue’s gallery along the way.
Fundamentally most everything that was good about Arkham Asylum remains unchanged. The “Freeflow” combat system, which perfectly simplified the caped crusader’s unique fighting style returns, as do the “Predator” sections where you stalk around a room, perched on gargoyles picking off armed thugs one by one as they freak out. Both systems received upgrades too: multiple melee enemies can attack at once and so multi-foe counters appear to compensate, blade weapon counters were changed for the better, ol’ Cowl Head gets a few new special attacks including E. Honda’s hundred hand slap and the ability to disassemble guns, while in the Predator rooms the thugs seem a bit smarter and more willing to destroy the environmental advantages used against them, though they still have the terrible peripheral vision and inability to look up that mark all red shirt goons everywhere.
A more important improvement is the marked increase in enemy variation. During the Asylum adventure there were really only two enemy types: thugs with about four different weapons, and Titans, the big galoots with attack patterns cribbed from every Spider-Man game’s contractual Rhino boss battle. Here, armored foes, a pair of Shaq-sized amputees, and ninjas appear in melee combat, with shields as a new weapon type, and all require specialized tactics. In the stealthier sections you get thugs laying mines, thugs carrying jammers that muck up your scanning equipment, and thugs utilizing night vision to check your vantage points added into the mix, and everyone gets grenades to flush you out of hidey holes. This variety allows the action throughout the game to consistently surprise without falling into the repetitiveness the first game ended up in . . . for the most part. I mean, you’re Batman; by game’s end you’ll punch enough cons in the junk that you’ll feel like some sort of underworld birth control.
The fact that the combat and ninja-stalking aren’t altered much is fine seeing as they were highlights last go round, but for those wanting something truly unique, they need look no further than Arkham City itself. Using some improved gliding and grapple-gun mechanics, you can explore every square inch of Strange’s penal nightmare, and the sheer amount of detail brought to every gargoyle, back alley, and snow covered rooftop never ceases to amaze, especially considering it’s much larger than old Arkham Island. Really nifty is that due to an ongoing gang war, different sections of the city maintain unique visual identities, as it’s split between three gangs, each led by a major Batman foe, namely Two-Face, Penguin, and everyone’s favorite Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, giving the whole affair a distinct War Games vibe.
To top all this off, the game’s overall structure has been loosened up, and there are several intriguing subplots that can be attempted at any point. Aside from a better integrated return of The Riddler and his ridiculous amount of puzzles littered throughout the city, you also team up with a couple of minor villains, track down serial killers and the mercenary Deadshot using the forensics lab Bats keeps in his smart mask, and possibly even run into another mysterious vigilante who at first seems to be the next protagonist of the Assassin’s Creed series (if Ezio finally gives up the limelight), but is actually the famous Bat-failure, Azrael.
Azrael? In a videogame? He’s not exactly the most “mainstream” character from the Bat-iverse, but he is probably the best example of how far into the character’s history writer Paul Dini and Game Director Sefton Hill delve into it, and boy do they ever. Pretty much every major villain you can think of shows up by the time the credits roll, and most of the cast of Asylum returns for at least a cameo or two, and even more surprisingly, all of the characters feel like natural fits into the twisting plot that forms the main narrative of the game, which proves gripping and culminates in a manner that’s depressingly dark, even for this franchise.
And before I forget, the dialogue and especially the voice acting that bring this myriad cast to life is absolutely superb. Mainstays reprising their roles from The Animated Series, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, are of course pitch perfect and prove that no one does these two icons better. They’re supported by a glorious cast of veteran voice talent, from Maurice LaMarche’s creepy Mr. Freeze to Wally Wingert’s pretentious Riddler, and the ubiquitous trio of Nolan North, Steven Blum and Jon DiMaggio in roles great and small. The ample amount of goon dialogue is especially entertaining, particularly the many digs at the ending of Lost, and the moments of clarity these fist fodder foes reach when they realize they’ve crossed the goddamn Batman.
Unfortunately, not everything is delightful dialogue and five-star fisticuffs. For the most part, the boss battles remain the game’s weakest feature, as the combat engine is still primarily about fighting off hordes rather than singular opponents. The confrontation with Mr. Freeze is arguably the best of the bunch, but it’s hampered by the simple fact that it seems unnecessary and poorly justified within the context it occurs, other than the fact that “Mr. Freeze is CRAZY”, and that the game designers made the character, so you might as well end up fighting him!
In fact, though the main arc generally flows well, it also has a Batcave full of niggling problems. Legitimately interesting plot threads, such Penguin’s hatred of the Wayne family, and pretty much the entire character of Two-Face are brought up and then dropped quicker than Zatanna can say “seitinutroppo dessim.” Dr. Hugo Strange, for all his touting as the game’s primary villain, and legitimately compelling threat as a powerful man with the knowledge to truly destroy Bruce Wayne also ends up surprisingly underutilized and ends up playing second fiddle to not just the Joker (which is rather expected) but pretty much everyone else, and frankly it wastes the potential of the character.
Then there’s Catwoman. Pernicious (or is it Purrlicious?) master Cat Burglar, Selina Kyle, is playable in Arkham City but as a set of free DLC that only gamers buying the game new get access to. She does handles quite a bit differently and ends up providing even more variety via a series of side stories that occur concurrently and intersect with the main plot. So far, so good.
However, these segments are integrated with the story, filling in as a prologue, epilogue, and as a couple of interstitials, which on paper sounds like a good thing too. The problem is that they completely throw off the pacing of the game! Her “prologue” is shorter than Bat-Mite, and then her second chapter comes in a perfect lull moment soon after, which creates this expectation that she’ll keep doing so as the game goes on, but then she doesn’t, and doesn’t, and doesn’t yet again. When she finally does, it’s near the game’s climax, and by then her involvement seems superfluous and actually distracting. Combined with the issue of The Riddler , whose over 400 puzzles, supersede other, far more important, antagonists in importance, I ended up finding it rather difficult to care about the game’s narrative even though it might objectively end up the second best Batman tale in a decade (because seriously, The Dark Knight)!
This aggravating implementation of what could have been simply a nice bonus is exacerbated by the other ridiculous DLC shenanigans. If you bought Arkham City at retailer A you might get a nifty costume 1, from another, you might get Robin as a bonus character and nifty costume 2, and about fourteen other variations on this theme. There’s simply no way for anyone to get everything produced for this Batscapade in a single package. It’s a bit of business strategy meta-tampering that does nothing but distract the player from ever committing to the experience . . . which is unfortunately fitting for a comic book character, I suppose.
With all these issues aired though, Batman Arkham City can still be summarily broken down to one simple fact: it’s more Batman Arkham Asylum, with improvements across the board, more characters, and a better plot. Considering that game is deservedly hailed as one of the greatest things to come out of England since The Beatles, that’s not only an endorsement for you to simply go and enjoy it for yourself, it’s also my guarantee to end up as “Best Game of the Year” barring some sort of “Second Coming of Samus.”
I’m going to make another prediction, far sadder than the last. This also might end up the last great Batman game, as Mark Hamill is retiring as the Joker. With Hamill’s Joker gone, is there any way that the obvious follow up, Gotham City, could ever live up to the greatness already established by Rocksteady?
Who could ever follow up an amazing Joker story with a third installment that doesn’t feature him? That’s impossible. Right?
[youtube width=”560″ height=”340″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2vIm7U7LeM[/youtube]