When Batman Arkham Asylum came out in 2009, it blew me away. Admittedly I had very low hopes for the game. The fact that it fulfilled every bat-fuelled fantasy I had as a kid made it one of the best games I have ever played period. However, when details about the sequel started to leak out, I began to get a tad worried. Sure developers Rocksteady had delivered with style, but it seemed that they might be overdoing things with Arkham City. Open world design with side quests? Thats the exact opposite of what Arkham asylum was.
Well, looks like Rocksteady have this Batman thing down pat. If you happen to be the sort that does not like long worded reviews, let me save you some time. Arkham City is the best super hero game out there.
It seems the developers really listened to all the complaints I had from the first game. They not only corrected them all (with one major exception) but also took everything I liked about Asylum and cranked the awesome factor by ten. The unreal engine has been reused but tweaked enough to give the game a bit more color. Mind you, Gotham never needed it; this is a city that’s never been the colorful type. Not much has changed in terms of presentation but where Asylum had very restricted level design; Arkham City is a different beast all together. After the tightly scripted opening, which was a surprising twist to begin with, the game lets you decide where to go and how to get there. But before I get to that, let me vaguely lay out the plot. Do not worry, there are no spoilers here.
The game begins with Gotham city’s mayor Quincy Sharp, cordoning a section of the city using some pretty deft political tricks. This section, called “Arkham City” has been presented as a solution to Arkham Asylum. All criminals are essentially let loose in this area and stripped of all rights. No one except a private security firm (Tyger) is allowed in or out. It does not take a Batman level detective to figure out that this is a really, really bad idea. Long story short, things start going to hell, it becomes apparent that someone called Dr Hugo Strange is manipulating Sharp but no one knows why or for what. To make things even more complicated, Strange knows Batman’s secret, i.e., he is Bruce Wayne.
The story plays out across different sections of the city which means the player will spend a lot of time going from point A to point B looking for clues and hunting down leads. It a good thing then, that travel is one of the highlights of the game. The grapple gun makes a return, as does gliding, but they have both been given an upgrade. Given the large distances, Batman can now “dive bomb” while gliding to build momentum before spreading his cape and taking off again. It’s a brilliant mechanic and do not be surprised if you spend the first few minutes just shuttling form one place to another just for the heck of it. The grapple can be used as before and if you are feeling lazy, there’s always a low flying Tyger helicopter around to hitch a ride on (as long as they don’t see you).
From the get go, it’s obvious that the game allows for a lot of freedom. This is not really as free form as GTA or Oblivion, Batman can’t break down every door and enter every building for example. He can however, decide to snoop on some suspicious characters and gather some intel before heading out to see the Penguin. Or he could beat it out of them. Or he could pick up a ringing payphone and be lead on a psychopath’s version of “Simon says”. Personally, I am glad that this isn’t a true free world experience. To me, it makes zero sense for Batman to enter abandoned apartments and rummage through drawers to find “loot”.
It does however; make sense for him to look for clues and forensic evidence using “detective view”. Unlike Asylum, where this was overpowered, in Arkham City, it is just about adequate. As a result, I did not find myself using it as the default view. You will use it frequently for sure and if anything, it drives home the fact that above all, Batman is a detective. It’s a subtle thing, but goes to show how well Rocksteady “gets” the character.
But the real star here is the combat. Asylum had nailed the combat to feel very “Batmanish”. Every move executed felt like something out of a comic. It was brutal, free flowing and blow your socks off awesome.
And it does not hold a candle to what Arkham City has to offer.
I won’t waste time by using fancy words here. The combat in Arkham city is the best I have seen in any third person action game. It is almost like Rocksteady used some techno magic to plug directly into my cerebral cortex and find out what it takes to make me feel like Batman. One can get through most fights with using a handful of basic moves but once you master the range of special moves and gadgets at your disposal, every battle transforms from a brawl to a carefully executed ballet of badassery. It’s the sort of thing that’s an absolute joy to play and just as fun to watch someone else play. Seriously, who ever came up with the combat system deserves a raise. One caveat though, to really get the most out of it, you are going to need either a gamepad or multi button mouse (I used the Razer Naga for my play through). Using a standard keyboard is fine and will more than suffice for getting through the game but some of the harder combos will need some pretty nifty finger yoga.
Strangely enough, in spite of everything that Batman has going for him, he is still extremely vulnerable. Regardless of all the ninja moves and techno gadgetry at his disposal, the game constantly reminds you that this is still a normal human being in a bat-suit. In many ways, this is definitely a harder game than Asylum. The number of bad guys is larger, there are more weapons in their hands and charging into the middle of a gun totting mob is suicide. That’s the beauty of it, it’s one thing to swoop down in the midst of a dozen unarmed goons and utterly destroy them, but give one of them a shotgun and it’s a completely different game. Attacks will have to be planned carefully and executed with precision. Again, very Batman. Just like in the first game, there is a “challenge mode” available outside of the campaign. Apart from giving some solid replay value, it can also let you hone your combat skills.
Another enticing extra is the option of playing as Catwoman. Though the main campaign is centered on Batman, there are bits where the player will take control of Selina “Catwoman” Kyle. Here, the play style switches a bit. Selina’s moves are more restricted than Bruce’s and she only has a handful of gadgets at her disposal. But what she lacks in physical strength, she makes up for with speed. And really, really bad puns. Expect some eye roll moments when she starts to speak. This is the only part where the writing felt weak. Thankfully, this does not happen often and even when it does, it is short lived. You can however, continue to play as Catwoman once the main story is finished. If nothing else, it’s a nice change of pace.
Sound production is of very high quality across the board. The voice work is spot on. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy make repeat appearances as the voices of Joker and Batman respectively and I really liked Nolan North’s cockney twist on the Penguin. The music is suitably broody and once again, is very reminiscent of the movie “Dark Knight”. All epic wins in my book.
One thing that I faulted Asylum for was the terrible boss battles. Well ok, maybe terrible is too strong a word. “Unimaginative” would be more apt. That complaint has been addressed in Arkham City. Though I hasten to add here, people seem to be divided on this. Quite a few players still hate them. For what it’s worth, I certainly felt they were well executed. They are still not perfect but I enjoyed them nonetheless. The Mr Freeze battle in particular, is fantastic. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that its one of the highlights of the game.
This does bring me to one complaint that I do have. In their effort to give players more of everything, the devs might have overshot a little with the villains. Batman’s rouges gallery is the most interesting one in the world of comics by far. I have heard more than one case of how the reason Batman is so awesome is because of the kind of people he faces off against. Regardless of whether that is true or not, it does take time to develop a character within any story. This is particularly challenging when the medium used to tell that story is an interactive one like video games. I won’t give out a list here for fear of spoiling anything but suffice to say there are a few villains that make an appearance just for the heck of it. There is no good reason for them to exist within this particular story except to satiate fanboys like me. It is a small thing and ultimately does not affect gameplay in any way at all but does make the overall story seem just a tad rushed in places.
The second issue I have with the game, and this one really pisses me off, is how messed up the save system is. Just like Asylum, there is just one save slot that the game automatically saves to, ie, there is one master save file that gets constantly overwritten automatically. If ANYTHING goes wrong with it, you are pretty much boned and have to start all over again. The same applies if you want to go back to specific point and replay it. The only option is to start a new game from scratch. This is just unacceptable. Especially when you consider that the game is integrated with Games for windows live (GFWL), ie, the most hideous and broken thing to exist on the platform. It essentially makes it impossible for save games to be transferred between systems. So if you plan on playing across 2 systems or are in the midst of an OS/HDD upgrade, forget it.
Overall however, Arkham City is a damn near perfect game. Its a title created by and for Batman fans and it clearly shows. The story is excellent and well written, the combat is fantastic and it really does make you feel like Batman. If there is any higher praise, I can’t think of it. Now if you will excuse me, there’s a certain clown that has a date with my fist.