Jamil takes a look at the hotly anticipated sequel to Arkham Asylum and answers the question of whether there’s a new Best Comic Book Video Game in town.
This review of Batman: Arkham City contains mild spoilers about the game’s plot and gameplay. However, anything divulged only scratches the very top of the surface. I wouldn’t do that to y’all.
In full disclosure, at the time of writing this review I beat the game once, upgraded Batman and Catwoman fully, completed all the side missions, collected just over half the Riddler Trophies and achieved about 1% of the Challenge Mode objectives. According to the game that’s 63% completion. Mind you, I probably logged nearly forty hours into the game so far, and half of that was in the main story mode.
That information alone should fill you in on the enormity of this game which already is being heralded as one of the best single-player games of all time. The hype is real, folks: This game trumps Arkham Asylum in just about every way and makes it look handicapped in comparison. Within a few hours into the game it’s apparent that Rocksteady wasn’t interested in tweaking some elements, or fixing what didn’t work, but rather set on making every single element of the 2009 smash hit better.
Ironically, my first impressions after reading about the Arkham Asylum development in some game magazine was that it wouldn’t work because of the closed environment of the island and the game being conducted mostly in tight corridors. I felt the player would be restricted to fighting waves of bad guys in a locked setting. Obviously, I was wrong; Asylum captured the legendary character as well as any comic, movie or cartoon, but it still lacked that absolute Batman aura of scouring the tops of buildings, and stopping crime along the mean streets. This is what the studio set out to achieve with this game, and wow– wow– did they.
After a crackling, inventive opening featuring Hugo Strange and Bruce Wayne it’s extremely apparent from the moment you put on the Batsuit that you own the city. The entire map is open to you from the start and you are able to roam as you please on the rooftops or streets. However, enemies roam freely, and you can clear out areas, but it seems they respawn when you leave. (Which only really matters when you beat the main story. It’s annoying, but it is the only thing on that list.) The city isn’t frighteningly huge, quite manageable really, but it feels bigger. That’s due to the fact that there is as much going on on the rooftops as there is down below, thus making this a nifty platformer-open world game hybrid. Don’t worry, you still have those lovely indoor segments, and you will see the insides of museums, subways and steel mills. It all looks wonderful, and the developers stuffed so many Easter Eggs and quirks into the environment that it never grows dull or repetitive.
It’s immediately noticeable that Batman moves a little bit differently, especially when it comes to traveling along the rooftops. Along the game’s path you need to unlock a gadget that makes the grappling hook zoom faster and will automatically propel Batman into an instant launch and glide at the top of the grapple. Once there you can grapple onto another nearby object, or if you have enough altitude, dive-bomb and pull up for a slight upwards glide. These new gliding abilities, and the large open world, are the biggest change to the franchise. You don’t need to master the gliding, but there are spots in the game where you’ll find yourself trying to understand the mechanics of the dive and glide system for some side missions and a brilliant, otherworldly sequence in the main story.
After you learn how to move and begin to encounter the newly prepared enemies, you might start to notice that the Riddler has stepped his game up. Question marks litter the map, and you quickly feel the onus of the cowl across your face and the depth of your mission. One of the biggest sells of the game for a comic fan is the fantastically weaved story and the promise of a mass pack of wonderful Batman villains to beat, threaten and interrogate. The subject is an area that I wish I could delve into more, but it would spoil too much to analyze the use of antagonists. I can say that the spread of villainy is exquisite, with some jaw-droppers in the side missions. Asylum had a good roster of foes, but the sequel seamlessly incorporates classic and new villains alike and none feel generic. I was still running into cameos hours after completing the main story and many associative landmarks, signs and paraphernalia litter the map. In a savvy move, the city’s three general territories and henchmen belong to the big three of the Bat’s Rogues Galley: Joker, Penguin and Two-Face. Those three play pivotal roles in the Paul Dini written narrative, but as advertised Hugo Strange is the key figurehead in the overall plot surrounding Protocol Ten, a mysterious agenda mentioned by the psychiatrist in the opening moments of the game. Related to the central plot is the Joker. Mark Hamill’s swan song as the voice of the Clown Prince made news last week, but he revealed that around the announcement of this game. With no spoilerous intent it is safe to say that Dini set his long timeBatman: The Animated Series, etc. contributor up for a worthy grand finale. I can confirm that this is one of the better Joker stories of Hamill’s career behind the character.
The ability to move from main story to side mission feels organic, and sometimes logical. Actually you probably want to do the optional missions as you go. For example, the Bane mission has you destroying objects for him, and they’re conveniently along the path of the main Huge Strange story. The game has you touching just about every corner of the city, and other parts open as you progress. Unlike many other open world games Arkham City is a delight to move around in, and sometimes you find yourself completing a side objective just because it caught your eye (or ear) while you were on the way to Mr. Freeze’s lair or handling a pack of rowdy thugs. Nothing is patchwork about the main plot either as the various villains and their agendas flow into each other. Baddie A has captured Baddie B who needs Baddie C to give you what you want. After multiple hours that feel far shorter the plot crescendos into a brilliant ending which trumps the lame ending of the last game.
Gadgets are a huge emphasis, and Bruce’s utility belt nearly doubles from before. One of the first and most crucial items is the Remote Electrical Charge, a gun of lightning that can power up machines or shock enemies. It took me a few tries to realize that the gadget has a negative and positive charge, but it’s an item that is essential for certain parts of the game. Smoke pellets were a glaring omission from the last game, and show up early here. They’re not entirely useful in combat, but allow you to get away cleanly in a Predator sequence. Combat is basically the same– why change a system that everyone loves? A host of new animations accompany your beat-downs and with the inclusion of weapons like shields and knives, Batman acquires new abilities to counter them. Some of the animations are laughably great, causing my inner child to burst out of me as Batman launches the Batclaw to bring in a single enemy, then clotheslines and elbows him to the ground in one motion. Even better is that you are now able to counter multiple foes at the same time and dispose of them in creative ways like slamming their heads together or elbowing an enemy behind you and punching the one in front in the same motion. Other fun moments worth testing out are disarming a thug with a shield or interrogating a Riddler informant near a ledge. The amount of animations and enemies reactions to different techniques and weapons is surprisingly diverse, and boosts the game’s replayability.
Music, visuals and design are all excellent. Arkham City is sleek and shadowy with neon signs glowing against the dark and dangerous backdrop. It screams Gotham, and the various designs of villains and thugs in the game’s style is commendable on every level. The voice acting throughout game is superb, but it shines in the crevasses of the game, like in the dialogue of thugs as you creep around them. They create much of the games atmosphere, and fill in the player on the in and outs of the city. The dialogue evolves and adapts to the progress in the narrative, and I even picked up on some offshoot references to the show Lost. I was disappointed that the Penguin carried a British accent, but at least his unlockable Bio made note of a residence in England. A smart, though frustrating, gameplay change from the predecessor is the depowering of Detective Mode. While the alternative vision still gives you a clear idea of where enemies are and if they are armed, it severally blurs the specifics of your surroundings and just basically shows you the outlines of architecture and objects. Also, it eliminates your compass and any mission indicators on your screen. So, while it’s an indispensable weapon in the Caped Crusader’s arsenal against crime, it doesn’t serve as the best way to run through the game.
A videogame finds its success in the details… and the unlockables. Both are plentiful. Numerous physical and verbal references are made to members of the Bat Universe, and most of them relate to riddles that unlock additional info, audio files and 3D character models. The Riddler Trophies are as generous as they are numerous, often giving you access to missions in Challenge Mode. When you complete the main game a Plus mode activates that offers a much tougher run through and the bonus of being able to start with all earned weapons and upgrades. I haven’t touched it. I’m almost scared to. The game got pretty gnarly towards the end, and that was on Normal.
Catwoman feels truly distinctive, but there is a nonessential aspect to her missions too. For those who don’t know, Catwoman is accessible as a playable character only if you have a unique, one-use code that saves to your system’s hardrive. That means if you buy the game secondhand you must purchase a $10 code to play as the morally ambiguous thief. Weirdly, the game opens up in the Catwoman scene shown as a playable demo over the summer, and from there it’s evident she is a whole different experience compared to Batman. Selina Kyle feels far quicker, lighter and marginally weaker. She offers a few gadgets but lacks the variety Batman drips in. The most evident difference is her movement around Arkham City which is slower and more tedious since she relies on a whip and a jump-climb to get around. Her portion of the story has her bump into a pair of fellow rogues, one of which does not show up on the Batman side, but as I said the entire thing could be missing and you would never know. However! Catwoman is a great addition to this game, and offers you the opportunity to switch up the gameplay. Additionally, there are Catwoman specific trophies and Challenges, and two alternate costumes (Animated Series and Long Halloween) so there is a point in jumping in the catsuit.
In my last couple hours on the 360 before I pulled myself away I finally broke in the Challenge Mode, which features the Combat and Predator missions and a new mode, Campaign, which is a combo pack of three regular missions crammed into one. Campaigns include “modifiers”, situational boosts or nurfs you can apply which can earn you various medals (of which there are over 100 at least). Even in this side mode, the studio stocked difficulty and fun into an alluring package. Many hours will be spent repeatedly beating down ninjas and hiding from TYGER soldiers for those who want 100% completion. One mode that ate up my time was the GameStop exclusive “Joker’s Carnival” map. It’s a straightforward combat challenge that increases in difficulty and rewards the longer you go without receiving damage. At any time you may “bank” your points, but when you do you go back to the first level. A definite recommendation once it’s available as DLC.
On that note, I have not even played as Robin or Nightwing yet, two characters that I’m told have separate challenge modes. I have overstated that Arkham City provides hours upon hours of entertainment that never gets old. The amount of Riddler Trophies alone is mind-boggling, and it’s going to be extremely sweet for the player to put his hands around the throat of Mr. E. Nigma. Even beyond that, the future of the franchise is supernova bright, and I’m not even speaking of a third game. In Arkham City there is a heavy implication that Batman’s work is far from over. I think it’s safe to say that Rocksteady will make a huge announcement involving DLC and the game in the coming months.
No game has ever captured the essence of the franchise or character better. Simply put, you are Batman in this game, you have a buffet of abilities at your disposal and there is a lot of work to do within the walls of the criminal town. If you have any level of interest in either Batman or videogames you need to buy this game. Now if you don’t mind, I have to go try and find this Riddler dude.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics fan and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, lover of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation