Back in 2006, British film maker Christopher Nolan revived the ailing Batman film franchise with the brilliant Batman Begins. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2009, British developer Rocksteady took the video game industry by storm with their incredible Batman: Arkham Asylum and created the greatest superhero game of all time. Conclusion: the British know something about Batman that the rest of the world clearly does not.
Arkham Asylum hit so many high notes with its perfect blend of engaging hand to hand combat, tense stealth set pieces, a fully fleshed out game world, and an interesting narrative. Rocksteady showed a masterful hand with their interpretation of Batman’s universe and it was my game of the year in 2009.
Arkham City has finally arrived. The bar has been set quite high; did Rocksteady do it again?
I was someone that really appreciated the Metroid-esque design of Arkham Asylum, though I felt the game did force you to backtrack a bit too much. When Rocksteady announced that their next game was going to be taking Batman into an open world environment, I was pretty damn excited. As I mentioned in VGH #27, when someone says “open world”, I immediately think of the cityscapes found in games like Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row. The game thrusts you into in a small, walled off section of Gotham City (think the Narrows from the Nolan films) which has been converted into a giant prison, housing all of the super villains from Arkham Asylum and all of the “regular” criminals from Blackgate Penitentiary. Batman’s work certainly is cut out for him this time around, but he can handle it. The entire game world felt about as large as the smallest island in Grand Theft Auto 4, and while Arkham City may lack the sheer size of a GTA game, you can tell the emphasis was placed more on the details of the game world.
Arkham City feels very dense and if you’re anything like me, you’ll really enjoy exploring the city to see what secrets you can discover. Aside from the main quest, there are a slew of side quests that you can tackle at your leisure, and I highly recommend you take the time to complete as many as you can. Many of the side quests seem to put a certain element of the game’s mechanics into the forefront. For example, the Deadshot side quest requires you to put on your Professor Layton hat and play detective. You’ll have to analyze a crime scene, deduce a bullet’s trajectory and then follow a virtual bullet trail back to the shooter’s origin point. Other side quests will require more of a brute force approach and have you beating up 20 thugs at a time, or for another change of pace the Zsasz side quest has you racing across the city to answer a ringing phone. If the timer runs out, he adds another notch on his skin and you fail. It’s quite tense and racing against the clock is an absolute thrill.
Thanks to the combination of gliding and the excellent grapple hook mechanics, traversing the entire city is a breeze and really, really fun! Covering extremely large distances in a short time frame will become second nature once you’ve mastered the controls and it took me back to the fun I had swinging across NYC in Spiderman 2 for the PS2. Oh yeah, if you ever need further motivation to explore every inch of Arkham City, there are over 400 Riddler trophies and puzzles to be found, so have fun with that!
Unfortunately, the switch to an open world format was not without some minor pitfalls. Arkham City by any measure is a fantastic game, so the relatively weak narrative structure stood out to me a little bit. On top of that, the non-linearity in which you can tackle story objectives makes things feel a little disjointed at times. Batman has the greatest Rogue’s Gallery in all of comic books and Rocksteady fell into the trap of trying to cram all of his major adversaries into Arkham City. What I found was that instead of sporting the tightly focused narrative structure from Arkham Asylum, where you get to spend a little bit of time with each of the major villains and learn some of their history, many of the characters in Arkham City amount to nothing more than short cameos.
“…with a little practice, you’ll have no trouble integrating these gadgets into your combos with ease, resulting in combat sequences that play out like a well choreographed ballet.”
With such a rich tapestry of villains to choose from, I find it rather strange that Rocksteady choose this path. Character development is almost non-existent, which is a complete and utter shame when you have such incredible characters like Harvey Dent or Ra’s al Ghul playing starring roles in your story. Personally, I would have preferred spending more time with each of the major villains at the expense of a sheer volume of baddies, especially so that players who aren’t as familiar with the Batman mythos as I am could learn to love these characters as much as I do. There are some collectibles that you can find scattered throughout the game, called “Arkham City Stories” that explain some of the backstory for some of the characters, but I think we’d have been better served if more of it had been divulged through the main narrative exposition.
As a very quick aside, I’d like to make note that I appreciated the sheer number of references to the Batman universe that litter the game’s environments. One moment in particular that stood out to me was when I stumbled across a dilapidated alleyway in the Park Row district. This alley was next to a movie theater so I was curious, was this Crime Alley? Sure enough, as I turned the corner I saw the chalk outline of two people that had been murdered some time ago. As a sign of remembrance, right next to the crime scene lay some roses. I walked over to one of the roses and was given the option to “pay my respects”. Countless little touches like these show off how devoted Rocksteady clearly is to the Batman franchise.
Watching Batman kneel at the very site where his parents were gunned down was such a poignant moment for me. I absolutely loved the juxtaposition between the extreme violence contained within the walls of Arkham City and this quiet little alley where we find a man, mourning the loss of the two people he loved more than anyone. This was easily my favourite moment in the entire game and I tip my hat to Rocksteady for including it.
How much you enjoy the gameplay really depends on what you want to get out of it. I really enjoyed the challenge and depth of the hand to hand combat, and I especially loved the stealthy “predator” sequences, so I was very happy to see that Rocksteady simply iterated upon these fundamentally strong gameplay mechanics. Once again the meat of the combat consists of attacking your foes and countering their attacks when prompted. You can also jump out of harms way and buy yourself some time by stunning enemies with your cape when needed as well. You’re rewarded for stringing together an unbroken chain of attacks (the combo counter resets every time you get hit or miss an attack) with more experience points which you can then use to unlock a multitude of new gadgets and upgrades for Batman.
Things can get really fun when you’re surrounded by 20 thugs and have a long combo going that you simply do not want to break. Having to vault over 4 people just to re-position yourself so you’re no longer surrounded is a thrilling experience in itself, and I found it very engaging to always try and push myself to keep a combo chain going and I made sure to pay attention to my surroundings at all times. Batman starts off with almost all of the gadgets he collected in his previous outing and collects a few new ones as well. Many of these gadgets now have quick fire options, allowing you to seamlessly work them into combat. With a little practice, you’ll have no trouble integrating these gadgets into your combos with ease, resulting in combat sequences that play out like a well choreographed ballet. If you simply want to smash faces with little regard for flourish, you can do that too. This seemingly simple, but surprisingly deep combat system was one of Arkham Asylum’s strong suits and it remains so here.
I tend towards punching faces with as much panache as possible, so I fell into the habit of trying to work as many gadgets into a battle as I could. Even if I was just facing one random dude, I had to take him down with style. To do otherwise would SHAME BATMAN and I would not let that come to pass! As you progress through the game, you’ll come across a variety of foes that require different tactics to take down. Some enemies might require you to stun them before you can hurt them, some enemies require you to dodge their blade attacks multiple times before you can counter attack, and so on. I really enjoyed the challenge of having to always be on my toes when I was faced with overwhelming odds, and having to analyze a situation before heading into battle is one of the best things about Rocksteady’s approach to Batman.
The predatory sequences really do a great job at playing to Batman’s strengths in that regard. Batman might be one of the world’s best fighters, but even he can’t take on a group of thugs armed with assault rifles, so I was very happy to see the difficulty of these set pieces increased in Arkham City. One of the minor complaints about Arkham Asylum was just how overpowered Batman’s detective mode could be. In the previous game, when you turned Detective Mode on, you could see through walls, see all enemies in your current room and have no problem navigating your way through a section of the game. It really helped with some of the more difficult sequences, allowing you to formulate a plan to take thugs down, but it ultimately was just way too useful. There wasn’t much of a downside to keeping it turned on, except that perhaps you’d miss out on some of the great artwork in the game. This time around, you can still see enemies in an area (the main point) but the rest of the environment turns into more of a “blank slate”, so navigation with detective mode is far less than ideal. I found myself only turning detective mode on when necessary, so kudos to Rocksteady for fine-tuning this awesome mechanic.
I’d be remiss to do an Arkham City review without mentioning the Catwoman portions of the game. I really don’t have much to say on the topic except that I felt her inclusion of the game seemed a little bit forced. She plays much differently than Batman (as she should), and has to rely a lot more on stealth than Batman does as she simply cannot take as much damage as he can. I wasn’t a big fan of how Rocksteady marketed the whole Catwoman stuff, waiting until the 11th hour to let us know that her missions were contained in a downloadable package included with new copies of the game. I would say that the Catwoman missions were a missed opportunity because they don’t really add anything overall, but thankfully they don’t detract from the overall experience either.
I’m a huge fan of Batman, and I had high hopes for Arkham City ever since it was announced to be in production. I first discovered Batman when I was 7 years old and haven’t looked back since, so I might look at a Batman game with a slightly more critical eye. Even so, I have to say, Rocksteady has done an amazing job with the character so far and I am very, very excited to see what they have in store for the future.
Bloody fantastic job mates.
Score: 4 out of 5
Recommended if you like:
* Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman comic books, Batman the Animated Series or really… ANYTHING BATMAN.
* Exploring an engaging universe full of rich detail.
* Stealth action like in Splinter Cell or Deus Ex, and visceral, fast-paced combat from games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden.
* Getting eaten by a shark. But then… later on, punching that same shark in the FACE. Sweet justice!
* The scene in Crime Alley. Beautiful, and almost brought a tear to my eye.
* The battle with Mr. Freeze. Very well done, who knew Kif Kroker was such a bad ass?
Batman: Arkham Asylum was purchased for review by my mother in-law (Amazon gift card, have to give credit) and I completed the campaign on the Playstation 3 version in approximately 14 hours.
Final stats were: 100% Story Mode, 83% Side Missions, 62% Upgrades and Collectables, 34% Catwoman, 1% Ridder’s Revenge (optional challenge rooms) 0% DLC. Total complete 62%. For more info on how VGH approaches game reviews, please read our reviews philosophy.