Review – Batman: Arkham City

Review Batman Arkham City
There’s a certain vocabulary in the Batman fan community, a dialogue made up of stories that everyone recognizes, with an acknowledgment of common reverence that need not be spoken.

Few need to explain what they thought of The Dark Knight Returns, or ask about The Long Halloween. It is simply understood that one should know of these stories and their significance, as such tales are the seminal books of Batman.

It’s not often that outside media enters in to this exclusive lexicon, where respect and adoration are implied merely through reference. If one talks about Burton’s 1989 film, it is not simply assumed that he speaks of it with approval.

Those outside properties that have entered this elite class, such as The Dark Knight and Batman: The Animated Series (so revered that its original ideas bled into the comics for years) succeeded in the same way that Arkham City does: by being more than a mere cipher for the source material.

Review Batman Arkham City
I can’t describe to you the number of times I’ve seen the ethics of Batman’s refusal to use lethal force explored; indeed, many of the notable tales in the mythology touch on or hinge upon this subject. It’s at the core of the character, and ripe for examination—but make no mistake, it can be tiring discussing the subject in the same way time and time again.

Likewise, I’ve seen piles of interpretations of Ra’s Al Ghul or the Penguin, and need not see what has come before merely codified into moving pictures.

Arkham City strikes a fine balance, where everything is recognizable, but still fresh. The mythology unfurls in a way that can still surprise and spin itself in a unique way—and, most important of all, it takes advantage of the fact that it is its own universe.

Writer Paul Dini goes places that the continuity of the comics fears to tread, and enhances the narrative through such. At the same time, the characters are so close to their iconic versions that their actions and events still carry weight; it’s easy to imagine that Mark Hamill’s Joker is the same fans have been watching since 1992.

Arkham is a roadmap to comic book adaptation, and not only in terms of its plot. When developers try to decode comic book panels into videogames, the result is often incomplete. Somehow these properties get boiled down to one idea in the process (usually, that idea is “Beat ‘em up”), and become tired, diminished affairs.

Review Batman Arkham City
Rocksteady transcends this difficulty by embracing the whole product, not merely to craft a satisfying narrative, but to enable superior game design. This is most obviously apparent in the blending of stealth and combat gameplay, but perhaps the best example is the challenge of the game’s puzzles.

Consider: nobody would have ever thought to make a Batman puzzle game. He’s called the World’s Greatest Detective, but few would buy a game where Batman merely solves mysteries (note: I would, but that’s beside the point). It has simply been easier to stuff the character into a parade of mediocre brawlers.

Arkham City, improving on the model of Asylum before it, adapts an ideal formula, whereby puzzles and mystery are fully half the game, but comfortably explored at the player’s own pace. No longer merely trophies to be found or riddles to be scanned, these new challenges involve honest and creative puzzle-solving, where the solution is rarely obvious and alternative options can be gleaned by lateral thinking—and superior puzzling is one of several significant design refinements that Arkham City brings to the table.

Notably, the new environment of Arkham City isn’t just big and it isn’t just open; it’s a gameplay revelation that’s cracked wide open and poured right out. Where Arkham Asylum offered discrete chambers that were designed for stealth or designed for combat, Arkham City is a sprawling battleground where any enemy type might be lurking, and any tactic might be employed.

Melee enemies mix with the gun totting, and one need not adapt a singular approach for either. New gadgetry and the massively increased options for approach and escape mean that even armed enemies can be engaged in a variety of ways. If you’re not interested in going the stealth route, a group of armed inmates might just as easily be taken out with a smoke pellet and disarming grapnel, followed by straightforward brawling.

Review Batman Arkham CitySmoke pellets themselves are easy to dismiss as a defensive weapon—that is, until you think to drop one on a group of unsuspecting enemies and swoop down into the resulting panic.

Meanwhile, Batman can now employ freeze grenades and explosive gel in his combos, alongside a selection of special attacks that crowd control. The combat system will be easy to pick up for those who played the original, but is expanded in such new ways that achieving the perfect combo will take a lot of practice.

At first, the wide-open world of Arkham City may seem to sacrifice some of the intimacy that Arkham Asylum thrived on—but as Batman explores the unique locations of the super prison, that sense of isolation creeps slowly back in. Moreover, the world is sized in such a way that it quickly becomes familiar and easy to navigate; truthfully, it is infinitely more dense than it is large.

There’s no wasted space; buildings are crammed into every corner, with multiple levels of verticality for enemies and secrets to hide. From sunken streets submerged in water, to run down industrial buildings and a familiar alley hidden away behind a theater, Gotham is realized with expert craft and care, sacrificing none of Arkham Asylum’s detail for this new and more open world.

The premise of the mega-Asylum is beautiful in that it seamlessly facilitates anything the developers and the fans might want to see in a Batman game. It’s employed to litter the world with side-quests that never feel like side-quests. No NPC on a street corner will tell you that it’s time to save five pedestrians in sixty seconds. Instead, quests unfold organically for the main story and the core premise; Batman is trapped in a city of criminals, where the plans and eccentricities of the inmates are numerous and inter-twining.

Review Batman Arkham CityIf you buy the game new, you’ll also get access to the Catwoman DLC. The pack contains four Catwoman missions that fit into the main campaign, occurring at logical story breaks within the plot. These missions aren’t particularly engaging or even interesting, but the Catwoman herself is a unique and interesting alternative to Batman. Like Batman, she’s easy to play but difficult to master, and because she can be utilized in the game’s numerous challenge maps, the mediocrity of her campaign missions seems incidental. Equally, players can simply use Catwoman to cruise Arkham City, beat up bad guys and claim her 40 unique Riddler trophies.

In addition to the lengthy campaign and Catwoman add on, Arkham City also offers New Game +, which intelligently raises difficulty by changing gameplay circumstances (rather than merely increasing enemy lifebars).

Then there’s the challenge mode (now called Riddler’s Revenge) which returns well expanded with new challenge types and a whole mess of maps right out of the box. As mentioned, the replayability of the challenges can be expanded with the Catwoman DLC, as well as the imminent release of the Nightwing and Robin character packs.

Arkham City is one of the few sequels on the market that deserves to be called such, as it is not merely a continuation, but a game superior to its predecessor in every conceivable avenue. Even more so than Arkham Asylum, it crafts a nigh-perfect Batman experience. Empowered by its premise of showing the player one night in the Dark Knight’s hell, it’s an odyssey through which not even Batman can emerge without consequence—and it demands to be played by the bat-faithful and newcomers alike.


Developer
Rocksteady

Publisher
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

System
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC

Modes
Singleplayer

Release Date
October 18, 2011; November 15, 2011 (PC)

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review

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