posted by Leah Haydu
Sequels to good games are chancy. Licensed games are even chancier. If you do the math, it seems like a sequel to a licensed game should be a bad idea right out of the gate. Thankfully, Batman: Arkham City bucks these notions and ends up delivering an experience that’s every bit as good — if not better — than its 2009 predecessor, Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Without being too spoilery (and there are likely to be some spoilers herein, but I’ll keep them after the break), the plot of Arkham City is thus: one year after the events of Arkham Asylum, Quincy Sharp (former head warden) has become mayor, and has used his influence to have a new prison system instated; a huge chunk of Gotham is walled off and used as a space to contain criminals, under the supervision of resident wacko Hugo Strange. Sounds like a great idea, right? I don’t know why more cities don’t subscribe to this model.
As Bruce Wayne, you are thrown into Arkham City for having the gall to publicly oppose Sharp and his policies; as Batman, you must then use your new position to expose the sinister plans of Sharp and Strange, all while running a seemingly endless string of errands and favors for a full roster of familiar Batman faces along the way — when you aren’t trying to punch said faces in, of course.
The first thing you’ll notice about Arkham City is that it’s huge. Arkham Asylum isn’t a particularly small game, but it is, by necessity, largely confined to the asylum itself, so space is limited. Arkham City isn’t completely open, existing within the walled-off section of Gotham that it does, but it’s orders of magnitude bigger than Asylum.
It’s not just the physical space that the game occupies, either; the details you’ll encounter in your travels are so numerous and so varied that it seems as though there’s always something new to find. Completionists beware: if you truly intend to hundred-percent this game, you’re in for a very long haul. Riddler trophies and various other challenges are strewn across the sizable map, and that’s just the incidental stuff. There are also multiple side-stories to go after, each of which has the potential to add quite a bit to your playthrough.
One of the things I really found impressive, and that added a great deal to the immersion factor of Arkham City, was the conversations you overhear as you swoop from point to point. It seems like such a small thing, but the ability to listen in on talk ranging from initiation procedures into different gangs of henchmen to what they’d like to do to Catwoman or Harley Quinn (a subject I’ll touch on in a moment) makes it feel more like a populated space than simply an arena where you go to punch the bad guys in the throat.
That said, there is plenty of throat-punching to be had, both within the side missions and the main storyline. I’ve heard a few people refer to Arkham City as a sort of GTA: Gotham, and I don’t think that’s entirely accurate; it’s not quite big enough for that distinction. The mission setup reminded me most, in fact, of the two inFAMOUS games. Your map will light up near-constantly with things that you can branch off and do, but you certainly don’t have to deviate if all you want to do is continue with the main story. A quick glance will show you which spots are related to which side-arcs, which may net you new upgrades, which will simply be a matter of showing up and stopping a “political prisoner” (the game’s somewhat half-baked excuse as to how there are people in this place you should care about saving) from being beaten up.
The side missions are definitely worth talking about in more detail, because they take a step beyond many current open-world titles; it would be all to easy to have each of them amount to little more than “find Villain X, smash up hideout, repeat,” but Arkham City avoids this particular pitfall and instead includes a series of vignettes that I actually found to be nearly as fascinating as the main game.
Fans of the Batman mythos will likely agree with me, as these ventures are where you are most likely to encounter a series of familiar (and some fairly obscure) foes from Batman’s history. Some you’ll work with (as in the missions that have you teaming up with Arkham Asylum boss Bane to destroy containers of the Titan formula that previously infused him), and some you’ll strive to stop.
One of my favorite missions involved tracking down Victor Zsasz, who appeared in the first game and returns here in a similar capacity; he’s killing off innocent people, and Batman needs to stop him. It’s not as simple as finding his hideout on a map, though. First, you must wait to pass by a ringing pay phone, which sets off the mission; then, you must track down a second random phone within a time limit (if you fail to do so quickly enough once the mission has started, Zsasz will kill his hostages and you will fail); finally, you must keep Zsasz on the phone as you track his signal so that you can finally find him and rescue his prisoners. It turns out to be so much more satisfying this way, as you use different skills and think things out in different ways — not every side mission has the same level of complexity, but they are all structured differently, which keeps them from feeling stale in the least.
If you’re more interested in sticking to the main thread of the story, have no fear: Arkham City has more than enough to deliver on that front, even if you never touch the side missions. I’ve become increasingly certain of my opinion that the Joker is the best role Mark Hamill has ever played (yeah, I said it), and his performance here only solidifies my argument. The entire cast, in fact, turn in stellar work, more than justifying the decision to bring back a large number of the voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, as was also the case in Arkham Asylum.
Also, Nolan North is in it. A few times. Surprise! (In all seriousness, he does an excellent job as the Penguin.)
I know I said I would likely spoil some things in this review, but really, I don’t want to take anything away from the storyline, as there are some truly jaw-dropping moments to be experienced, so I’ll only say this: finish the game. Don’t let it be one of those that we all have sitting around half-played, to be come back to “someday.” If you get into Arkham City at all to begin with, I doubt not finishing it will even be an option, but distractions happen, so just… don’t let them. Trust me. You’ll thank me.
I’ve been lavishing a great deal of love on Arkham City, and it’s all totally justified, but I do have a couple of gripes with the game that prevent it from being perfect in my book. Chief among those is the combat. I should start this off by saying that I don’t think the combat system is bad, nor is it poorly implemented. For a lot of people, it’ll be one of the high points of the title. For me, though, it felt sort of out-of-place in a game so centered on the variety of approaches, tactics, and techniques as this.
Combat in Arkham City can best be described as a rhythm game. It’s not a brawler. It’s learning to recognize the visual cues that indicate your next move, whether that be to counter an attack or simply to employ a specific strategy–different ones exist for such diverse enemies as Knife Thugs, Armored Thugs, and Shield Thugs, and you absolutely MUST use the proper moveset on each, or you will find yourself unable to take them down. Gadgets may also be employed during fights, but this really only seems to come into play during the boss encounters (and in these cases it’s made very clear which gadget you should use, generally by big flashing “hints” on the screen). The individual brawls feel extremely protracted, also; even when Batman fights only a small handful of foes, they’ll often take quite a few hits before they stay down for good. You do get to punch a shark in the nose once, though, so THAT’S pretty cool.
The other thing I had some issues with in Arkham City actually surprised me a bit; since Catwoman is not only a playable character, but also a fairly major part of the storyline, it makes sense that she’d be discussed by the rest of the cast. And yeah, she’s obviously provocatively dressed, with full bondage overtones, and her overall demeanor is pretty overtly sexual at times. In the interest of NOT making this an article all about that (plenty exist by far better writers than I), I’ll just say that my problem is not with having scantily dressed females present (let’s not forget Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy here), but rather with the surprisingly high level of sexism displayed by the NPCs themselves.
This is sort of a tricky situation to get into, because honestly, the thugs Catwoman fights and is discussed by are probably reacting exactly as they would if the situation were real; no one expects the scum of Gotham to be politically correct, or indeed to be decent human beings in any way. But when they start taunting her by saying they’re going to “find out what’s under that costume,” or “make her meow,” it just feels…not quite right to me, particularly in a game that, lest we forget, is rated T in the US. I don’t have an answer to this; I merely want to note that it’s a very noticeable thing, and that it actually made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was supposed to.
A note about the Batman: Arkham City Guide
I received, just before I started playing Arkham City for review, a copy of the strategy guide from the Brady Games folks, and honestly, having never actually reviewed a guide before, I wasn’t quite sure what would be the most useful way to talk about it. I’m a sucker for strategy guides, particularly when there’s a lot of side stuff to be sought out, so to me, the most important factor of any successful guide has to be how well the maps point out where you need to go in order to see and to gather everything with the least amount of frustration on your part. So, while I could go on about the comprehensive walkthrough, and the story pointers, and so on and so forth, you’ve all seen a guide before and you know how it works. What I really want to stress is that the assistance you’ll gain in completing side missions and seeking out extras –which takes up fully half of the guide itself– is extremely well laid-out and easy to follow. As I mentioned before, to me, side missions are a huge part of what makes this game stand out, so if you’re planning on being a completionist, you’ll drive yourself crazy without some pretty detailed maps; even if you really just want to squeeze the maximum enjoyment out of the side paths you do go for, I definitely recommend picking this one up.
Overall, Batman: Arkham City turns in an even stronger experience than its predecessor, and that’s saying quite a bit. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up if you have even the slightest interest in the Dark Knight. Or even, perhaps, if you don’t.
Did I mention you get to punch a shark?