The lights are on
Batman has long been one of the most (if not THE most) iconic superhero crime fighters in the world: a traumatized youth, a successful billionaire, a certified genius, a martial arts expert, and a noire archetype all rolled into one. The biggest tragedy surrounding Batman (aside from his parents) is that he, like many other comic book heroes, never received a good videogame treatment. Many developers tried and failed to digitize the experience of donning the cape and cowl, but none succeeded. That is until Rocksteady delivered Batman: Arkham Asylum, which set the bar, not only for Batman, but for “superhero” games in general. Success breeds expectations, however, and the massive success of Arkham Asylum brought with it some of the biggest. Fortunately, Batman: Arkham City lives up to those lofty expectations admirably.Teased (and very well-hidden) in Arkham Asylum, Arkham City is the brainchild of former warden/new mayor Quincy Sharp; a maximum security section of Gotham City walled off and housing everything from two-bit thugs to the most masterful of supervillains. The new warden charged with keeping the chaos (sic) is the mysterious, Doctor Hugo Strange. As one can expect, mixing every volatile criminal into a large, but confined, area and giving them free reign in a sort of criminal game reserve breeds violence, death, and every form of crime which Batman has fought to exterminate. Thus begins the game.After a brief, but memorable, opening vignette, you find yourself staring out upon the mass of urban chaos from behind the cowl of Batman… and thus the game’s first “problem” arises. In the words of Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker you are presented with, “So much to do… so little time.” The overwhelming number of main story missions, side missions, random acts of violence, Riddler challenges, Augmented Reality (AR) trainings, and radio monitoring all blend together in a staggering amount of content that can easily be reduced to white noise. While this “problem” eventually sorts itself out (no matter how you decide to play) it did not set me off on the right foot as my OCD, perfectionist paranoia kicked in within the first 45 minutes of play.Once settling into the setting, however, the game performs beautifully. The rock solid movement and combat from Arkham Asylum is back, as is Batman’s arsenal of “wonderful toys”. Combat makes you feel powerful as you move through the “Freeflow” system which blends together Batman’s martial arts prowess with his high-tech gadgets. By the end of the game, I almost felt giddy when encountering a mass of (unarmed) combatants. In short, few combat experiences are more satisfying.Navigating the larger setting of Arkham City is also made easier by the gliding, dive bombing, and grapple boost techniques. While Rocksteady could have made navigation an arduous trek across dangerous territory, they opted for the opposite, giving Batman a satisfying sense of flight.The story is, once again, top notch. Even though the game has been out for several months, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers and simply say that I felt real incentive to finish the main story quickly. This is both a positive and negative given the assault of possible side missions with which you will come in contact.Also making a return are Riddler Trophies, Puzzles and Challenges. While achievement hunters may lament any type of collectables in a game, Rocksteady’s use of Riddler Trophies seems to be a novel exception to the common frustration. While finding the 400+ trophies does take a chunk of time, you are adequately rewarded, as almost every trophy/challenge unlocks either a “Riddler’s Revenge” map, Arkham City Story, character art, or character trophy. Further incentivizing their hunt is a nice side mission which has you rescuing hostages from deadly “Riddler Rooms” full of puzzles and traps. Such rooms can only be accessed after finding/solving enough trophies/clues. A well-executed experience point system is also in play. This system rewards virtually everything you do as the Dark Knight. Beat up a group of thugs? Get XP. Progress in a side mission? Get XP. Find a Riddler Trophy? XP. In short, the game rewards you for doing the things you should be doing, whether on the main story or the side missions. Leveling up occurs at well-spaced intervals and allows you to upgrade gadgets, unlock combat moves, or improve your armor. The presentation of the game is also beyond reproach. The graphical style is impeccable, perfectly showing a dark, dystopic urban hell full of decay and truly reflecting the nature of its inhabitants. Menus are easy to navigate and never cumbersome (a must in open-world games), the voice acting (particularly Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as Joker) is possibly the best of 2011, and in-game load times, while present and occasionally jarring, are rarely a headache.If there is a negative comment to make, it’s a personal one. Being an OCD/perfectionist gamer, the “Riddler’s Revenge” mode of the game swings the pendulum from love-to-hate all too quickly. “Riddler’s Revenge” is divided between Combat Scenarios, Predator Scenarios, and Custom Challenges. Combat Scenarios force Batman to take on waves of increasingly numerous and difficult foes in combat, medals are awarded when reaching different score thresholds. Of course, to reach these thresholds, one must be a master of the “Freeflow Combat System”. Predator Scenarios task the Dark Knight with stealthily taking down a room full of enemies with bonuses awarded for executing specific moves and takedowns. Finally, Custom Challenges allow the player to take on any of the previously mentioned maps while incorporating different handicaps or bonuses (much like the Skulls in Halo). Having spent several hours in this mode, I can easily say it is not for those who are easily frustrated and/or lack patience. For the OCD/perfectionists, like myself, this mode can be downright maddening.In the end, however, the small problems I encountered with the game cannot hold it back from being a shining example of gaming excellence. In 2011’s sea of amazing titles, Batman: Arkham City shines above many, making it one of the best games of the year, and a must play for virtually all gamers.
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