Batman: Arkham City
Gotham City’s skyline glows warmly, showing decades of progress and prosperity in each of its majestic towers. On this night, this impressive view is obstructed by the massive concrete walls of Arkham City, Gotham’s new home for its lunatics and murderers. Behind these barriers, a section of the city has been transformed into a prison with no rules. The inmates govern themselves. Anarchy reigns in the streets as they vie for territory control. The city’s historic landmarks are altered to bear the signature of the villains controlling them. The Penguin nests in the museum. The Joker’s maniacal laugh echoes across the docks. No sane person would dare enter this dangerous penitentiary. For Batman and the gamer controlling him, however, Arkham City is the ultimate hunting grounds and a place where one of gaming’s most remarkable adventures unfolds.
Within this sprawling world, developer Rocksteady Studios has crafted a monster of a sequel, expanding on the size and scope of every facet presented in the series’ first entry, Arkham Asylum. A bombshell of a plot twist is revealed in the introductory moments: Hugo Strange knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman. From this point on, exceptional writing leads the way through a mystery-laden plot that races along with fantastic character-based moments. The story reminds me of one of my favorite Batman comic book series: 1993’s year-long, villain-infested epic, Knightfall. Both the game’s and comic’s story follow the Arkham Asylum’s inmates running amok in the streets of Gotham and the physical toll it takes on the Caped Crusader. This tale bounces between villains, and Rocksteady does a tremendous job of linking all of their arcs together.
I thought that Arkham Asylum accurately depicted Batman as a character, brilliantly playing off of his ability to shift from combatant to detective to predator. After playing this sequel, I can now tell you that Rocksteady only showed us the tip of his pointy ears. A large piece of Batman’s personality is his link to Gotham. Some of his most iconic images show him leaping off of a rooftop or descending with his cape outstretched toward heavily armed thugs. Players now have the ability to experience Batman as Gotham City’s guardian and the creature that most enemies fear is lurking in the shadows. A beautifully designed gliding mechanic, which allows the player to swoop down and then extend the cape to slow his descent or use the velocity to rocket back up into the sky, makes city navigation a breeze, and it’s just as graceful and exciting as the popular web swinging in many of the Spider-Man games. The thrill of gliding undetected and descending like a hawk onto its prey is an immensely satisfying action that often gives way to the game’s expanded combat tactics.
Detailing exactly how the combat has changed would reveal villains and spoil sections of the game, but I can say that the base tactics are identical to the last game and the new elements that are added allow Batman to approach different enemy types in new ways and also stun or down foes with a larger arsenal of moves. Batman can counter the attacks of three enemies at once – an acrobatic technique that involves a boot to the face and smashing the remaining foes’ heads together – and turns most combat opportunities into an agile, adrenaline-filled ass-kicking.
Some battles are best won through stealth. Enemies are quicker on the trigger now and can also throw pesky landmines into the environment. Detective Vision isn’t required nearly as often this time around, but is just as fun to use. In addition to his base set of moves, Batman can now use environmental objects to electrocute foes, an act that is hilarious and effective.
The biggest difference between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City’s gameplay is the structure of the world. Arkham Asylum is a linear game with Metroid-esque backtracking and secret-finding. Arkham City is an open world littered with missions and events. When the game begins, Batman stands on a rooftop facing his objective. It’s at this point players can veer off of the critical path and explore to their heart’s content. The side content offers more gameplay than the critical path and is spread across a variety of different avenues ranging from standard side missions to tasks that specific villains want fulfilled. The Riddler is also up to his old tricks, offering a whopping 440 different challenges, some of which can actually kill Batman. All of the side content is nicely designed, giving players plenty of reason to invest significant time. At one point I had six side missions to complete, five canisters to blow up, a political prisoner screaming for help, an unknown masked vigilante watching me from a distant rooftop, a major villain initiating a deadly game through a ringing cell phone, and a handful of Riddler challenges staring me in the face. When I completed the game, I was told that I only went through 42 percent of the content. At this point, I also unlocked new game plus, a mode that gives the player all of the weapons and upgrades he or she ended with and offers a more difficult challenge through altered enemy types.
Did I mention that Catwoman is a fully playable character? Her arc intertwines with Batman’s, but only accounts for roughly five to ten percent of the story. The switch between these two playable characters is often handled after a cliffhanger moment, almost imitating the end of a comic book. Catwoman features her own move set; she uses her whip and claws to navigate Gotham in a different way (which isn’t quite as enthralling as Batman’s means, but is still fun), and Rocksteady also made sure that players would spend time exploring with her through hidden Catwoman-only Riddler challenges.
The size of the game is daunting. I still have a ways to go to reach 100 percent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I have invested over 60 hours so far. Throw in the new game plus and a dizzying number of combat challenges for both Batman and his feline friend and this game could be one of the biggest and most enjoyable time sinks of the year.
Arkham City not only lives up to the standards set by Arkham Asylum, it bests its predecessor in every way and stands tall as one of Batman’s greatest moments in gaming.