Batman: Arkham Asylum was something of a revelation when it released in 2009. Until that time, games based on comic books had a history of being mediocre at best, but Rocksteady took a beloved superhero and let that love influence the development from beginning to end.
Arkham Asylum was a critical triumph and a commercial success, standing as proof that a licensed game can strive for excellence and achieve it, provided somebody cares enough. Naturally, a sequel had to come, and Rocksteady faced an unenviable challenge -- make a better game than Arkham Asylum.
Arkham City is Rocksteady's answer to that challenge.
Batman: Arkham City (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)
Arkham Asylum has been shut down and its resident lunatics moved to the heart of Gotham City. It sounds like a terrible idea, but it gets far worse than that. Hugo Strange is in charge and rules Arkham City with a less-than-iron fist while Two-Face, Penguin and The Joker prepare for a three-way war. That's not the worst part, either -- Bruce Wayne has been arrested under highly questionable circumstances and thrown in with them.
Thus the scene is set for a Batman story so full of twists and surprise appearances that it could easily be part of DC Comics' official library. Featuring a huge cast of characters from the Batman universe, some of which I wouldn't dare spoil for you, Arkham City is very nearly the ultimate Batman tribute in videogame form. I say "nearly" because of a few very disappointing character omissions and moments where information is rushed out of the gate far too quickly, but overall I cannot say that the experience is a letdown. Batman fans will dig into this meaty yarn with a massive spoon and love every mouthful.
The biggest change between Asylum and City is given away by the name -- Arkham City is an open world, with Batman free to move throughout winding streets and rooftops. This free roaming ability allows players to truly feel like the legendary detective, and Rocksteady has supplied an ample amount of tools to satisfy our bat-fantasies. Using very intuitive controls, players can easily glide through the air, intermittently diving and swooping upwards to retain altitude. Crucial to travel is the grappling hook, which automatically latches onto a nearby surface at the touch of a button. It can be a crapshoot as to whether or not Batman will actually latch onto the object you wanted, as the game sometimes picks a random ledge out of several nearer, more convenient ones, but even when Batman ends up in the wrong place, correcting his position is a simply case of jumping off and gliding away.
As well as the grappling hook, Batman has access to a whole host of gadgets, starting with everything he had in Arkham Asylum, such as trusty batarangs and explosive gel, before adding fresher toys such as freeze grenades and ranged electrical charges. All of these gadgets are important in navigating the city and opening up new paths, retaining a Metroid feel to the experience despite Arkham City's expanded environment.
Rocksteady brings back many successful elements from Arkham Asylum, including the combat system. As ever, Batman will find himself in situations where a gang of vicious thugs needs suppressing, and he'll take them out using an impressively fluid combat system. Bruce can pummel his foes with one button, and break his combos at any time with the press of another to counter incoming attacks. That same unique rhythm from Asylum -- where attacking must consistently be balanced against countering -- is preserved, although that has positive and negative aspects. While combat is flowing and often visually beautiful, it only vaguely masks a system that is particularly shallow at heart. Yes, it looks good to have Batman constantly attacking and defending without breaking his pace, but simply smashing the buttons randomly will often have the detective winning his fights. In fact, trying not to smash buttons is actually more difficult, since the counter prompts sometimes flash up far too late, and Batman's responsiveness is somewhat unreliable.
To spice things up, The Bat can use his gadgets in the middle of combat by quickly holding a shoulder button and tapping one of the face buttons. This allows him to swiftly deposit exploding gel, fire an electric charge, or toss his batarang in the middle of a fight without breaking his flow. In addition, there are certain enemies that require special commands to take down, such as shielded gangsters that must be stunned with Batman's cape and then jumped on. While these additions make combat a bit less of a button-masher, they do suffer from one issue that permeates the entire game -- trying to do too much at once.
It's just confusing to have so many buttons doing so many things, and so many enemies that require so many different ways of dispatching. It's certainly great to have options and variety, but there's an information overload that can drown even the most focused of brains. This is an issue that doesn't just affect combat -- with so many gadgets, it's tough to keep track of which items perform which tasks, and when they're needed against certain obstacles. I was stuck at one point because I forgot that, among everything else he can do, Batman can slide to get under low barriers. It totally slipped my mind among all the things I needed to remember. This ties into the earlier criticism of Batman's grappling hook -- there are so many things to latch onto that the game itself gets confused.
Still, there are far worse problems than having too much content, and nobody can ever say that Arkham City has too little. That Rocksteady included so much and that all of it works almost perfectly -- when you can keep track of everything -- is very impressive. It just feels rather sprawling at times, like Rocksteady lost control somewhere along the way, and the sheer volume of stuff that Batman has at his disposal borders on the intimidating.
One criticism Arkham Asylum had was that its boss encounters were basically the same fights against near-identical charging thugs (save for Scarcrow and Killer Croc, which were more puzzle-esque stages than true fights). This time around, Rocksteady has made each boss a little more unique with a variety of large-scale skirmishes against some iconic villains, but while there's a bit more flexibility, only the battle with Mr. Freeze is a genuinely inventive concept. Most of the encounters are shallow and repetitive affairs that serve as somewhat low points in the overall game. Still, I can safely assure you that the final battle isn't as stupid as Arkham Asylum's controversial Joker fight. There will be no battles against a generic clown monster in Arkham Asylum, as Rocksteady has something a little more fiendish up its sleeve.
Exploration and combat are just two thirds of the experience. Predatory stealth is back in full force, and it is yet again the star of the show. During many interior sections, armed opponents will spread out across a large arena, and Batman will have to take them out individually so he doesn't get shot to ribbons. Able to swoop down from gargoyles, crawl in vents and hide under floor grates, Bruce has plenty of skill to get the job done. He's yet again aided by his Detective Vision, which allows him to see enemies clearly through walls, check their weaponry and see how nervous his activities have made them. As with the last game, there's a sadistic glee in stalking enemies and leaving their unconscious bodies for other criminals to find, then watching their confidence shatter as they begin to shoot at shadows and gibber in fright. With his new gadgets, Batman can also secretly disrupt guns to jam them or freeze gangsters solid. It's a beautiful system, held back only by occasionally spotty AI that can send opponents in strange, unpredictable directions.
The main campaign will take more than eight hours to beat, and there is plenty of optional content along the way. Arkham City is a big playground and it's full of activities. The Riddler has set up shop in a clock tower and littered the city with hidden trophies and puzzles. He also gets his own optional side mission in which hostages have been placed in Saw-like traps that require ingenuity to defeat. There are several engrossing sub-quests to complete, featuring appearances by a number of Batman's friends and foes, some of whom may surprise you. A number of optional tasks are simple collect-a-thon missions, while others have full, self-contained stories that are worth the effort of concluding.
Outside of the campaign, there's a series of Challenge Maps in which Batman fights thugs until he dies, and those buying the game new will have access to four Catwoman levels. The Catwoman gameplay isn't all that good. Selina Kyle is far less adept and flexible than Batman is during combat, and her ability to navigate the city is less fluid, although crawling upside-down on grated ceilings is amusing. Used-game buyers could safely skip these levels and lose nothing, and I found that having them woven into the main story campaign actually felt more intrusive than complementary.
All of Arkham City's expansive content is tied together with a gorgeously crestfallen atmosphere. The brooding nature of Batman permeates the entire experience, helped along by some of the darkest portrayals of Gotham's rogues' gallery ever presented. As Professor Strange's broadcast threats echo across Arkham's streets and the embittered chatter of nearby thugs is overheard, players will find themselves feeling constantly oppressed, and I mean that in the best way possible. Arkham City is depressing and morbid in a vastly entertaining way. That's very difficult to pull off, and is worth a round of applause in its own right.
That said, however, the tight pacing of Arkham Asylum is missing, thanks in part to Arkham City's open world. It offers a fantastic narrative, but lacks the deftly controlled impact that Asylum had. There are a few sequences that deliberately attempt to recapture some of Arkham Asylum's finest moments, but they feel contrived and forced in comparison. The narrative also suffers from that aforementioned habit Arkham City has of trying to do too much. There's so much crammed into the game's story that a few moments -- especially toward the end -- feel rushed, with characters introduced and dropped in minutes simply to serve as convenient deus ex machinae. That is not to say the story isn't superb, because it is, but it falls just shy of what the previous game's plot achieved.
Batman: Arkham City tries to do too much and can come off a little heavy-handed, but that doesn't stop it from doing a vast amount of things right. It's a beautifully bleak game that constantly pays tribute to one of the greatest icons in comic book history and provides an experience that one can get lost in for hours. Its biggest problems lie in a combat system that manages to be too simple and too complex in the wrong areas, and this can often exasperate, but the overall product is one of the most absorbing and engrossing ones on the market.
It doesn't quite reach the highs of its predecessor, but Arkham City rarely sinks low and does its best to answer major criticisms from the first title. When it's all said and done, you'll be begging for more, but not because there wasn't enough. It is just too damn fun to be The Bat.
THE VERDICT - Batman: Arkham City
Reviewed by Jim Sterling