Written by Brock Poulsen, brockst4r Wednesday, 26 October 2011 11:00
Batman: Arkham Asylum is near the top of my favorite games of all time. I regularly cite it for examples of great accomplishments in gameplay in numerous categories. So its sequel has some very big shoes to fill. Luckily Arkham City has enormous feet.
Unlike the above foot metaphor, there is an enormous amount to love about Batman Arkham City. Rocksteady already had an excellent starting point, having pretty much nailed essentially every aspect of the Batman character with Arkham Asylum. My one complaint with the first game was that Detective Mode perhaps made certain things a little too easy. I have two responses (yes, responses to myself) as to why I don't really mind Detective Mode. First, the complaint is essentially that it is designed too well, which is not exactly a dealbreaker. And secondly, it makes sense to me that a billionaire crimefighter who: doesn't use guns; is constantly outnumbered; has access to experimental military equipment; and relies on surprise and careful planning, would absolutely use the sort of technology like this. Detective Mode makes a return in Arkham City, but I found that my previous complaints are somewhat unfounded when the formula is expanded to more of an open world setting. Detective Mode is useful for locating some objectives and spotting enemies, but I feel like it is not the "cheat mode" that it virtually became in Arkham Asylum. It's easy to go long periods of time without using it, and it adds a sort of heightened awareness to help you get the drop on Batman's enemies.
In the days and weeks leading to this game's release, I enforced a strict no-spoilers policy on myself. This is not something I regularly worry about with games, but in Batman's case I wanted to make every discovery myself, and I wanted every new enemy or location to be a delightful revelation. I shall endeavor to keep this review free of major spoilers, with warnings when necessary. There will be minor plot and character details where unavoidable.
In anticipation for this game's release, I studied up on some Batman comics (you can read more about that here). Something I love about Rocksteady's Batman is the way they incorporate even the more supernatural or science fiction style villains like Mr. Freeze or Killer Croc with a more plausible existence. The character bios are a joy to read, and I love the emphasis Rocksteady has placed on each villains' mental illnesses as the explanation for their peculiar gimmicks. It creates excitement for their interpretation of every villain, even seemingly childish or silly ones like The Mad Hatter or Humpty Dumpty.
A complaint I've voiced before with open world games is the tendency for there to be too much to do, and too many distractions. Before donning the cowl of Batman, I was afraid I'd encounter the frustration of many one-man crime-fighting games: I have big, important things to do, but that lady just got her purse stolen. Luckily, Arkham City is scarce on civilians, meaning these "random" crime encounters are much more rare and less intrusive. The game world is still brimming with things to do, however. There are countless groups of thugs to fight, most with interesting conversations on which to eavesdrop. This dialog can be enlightening, revealing cryptic story details and an unexpected perspective on the events in the city. Ringing telephones, Riddler challenges, and many other diversions are available, but presented in such a way as to stay on the peripheral without drawing you from your main goal.
The navigation between buildings and around the city is quite different from anything in Arkham Asylum, yet it feels completely natural to the Batman character. Grappling and gliding around the city is enormously intuitive, despite some new navigation mechanics that will be completely new to many gamers. Movement is full of small touches that enhance the overall immersion. *SPOILERS* This is a spoiler from the first 15 minutes or so of the game, but it was enough of a pleasant surprise that I wanted to flag it as a spoiler. The game opens with Bruce Wayne being arrested by Hugo Strange's law enforcement force. So the first character the player controls is Bruce Wayne, handcuffed and being processed into Arkham City. Bruce Wayne handles differently from Batman - not drastically, but it is a noticable difference. Batman moves with more weight and presence. This is a small detail, but one that makes sense from a "realistic" sense as much as a thematic sense: putting on the Batman suit is a transformation for Bruce. *END OF SPOILERS* The way that Batman transitions from grappling to standing on a rooftop is another minor detail that increases the immersive nature of being Batman. Sometimes you'll tuck your shoulder and roll onto the roof, retaining the speed of the grapple. Other times it's an almost casual step onto the roof. It seems to depend on things like angle and speed, but it's nice to see the variation.
Arkham Asylum's story was appropriately claustrophobic, taking place as it did in a relatively small location. Arkham City's setting is larger, and the story has been expanded to fit the larger scale. Villains have more permanence; whereas a major villain could be dispatched in a single encounter in the Asylum, the major baddies are more resilient and will sometimes resurface for another confrontation. This is an interesting gameplay decision for a couple of reasons: there aren't necessarily "boss fights" in the traditional sense, and it adds to the feeling of Batman being almost hopelessly outnumbered.
Despite being outnumbered, the great thing about Batman - and something this game perfectly captures - is that he is in control. The bad guys have the guns and the numbers, but you have the fists and gadgets of the Batman. Stealth is, of course, an integral part of Arkham City, but it's not the fragile stealth where a single misstep can cost you your life. Being spotted can, in fact, provide a psychological advantage and cause enemies to make crucial mistakes. It is an active, predatory stealth, aided by gadgets, intimidation, and - above all - superior planning. There's nothing cautious or frightened about the way you can approach a room full of thugs; you can zip from place to place, always staying one step ahead of the enemy, and finally delivering that soaring kick with a satisfying impact to silence your final target.
The feeling of speed and the way the game uses momentum is also utilized in a big way in combat. Enemy bodies flip and fall with a brutal grace in convincing ways, and - among many other highlights - the grapnel slam is a virtual high-five for your eyeballs. There’s a tremendous sense of impact in every move.
While I love the ambiance, the story, the beautiful graphics, and countless other things I’ve already mentioned about this game, the combat is really the main event. The thing that really sold me about Arkham Asylum was not the demo that came to PSN and Xbox Live; it was the Challenge Mode demo that was only available on in-store kiosk systems. I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to increase my score, and admiring every flawless animation. I’d never experienced a fighting system like it. It's like a big bowl of my very favorite meal, Vietnamese Pho: an ostensibly simple dish (a savory beef broth with rice noodles) that masks an abundance of hidden flavors and textures (cilantro, cinnamon, star anise, and several delicious others). The combat certainly appears simple: you can be very successful - and see some impressive moves - only utilizing the four face buttons. But when you add additional flavors; the aforementioned grapple slam, or a Combo Takedown, or other gadgets, and you end up with something just as delicious but many times deeper. Arkham City has added a few new gadgets to the utility belt while still retaining this combination of sublime accessibility and astounding depth.
I'll let you discover the other highlights of combat yourself (and there are many), but let me just say: there is a counter wherein Batman catches a crook's leg and flips him backwards in the air, then kicks him in the chest just as the crook completes a full backflip.
Every facet of this game fits together beautifully to form a jaw-dropping whole with depth and breadth, and that's without even mentioning the Riddler challenges (abundant and clever - some are more cerebral while others take advantage of Batman's new acrobatic tricks) or the extremely dense Challenge Mode (where I plan to spend many, many hours honing my combat skills).
Batman: Arkham City is a virtually perfect game, with incredible replay value, astounding depth of control and detail, and a vast selection of ways to spend your time. It is an absolute necessity for any gamer's collection, whether a casual superhero fan or a renowned Batmanologist.