Rocksteady has set a dangerous precedent with their Batman franchise. For years, gamers have been hit with massive amounts of shovelware when it comes to licensed superhero titles. Everything from Superman to Spider-Man to the Hulk has been foisted on us, one after the other, and with only a few exceptions (The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction comes to mind), they’re all garbage. That’s not even including movie tie-in games, which manage a new level of mediocrity.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was a breath of fresh air. I, like much of the gaming community, waited with bated breath for its sequel, Arkham City, which I hoped beyond hope would be every bit as excellent as its predecessor. Rocksteady brought home the bacon. Now, heaven forbid, gamers may start expecting more quality in their comic games.
A year after the events of Arkham Asylum, warden-turned-mayor Quincy Sharp has made rehabilitating the criminal element of Gotham City his pet project. He has appointed longtime Batman rogue Dr. Hugo Strange to solve this dilemma, and the two have hatched a scheme to wall off the entire northern area of the city and make it a prison, the eponymous Arkham City. Most of the prisoners from Arkham Asylum have been transferred here, including supervillains such as Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and of course, the Joker. Bruce Wayne strongly opposes the construction of Arkham City and hosts a press conference just outside of prisoner intake to make his views known to the public. Strange takes this opportunity to apprehend Wayne, thus setting the events of the game into motion.
Arkham City plays much like its predecessor – that is, you’ve got the same balance between combat and stealth, with the occasional detective work thrown in. In combat, Batman uses a wonderful system called FreeFlow to take down large numbers of opponents. FreeFlow allows the Dark Knight to move unimpeded through the area, around and in between enemies, and take them down along the way. It also uses a combo system, which increases as Batman scores successful hits and continues to rise as long as he can avoid being struck. Increasing the combo gives Batman more experience points and allows him to use powerful techniques, such as instant takedowns and enhanced reflexes. He can also use many of his gadgets in combat, like his signature batarang.
Whenever Batman isn’t in FreeFlow, he’s usually in Predator mode. Occasionally Batman will enter areas with armed thugs. Considering Batman’s aversion to firearms, he has to find more discreet methods of taking out each opponent – simply dropping down in front of one and punching his lights out is a great way to get assault rifled by all of his buddies. Predator mode allows Batman to take his time and survey the area from hiding to find novel and entertaining methods of dispatching foes one at a time. While not as fast-paced as the combat, Predator sequences are still great fun and highlight one of Batman’s greatest abilities – inspiring fear in those who oppose him.
For those of you who played Arkham Asylum, you’ll find that Batman and his utility belt have been upgraded. You now have access to twice as many gadgets, including the brand-new smoke pellet, freeze grenade, and remote electrical charge. The old gadgets have been dusted off and upgraded – the Caped Crusader can now change the direction of his line launcher in mid-air, for instance, as well as command batarangs to reverse their trajectory after they’ve been thrown. Batman can also use more gadgets in combat, even explosive gel. He has also learned new moves in FreeFlow. All of these upgrades can be purchased in the menu with experience points that are earned as you take down enemies, complete objectives, and collect Riddler trophies.
Unlike the segmented world map of the first game, Arkham City allows you to access most of the map from the very beginning. With only a few exceptions, you are free to explore the world and ignore the main objective if you so choose. There are quite a few side missions for you to take part in, all hand-crafted with the same care and dedication that Rocksteady puts into every aspect of the game. You can visit Calendar Man in his cell, chase after Mr. Zsasz, and take part in WayneTech virtual reality training. Batman’s gliding and grapnel gun have been improved by leaps and bounds, allowing him to quickly cover vast distances.
As if the slick combat and devilish mayhem of Predator weren’t enough, the game’s storyline, script, and voice acting are in a class of their own. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voice Batman and the Joker respectively, reprising their long-running roles from the comic’s animated series. Sadly this is the last time Hamill will be voicing the Joker, but in my opinion it is his best performance yet. Rocksteady is not just a quality studio; they are also avid Batman fans and they crammed as much of the Dark Knight’s universe into this game as they possibly could. In addition to the Joker and his minions, Batman must also contend with Hugo Strange and his Tyger mercenaries, who are the law in Arkham City, as well as baddies with less influence in the prison, such as the Penguin and Two-Face. Fans of the franchise will recognize many other familiar faces as well, both from the comics and the original game. You will also find seemingly limitless numbers of Riddler trophies, riddles, and other collectibles; you could spend hours simply hoarding those if you so desired.
The technical aspects of Arkham City are outstanding, unsurprisingly. Few changes have been made in these areas, with the exception of the 3D mode. I had no issues with bugs at any point during my playthroughs, nor was there any clipping or drop in framerate. The video was sharp and the audio crisp and clean. However, if I had to make one complaint, it would be about the game’s map. It is sometimes difficult to determine where exactly a Riddler trophy is, or to find the next objective inside of a building.
As for the secondary features of Arkham City, character trophies, bios, and recordings await you should you collect enough of the Riddler’s trophies. There are also challenge maps, both FreeFlow and Predator, that are essentially one-shot tests of your skill. There is a new type of challenge called Campaign that combines several smaller challenges, forcing you to ace each map in the gauntlet to achieve the most medals. There are Xbox Live leaderboards for all challenges for the competitive players. In addition, Arkham City has a New Game Plus mode, adding another difficulty level and Achievement, for those who collect such things.
Arkham City has been out long enough that I can comment on its DLC. So far there are three significant releases, each based around a character: Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing. Catwoman’s DLC is a supplement to the main Batman campaign, and you have the option to either play it separately, or have her chapters included when you play as Batman, with the perspective switching back and forth between the two characters at various points in the story. Robin and Nightwing do not have campaign material as such; their DLC is all challenge maps. Each character has their own unique moves and gadgets.
Catwoman’s DLC may not be for everyone. For $10 you get 4-6 hours of content, depending on how interested you are in her challenges (she gets as many as Batman, which is a lot). Her campaign chapters are fun, but it is not really a “must-buy” pack in my opinion, as Batman’s campaign is perfectly adequate without her. But if you want to extend your Arkham City experience, you won’t regret downloading it.
As for Robin and Nightwing, I would recommend these more for the hardcore challenge players. For each one there are no additional story chapters (a pity), simply FreeFlow, Predator, and Campaign challenges. Fun definitely, but also nothing you haven’t already seen on Batman and Catwoman. Each pack is $7, although there is currently a promotion where you can get both packs and the $5 Batman skin pack (containing 7 alternate outfits for Batman) for only $15.
Arkham City is a better game than its predecessor, no mean feat. It was also wildly popular among gamers and critics and in contention for Game of the Year for many sites. It was my personal favorite game of 2011 (I’m not a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls series, blasphemous though I may be). I very rarely award perfect scores to games, but I honestly could not find anything about Arkham City that warranted a lower score. I sincerely hope it serves as an inspiration to other developers who work on games based on licensed properties.