BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY (2011) – ROCKSTEADY STUDIOS
Five months – that is the length of time is has taken me to finally get through Batman: Arkham City. Despite listing it as my second most anticipated game of last year, a shortage of funds and an obsession with Skyrim put any potential of playtime to the sidelines for a bit; and in the meantime I have been avoiding spoilers like the plague. Happily a good friend of mine was willing to lend me his copy to play over Easter, and so now I am in position to give my thoughts on a game which has been labelled one of the greatest of this generation – an opinion that I am not necessarily inclined to agree with straight away.
Arkham City is a direct sequel to the 2009 surprise hit Arkham Asylum, also made by British developer Rocksteady Studios. With the Asylum being closed down after the events of the first game, the approach to crime solution in Gotham City has been drastically altered – the Mayor has sectioned off a dilapidated part of the city and put all of Gotham’s criminals in there under the control of Professor Hugo Strange and his battalion of TYGER guards. In a bombastic opening sequence, one night while publicly campaigning against the opening of Arkham City, Bruce Wayne is captured and forced to enter with all the criminal scum of Gotham. After being given a welcoming blow from the Penguin, Bruce manages to escape from his predicament and make it to the rooftops. Once there, he suits up as Batman and prepares to stop Strange, who has promised that something called ‘Protocol Ten’ will begin in just ten hours. Along the way, Batman also runs into some of his most famous nemesis’s who are fighting for control of the city amongst themselves, including the aforementioned Penguin and the Joker, left in a terrible condition after his exposure to Titan at the end of the first game. Like its predecessor, Arkham City’s story is a well crafted adventure, with an incredibly bold moment of finality on Rocksteady’s behalf at the end – although if like me you have done so well to avoid spoilers, I won’t ruin it for you now.
Arkham City represents an evolution rather than a revolution of the gameplay of Asylum; the basic control schemes are the same, and the superb Freeflow combat and detective systems makes a welcome return. However, placing Batman in a city has offered Rocksteady the chance to tinker with the Dark Knight –the city is a much bigger environment than the island of the asylum, and so to get around Batman has a few new tricks to his repertoire. By holding the right trigger while gliding, Batman can perform a dive bombing manoeuvre which can be used to swoop down on enemies or extend the length of a glide by pulling out and rising up. Combined with an unlockable grapnel boost upgrade, Batman can whiz around Arkham City at a fair rate of knots. He also has some new gadgets and his disposal, including a weapon jammer that can be utilised to surprise enemies in Predator situations, and technology developed by Mr Freeze that can create platforms on water and temporarily immobilise opponents. All of Batman’s gadgets are upgradeable using the in game experience accumulated by beating up enemies – at the start of the game, you are a pretty premium arse kicker, but by the time you are fully upgraded you are nigh on unstoppable as you deliver a delicate ballet of pain to enemies in Freeflow.
Being in a bigger environment also means there is much more to do, and this is where one of my complaints from Asylum (that the game was too short for its own good) is erased. Alongside the standard story, there is a set of 12 of so side missions that Batman can take on while moving around Arkham City. Most of the time these involve other antagonists from the Batman universe; for example one mission has you destroying canisters of Titan formula laid around the city for Bane, while another requires all of your detective skills to take out the contract operative Deadshot. These side missions, while offering a chance to elaborate on the fine comic book lore and gain some experience, give the game some much needed extension. Alongside this, the Riddler also makes his return in Arkham City, except this time he has taken hostages – there are 400 new trophies and riddles to collect and work out in order to save them, some of which will require all of your cunning and skill to find – although now you can interrogate certain enemies to make them squeal before putting them to sleep.
And if this wasn’t enough, there’s even the chance to eschew Batman’s adventures for something more…feminine. Yep, Catwoman is a playable character in her own right, and has a short side story running in tandem with Batman’s adventures – I would like to comment more on this, but unfortunately my friend had already used the downloadable code. Also making a return from Asylum are the Predator and Combat challenge maps, unlocked by collecting Riddler trophies, which can be played through as Batman, Catwoman, and if you picked up the DLC Robin and Nightwing as well, all of whom have slightly different ways of going about kicking ass.
However…for me there is something that simply does not click with Arkham City, and I think much of this has to do with atmosphere; or more accurately, the lack of it. You see, I thought Arkham Asylum was a masterpiece in terms of atmospheric design – the confined spaces, the archaic state of buildings and the mad patients all made for a cocktail which was equal parts gritty and bizarre. Aside from a few brief moments where Batman is down on his luck, Arkham City doesn’t capture the feeling that everything is out of control; it feels like what it is – a part of Gotham where criminals have been stored. Rather than being at each others throats, the inmates more often than not bitch about the eternal snowy conditions as you fly around the city. Even small things like the short cut scenes that play when you die don’t feel as dark and sinister as they did before. Also, I know its harsh but there isn’t actually that much to do in the city – whereas the buildings of Asylum were highly detailed and evolved over the course of the story, you will visit the buildings in Arkham City once at best before returning to the open world environment which feels like it has been stretched out purely to accommodate all of the Riddler challenges. On a positive note, boss battles in Arkham City are much, much better than the drab fests in Asylum; Titan’s are kept to a minimum, and boss fights are much more varied than before – the fight with Mr Freeze in particular is intriguing, as he will learn how you attack and negate it for future use (for example, sneak up for a silent takedown and he will employ motion sensors, and if you glide kick him he will freeze your cloak). Swings and roundabouts then in terms of whether or not this is actually a better game all round than Arkham Asylum was.
As far as presentation is concerned, Rocksteady have once again done a fine job. Although there is not as much violence as I was perhaps expecting considering the beautiful concept art, Arkham City is beautiful dilapidated mess and it is always fun to watch as Batman tosses goons around and performs counters that make you wince in pain. It doesn’t look overtly different from Asylum; but that’s fine because Asylum is best looking games of this generation. The strong voice cast from the first game also makes a welcome return, and while Mark Hamill gained the usual plaudits for his performance as the increasingly frail Joker, I found Corey Burton’s domineering performance as Hugo Strange to be the one deserving praise. The soundtrack is also pretty sharp once again, sounding like a lovechild of Tim Burton’s gothic score from the first Batman films and Hans Zimmer’s more brooding approach to Batman Begins.
Was the five month wait worth it? I reckon so, and if I had the money to pay for it upfront I guess I would have enjoyed it as well. Arkham City is a very good game; a worthy sequel to Asylum and continued proof that Rocksteady Studios have a bright future ahead of them. I do not think it’s quite the game that the gaming press have made it out to be; I personally think it needs to be measured directly against its predecessor and on that front it doesn’t quite tick all the boxes. But it did hold its head high through last Winter’s top notch band of games, and is worthy of your time if you choose to play it.