With no pause for breath, no lengthy tutorial sections and no messing around, Arkham City drops you straight into major story events from the first moments of the game and teaches you the fundamentals of the gameplay as the main story gets under. There’s no gently paced, tense scene-setting like in Arkham Asylum, this is very much a case of Batman (and even initially Bruce Wayne) getting his hands dirty early on. Although it would be easy to give away a few plot spoilers as to the events early on in the game, in truth it starts relatively lightly with setting and exposition and most of the more dramatic twists and story events coming much later. Suffice it to say you are facing many of the same villains as last time round, but this time the stakes have been significantly raised and the size of the world significantly increased.
This is no Gotham City though. Instead you explore the streets of Arkham City, put there by Hugo Strange, the new Mayor of Gotham and the game’s chief antagonist. Those hoping for a whole virtual city to explore will be left disappointed; this isn’t a world as big as Ezio’s or Niko’s. Rather, its a bloated version of Arkham’s Asylum from the original game, inflated out to encompass streets and multiple buildings. It never stops feeling like a big prison and the helicopter that surveils your progress and the inmates in orange jumpsuits reinforce this. In truth, its a little disappointing at first as the promise of a virtual Gotham would make the Batman experience feel complete. Arkham City lacks some of the focus and atmosphere of the Asylum, but also never feels like a living and breathing city. Despite this, the way that you navigate this environment is utterly exhilarating. From gliding with your cape to zip-lining and grapple hooking, there’s so many options for traversal that moving through the game world is one of the most exiting experiences the game has to offer. Like Mirrors Edge’s free running or Ezio and Altair’s descents into hay carts, there’s something visceral and compelling about seeing Batman swing through the rooftops and glide down from above. The key difference in the traversal is the ability to grapple while gliding. This lets you create an unbroken string of swings and glides across the level. At times it seems almost more Spiderman than Batman, but you never care as you’re having too much fun getting from A to B.
The joy you have from navigating the game world is down to the structure of that world as much as the moves available to Batman. It has far more verticality than the last game and as a result is much more dense and interesting to look at. As you travel you also pick up on sound bites and even whole conversations from the thugs below you which fills the game world with mood setting sound bites and keep the story ticking along. As you listen to these while swooping around, the different levels and the clutter of buildings mashed together to form alleys and streets seems post apocalyptic in style and you would be forgiven for thinking Arkham City is some rain soaked horror version of the future.
This leads to problems at times too though. Grapple hooking frequently takes you to places you can’t see or to ledges you don’t want to go to. In well structured combat scenarios where you face armed enemies this is less of an issue as more time has been spent on designing these sections, but in the open streets of the city it can be a little frustrating.
The multi-layered structure lets the designers really go to town with secrets and the world is riddled with unlockables and hidden passages. Just as with the last game these secrets become available over time as your armoury allows you to get access to areas previously locked off. As well as old favourites like the remote control batterang there’s new items like the electricity gun which can push or pull electric motors, as well as stun enemies. These items are upgraded as you go, and although you start with a decent arsenal initially, by the end of the game your batsuit will be covered in items you can use to not only defeat enemies, but find those illusive Riddler clues.
And while we’re discussing the question-marked villian, its worth saying just how much his riddle challenges have been expanded. Amounting to almost a full games worth of content in themselves, there’s an unbelievable amount of time and effort that will have to be put into these, as well as the challenges that he leaves AND the side missions from other villains. From answering phonecalls around the city to track down Victor Zsasz to remote control batterang challenges or gliding through glowing hoops in VR training, there’s as much to keep you off the main mission as in the Assassin’s Creed games. This is recognised to some extent by the designers who now allow you to drop custom waypoints on the map and these prove invaluable in marking the smaller game side quests like saving weaker prisoners from being mugged or beaten by gang members. It’s in this last form of mission that you get a sniff of what Rocksteady might be looking to do in a third game; an open world Gotham in which you really do police the streets.
As for the basic gameplay structure, there’s remarkably little departure from the original, but as no one has made a similar game (or not successfully anyway) in the interim its not a problem. Essentially the game is broken down into three parts; exploration, unarmed combat and stealth sections. You explore the city, gliding from rooftop to rooftop to get to the next main part of the story. When there, you solve simple puzzles, often using your unlocked gadgets in a way not too dissimilar to a dungeon in a Zelda game. As you explore you will come across groups of enemies without firearms, who you will mostly dispatch in hand to hand combat (although you can always take out the first few with stealth). In the sections where enemies do have guns though, you try to navigate around them using the environment and the tools you have. Both combat styles are rewarding and both have been subtly tweaked from the original. For the most part, you simply have more options than in the last game. In the stealth sections you have more gadgets and interactive elements in the environment with which to stun or confuse your enemies, and in combat you have more attacks at your disposal and more variety in your opponents.
The combat remains as satisfying as ever. Its funny how the zeitgeist has changed. When previews were first written for the original many commented on the simplicity of the combat as it had only one attack button for the myriad animations that Batman would go through as he fought. Only as reviewers and gamers became accustomed to the game and its subtle flow of attack and counter attack did it become clear how brilliantly Rocksteady had conveyed the brutality and beauty of Batman’s fighting style to a game. As before, its about timing, patience, crowd management and above all, rhythm. Anyone can knock out five thugs with basic attacks, but you don’t FEEL like Batman until you have taken out a room of 30 with a single unbroken combo and the maximum variation bonus. Those who persevered with the training challenges in the first game (like me) will return to the combat in this game like an old friend and will love the prospect of having a whole city of new enemies to use their skills on.
While the combat would be worth the entry cost alone, the story twists and turns as you might expect and is involving enough to keep you interested throughout. The only slight bugbear is the amount of reoccurring villains. With such a large cast of enemies it can feel a bit less like a noir-ish drama and more like a soap opera. Alliances are formed and broken and the motivations for characters to become friends or enemies all seems a bit arbitrary. Personally, I would rather see just one or maybe two major villians per title so that Rocksteady could save something for the future games in the series and avoid diluting the menace of any individual enemy.
Design wise the cast is largely great but with a few disappointments. Catowoman in particular is very poor with bad voice acting and a bizarre, over-egged vocal performance. Her costume is a bit of a miss with me and her face seems somewhat drag-queen-ish. Again, it could just be me, but I didn’t warm to her at all. It should be noted that the Catwoman component of the game is DLC if you buy the game pre-owned. In truth, her story missions feel tacked on and the need to level her up as well as Batman feels like a waste of your upgrade points. Even her animations, although all original, feel a little detached from the game world and more like an after thought. If you miss out on her then its not too big a deal for her appearance in the story, but it will compromise your efforts to unlock all of the challenges.
The rest of the characters are great. Batman is gruff and serious as ever and the damage on his suit as the game goes on still looks great. Hamill makes his last appearance as the Joker and its as over the top and wonderful as ever, while I will gladly admit I would trade in this version of Catwoman for more Harley Quinn if I could. Starting with the predictable but smile-inducing “Do you like my new outfit Bats”, she is brilliant again as the petulant but brutally cruel sidekick to Joker. Arkham City is a noticeably darker game than the original and early scenes of Quinn killing off prisoners reinforce this. While it may not be as pitch black as Nolan’s version, this is still a world perfectly suited to The Dark Knight where bad men (and women) do bad things.
Rounding this package off is one of the finest soundtracks I have heard in a super hero game. It wasn’t notable in the first game, but here the soundtracks soars dynamically. The first time I noticed it, I wondered why I was getting goosebumps. I quickly realised it was because I had just defeated a string of enemies with a 50x combo and had proceeded to glide away as the soundtrack soared to a crescendo in the style of the Elfman score from the Burton movies. It was a pitch perfect moment. Nothing else has made me feel like that this year, game, movie or otherwise.
When I question why I was looking forward to Arkham City so much I realised its because Batman makes me feel like a big kid. The darks streets of Gotham are where I imagine being, the nameless thugs are who I dream of fighting, the femme fatales like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are who I fantasize about…fantasizing about, but most importantly, Batman is who I dream of being. Arkham Asylum let me be a big kid again and pretend to be Batman, and that’s why I was childishly excited about Arkham City. I was right to be excited. Arkham City isn’t just a game. Its a way that you can be Batman for a few days. Maybe in the next game we will get to be Batman in Gotham itself and maybe that will be worth a perfect score. In the meantime, let me finish this review so i can get back to cleaning up those streets. The Bat signal is calling….
9 “I’m Batman”‘s out of 10