Batman: Arkham City Review
Minus a little “sequel-envy,” Arkham City is a worthy successor to the best superhero game.
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With little exception, superhero games were a bit of an industry joke, known mostly for timely cash-ins and half-finished ideas. That all changed in 2009, when Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady is of course a prolific developer that's been making games since way back in '04. Yes, they're the ones responsible for the modern classic Urban Chaos: Riot Response, and yes, that's sarcasm you're reading. Nevertheless, the newcomers at Rocksteady Bat-slapped naysayers and delivered one of the best games of the year, licensed or otherwise.
Given the success of Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady was quick to turn around a sequel, delivering Batman: Arkham City in a little over two years, and extending the company's streak of games with subtitled names. The plan for Batman: Arkham City was to take the Asylum formula but expand it to a larger, more open world, and ultimately their goal was achieved successfully.
This review is based on over 25 hours of gameplay, including a complete campaign playthrough, plus five hours of experimentation with New Game + and the "Riddler Challenge Rooms." Downloadable content was installed according to availability at the time of the game's release. All impressions are from the Xbox 360 version.
The gameplay you remember from Arkham Asylum is intact, with key improvements to the Freeflow combat system making a huge difference. Open-world exploration certainly has its pro's and con's, but by and large if you had fun with the first game, even more awaits you in the sequel.
Just like Asylum, Arkham City takes advantage of Rocksteady's "Freeflow" combat system, which allows Batman to attack or defend seamlessly, from enemy to enemy, in long combos. We love this mechanic because it perfectly suits Batman the character: smooth, spectacular, and fun. Some helpful improvements have been made to this system, most notably, Batman is now capable of counter-attacking up to three foes simultaneously. The complex animations that accompany these situations are extraordinary, and make each encounter seem like a tightly choreographed brawl scene.
Another new addition is the implementation of secondary gadgets directly into the flow of combat, executed via a series of button combinations. That element isn't our cup of tea, too much to remember. In fact, this technique and those like it represent our biggest complaint about the combat. There are a huge selection of secondary moves, but little reason to memorize and use them. We're good with attack, counter, jump, and a few other important techniques that we won't spoil.
We reserve special praise for the Catwoman DLC, which comes free with new retail copies. Her controls are identical, but her style is sexy and gymnastic, reflective of the character. Don't take away our geek membership cards, but it might actually be more fun to fight as her.
Again, just like Arkham Asylum certain opportunities will be presented for "predator"-style gameplay, where Batman darts in and out of shadows unseen, knocking out some bad guys and putting the rest into a blind panic. Everybody loves this mechanic because it instills in the player an authentic sense of being the Dark Knight himself.
Segments like this are largely unchanged. They're still awesome, still empowering, and occur just frequently enough to prevent staleness. Much has been made of the supposedly smarter enemies, with improved A.I. over Arkham Asylum. The truth is they're not that much smarter, but the encounters have increased in difficulty due in large part to the arrangement of the arenas. Nothing major, rooms are still roughly the same size, but the developers may have placed armed enemies in an inconvenient spot, or cut down on gargoyle safe spots, or something else to ruin your day. Again, we're particularly fond of the "last few guys" logic which, after successfully and stealthily clearing most of a room, will cause the final one or two enemies to start freaking out in horror...before you finally get them too. Love it.
The key difference between Arkham City and it's predecessor is open world exploration. Batman can explore the whole of Arkham City within minutes of the opening sequence, minus a few areas that are temporarily locked off for story reasons.
The open world mechanic is...not bad. Arkham City definitely has a smaller footprint than, say, Liberty City. Plus, you're equipped with some pretty sweet gear that keeps traversal fast and easy, making the game world's boundaries seem even closer. The world also lacks the same authenticity that we perceived on Arkham Island years ago. Inmates walk around, and your earpiece taps into some of their moderately-interesting conversations, but defeated ones eventually regenerate and follow the same paths. Such predictability makes the world seem structured and game-y. There's also very little evidence of ongoing gang wars inside the city, they're often alluded to but never witnessed. Ultimately Arkham City feels like it was constructed for you, the player, rather than existing as a living world.
Then again, there's certainly plenty to do inside the huge penitentiary. Trophies hidden by the Riddler are scattered all over the place, and cues from a selection of compelling side quests will pop up from time to time, some of which with obnoxious frequency. Exploration is not limited to an "outside the main quest" activity either, locked and forgotten passages will lead Batman to some imaginative locales over the course of the primary storyline. Also, mechanics like "detective mode" mean exploration literally becomes a part of the main plot, and—although subtle—this is important because it links the disparate elements of Batman: Arkham City into a more complete, more cohesive experience.
Default control layout is pretty much unchanged since Arkham Asylum, which had an intuitive scheme already. Using a trigger for crouch takes a tiny bit of getting used to, especially if you're a recent transfer from the shooter world, but this is the only control decision that stands out, and it makes sense in the context of the game. You'll find some added complexity in the Freeflow combat controls, special attacks or takedowns are mapped to additional button combinations, but we found more than half are optional to your success in the game. The only compulsion to learn them, in fact, is to make your fights feel cooler and more "Batman-like."
Rocksteady has included plenty of features that add longevity to their game, some of them are compelling, some of them aren't.
Even more Riddler trophies are scattered around the game world than could be found on Arkham Island, and hunting them down has a certain appeal for awhile. Many of the puzzles associated with them are pretty tough, and it's a fun diversion when you don't feel like tackling the main storyline. It's possible to mark trophies on the world map, but at a cost: certain criminals (highlighted in green) must be "interrogated" before they give up the Riddler's secret. Interrogating them is simply a matter of knocking them out last in the group. It's a smart way of guiding players in the right direction, without just giving them the answer.
Once you've finished the game, you'll unlock New Game +, which fully equips Batman with all his gear at the very beginning of the game, but combat is much more difficult. Riddler trophies are shared between your original file and New Game +, so you'll never feel like you're wasting your time.
Outside of the main campaign, "Riddler's Revenge" is a collection of challenge rooms, which are straight-up brawls or predator scenarios, and you can play through them over and over in order to achieve a high score. We regard modes like this as filler. We admit we spent a lot of time in the Freeflow arenas, but that's only because combat is so fun in Arkham City, not because we were every hooked on this mode.
We do recommend the Catwoman DLC, which comes free with new retail copies and folds this new character directly into the storyline. Her perspective of events is...well, somewhat interesting at least, but she's a well acted character and a lot of fun to fight with.
The rest of the Arkham City DLC is what's wrong with DLC. Throughout the game you're constantly unlocking bonuses. Seems like every time you find a Riddler trophy, something new gets unlocked. This is clearly a game built around the unlock mechanic. Problem is, it's always stupid stuff: non-interactive character models, written backstories, etc. If you want unlock something really sweet, you'll need to use the Microsoft Points mechanic or, in other words, pay for it.
Want to play as Robin? Nope, pay for it. Want to play as Nightwing? Sorry, pay for it. What about a skin? Can't we unlock a new skin for Batman? That'll be five dollars.
Pacing & Flow
Meh. This was one of the reasons we initially questioned the move to open world. As opposed to Arkham Asylum's relatively focused narrative, the sandbox design robs Arkham City's plot of some of its immediacy. The player's freedom to explore also takes the flow of time out of the developers' control, so events that should've been consecutive could be played a few hours apart, and believability can break down. The world's small area (for a sandbox game) actually keeps things moving by narrowing options, but the damage is done.
At least the difficulty curve is manageable, even for newcomers to the series.
If you go back and watch preview interviews for Arkham City, one of the features Rocksteady seemed intent on pushing was significant improvements to A.I., in both Freeflow combat and predator situations. This confuses us for two reasons. First of all, the A.I. doesn't appear to have improved very much; and second, we don't think A.I. needed any upgrades in the first place. The Freeflow fighting system isn't about realism, it's about racking up combos on dumb brutes, and the stealth moments require enemies that are just oblivious enough to keep the fun level up. In both situations, the existing A.I. algorithms seemed sufficient. Enemy intelligence hasn't been improved, and didn't need to be.
So...we suppose there's nothing to complain about here. Alright then.
Storyline isn't bad, but it's one of the weakest elements of Arkham City, and seems to suffer from a desire to outdo the first game. While the voice acting is still absolutely phenomenal, the storyline is shaped around the game design, and doesn't feel like a natural extension of the fictional universe.
We've seen stories that are compelling despite an ambitious premise, and we've seen ones that are successful despite a light exposition, but we've never seen both at once. Arkham City's premise is grand (it had to be, to overshadow the first game), but the exposition is rushed, and none of it—at least at first—makes much overall sense. Who would sign off on a massive city for outlaws in the middle of mainland Gotham? What are the benefits of infighting between criminal masterminds?
Some questions are answered near the end, but the big ones are either ignored or glossed over in insufficient detail. And that's long after a "cure this disease" subplot slowly gestates into the central conflict, distracting from the one question we spent the whole game asking ourselves: who came up with this silly idea?!
The writing of character dialog, while competent, serves to excuse the new open world / backtracking gameplay design. So character motivations are often convoluted. Villains spend more time explaining all the reasons why they did something, than just doing them and acting intimidating. Admittedly we have little experience with the comic books themselves, and a longtime fan might enjoy this tale a lot more, but as for us...we're just thankful the rest of the game is so much fun.
Voice acting is top notch, and remains perfectly consistent with Arkham Asylum, as well as the core Batman license. Mark Hamill is a joy to listen to, playing the role of Luke Sky—sorry, force of habit... Joker, and Grey DeLisle also stands way out for her seductive treatment of Catwoman. In fact, it seems a shame to call out only certain members of the cast, really the entire ensemble is fantastic. Aside from the work of Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream, the voice track here is unmatched.
Cinematics, both pre-rendered and in-engine, are used to punctuate key showdowns and plot elements which, conveniently, usually happen at the same time. Typical cutscene: Batman walks in, villain mocks him confidently, big fight ensues. Is it formulaic? Yup. Do we care? Nope. Like we said, the voice acting is stellar and this makes each new character a fun addition to the roster. Cutscenes are when each character is at his or her best, so we welcomed each one.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Although Arkham City is merely average technology-wise, art design sets this game apart. Music takes a back seat to sound effects, which focus on Batman's gadgetry and help the player step into the role.
For those unaware, art design is modeled after the Batman comic books, not the recent work of Christopher Nolan on the prequel trilogy. This is not a gritty game, but a vibrant one, defined by exaggerated character and environment design. In motion, Arkham City and its predecessor sort of look like Tim Burton's contribution to the Batman universe. The palette is colorful and diverse, with bright spotlights and projectors, plus equally colorful architecture.
Given current fashions of videogame art design, which can be overly reliant on bleak tones and dreary locales, Arkham City is a welcome change of pace. The aesthetic feels younger in a way, and gives the game a sense of childlike fun, an element too often lost in the dirty, monochrome landscapes of today's titles.
The game is a strong application of the popular Unreal Engine 3, but is by no means a groundbreaking technical advancement. The graphics are simply a vessel for the art design, and since Arkham City lies somewhere in between realistic and cartoony, it works. There are no specific graphical problems, both models and textures are sharp, and the only glitch we encountered was a random failure to boot from the dashboard.
The most impressive graphical element is animation, particularly during fights and cutscenes. Batman himself has the same convincing power as he did in Asylum, while Catwoman is animated with the same quality and level of detail, but styled with more agility and gymnastic prowess.
Music is used pretty sparingly, and most sections of the game will limit the soundtrack to your footsteps, gadgets, and face punches. When orchestration does kick in, it's usually to punctuate boss fights or exposition. The music is fitting in context, but not memorable after the experience is through.
Sound effects far outshine the game's music. Batman's gadget's are particularly convincing, and from the Batarang to the grappling hook, each gizmo has an appropriate metallic noise associated with it. Combat sound effects also deserve praise, even though they could be considered generic. Still we think these crunches and snaps drive home the comic book vibe, and exaggerate Batman's portrayal as a larger-than-life, crime-fighting superhero.
Batman: Arkham City is the second-best superhero game ever made, right behind Arkham Asylum. We recommend this title to any player, even the most casual fan of the Batman franchise. Rocksteady had a winning formula to begin with, didn't screw it up, and the result is an experience that's just as fun as the original. If you haven't found time for this game, or even this series yet, now's a convenient time to do so, before autumn's peak gaming season kicks into high gear.
So we like this game, and you should buy it. But for those expecting a little more detail, especially regarding our "second-best" declaration, let's talk....
Arkham City is great, but it suffers from a textbook case of sequel syndrome. In most cases but not all, originals tend to be a little bit more memorable than their sequels. There's something about a new intellectual property (or a fresh take on an intellectual property, in Batman's case) that sparks the imagination. Asylum was a perfect example of this, and setting the game on Arkham Island was just a brilliant, brilliant idea. It provided a believable excuse to include all the Batman villains at once, the area's remoteness supported a "go it alone" or "Metroid-vania" gameplay style, and the set piece was steeped in lore but never fully explored before. Reliance on only a single locale never became boring either, because each new area took on the qualities of its villain: Poison Ivy's wing, for example, became overgrown with plants.
When it came time for a sequel, Rocksteady wisely stuck to their successful blueprint, but the need to one-up their original begot many conceptual complications. To expand the next game, it seemed like a good idea to open up the whole of Gotham City. But that's just too big for a game of this scope. In that case, maybe it was best to cordon off a section of the city, and keep the gameplay in there. But then, why are all the familiar villains crowded into this one area? Well...maybe it's a prison again? And so a weak premise is born.
The main plot, which could've done a much better job writing its way out of this confusion, doesn't come together until the very end, and isn't very satisfying or believable anyway. Instead, we're left with what should've been a sub-plot regarding the substance known as Titan, a transplant from the previous game. And together, both of these plots involve only five or six main characters total, including the B-man. So the rest of the ensemble cast must involve themselves in tertiary ways, some of which have been done before, and some of which seem to lack motivation entirely.
Many of these complaints are probably just a matter of taste, and of course we had a ton of fun with this game. So will you. Only a few design details—and maybe a few iffy ideas—render Batman: Arkham City just a hair more generic than its predecessor.