It was 2009. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was keeping the public’s eye on Nintendo’s white box, Rock Band and Guitar Hero were winding down their battle for living room dominance and Left 4 Dead 2 and Assassin’s Creed II were rewriting the book on how successful sequels should be crafted. Then along came Batman: Arkham Asylum, a sleeper hit that elevated Rocksteady Studios to revered status among gamers and comic book fans for capturing the essence of one of the world’s most beloved comic universes and making a pretty great game to boot. Two years later, the inevitable sequel has come to fruition and it is almost perfect. Almost.
Getting the premise right is the foundation for building a successful follow-up to what was touted as a love letter to the Batman fanbase. In Arkham City, Gotham is still reeling from the events of Arkham Asylum, where the Joker took control of the asylum and turned himself into a monster using an experimental super steroid known as Titan. Quincy Sharp, former Arkham warden turned mayor, has decided that Arkham Asylum can no longer do the job of handling Gotham’s special brand of super criminals, and orders the construction of Arkham City. A twisted internment camp, Arkham City is basically an urban wasteland where every criminal and supervillain is stripped of their human rights and forced to survive within the limits and the rules set by the city’s watchdog: Dr. Hugo Strange. Naturally, things go a little a crazy.
Swooping back into Arkham.
The story, penned by veteran Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini, is one of the greats. While it does, admittedly, try to juggle a lot when all is wrapped up (and you will want to see it through), the whole story ties itself together with a classic Dini surprise that I’m still surprised Rocksteady managed to keep a lid on. It’s a “Whodunnit?” twist mirroring Jeph Loeb’s famous Batman arc in the comic Hush. And while the campaign can feel painfully short, the side stories really make the Arkhamverse come alive. In fact I would go so far as to say that the “main campaign” is just part of an even larger overarching story and can hardly be used to call the game “short.” Everywhere you turn there is a new villain from the Batman’s rogues gallery who will carry you through to some interesting places, and there are even a few cliffhangers. It’s very episodic in a way, and you can definitely tell there’s a reason the mastermind behind The Animated Series was brought on board.
If you’ve played Arkham Asylum, then you will feel right at home with Arkham City and it’s gameplay. The fluid hand-to-hand fighting, the predatory stealth, the gadgets — they’re all back, but now even bigger and better. All your gadget upgrades from the Asylum are still present, almost like the first game never ended. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to pull up the gadget menu and see everything you worked so hard for in the original still there and still functional as ever. Of course some new gadgets are also added to the belt, as well as some new tricks added to the Caped Crusader’s repertoire. One particularly rewarding addition is the incorporation of gadgets into fighting. While in Asylum you were limited to Batarangs and the Batclaw, in Arkham City any offensive gadget you have will find its way into combat.
And you’ll need them. Combat and stealth have been made noticeably more difficult this time around. Enemies will no longer hold back while a single thug takes on The Bat mano y mano. Because of this, Rocksteady has seen fit to give the player new counters and defensive moves which keep the combos going while keeping the player, you know, alive. It’s still just as fluid and intuitive as ever, though it does require a bit more skill to rack up those huge combos. On the stealth side the game forces players to diversify their tactics more than the previous game. Thugs have finally caught on to Batman’s use of vantage points and will regularly check them with thermal vision goggles or sometimes outright destroy them. It keeps thing much fresher than Asylum, and forces the player to use actual tactics over patience. It’s also a big part of what makes the challenge rooms so rewarding.
Riddle me this.
Challenge rooms in Arkham City are a much bigger deal than in the past. Now, they all run under a standalone campaign titled “Riddler’s Revenge.” In the challenge rooms the player is tasked with not only clearing the room of bad guys (either by stealth or by force depending on the challenge) but there are also Riddler Challenges such as knocking out a guard with a Batarang before you take him out or getting a high score in the combat challenges. These challenges reward the player with goodies and also put them closer to taking out the Riddler. It’s a rather fun and smart way to incorporate the challenge rooms into the game’s story and it even has the added bonus of allowing players to choose different characters like Catwoman or (with the forthcoming DLC packs) Nightwing and Robin.
Overall, the bumps in difficulty are just reflections of the scale of Arkham City. Everything is bigger, everything is grander. While I still wouldn’t say it’s a true sandbox game, the city is definitely much bigger and more open than the asylum of old. The result is a plethora of Riddler trophies, random acts of violence, and even some characters mucking about the city who won’t show up on your radar. It’s fortunately not so open as to become a pain and Batman’s mobility (the bulk of which consists of flying and grappling) means you can cover huge ground in almost no time.
The Cat vs. The Bat
Catwoman is an absolute joy to play. While some worried that she would just be a re-skinned Batman with a whip that is not at all the case. She controls very distinctly from the Bat and with a fluidity all her own. She isn’t as strong as Batman, and for that reason, her health bar is smaller and her hits aren’t as powerful. However, she is noticeably faster and her mobility will certainly make for some fun getaways. Because she can’t just grapple her way out of a situation, Catwoman relies heavily on her claws to scale up walls. Instead of taking the slow Assassin’s Creed-eque way of using ledges, the game prompts you to rhythmically hit A or X to simulate the cadence of her climb. Depending on your rhythm, Catwoman will either quickly or stutteringly leap up buildings with feline-like finesse. It’s extremely effective in preserving the speed at which Catwoman runs, jumps and fights her way through Arkham City, and it’s incredibly satisfying.
I do have a few quibbles with Catwoman. For one, up until the very last “episode” it never feels like her levels have much meat to them. At worst, they feel like barely-worthwhile distractions. While we wait for the rumored-but-almost-certainly-true future downloadable Catwoman episodes, it feels like this cool character with a well-developed move set is almost wasted on throwaway scenarios. It’s a shame because just when the Catwoman episodes reach their peak, it’s over, and you wonder why all the episodes didn’t feel as full or as rewarding. And while being to able to access different parts of the city as Catwoman later on is fun in its own right, there are missed opportunities that severely disappointed me.
My second quibble is how inconvenient it is that Catwoman is relegated to this online pass/DLC craziness. In my playthrough, it was an annoying technical hindrance that actually kept getting me booted from my game because of a damaged DLC error. For something that was always supposed to be in the game from the start, it serves as a kick in the groin that this decision to inconvenience the player so much even made it through to the final release. While I would not traditionally factor an online pass into my review, I feel it should be noted that it was a poor decision on someone’s part — a decision that actively kept me from playing the game at times.
With these complaints and criticism taken into account, it’s hard to ignore that Batman: Arkham City is still a damn fine game. It’s almost the perfect game. Like its predecessor, it is still just as much as a treat for Batman fanatics such as I in every way. The Arkhamverse is proving itself to be a universe within the Batman franchise to be taken seriously, and I doubt that this is the last we’ll see of Rocksteady’s take on the Dark Knight. With some of the tightest gameplay around and some gorgeous presentation it’s easy to understand why WB and DC Comics are ready and willing to invest so much into Rocksteady’s Batman. These are guys who get it. And while a few poor decisions may have kept it from utter perfection, the overall experience is one that I’m still finding myself going back to again and again. I beat Arkham Asylum 8 times before Arkham City, two of them being on hard and for 100%. I think Arkham City and I are going to have a similar relationship.
- Release Date: October 17th 2011
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Open World
- Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Developer: Rocksteady
- Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
- ESRB Rating: T
Our Score: 4.5/5
Review Statement: A retail copy of this game was provided to VGW by Warner Bros. Interactive. Reviewed on Xbox 360.