Review: Batman - Arkham City (15) / Developer: Rocksteady / Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Chances are, you were already on-board with Batman: Arkham City. Whether you were drawn in by the extensive pre-release hype or simply looking forward to the game after Rocksteady’s brilliant 2008 series debut, its' been hard for any gamer to ignore the swelling sense of anticipation around this sequel.
Once again, all hell has broken loose in Gotham. In a move that makes real world authorities look downright responsible, former Asylum boss and now Gotham mayor Quincy Sharp has enlisted the help of Hugo Strange to implement a brand new method of incarceration for the scores of criminals and displaced inhabitants of the destroyed asylum and Blackgate prison. An entire area of Gotham has been fenced off and used as a controlled prison colony, with Strange and his elite Special Forces team keeping an eye on proceedings. It’s not long before the major players of the underworld find their feet within the confines of Arkham City, and a full scale power struggle breaks out with rival gangs vying for control of the penal facility.
While Jim Gordon and the GCPD are stranded without jurisdiction on the wrong side of the imposing perimeter wall, Bruce Wayne begins a campaign to end the miserable and inhumane conditions imposed by Strange’s regime. Like many other dissenting voices with anti-Strange agendas, Wayne ends up being arrested and imprisoned within Arkham City - but while the billionaire philanthropist may struggle to survive in such harsh conditions, Batman has no such cause for concern. Naturally he suspects a conspiracy, but not even the World's Greatest Detective could predict just how deep and dangerous Strange’s plans will become.
The premise may be farfetched even by comicbook standards, but a moments suspension of disbelief can forgive the overblown central theme as still the unique action game experience and tightly woven interconnecting stories push the problematic initial conceit in to the background, providing a stepping stone that leads to a brilliant and inventive piece of Batman fiction.
Most of Arkham City’s mechanics and gameplay functions are direct carry-overs from Arkham Asylum, in a sequel that’s more about refinement than straying from the original blueprint. The same intensely satisfying ‘Freeflow’ combat system returns with a snappier and more responsive feel. Less obstructive animation routines strengthen the player's abilities, improving on the feeling of power and mastery of physical combat worthy of the Bat, and the sense of empowerment when walking in to a crowded brawl is magnified by the subtle changes. Whether it’s a gang of two or three thugs, or a room full of assailants with grenades and automatic weapons, Batman can take them apart with an unmatched sense of style and authority.
Several new weapons are added to the arsenal established in the first game. Freeze grenades and smoke bombs join the array of Batarangs and high tech gadgetry that make a return, but are far more vital to the play experience and less of an inconvenience than before. Most importantly, the ever reliable Batclaw has gone through some dramatic changes enforced by the new open world setting. While Arkham Asylum featured an almost constantly limited pathway for travel and movement, Rocksteady has opened up the confines of corridors and hallways into a hubworld setting for Arkham City. Initial concerns are quickly allayed, as the developer has made the intelligent choice of ensuring every square of the map is meaningful and fun to explore, rather than fall in to the trap of many open world style games in which vast empty expanses separate remote points of interest.
The new Batclaw allows players to grapple and launch to the rooftops and boost into the air, then using the cape to glide menacingly across the skyline. In addition, a mid-air dive and climb mechanic (amusingly similar to Super Mario World) allows increased speed and manoeuvrability in flight. It’s hard to get to grips with at first, but after a few gleeful swoops and dives the system becomes natural, allowing players to cover the large area of Arkham City with speed and ease. Most importantly, much like the combat system, it looks, sounds and feels as Batman should.
The image of the outstretched cape against the grimy and neon flashed landscape as you descend into an alleyway to take out an unsuspecting crowd of goons never gets old, and the attention to detail employed by the creators allows for some brilliant moments that are impressively cohesive throughout each phase of gameplay, be it stealthily creeping through dilapidated gothic buildings, soaring through the night, scanning crime scenes for clues or just a good old fashioned beatdown on some wrongdoers.
After successfully translating the look and feel of playing as Batman and creating a believable and authentic environment for him to exist within, it becomes equally important that the narrative of the game complements these successes. Aside from the shaky premise, Arkham City features an impressively twisty and well plotted tale that takes in several elements of Dark Knight lore. Just like the first game, the rogues gallery is in full effect, with appearances from some of Batman's greatest foes, and some more obscure faces that non-fans may not be particularly familiar with. While some inclusions feel like an excuse for a clunky boss battle, the major players like Joker, Freeze, Dent and Penguin make for fascinating antagonists throughout the storyline. Each has their own motivations, vendettas and goals, and taking out Batman is often just a bonus to their grand schemes for power within Gotham. Some appearances feel a little outlandish, especially the more supernatural of Batman’s foes, but given the nature of the characters in question and the roles they play within the narrative, it's an unfortunate side effect of using characters as plot devices. Rest assured however, there is no mutant Joker monster to deal with this time around.
The original game was a real treasure trove of references and easter eggs for long time Bat devotees, and Arkham City increases the amount of fan service by an order of magnitude, but instead of cleverly hidden art assets placed within the environment as with previous game, players now have a bundle of mysteries to solve that add nothing to the main thrust of play, but will be of great enjoyment to every fanboy and girl out there. It’s impossible to list even a fraction of the small touches that flesh out the world of Arkham City without spoiling the fun, but it's worth exploring every alleyway and secret passage to really squeeze the most from the world. The phonebooth killers, men without faces, warnings from beyond the grave make for just a tiny part of the consuming series of side quests that feel just as important as the main story missions.
There are still some flaws that haven't been remedied from the first game, most notably the overbearing look of the visual filter applied when using the cowl's alternative scopes and vision modes. The heavy blue tint of detective vision is almost headache inducing, but the game relies on the mode far less heavily than its predecessor. While more varied in style and less frequently occurring, boss fights still feel far less satisfying than encounters with run-of-the-mill street thugs. These negative points aren't a major detraction from the overall quality of the game however, and in comparison to the veritable highlight reel of action and storytelling that Arkham City provides, are of little consequence.
This is one of those rare releases where you feel the developer enjoys the world and fiction of their games as much as the fans. The purposeful design choices and obsessive attention to detail provide a new strand of fiction for Batman that stands on its own alongside the films, the comics, and the animated series as a viable new continuity of its own, something that Rocksteady clearly revels in.
There are moments within Batman: Arkham City that had me hopping up and down in my seat in unashamed fanboy joy, and those small, almost inconsequential moments that are so carefully crafted to inspire a reaction with fans only serve to strengthen the wonderfully accessible new take on the fiction of Gotham’s heroes and villains. Best of all, it plays like a dream - endlessly satisfying, always leaving the player wanting to go for just one more side mission, one more Riddler puzzle, or one more challenge room. Grand ambitions of widening the scale and scope of Batman’s ongoing adventures are matched with a game of near unprecedented quality. Niggles exist, much like the first game, but fade into obscurity when the rest of the experience is so well executed.
'Batman: Arkham City' is available now on Playstation 3 (reviewed format) and Xbox 360 from Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment.