Review: Batman: Arkham City
November 14, 2011, Author: Jesper Hauerslev
Welcome to Arkham City. If you are looking for clean streets, green parks and a peaceful existence away from the hurly-burly of modern-day city life… you’ve really come to the wrong place! Here you’ve got criminals roaming the streets, buildings decaying all around you and a severe bat-infestation, but if that is your thing then make yourself at home. Just be careful, because once you are in, you might not want to leave…
Streets of fear
Picking up where 2009’s sleeper hit Arkham Asylum left off, Arkham City is every bit as dark, sinister and loaded with Bat-gadgets as you would expect, and then some. A lot has changed since the Dark Knight defeated the Joker at the end of Arkham Asylum. However, the asylum’s former warden, Quincy Sharp, has managed to spin the events to his own advantage and has emerged as the hero. Using his ill-found fame to its full potential, Quincy is soon elected the new mayor of Gotham, and cordons off a part of Gotham City to form a new maximum security prison.
Thus, Arkham City is born. With the mysterious Dr. Hugo Strange as the new warden, all of Gotham’s villains are rounded up and thrown into Arkham City to fend for themselves. With the likes of Penguin, Two-Face, The Riddler, and not to mention The Joker ruling the streets, the situation quickly becomes volatile, but is there more to Arkham City then meets the eye?
Batman certainly thinks so, but before he can act, he is kidnapped as Bruce Wayne and thrown into the streets of Arkham City. After a not-so-welcoming welcome party hosted by The Penguin, Bruce is soon free to don his trademark cowl and cape, and bring order to the chaos with some seriously stylish ass-kicking.
Fists of justice
The previous game, Arkham Asylum, did a great job of capturing the essence of the Batman universe and Arkham City builds on this foundation while gently expanding it. Just like the asylum, Arkham City is a brutal place where everything is crumbling and decaying. The streets are filled with criminal gangs locked in a never-ending turf war, swearing allegiance to Two-Face, The Penguin or The Joker, while other villains like Bane and Poison Ivy have their own secret agendas.
The story does a great job of weaving these villains in and out of the main plot, and there are some great surprises in store as you delve deeper and deeper into the murky world of Arkham City. Luckily you are Batman, the Dark Knight that preys on the predators and strikes fear into the fearless. Trained in various forms of martial arts and equipped with a wide array of gadgets, your’e a crime-fighting force to be reckoned with, and there will be plenty of opportunity to put all skills and gadgets to good use.
You will get to scare bad guys half to death and you’ll engage in some great hand-to-hand combat, thanks to the much-applauded Freeflow combat system. The latter was one of the innovative features of the original, and while slightly tweaked for use on Arkham City’s streets, it remains very much the same. Simplicity is the key to its success, as you only have two main buttons to worry about: one for hitting and one for blocking. It’s an incredibly simple yet effective way of unleashing pain, and as you get deeper into the game, your offensive and defensive capabilities grow organically.
You will eventually encounter tougher enemies equipped with shields, guns, knifes and body armour. These guys will require different tactics to defeat, but by then, you will already have picked up so many tricks that you will be able to string them together into some truly epic ass-kicking combos. The game never pits you in a battle you can’t win as long as you stay attentive to the ebb and flow of the fight. The trick is to keep moving, jumping and darting between enemies while kicking, throwing, punching and sometimes even breaking them as you go.
The combat uses combos as it’s ‘currency’. The more successful hits you manage to land in a row, the more powerful attacks you will be able to perform, and the more damage you will be able to unleash. Obviously, your enemies aren’t going to take any punishment lying down. They often attack in numbers and can put up quite a fight.
Luckily, blocking or evading their punches and kicks is as easy as hitting a button, but you have to do so at the right time. Get it wrong and you will lose your combo string and have to start building it up anew, but get it right and the punching can continue. Depending on skill, you can ramp up some epic combo strings, and defeating a horde of enemies without being hit once is a great thrill that very few other games can offer.
For added pain, Batman can also use his many gadgets in these battles. A simple Batarang thrown at the right time can quickly change the odds in Batman’s favour; as can a carefully placed explosive charge or a grapple with the Batclaw. Each gadget is activated by hotkeys on the controller, and some are easier to pull off than others. The more offensive ones, like the explosive charge, do take some practice to get right, but the joy of knocking a bunch of enemies to the ground with a single blast is well worth the effort.
Batman won’t spend all his time dishing out pain though. After all, he isn’t called ‘The Worlds Greatest Detective’ for nothing; Arkham City has plenty of mysteries for him to solve. This is where Detective Mode comes in handy. Best described as night-vision infused with augmented reality, Detective Mode is something Grissom and the rest of his CSI goons would happily kill for, as it can help pinpoint important objects in the world and analyse them for clues. This comes very handy for tracing the trajectory of a bullets, analysing bloodstains, chemicals and so on. Often, you are only required to find the clue, analyse it and Batman will do the rest, but it’s still a great change of pace and adds to the sense of being ‘The Worlds Greatest Detective’.
Detective Mode also has a more tactical use as it also allows you to see through walls, pinpoint hidden enemies and mark out important areas like vantage points, air-ducts, weak walls and so on. This becomes especially handy in the game’s many set-pieces where you have to take out a bunch of enemies while remaining hidden. Affectionately dubbed ‘Predator-segments’, these sequences take place in enclosed areas like an abandoned subway-station, a foundry and the top of a very tall tower to name but a few.
Each location has plenty of hiding spots (below ground as well as above), and the trick is to take full advantage of these as you sneak around, trying to take the enemies out one-by-one. Direct confrontation is very rarely an option; especially in the later levels where enemies come equipped with guns, night-vision goggles and even mines. The most rewarding way to play is to use the environment to your advantage, and there are several ways of doing this. You can jump through weak walls and windows to take out enemies in surprise attacks, you can zip down from above and snatch an unsuspecting thug off the ground, or you can crawl through air vents and jump up from behind them.
The various Bat-gadgets play an important role here too. You can use special Batarangs to distract enemies or lure them into an ambush. You can disable their guns without them knowing or place explosive charges at key points and more. The more successful your tactics are, the more nervous and scared the enemies will get. They will cry out in terror, jump at shadows and generally whimper a lot. You can use this to you advantage, and even get them to attack each other if you are sneaky enough.
It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to watch the bad guys descend down a spiral of fear as you slowly but surely work your way through their ranks. That is why is so gratifying to be able to revisit these Predator-segments and re-play them, along with many of the fist-fights, in the special Riddler Challenges.
While not the main villain of the game, The Riddler did play a sinister part in the enjoyment and challenge of Arkham Asylum, and he is back to reprise that role in Arkham City. Scattered throughout the dark world of Arkham City are his trademark green question mark trophies, but to get to them you have to solve a puzzle. These puzzles vary from simply finding the trophies and picking them up, to solving mechanical puzzles where you have to hit switches, often in a specific sequence or in hard-to-reach places. This again require you to put many of your gadgets to good use.
The more puzzles you solve and the more trophies you collect, the more Riddler Challenges you unlock to play outside the main game. Each challenge has a number of specific goals to achieve like scoring a certain amount of points, pulling off a specific move with a Bat-gadget and so on. You can even custom-tailor some of these challenges to increase the difficulty which adds more risk, but also brings greater rewards.
The Riddler has also kidnapped a team of doctors and hidden them around Arkham City, but he only drops clues to their location once you have collected a certain amount of trophies. While not essential to the main storyline, rescuing these hostages gives you an extra incentive to try and solve the Riddler’s riddles, and will keep you busy long after the main story has reached its epic conclusion.
Solving puzzles, beating up bad guys and generally progressing through the game also earns you experience points that can be used to gain access to new special moves, gadgets, abilities and so on. Some upgrades are more useful than others but none of them are wholly redundant, and you can generally feel yourself becoming a leaner and meaner crime-fighter with each upgrade.
The game has plenty of other extra curricular activities on offer too, including virtual ‘training courses’ and a wide range of side-missions. As with the Riddler’s hostages, the side-missions aren’t directly tied into the main plot so you never feel obligated to solve them, but they do add to the context of overall story. More importantly, some of them act more as hints towards a sequel, and if the hints are anything to go by, the (hopefully) inevitable sequel will be a truly awewsome one indeed.
Visions of pain
Arkham City is a brutal and violent place, yet also strangely fascinating, and the graphics effortlessly capture this strange duality. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s more realistic depiction of Batman, developer Rocksteady lean more towards Tim Burton’s gothic vision while still making it their very own. In their world, everything is based on a realistic counterpart but slightly offset by a semi-grotesque twist, which gives the game a unique look that fits the overall Batman mythology perfectly.
From the characters that walk its streets to the pale moonlight that caresses its rooftops, the world of Arkham City is realised with a tremendous attention to detail. The game world itself isn’t especially big in terms of square miles, and can actually be easily traversed in a matter of minutes. However, Arkham City is still a fully realised urban location with sewers, subway tunnels and buildings to enter, and even the remains of a lost city hidden deep beneath it’s streets. Each area has its own unique look that blends effortlessly with the overall aesthetic and the fact that this vision remains constant throughout the game, no matter where your journey takes you, adds to the immersion and the pleasure of simply exploring Arkham City.
Sounds of violence
The ‘woosh’ and ‘crack’of a Batarang hitting its target. The howling wind catching the dark cloth of the cape. The harrowing cries for help of an innocent victim being brutally beaten up. The sound of a booted heel hitting exposed flesh, bones breaking and skulls fracturing, accompanied by the manic laughter of insanity echoing through the desolate streets. Yes, Arkham City sounds phenomenal! The ambience is thick and dark just like it should be, creating the perfect sense of oppression and dread.
Adding to this is the great voice acting by the likes of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker respectively. Hamill is on top form as always, while Conroy seems much more at ease with voicing a game character than he was in Arkham Asylum, where his performance was rather wooden at best.
The quality of the voice acting spills over into the supporting cast as well. As you soar across rooftops and above streets, or sneak through abandoned tunnels and murky factories, you’ll pick up various conversations from the many thugs out to get you. Some may comment on past events in the game while others complain about the situation as a whole. There is even a funny reference to Lost and a sly hint at a potential sequel. It all adds to the context, as well as the sense of Arkham City as a living breathing world in its own right.
City of plenty
Batman has always been the hunter that preys on the wicked from the shadows, and Arkham City gives him plenty of room to do so. The simple but rewarding hand-to-hand combat, the many puzzles to solve, the gadgets, the cape and the sheer joy of being the cause of fear and panic is truly unique and immensely rewarding. Rocksteady clearly know their ‘Batman’, as nothing in the game feels out of place and their enthusiasm for the core material shines through every aspect of Arkham City. The game brilliantly captures the essence of the Dark Knight, while still being accessible to everybody regardless of their experience with the franchise or Batman in general.
There are a few drawbacks though. There is a tendency to get buttons mixed up in the heat of battle and the main storyline is rather short, but none of these subtract from the overall enjoyment. Getting things wrong in combat is often the result of simply getting caught up in the chaos of the moment, and not down to poor design or unresponsive controls. The story, while short, is full of twists and unexpected turns, and the ending itself packs a major and surprisingly emotional punch that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.
Even after you finish the game, there is still plenty of stuff to do. It may not be the ideal place to raise a family, but Arkham City is still the best place for a night out on the town. Especially if you are a billionaire playboy moonlighting as masked crime-fighter, with a gadget-fetish and love of flying rodents.