Batman: Arkham City is many things. It’s a greatly-improved sequel to the multi-award-winning Arkham Asylum. It’s a playable season of The Animated Series. It’s wish fulfillment of the highest order. But most of all, it’s just a friggin’ awesome game.
Admit it. As a kid, you wanted to be Batman. You wanted to don a scary costume, grapple between rooftops, survey your city, locate crimes in progress, and then stalk and dispense terrifying (but non-lethal) justice to your enemies before ninja-ing your way out of there. While Asylum succeeded at making you feel like Batman, City makes you feel like the Dark Knight on his home turf. Example: I’m gliding around the city scanning for activity of the ‘criminal scum’ variety. I notice that on the roof of the building beside me resides an informant for the Riddler. I need to interrogate him. The problem? He’s flanked by about a dozen guys with guns, so I shoot myself up to the top of the billboard in the middle. I pick a target, and swoop in behind him. However, as I’m about to go for the silent takedown, he rounds a corner where two more wait. Batman can’t take many bullets, so I double back to see another goon walking toward me. He’ll alert everyone if he sees me, so with deft rolling and climbing, I get to a better tactical position. This time, the only guy in sight is the informant. I walk over to him and casually dangle him by his leg over the edge of the rooftop. I get the information I need, string him up, and am off the building before anyone else even knows I’m there.
That is Batman.
Technically, it’s not completely accurate to say you’re diving and swinging around ‘Gotham City’ in this game, which is set six months after the events of Asylum. Former warden Quincy Sharp has been elected mayor, emptied the criminals of Arkham Asylum into a portion of Gotham now christened ‘Arkham City’, built a giant wall, and decreed just one rule: escape attempts equal death. Three of Batman’s most popular foes — Joker, Two-Face, and Penguin — are in the midst of a gang war, trying to take control of the territory for themselves. The facility is overseen by Hugo Strange, who has a vested interest not only in this fighting but in the presence of Batman himself, all of which is tied to his plans for something called Protocol Ten. I’ll leave the exposition for your personal playthrough, but suffice it to say you run into a who’s who of bat-villains, and the story is well-developed and takes some unbelievable turns.
While you don’t get to explore all of Gotham, you’ll certainly feel like you can. Pretty much every significant series location and character is here somewhere. From Crime Alley, where Batman’s parents were gunned down, to a fully-navigable version of Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge, this game is fan service incarnate. Think of any classic Batman character and they’re most likely referenced at some point. From rescuing Vicki Vale to going mano-a-mano with Mr. Freeze, you’ll really feel like you’ve been inserted into Batman’s world.
But enough about the world you play in — what about Batman himself? There are three aspects of Batman that, in tandem, create the beloved brooding badass we all hold so dear: his fighting skills, his stealth prowess, and his keen mind. The FreeFlow melee combat system returns from Arkham Asylumin expanded form. One button is for punching, one for reversals, one for stunning enemies with your cape, and one for evading. This system is simple to learn, but difficult to master. It’s easy to run up and just punch two guys. However, when you have to manage twelve of them — some wielding knives and mallets, holding a riot shield or wearing body armor — staying alive becomes much more complicated. You’ll typically run up, punch a guy, reverse an attack into one’s face, chuck a batarang to make another thug drop the concrete block he was about to throw, and continue rhythmically flipping between attacking and defending until everyone but you is on the ground. The new game ups the ante by dramatically increasing how many enemies you can fight at once, letting Batman use all his gadgets in battle, introducing new enemies that require specific strategies to defeat, and even letting you reverse the attacks of multiple foes at a time.
That’s all well and good for in-your-face brawls, but your tactics must change when enemies have projectile weapons. Engaging them head-on will quickly lead to Bats’ death, so you’ll have to go into Predator mode, stalking them and striking fear into their hearts. The goal is to isolate enemies so you can take them out individually, accomplished via judicious use of shadows, overhead gargoyles, air ducts, and Mr. Wayne’s handy gadgets. I love the disruptor, which remotely disables an enemy’s weapon. Use it, then jump down in front of him and watch his cockiness turn to terror as his gun refuses to fire. It’s a beautiful thing.
Rocksteady heeded a common complaint about the first game here. In Arkham Asylum, Batman had a Detective Vision viewing mode that gave him such an advantage there was little reason to ever turn it off. He could see enemies through walls, and analyze just about the entire situation from this mode, making the game seem overly easy for some. In Arkham City, he can still see the enemies through walls, but all other indicators, such as objective locations, are gone when Detective Mode is active. This makes the game more balanced, and much easier to appreciate the stunning graphics.
The one part of Batman’s character that wasn’t really nailed in Asylum is his deductive skills. Examining a crime scene typically meant scanning for a piece of evidence, then following a trail that it magically created. While you do that a couple times here, you’ll also be analyzing bullet trajectories and searching the city for equipment used by perpetrators. You know, the kind of thing you’d expect the ‘world’s greatest detective’ to do.
The other complaint often leveled at Asylum centered on the confrontations with Batman’s trademark villains. They all felt too ‘video gamey’ and out of sync with the otherwise perfectly tuned Batman environment. Wanna beat Bane, the guy smart enough to break Batman’s back in the comics? Dodge his charges, then throw Batarangs at him. How about the Joker, Batman’s nemesis whose strength is alternately his planning and his random chaos? Turn him into Hulk-clown and have a fistfight with him. I promise you that the Joker encounter in this game makes much more sense, and is much more in line with his character. Don’t even get me started on the incredible fight with Mr. Freeze. Without giving much away, he’s not the one being stalked in this battle — you are.
This game is just nuts when it comes to longevity. First, you have to consider that the main quest took me a little over 20 hours to beat (granted, on Hard difficulty), and at that time the game said it was about 30% complete. I had finished very few sidequests, which have their own plots worthy of the animated series, and mostly feature villains not seen in the main campaign. The most prominent of these is the Riddler, who has left over four hundred challenges around the city. Some are trophies which require reflexes and logical reasoning to acquire. Others give you a riddle and ask you to scan the object it refers to. Don’t worry if you can’t find them all, as interrogating his aforementioned green-tinged informants will yield the location of a few riddles. You’ll want to get them, too, if you want to find and rescue the hostages Riddler has placed in Saw-like traps throughout the prison.
Even when you’ve found everything in the main campaign, you’re not done. Like in the original, there are unlockable challenge rooms that task you with either getting high scores in fistfights or testing your stealth skills with Predator missions. The scores for these are uploaded online where you can see how you compare on the leaderboards. The challenges can also be strung together into light campaigns of their own, with modifiers that make each round easier or harder. Beating the story campaign also opens up New Game Plus mode, which lets you carry over your upgrades but makes enemies significantly more challenging. If that wasn’t enough, if you buy a new copy of the game, you get a code to download Catwoman, who has her own small story missions and play style, her own Riddler trophies, and access to the same Challenges as Batman. Heck, she even has my second-favourite boss fight in the game. All told, it is easy to get at least 50 hours out of Arkham City.
I honestly don’t know how they pulled off the amazing graphics in this game. Despite the huge increase in scope (the game world is reportedly five times the size of Asylum’s), the characters actually look more detailed than before. Kudos to Batman’s character model especially — his rubbery cape gets all torn up and his jaw completely bloody as this night from hell rages on. The Arkham City prison is just as gothic and foreboding as it should be. The little details hammer it home, such as how water kicks up beneath you when gliding just above a filthy river. All of this attention to detail comes along with an increased enemy count, no visible aliasing, and a buttery smooth framerate. The only real graphical hitches are that enemies sometimes clip through objects in the environment, and the fact that facial expressions don't convey much emotion. That second one can be somewhat excused, though, since everyone is usually ticked off (besides the always-jolly Joker).
The voice acting is spectacular. At this point, it should be illegal for Kevin Conroy not to voice Batman, as he is so perfect for the controlled rage the character requires. Same goes for Mark Hamill’s Joker — though his role isn’t as prominent this time, he’s still the perfect maniacal foil to Batman, and Hamill nails the deranged twang in his voice. As for newcomers… let’s just say this game does no favours to people who think Nolan North shouldn’t be in every video game. Seriously, his Penguin is unexpected but fantastic. The game’s music accentuates the dark and foreboding undertones, and the sound effects are such that I cringed often as Batman audibly snapped an arm.
And now for the awkward part. As great as Arkham City is, it’s not perfect (as no game ever will be). There are little niggling problems that keep it from being flawless. First, there’s a problem with the way Catwoman was integrated. If you don’t download her, the story actually changes slightly, meaning that anyone who rents or borrows this game, uses it on a different console, or doesn’t have an Internet connection will literally be getting a different story — not cool. In addition, while the camera usually gives you a good view of the action, it can get a little wonky once in a while, which can occasionally mess up your combo or make you take a hit. Also, every once in a while, the pace slows down and Arkham City reminds you that it is, in fact, a video game. It’s rare, but there are a couple of missions that boil down to ‘run around the room and scan x number of items so the door will open.’ These slight flaws don’t do too much harm to the experience, but they stick out like a sore thumb when every other aspect of the game’s design is so well crafted.
So, essentially, this is the superhero game that every gamer should own. The story, combat, and stealth sequences make this one of the most tightly-honed games in years, whether you’re a Batman fan or not. Layer in the detective work, the masterfully-realized open world, the dozen-plus classic villains, the stellar production values, and the superb replay value, and you’ve got a frontrunner for Game of the Year right here. Batman: Arkham City is so good at what it does that it almost edges past being a video game toward simply being called a Batman simulator. Arkham Asylum may have been the Batman game we deserved, but Arkham City is the one you need right now.