20th October 2011 - Two years ago, Rocksteady Studios made a huge splash with their first project, Batman Arkham Asylum, a game that was less an Action-Adventure Stealth game as much as it was a Batman Simulator. It was groundbreaking, entertaining, and one of the best games of 2009. Now, with some additional freedom, not to mention money, Rocksteady has released a sequel, Batman Arkham City, in an attempt to refine and expand the Batman experience. But does the game meet or even surpass the original, or is this a thinly veiled cash-grab?
The story of Arkham City is that Professor Hugo Strange has managed to convince the people of Gotham to wall off a large part of their city and turn it into a mega-prison to house everyone from Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison, with himself as the warden. Among those in the asylum are Harvey Two-Face, The Penguin, a supposedly dying Joker, and Batman, the latter of whom is attempting to find out Professor Strange's master plan.
Gameplay is, for Arkham Asylum veterans, a more streamlined version of the original controls. The Freeflow combat is back in its simple elegance, now able to bring more gadgets into its combos, the Invisible Predator stealth is back, now with smoke pellets and the ability to take down two thugs at once, and Detective Mode is back, this time with an Augmented Reality interface to replace the various color filters from the last game.
What has changed since the original game is the world map. Arkham City is huge, reported to be five times as large as the Arkham Asylum game map, and with that extra size comes a few pleasant additions as well as problems. First, it must be said that if Arkham Asylum was considered stuffed with various shout-outs to Batman's seventy-year old comic book history, Arkham City by comparison has references leaking right out of the game box. Everything from the buildings to the Side Quests are full of obscure Batman villains, characters, and even entire story arcs. As awesome as it is for Rocksteady to show Batfans some love, this set up causes a lack of focus when it comes to the story. The main story is well told with a lot of variety to keep players entertained, but the degree and depth of Side Quests throughout Arkham City can get so absorbing that it can lead to forgetting the main plot. An example is a point in my playthrough where the plot made it critical that I find Mr. Freeze as soon as possible, but then I started finding Riddler Trophies and Challenges. Next thing I know, three hours had passed and I was solving SAW-esque puzzles to save hostages held by The Riddler and completely forgot about the main story almost entirely. For a sandbox game, this is gameplay heaven, but for a well-composed narrative, this can be disorienting.
Taking the good with the bad, there's a new movement system for navigating the bigger landscape. Batman can now glide, dive bomb and cable swing anywhere and everywhere he pleases in Arkham City. These movement controls, a lot like the combat and stealth, is fun on its own and helps make travel from place to place an adventure in its own right. However, there are moments the movement can feel obtuse as opposed to free, such as trying to aim your grapnel gun to a ledge and instead get it hooked to a water tower on the other side of the street.
Touching very lightly on the boss fights, any more discussion than the basic would invoke spoilers, it can be said without exaggeration that they are a major improvement over Arkham Asylum's bosses. Arkham Asylum's bosses, with rare exceptions, felt like reskinned versions of the same character, and were all fought in the same way. Arkham City, by comparison, has boss fights for stealth, multi-phased single opponent combat, multiple opponent combat, etc.
Graphically speaking, Arkham City isn't perfect, but reliable. There are some texture popping when it comes to some areas, loading screens hang around a little too long after a mission failure, and some of the character models appear static and uncanny. However, the major character models are stunning, from Batman's determined scowl to The Joker's devilish grin, and the loading screens never interfere with gameplay. Atmosphere wise, Arkham City is practically the same from Arkham Asylum in terms of appearance, but clashes with the tone of the story in some areas. The tone and aesthetic of Arkham Asylum worked so well because they were both aiming to create a brooding, dark atmosphere in the same vein as Christopher Nolan's Batman films. Now, in Arkham City, that exact same graphical aesthetic is working with a tone that is looking at the more fantastic elements of the Batman universe, but not to the extent of whipping out the Bat Anti-Shark Spray. This isn't a bad thing, as a matter of fact, it works, but it may disarm some people.
The voice acting in Arkham City is spot on. Kevin Conroy is great as Batman, Mark Hamill is still able to voice The Joker with the same maniacal glee as he did back in the 1990's, Tara Strong puts in plenty of effort as Harley Quinn but fans will notice it isn't the same as mainstay, Arleen Sorkin, and the supporting cast also turns in solid work. The musical score is epic, sweeping, and atmospheric, and the sound of someone's jaw breaking is presented beautifully.
Batman Arkham City is something I wish to see more of: a straight-faced, all-in return to single-player focused gameplay. A main story campaign that ranges between 10-12 hours, expanding to over 30 if all side quests are completed and all collectibles are obtained. All of this, plus an engaging New Game Plus mode, a handful of stealth and combat challenge maps, along with special Riddler Campaign Challenges, gives Arkham City a very long shelf life and plenty of bang for your buck.
Batman Arkham City is the best kind of sequel there is. The core gameplay has been improved, what didn't work previously has been fixed, and the stakes have escalated accordingly. Story focus aside, Rocksteady couldn't have put together a better game.
+ Improved Stealth and Combat Gameplay
+ Large, Well-Designed Sandbox
+ Challenging Engaging Boss Fights
+ Great Voice Acting
- Side Quests Diluting Story Pacing
- Travel Controls are Prone to Feeling Rigid
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey