Rocksteady Games really enjoyed something of a Cinderella Story with their 2009 sleeper smash-hit Batman: Arkham Asylum. Coming out of nowhere they all but revolutionized the idea of how brand name titles should be treated – intelligently and with thought, who knew?! – and delivered one of the most intricate and involving action-adventure games in recent years. Saddled with the weight of expectation that such success inevitably brings, the big question was could they repeat the trick? The answer is, handily. Batman: Arkham City takes everything that worked so well with Asylum and makes it better, refining the control system down to a fine art in the process, once again setting the benchmark for the competition.
In something of a nod to the John Carpenter classic Escape From New York, this free-roaming adventure has the Dark Knight gliding, grappling, and ass-kicking his way across a vast, city-size penitentiary. Run by the supremely villainous Hugo Strange – whose hidden agenda Batman must decipher – this sealed off enclosure now houses the ultra violent inmates and the criminally insane formerly of the asylum. Offering a largely “go anywhere” environment this vastly enhanced play area (five times larger than Arkham Asylum) really liberates players to tackle the game in a multitude of ways.
With a tightly plotted central storyline, augmented by numerous vast and involving side-missions – not to mention four hundred (!) Riddler Trophys to find – there is enough here to keep a player coming back time and again. Special downloadable content, available for free with new copies or online for cost with pre-owned, offer the opportunity to integrate Catwoman as a playable character into the game seamlessly, without leaving noticeable plot holes for those who decide against it.
Having veteran comic book author Paul Dini once again handle the scripting was a wise move, as was splashing out for voice acting talent the likes of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy to again reprise their roles as Joker and BruceWayne/Batman, respectively. But beyond such common sense decisions Rocksteady deserve special praise for their outside-the-box thinking that preserves the integrity of this dark and demented universe while managing to come up with new and exciting ways to truly inhabit the character.
These guys just really seem to get what it means to be Batman, who is unique within the superhero world in that he doesn’t actually have any real powers to speak of. Tactics, training, and gadgets are his arsenal. Flesh that bleeds and bones and ache and break are his weakness. With that in mind, the developers have crafted an experience where the decisions you make and the tactics you employ really do matter, which is so rarely the case with this genre and it’s many run-and-gun clones. Walking up to a gang of goons armed with automatic weapons is every bit as foolish as it sounds and will only get you killed. You must practice your stealth, utilize your vast array of weaponry, and pick your moment and method of attack to progress.
That’s not to say that Batman: Arkham City is particularly difficult to get to grips with, even for those who might not have played Arkham Asylum. A simple combat system of attack, counter, and evade – with one button for each – augmented by smoke bombs, grappling hooks, and various ranged weaponry, offers players a multitude of attack options that are easy to pick up yet immensely satisfying to master over time. Minor quibbles occasionally pop up in that the arbitrary nature of the camera angles during combat – notably finishing moves – once again causes frustration, especially considering just how many high-rise buildings comprise the playing environment. Also the sheer number of characters involved – ostensibly the entire ensemble villainy of the Batman universe – mean that more than a few get lost in the crowd and come across like cameos as opposed to fully fleshed out players with a definitive role to fulfill within the story.
That said, the sheer joy at having finally mastered a new attack combo, solving one of the may tricky puzzles the game puts in front of you, or just laying waste to an ally full of hapless goons with the grace and beauty of a gymnast and the vicious, vengeful fury of an angry god will more than compensate for what are very minor flaws in an otherwise near-flawless gaming experience.