October 22, 2011 by Paul Curtin
Breaking the cycle of bad video games based on films and comics, Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was loved universally by both critics and fans alike. Released the same year as Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel in 2009, Arkham Asylum surprisingly had no tie-ins with The Dark Knight and was a standalone story in the Batman franchise.
Naturally, with the success of Arkham Aslyum, Rocksteady is back with the Caped Crusader’s latest adventure, Batman: Arkham City, an open world take on the Arkham series that’s worthy of challenging Nolan’s films to see who the real Batman truly is.
Arkham City begins after the events of the first game; Arkham Asylum has since been shut down and all the biggest and baddest villains have been transported to Arkham’s city, where they’re policed by Dr. Hugo Strange and his Tyger Security forces. Playing Arkham Asylum before taking on the City isn’t required, but it is strongly suggested because this sequel isn’t about learning how to become Batman and quickly throws you right into the chaotic city with almost no training. Right from the start during one of the most memorable intro scenes of any video game or movie, you’ll take control of Bruce Wayne getting his ass kicked and must use your skills as Batman to make it in the mean streets of Arkham amongst those who you’ve put there.
The core gameplay elements from Asylum are all back and almost completely untouched, and that’s with good reason because everything in the previous game worked perfectly and there was no need for a change. There isn’t much in terms of new gadgets, but the gadgets themselves have become useful in more ways than in the previous game due to Arkham City‘s much larger open world environment. Although the city isn’t on the scale of a Grand Theft Auto and lacks streets filled with crowds of people and automobiles, the city feels just as alive, if not even more, as in GTA due to the high level of detail put into its design and the unique voice acting from thugs who occupy each street corner and building. Each thug group’s in-depth conversations is relevant to the current plot taking place in the game and helps create an amazing sense of realism by bringing the city to life.
Like Arkham Asylum, you’ll have the choice to not attack your foes immediately and instead stay perched high up out of sight on vantage points and use detective mode to see through walls in order to observe your enemies and decide how to tackle each different situation. Whether you want to run into a group of thugs and fight them head on or stay hidden on top vantage points or in vents taking them out one by one with stealth attacks, the choice is yours. What’s great is either way is so enjoyable that you’ll find yourself constantly switching between both options on the fly because of how dynamic and intelligent the enemies are and never being disappointed with the result as you outsmart your enemies as the game’s epic musical score ramps up in the background.
While a lot of levels start off by suggesting more stealthy Splinter Cell-style routes via ceiling ledges, floor grates, and wall vents, the game’s combat system that’s been brought over from the original is always available and provides for one of the simplest, yet rewarding, experiences in all of gaming and now allows hand-to-hand combat to be mixed with gadgets to create a truly unique fighting experience. If you have yet to see the melee combat system in action, I highly suggest checking out some videos on YouTube and watching as Batman transitions from enemy to enemy bashing skulls and breaking bones in a free-flowing pattern of combos that is a thing of beauty and accomplished by the player really only pushing two buttons to punch and counter. There’s a whole page of more advanced combo moves that can be unlocked by leveling up and add to the combat, but just mashing the attack button to hit enemies and the counter button to reverse their attacks is so much fun that any gamer no matter what their skill level can enjoy sporadically hitting buttons and watching the game do all the heavy lifting.
Gadgets like the Cyptographic Sequencer hacking device have also been slightly modified to fit the new open world setting and can now be used to scan radio waves to find new side missions scattered throughout the city in addition to cracking door security codes and gaining access to the newly hardened Riddler challenge trophies. Like the combat system, Batman’s suit allows players to effortlessly glide through the skies and use the Batclaw grapple hook to swing from building to building quickly traversing the vast cityscape — it’s quite amazing how fluid the whole system works and in the moment you’ll truly feel like you are Batman, not just playing vicariously through a character in a game. And you’ll need to keep busting out that Cyptographic Sequencer because there are tons of side-quests and Riddler trophies that are to be found in Arkham that will keep you busy for weeks trying to solve — that is, if you don’t go onto YouTube and search for the quick solution.
If the open world gameplay wasn’t enough content to justify purchasing the game, like Arkham Asylum, there are additional challenge maps available via the “Riddler’s Revenge” mode. The challenge maps allow players to use either Batman or Catwoman to fight their way through a brutal gauntlet of combat and stealth-based predator challenges. Each challenge map has scores that a player must achieve: the higher the score, the higher the amount of combos and attacks a player must string together in order to achieve. There’s even an option to play the challenges in ranked modes and see how you stack up against other players on the global leaderboards.
Arkham City‘s only real problem is the manner in which its story unfolds in an open-world setting. Like I had feared, the problem isn’t that there isn’t enough content, it’s that the amount of content isn’t properly arranged throughout the story with too many villains and not enough time. The story is not anywhere near as bad as movies like Spider-Man 3 and Iron Man 2, but it’s also not as well contrived as Nolan’s Dark Knight. Arkham City‘s story starts off as good as a video game gets by introducing tons of intriguing characters and side missions, but then one by one, characters and sub-plots disappear as quickly as they’re introduced and can never be heard from again unless you find and complete the side missions that they’re a part of before the main story’s time runs out.
Although the main characters fit perfectly into the story and are flawlessly played by legendary voice actors like Mark Hamill (The Joker) and Nolan North (Penguin), there are many sub-plots that can easily be missed that involve key characters who deserved more time like Calendar Man, Bane, Killer Croc, Riddler, Zsasz, Mad Hatter, Deadshot, and Azrael. Even if you take on some of the villain side missions and are working on them throughout the game, the game can go into its final mission without warning before you complete all the side missions, and you’ll have to start a brand new game all over just to find out what you missed. It’s a good way to make the game replayable, but it hurts your first impression of the story, especially if you don’t have time to jump into a second playthrough right away.
What’s worse is how the game handles Catwoman, who shows up at the very start and is a playable character with her own cutscenes throughout the game. Catwoman is a great addition and adds to the compelling story; however, if you don’t own a full copy of the game and play without purchasing the $9.99 Catwoman content, you won’t see her cutscenes throughout the game or be able to play her missions, and when she shows up randomly again at the end you’ll be wondering where she’s been for the entire game. There are also cameos by characters like Two-Face and Robin who show up once and are never heard from again. It seems like Rocksteady was more focused on setting up DLC and a potential third game by just introducing a lot of characters quickly and teasing them as part of something bigger for the future.
Nevertheless, almost everything about Arkham City is better than its predecessor with the exception of its less linear story that is traded off for a true open world experience. Even with missing a ton of the story on my first playthough, I still loved every minute of Arkham City from beginning to end and can’t wait to start a new game to discover everything I missed the first time around and take on all of the difficult Riddler trophy challenges. Whether you’re a fan of Batman or not, Arkham City is sure to win you over by offering the ultimate Batman experience that’s on par with Christopher Nolan’s films and one of the only times in life you’ll be able to shout “I’m Batman!” and it actually be true. Batman: Arkham City gets 4.5 out of 5 stars (Amazing/Near-Perfect).
- Compelling story with perfect voice-acting that anybody can enjoy
- One of the best open world games ever with plenty to do
- Updated visuals make Arkham‘s art style look better than ever
- Same simple, fluid combat system from the first game that never gets old
- Amazing musical score that makes gameplay feel even more epic
- Tons of characters and story can be missed by not doing side missions
- Catwoman gameplay and cutscenes require new game code or $9.99 purchase
- Slow-motion final blow combat animation is still a bit wonky like the original