How do you follow up a game as good as Arkham Asylum?
Batman: Arkham City (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2011 | Developed: Rocksteady | Published: Warner Bros.
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 14 hours
Following the events of the fantastic Arkham Asylum Quincy Sharp, the former warden of the asylum, has ascended to the office of Mayor of Gotham. Once in power he organises the creation of Arkham City, a humongous superprison which encompasses an entire island of Gotham itself. Emptied of civilians and then sealed away behind massive concrete walls lined with armed guards, the entire criminal populations of both the asylum and Blackgate prison are thrown in and left without supervision, free to fight and kill each other with impunity.
Opposing it is no simple task. The compound is under the command of Dr Hugo Strange, a menacing psychiatrist. Under his leadership, those who speak out against Arkham City quickly find themselves incarcerated within it and left without any protection or support against the roving gangs under the control of Gotham’s supervillains. Among that number is Bruce Wayne; when a protest is assaulted by militia, Bruce is captured and brought before Strange who reveals that he knows his secret identity as Batman and cautions him against interfering with the ominous, approaching Protocol Ten.
It wouldn’t be much of a Batman story if it just ended there though. Naturally Batman must contend with his Rogues Gallery as Two-Face, the Penguin, and the Joker have all claimed districts within Arham City and violent turf wars erupt constantly as the villains lord over their own private fiefdoms. While the others are threatening, it is the Joker who captures Batman’s attention and drives much of the plot as rumours abound of him being deathly sick after the events of Arkham Asylum. Sure enough, he sends his goons to round up medics to force them to craft a cure for the illness which plagues him.
In an interesting move, Arkham City doesn’t just feature Batman as a playable protagonist. Intertwined with his story are sequences starring a fully playable Catwoman. Selina, like much of Gotham’s criminal populace, finds herself in Arkham City though in her case the prison’s walls have sprung up around her home. Ever the career thief, Catwoman plans a heist on Hugo Strange’s vault, and naturally she finds herself coming up against the forces of Arkham City’s villains. Her story was originally DLC I believe but subsequent releases, such as the GOTY versions and the Return to Arkham re-release has it packaged in and it seamlessly integrates into the campaign.
Much of Arkham City’s gameplay is an evolution of Asylum’s, and in every respect it is for the better. The trademark freeflow combat has been subtly refined. It is fundamentally the same: Batman’s attacks send him springing around between enemies with marvelously artful movements, enemy attacks can be countered to continue a combo and as the combo count gets higher Batman can unleash special moves. As before, timing your button presses is encouraged over mashing as the combat becomes significantly more fluid if you do.
It is blissfully more generous in the timing though, leading to less times when Batman misses his combo prompts. In a new addition, multiple enemies can be countered at once, so groups are more mobile and active in combat. More of Batman’s gadgets can be quickfired in combat, and Batman also has more melee options in general, including stunning with his cape before unleashing a brutal beatdown upon a hapless goon. New enemy types crop up, forcing Batman to mix up his tactics in fights and appropriately the game awards more experience points for variety in combat.
Predator sequences – the much-loved stealth sections – also return and the practically tangible feeling of ‘being Batman’ is absolutely retained. I feel like they’ve gotten a bit tougher since the first game; fewer locations are framed by gargoyles to perch from, forcing Batman to take to the ground level and use more varied techniques to take on his foes. Enemies bring trickier equipment and tactics in their fight against Batman; some use thermal goggles to detect the hero should he stick to the gargoyles, others lay mines, and some yet still pack signal jammers that screw up Batman’s detective vision and make it difficult to get an instant read on where baddies are patrolling.
Whereas Arkham Asylum favoured a relatively condensed world that focused on exploring the tight and claustrophobic corridors of the asylum, Arkham City brings Batman into an open world. The districts of Arkham City together form a reasonably small open world, particularly by modern standards, but it’s one which is so exceptionally dense that you barely notice or care. Tonnes of elements give knowing nods to all sorts of things from the Batman mythos, from the neon glowing Ace Chemicals billboard to the grimy sign pointing down Crime Alley where Bruce’s parents were killed years ago. Perhaps even more than Arkham Asylum, Arkham City is a love letter to Batman and fans of the franchise should find themselves at a loss for words as they uncover references and secrets all the way through their time with it.
Getting around the city is an absolute joy. Grappling up to ledges and gliding across the map has once again be refined a little from Asylum; aside from anything the gliding is more fun because the game world is bigger, but as an additional aspect to it you can now alternate between performing divebombs and then angling back up to extend your flight. Once you get good at it you can find yourself swooping about all across the city. The grapnel can also be upgraded with a boost augment which allows you to launch yourself into a glide from the grapple maneuver which is marvelous.
One minor complaint I had against Asylum was the lack of any substantial content outside of the main campaign. Sure the Riddler trophies scattered about gave completionists something to do, but there was precious little else. City in contrast offers a series of side missions to take on. Some feel quite straightforward, such as hunting down the remaining canisters of Titan that escaped destruction during Asylum, but others tend to have some kind of unique gimmick to set them apart, such as investigating victims of a rogue sniper which involves tracking bullet trails across the city, or players learning to keep ears pricked for any telltale ringing payphones that give Batman another chance to trace the location of the deranged serial killer Zsasz. A personal favourite of mine is the case of the Identity Killer, whose victims lie waiting in the snow and slums for Batman to discover, but are completely unmarked on the map so only careful players will stumble upon them.
Riddler trophies do return however. This time there’s over 400 of the damn things – whereas the vast majority in Asylum were simply secreted around the grounds, this time they are mainly locked behind puzzles that require Batman to use his vast array of gadgets to uncover. They’re tied into a series of missions which unlock as you gather set amounts of them as this time the Riddler has captured some unlucky sods and has them in deathtraps waiting for Batman to rescue them. I do appreciate the addition of these missions which break up the trophy collecting but the sheer amount of things to hoover up makes it far more daunting a prospect to engage with and is presumably mainly for completionists to bother with.
As before, almost any action garners you experience which can be used to unlock upgrades. I freely admit this might sound like a very particular and slightly nerdy thing to appreciate, but these are presented in a much better way than in Asylum as City uses separate sub-menus for combat skills, predator skills, gadgets, and the batsuit to divvy up the skills into more manageable chunks. In fact, the presentation in general is much cleaner and more readable than in Asylum. The better presentation goes hand-in-hand with improved graphics, and City sure looks good. Gotham here draws heavily from multiple depictions of the city across the years; from the smoky slums and imposing Gothic architecture of Tim Burton’s Batman to the harsh neon of the Joel Schumacher movies. More than anything it resembles Batman: The Animated Series though, embodying Gotham as a kind of timeless city locked between cold modernity and grand Art Deco style where garish signs flicker and fizz from above in the rain and snow but on the streets the buildings rise up and loom over in claustrophobic excellence.
Character models are also excellent. Each faction has clearly defined elements that make them instantly recognisable – I’m a big fan of the warped masks that members of Two-Face’s gang wear, with mouths melted into twisted sneers. The designs for the major characters wear their influences on their sleeves but are still clearly unique enough to give the Arkham-verse its own sense of identity, which is compounded by the choice in voice actors – obviously Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker are irreplaceable, and the latter gives what might be one of the best Joker performances of his career.
My biggest personal gripe with City is a weird and ephemeral one. There is a notable change in atmosphere from Asylum. A huge part of why I love this game’s predecessor is the inimitable and exquisite sense of foreboding and uneasiness that the asylum had and how vulnerable it could make Batman feel but City however has none of that. What it seems to aim to do instead is capture the feel of The Animated Series in that it’s more bombastic and adventurous in style. Arkham City’s Batman might find himself in peril but never really feels like he isn’t in control; there are no major sequences like the Scarecrow’s in Aslyum to prey on Batman’s fear or weaknesses, despite the plethora of villains available here to try. However, it would be wrong to read anything too negative into that; it’s simply a different tone on offer here.
Much like Asylum, it’s hard to overstate how good Arkham City is. These days it remains considered among the best superhero games of all time and with good reason; in many respects it is a perfect sequel given that it improves all of the mechanics of the first game and adds yet more into it for us to engage with. The change in tone is a shame, but that doesn’t discount just how great City feels to play and it absolutely deserves to share Asylum’s position at the peak of this franchise’s achievements
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.