Review by sixgears2

"Arkham City is another solid effort by Rocksteady, but it can't quite live to Arkham Asylum."

There's been a lot of chatter about Batman: Arkham City lately. Most of it is deserved, but is it the greatest comic book game ever made? More importantly, is it better than Arkham Asylum? I'd have to say no on both accounts. Arkham Asylum was a delicately paced, intricately designed adventure that led players through an environment that was both compelling and beautifully structured. Arkham City is more of a brute. It gives you a small sandbox to splash around in, but it never manages to bring that sandbox or its activities to life outside of the main story line. Admittedly, the graphics and sound are fantastic, Batman is captured perfectly and many of the villains are done exceptionally well—probably enough to satisfy most players— but it just never manages to feel as organic or interesting as Arkham Asylum did. Rocksteady has once again given us a fantastic Batman game, but I think they may have overreached and tried for too much too soon. Perhaps the next Batman project will give us all of Gotham to play in and perhaps that will win me over to the open-worlds-are-always-better camp, but for now I can't help but long for the tighter, neater, and generally more entertaining design found in Arkham Asylum.

The story of Arkham City picks up some time after the events of Arkham Asylum. For reasons that eventually become clear—and which won't be spoiled here, so relax—Dr. Hugo Strange has managed to convince the leaders of Gotham to transfer all of the criminals and psychopaths from both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison to a quarantined section of the city called… well, Arkham City. Here the criminals are turned loose to run the streets as they please. Mercenaries from a private military company known as Tyger Security maintain the quarantine and patrol the skies in attack helicopters. Obviously, none of this seems like a terribly great idea, and since Batman would be unable to adequately convince Gotham's politicians of this—presumably because nobody would want to have a serious over-the-table conversation with a 250 pound man dressed as a bat—our hero has been forced to leverage his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, to halt the project. Of course, Dr. Strange doesn't like this much and, having somehow managed to become the most powerful man in Gotham, has Wayne arrested and thrown into Arkham City to die.

As one might expect, it isn't long before Bruce Wayne grows tired of embarrassing hardened criminals in combat while wearing a $10,000 suit and dons his even more expensive Caped Crusader outfit. Batman then charges off to save Catwoman from Two Face and Arkham City is off to a running start. The vast majority of the story from this point on revolves around a gang war being waged by the Dark Knight's most fabled enemies and their seemingly endless hordes of henchmen. As usual, the Joker plays an especially pivotal role in the game, but with one added wrinkle: he's extremely sick and possibly dying. The clown's illness eventually becomes the crux of the story, but for most of the game's opening hours Batman focuses on defeating a massive variety of enemies in revoltingly violent (but non-lethal) ways. The story is, for the most part, interesting and compelling enough to drive players forward and I found myself actually wanting to see what happened next rather than simply going through the motions. There is a twist at the end that most thoughtful players will have foreseen by the game's midway point, but for the most part everything is pretty straightforwardly Batman—a good thing in a game meant to stand as an alter to his character.

Arkham City is not without its problems in the setting and story departments, however. First and foremost is the concept of Arkham City itself. Even though the situation is (kind of) explained by the game's later events, I couldn't help but feeling that the entire thing is a bit contrived. It's as if Rocksteady simply couldn't come up with a way to get all of these characters together in one place and at one time and decided to simply make up a thinly justified box in which to place them and tell a story. The setting may be larger and less linear than Arkham Asylum, but I honestly found it less compelling as a place. There's little character to be found in Arkham City itself; it's wholly dependent on those who populate it to lend it any significance. The best open world games know that the world itself should feel alive and unique, but Arkham City never manages to feel like anything more than a stage for Batman and his fellow performers. Even worse, the rest of Gotham City looms over the relatively tiny Arkham City as if to taunt the player. The city's skyscrapers and beautiful bright lights serve as a constant reminder that you'll never be allowed to explore them. Perhaps current technology won't allow for all of Gotham to be open to players, but it's hard not to feel a little frustrated as you leap off a 7 story apartment building and wonder what it would be like to do the same off of that towering hundred story building sitting forever just out of your reach.

I also think Rocksteady has gone and committed one of my least favorite game design sins: using the Kitchen Sink Strategy. There are very nearly too many characters in Arkham City for the story to remain sensible if they were all considered at every point, and because of this many of them simply disappear for long periods of time only to crop back up when it becomes convenient. Others—the Mad Hatter being perhaps the best example—seem to have been placed in the game for no apparent reason. Their presence adds nothing to the experience and they feel like little more than irritatingly brief, shallow cameos that allow Rocksteady to shout “Yes! We know about this obscure Batman character!” All of these characters can sometimes make the game feel a little lopsided and improperly paced since they frequently force you onto side routes that postpone your progression in the actual story. Some storylines are paused or put on hold for hours at a time while you complete a more pressing one, and by the time you come back to them much of their impact has been lost. Despite these complaints, however, Arkham City's story kept me interested if not entirely hooked for the duration of the game, and it does effectively capture the spirit of most characters to a degree that I've never seen in another comic-based game, so I have to say it is a success overall.

As far as gameplay goes, anyone who played Arkham Asylum will feel instantly at home. Most of the series' controls remain largely unchanged—a good thing considering how tightly Arkham Asylum handled. There is still a subtle case of A/X-itis since a single button is used to do everything from sprinting to climbing to jumping, but for the most part Batman handles well enough and the controls feel good. Outside of the basic controls, however, much has changed. The number of gadgets that the Dark Knight has access to has increased exponentially. All of the old favorites make a return, of course, but now Batman must also make use of a generator-starting electric rifle, a jamming device, and several other interesting gizmos if he wants to survive. Most of these gadgets are implemented relatively well and have interesting applications, but I did catch myself feeling a bit irritated by their sheer number towards the end of the game when I had everything unlocked. Every type of situation calls for a specific gadget, but by the time you've got nearly a dozen of them to choose from it can become difficult to remember which one you're supposed to be using in each type of scenario. Several times I wandered confusedly around an area for several minutes before realizing that I did have a gadget for that locked door down the hallway after all. The situation isn't helped by a cumbersome gadget selection mechanic that places every single gadget onto the D-Pad, including the irritatingly hard to press in-between directional buttons. Having to memorize how many times to tap up, down, over, or diagonal to access any given gizmo was an absolute chore, and the failure of this control scheme stands out especially sharply against the backdrop of the rest of Arkham City's tight handling.

Combat also remains mostly identical to Arkham Asylum's fighting system. The goal is still to rack up the highest combo score possible in order to gain access to special moves and get more XP, but there have been a few subtle but important changes made. Batman can now counter up to three attacking enemies at once by quickly tapping the counter button the appropriate number of times. This leads to some satisfyingly bad ass animations that also alleviate one of the most frustrating problems with Arkham Asylymm's combat: not being able to properly defend yourself while surrounded. Nearly all of the gadgets I mentioned above have been added to the fold as well, so you now have more options than ever to keep that combo alive and well. Want to cape stun a thug, batarang his buddy in the face, shoot his other buddy in the chest with an electric bolt, and then break both his leader's legs? Go right ahead. The combat flows beautifully, and I am pleased to say that Rocksteady has managed to improve upon what I already considered to be one of the most fluid and satisfying combat systems in gaming . Nothing makes you feel quite as cool as single handedly bringing down 25 criminals in a single, well-animated flurry of varied and spectacular violence, and Arkham City recognizes that fact in a beautiful way. Even better, the awesome Predator sections from Arkham Asylum also make a return, so your massive brawls are nicely broken up by immensely satisfying if slightly contrived (they really don't see me here?) stealth gameplay.

There are plenty of opportunities to use that fancy violence as you grapple and glide through Arkham City, but don't think that means that you're going to have a lot to do. The game's main story line is only around a dozen hours long and although there are a handful of side quests thrown in for good measure, most of Arkham City's extracurricular activities take the form of hunt and fetch quests or thinly veiled racing events. For instance, one side quest involves Batman answering mysterious pay phone calls from notorious serial killer Victor Zsasz. Once he's answered, the Bat must race across the city to another ringing phone before time runs out. Once he arrives, he's forced to play a simple call tracing mini-game as Zsasz rambles on about cutting people. The mini-game seems to serve no purpose other than to prevent the player from having to simply stare at a pay phone for a full minute as Zsasz speaks and the point-to-point racing aspect is as unexciting as it's ever been. Many of Arkham City's side quests resemble this one in that most of them seem relatively uninspired. They are bolstered by the fact that they happen to be occurring in a somewhat interesting contex, but sooner or later the smoke and mirrors wear off and you realize that you're simply going through the same motions you've done a million times before in other games.

It would be wrong of me not to mention the Riddler challenges, as well. As in Arkham Asylum, Edward Nigma has placed “clever” puzzles around the game world for the Dark Knight to solve. Of course, none of these puzzles are particularly clever and most of them come down to simply having the right gadget in your inventory, but they tend to be entertaining anyway. There are a lot of them as well, so if you're into puzzles you'll have your work cut out for you. I personally lost interest in the challenges after a couple dozen of them, and since I had no incentive to care about the hostage story used to frame the slightly ludicrous number of hidden trophies featured in Arkham City, I never completed anywhere near all of them. They are enjoyable for a while, but much like the game's side quests they never seem to become anything very special or memorable.

How much enjoyment you'll get out of Arkham City depends on three things: how much you love Batman, how much time you're willing to spend exploring every nook and cranny of the admittedly well done main story, and how interested you are in lackluster cameo side quests and puzzle solving. There are a few sequences thrown in that allow you to play as Catwoman if you purchased the game, but outside of some slick animations these segments aren't particularly relevant or fun. There is a challenge mode that, thanks to Arkham City's fantastic combat system, can be a pretty addictive for a couple of days even if it won't hold your interest for long past then. There are even quite a few fun little easter eggs scattered around the world for you to find. But because Arkham City as a place is just not very compelling outside of its characters and main story, you'll rarely feel any drive to explore much of any of it unless you have to and that's a mighty big problem.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 12/07/11

Game Release: Batman: Arkham City (US, 10/18/11)

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