Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Bigger is not always better, but in the case of Rocksteady’s sequel to the excellent Batman Arkham Asylum, it definitely is.
When I reviewed Batman Arkham Asylum a couple years back, I stated that it was by far the best Batman game (and the best superhero/comic book video game) ever made, that it was the closest gamers would ever get to being the Dark Knight. I heaped superlative upon superlative, finding much (nearly all) to praise and very little to criticize. That all held true, right up until October 18th, 2011, when developer Rocksteady released their highly-anticipated sequel. So allow me to retract my previous statement, or rather, amend it.
Batman Arkham City is THE BEST Batman video game. Ever. End of story.*
Arkham City directly follows the events of Arkham Asylum, events which left Gotham’s famous institution in ruins. When a radical new plan is enacted to house patients from Arkham and prisoners from Blackgate together in a walled off section of Gotham (termed Arkham City), with deranged psychologist Hugo Strange in charge and inmates pretty much left to their own devices (as long as they don’t try to escape), naturally Batman takes exception. As the World’s Greatest Detective, you must gain access into this unorthodox prison, discover Strange’s certainly alterior motives for the joint, which involve something called Protocol Ten, and keep tabs on nearly all of his rogues gallery, mainy of whom have been waging a bloody turf war for power and dominance. The world is bigger, the fight tougher, the stakes higher, and the payoff – oh so much better.
The first thing to understand is that nearly everything that made Arkham Asylum so good and so fun to play makes a return in Arkham City. The three-cowl-headed monster of free-flow combat, predator mode, and detective work makes a return, and all have been sharpened and polished to keen brilliance. I won’t go into specifics, but if you’ve played the first game, it won’t take long for you to see and feel the difference, to realize that in ways both big and small, that nebulous thing we call “gameplay” has been improved.
Instead, I want to focus on the two things that, IMHO, are why Arkham City is far superior to its predecessor. The first is the decision to make Arkham City an open-world game. In Arkham Asylum, the setting was restricted to the Arkham Asylum complex, located on an island physically separated from Gotham City. The in-game area was relatively small, and most of the action took place inside the handful of buildings scattered around the island. As much as Rocksteady captured the essence of being Batman, and as brilliant a setup as it was to trap the Caped Crusader in Arkham with some of the most dangerous members of his rogues gallery, it didn’t present gamers with that classic Batman imagery. The Dark Knight crouched amid gargoyles, traversing the Gotham skyline, patrolling the streets and dealing out his brand of justice.
And that’s where Arkham City shines like the Bat-signal blazing through a treacherous Gotham night. The idea of walling off a section of Gotham City, dumping the worst of the worst inside, and putting Hugo Strange in charge may be contrived, may come off a bit forced, may seem implausible, but it’s hard to argue with the result. Admittedly, the main narrative suffers a bit when you can (and will) go off-track to complete the myriad side missions and veritable plethora of Riddler Challenges, but the trade-off is worth it. The sense of place (if I may borrow the phrase from Adam Sessler), that is established in Arkham City takes the Batman experience to the next level, from merely (!) great to truly sublime.
The second amazing aspect of Arkham City is the cast of characters. Thinking back on Arkham Asylum, it seemed like nearly every major character from the Batman mythos was dumped in there, but in reality aside from Batman only The Joker, Harley Quinn, Bane, The Scarecrow, Zsasz, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy make significant appearances. The Riddler, and Oracle are heard, but never seen, and all the other characters are merely referenced, some more obliquely than others. I know what you’re thinking, “seven members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery is nothing to scoff at.” Very true.
But in Arkham City, so many characters from Batman’s world are presented, it’s literally stunning. My jaw repeatedly fell open when another, and another, and yet another and another character from the Batman mythos showed up in the game. Here’s a list of who I’ve encountered so far, in InvisoInk so you can avoid spoilers (highlight to reveal if you don’t care): Bruce Wayne, Batman, Two-Face, Catwoman, Joker, Harley Quinn, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Riddler, Zsasz, Bane, Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul, Calendar Man, Robin, Deadshot, Solomon Grundy, Vikki Vale, The Mad Hatter, Hush, and Killer Croc. Holy shit, by the space alone you know that’s a LONG list. And these aren’t small references, not merely little nods to fans of the comics like we got in the last game, but fully designed characters, bursting from the screen full of personality and vitality. True, some merely make cameos. Some are involved (in ways big and small) in the main campaign of the game. But some have nothing to do with Batman’s main purpose for being in Arkham City, and are only encountered in side missions. Yet don’t think that means they’ve been given short shrift. Each villain’s side-mission is interesting, fun, and true to the respective rogue. Much as we saw in the previous game with Scarecrow, each new rogue has been given a re-design that is simultaneously faithful and refreshing. Even the more silly members of Batman’s rogues gallery are presented as sinister, mentally disturbed individuals. In large part this is due to the EXCELLENT voice cast helping to bring life to the digital automatons rendered by Rocksteady.
Much has been made about the variety of bonus content available for this game. While I find that the Robin and Nightwing DLC doesn’t seem worth it, as you can only play as these characters in challenge maps, and the idea of paying for different “skins” for Batman is almost certainly a waste of money, I would definitely recommend ensuring that you have access to the Catwoman portions of the game. If you buy the game new you get them automatically, but if you buy it used you’ll have to shell out another $10 to get it, so I’d suggest buying the game new. Arkham City features a series of missions and a storyline for Catwoman during the main campaign mode of the game. Catwoman has her own unique style of play distinct from Batman, and with her missions spaced throughout the game it was always a nice change of pace to take control of Selina Kyle. As an aside, how is it that Rocksteady’s design for Catwoman is WAY better than early images of Anne Hathaway from Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises? It’s true.
Batman Arkham City is a tremendous achievement by Rocksteady Studios, as they once again set the standard for a superhero-themed action-adventure game. We may never see it’s equal.*
*Until Rocksteady releases their next Batman game.**
**Provided it follows the same trajectory of awesomeness as the previous two.