Batman: Arkham City Review
We all know the rule: games based on mainstream licenses almost always suck. Occasionally we get one that's not half-bad, but only on a few rare occasions can we find a movie, cartoon, or comic book-based game that stands up with the very best non-licensed releases. Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of those rare exceptions to the rule, giving us an addictive adventure from behind the eyes of the Bat himself. And what's best is that Rocksteady gave just a tad of nuance to Bruce Wayne and Bats himself, making him just slightly more fleshed out than many depictions of the original super-detective from the past.
This time, Rocksteady has created a fully open section of the city to explore, as the short-sighted government has merged the local prison and Arkham Asylum together and built a big wall around it, creating a large prison colony right in the middle of Gotham. Now, we get to see an even larger-scale depiction of the same wonderful art style (and solid technical prowess) we first glimpsed in Arkham Asylum, and the open-world style winds up suiting itself to Batman's high-flying adventures extremely well.
We start off with a bit of Catwoman gameplay and move on to Bats himself as Two-Face, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, the Joker and more are loose in Arkham City, creating traps for our hero and taking innocent people hostage - you see, Gotham's law enforcement are arresting people who vocally disagree with the new local government, and they're all getting dumped into this place, too. Batman quickly traverses the city by gliding and grappling around, and while it never gets quite to the level of smoothness I managed to achieve in Just Cause 2's parasailing, I imagine some will disagree. And of course, one major difference here is that the combat is much deeper once your feet do hit the ground. Plus, the Catwoman gameplay allows for a very different style of movement throughout the city, as Selina can use her whip to swing around the city and defy gravity by prowling up walls and on the underside of hanging platforms. It's not quite Spider-Man since she needs specific high points to swing from, but it does feel very appropriate for the character and the environment.
Just like we saw with the previous game, Arkham City's combat is played out with only a few simple attack and dodge buttons, but Batman is even smoother and more hard-hitting this time. Basic attacks are hugely varied based on positioning and momentum, and counterattacks and dodges put you in an even better position to dish out additional pain than before. Essentially, the developers made everyone hit a bit faster and harder, including Bats himself, so now, missing the counter window or overextending yourself on a combo is a little more costly than before. It gives the game a feel that every hit is a little more of a gamble than before, and that purely offensive play may look cool, but you might wind up limping away from a fight with a sliver of health.
Thugs with guns are still a problem for Batman, but luckily you'll almost always have a way to escape the situation and either get around behind them (usually by grappling around the high points above the fight) or just deal with enemies in a different way. Otherwise, Bats now has some new toys and can quickly unleash them in mid-fistfight with specific two-button combos. This is particularly handy because while a Batarang is great when selected, aimed, and carefully thrown, that's rather inconvenient when you're surrounded by eight thugs. Now, once you've learned which combos quick-fire which gadgets, you'll be unleashing them in mid-fight often.
Just like before, Arkham City includes a slew of unlockables that bring out concept art along with new challenge maps. The Riddler's clues are lying around everywhere, and while many of them are sitting hidden in out-of-the-way nooks and crannies, others are clearly visible but take a bit of puzzle-solving to reach. Some of the earlier clues you see are impossible to get at first, but the game allows you to mark them on your map to return to later once you've got the right gear to snatch them up. Eventually, the Riddler's clues open up an even bigger set of challenges that completionists will love.
Batman himself does have a lot of gadgets so be prepared to receive a lot of tutorial-style briefings throughout the first hour or two, but what I liked most was the sometimes desperate grasp for some kind of tool to keep Batman alive - and solid and subtle game design up until that point usually carefully steered me towards the right reaction in a life-or-death moment. To me, it's one of the most important parts of good game design to make players feel like they themselves thought up a way through an otherwise linear portion of the game - Naughty Dog are masters of this with the Uncharted series - and with Arkham City Rocksteady have proved they're damn good at it, too.
I don't want to spend too long dealing with the plot here because I found it to be fun, even if it probably tries a little too hard sometimes - but what comic book game doesn't overstay its welcome at least once in a while? Sure, the justice-obsessed nature of Batman can wind up being a drag after a while, he's still better than the most recent movie version depicted by the otherwise excellent actor Christian Bale. Whatever faults the game's overall plot may have (like the way our hero seems to be happy spending hours doing work for the villains, which is rather odd), it's still at least as good as Arkham Asylum's storytelling. If you had nearly any kind of fun with Rocksteady's previous effort or you're just looking to jump into a good comic book game, then Arkham City should be at or near the top of your list. Actually, if you just enjoy a really well-made, polished action game with just enough intrigue and adventure to keep things fresh, then head out and pick up Arkham now, because there's not going to be anything remotely like it coming for quite a while. (And if you want to play on PC where we should be getting sharper visuals and smoother frame rates on any half-decent gaming rig, keep in mind that the PC release date has been set back to November 18th.)