Back in 2009, Rocksteady studios released Arkham Asylum, a phenomenal take on the genre that redefined the super-hero game, proving that a quality title was indeed possible when enough attention and hard work was applied.
Two years later, and the Dark Knight is back, in a tale that aims to be grander and larger in scope, building on the foundation that the madhouse laid out for it. But is this a case of the dark knight rising, or will Gotham’s guardian fail to live up to the expectations of his fans?
It’s been 18 months since the events of Arkham Asylum. Former warden Quincy Sharp has managed to seize power and become major of Gotham, while also using his newfound influence to construct a super-jail within the city, the aptly named Arkham City.
A massive combination of rundown buildings, mercenary soldiers and concrete barricades, Arkham City is home to the worst of Gotham, housing all the violent offenders and assorted “super-criminals” that have been plaguing the general population of the city.
Certain circumstances result in Bruce Wayne becoming trapped in the super-jail, but its not long before he breaks free and dons the familiar cape and cowl of his alter-ego. Trapped in the imposing structure, the Batman has to contend with armed guards, violent criminals, some of his more colourful rogues, as well as get to the bottom of main antagonist Hugo Strange and his mysterious project, Protocol 10.
Its an explosive opening to Arkham City, and it sets the stage for what’s to come. But when players get their first glimpse at their new penal playground, it truly is a sight to behold. The unreal engine is in full swing here, rendering beautiful cityscapes with ease and giving life to this diseased portion of Gotham City.
Arkham City may be a lawless hellhole of murder and chaos, but it’s a damn fine looking piece of hell on earth. Its bigger than the looney bin that players explored previously, with tons of hidden nooks and crannies, as well as quite a few indoor areas that can be explored.
Arkham City is ready to boil over however, as villains such as the Joker, Two-Face and the Penguin have managed to form gangs from the criminal element in the district, each vying to take control of the area. With guns and explosives somehow circulating throughout the gangs, Batman has his work cut out for him, as the main plot unfolds.
Arkham City, as a single-player game, relies on its plot, and while the storyline does dip several times, the events that unfold are nonetheless gripping and emotional.
There is an emphasis on focusing only on the core story at hand, leaving the dozens of side-quests as distracting times-inks, instead of spreading your first playthrough over them and combining the separate threads, but the manner in which the game forces you to focus on the task at hand is so subtle, that you’ll hardly notice it.
The side-missions however, when tackled, are of a surprisingly high quality, featuring fan favourite villains and characters, with the development of these stages being as high as that of the main campaign. Some missions can be solved within minutes, some will take hours, and others are designed to lengthen the gameplay experience by months, relying on vague clues to goad the player into staying.
Starting out, you’ll find that most of your gadgets from the asylum have remained with you, with only a very few being dropped off later in the game. You’ll acquire a few more wonderful toys as you progress, such as a Mister Freeze desired ice grenade which can leave criminals immobile and frozen, or even used for makeshift rafts on bodies of water.
Each tool on their own is useful, but figuring out which combination to use during fights and puzzle-solving is where the real meat of this feature lies, and the modifications that existing tools have made upon themselves open the possibilities for puzzle-solving even further.
Batman’s free-flow combat system is back, and this time, it feels even more polished and fluid than ever. Still using a primary combination of three button, stun, attack and counter, the combat system is wonderfully simple to learn, but challenging to master.
The beauty of the free-flow combat is that it can be as complex as you want it to be. If you feel like relying on your timing, then the game will cater to that, as numerous openings present themselves on the clumsy criminals for new dodge moves that set up bone-crunching combos, counters and instant-disabilities.
However, if you feel like peppering your punches with gadgets, that option is there as well. New quick moves are available, such as dropping explosive goo behind you like a bat with bowel issues, firing off a quick electrical charge to stun enemies or using the bat-claw to snatch firearms away from perps. There’s a lot of variety on offer here, and it somehow always manages to feel natural and organic when you try these new moves out.
The enemy variety in Arkham City has been expanded as well, with more heavily armoured thugs that require special combos to defeat, knife-wielding criminals that require an exact timing for the counter button and more intelligent criminals who use their environment and the objects around them more intelligently now. The Titan mutants from the first game have also made their way over, and a few more variants are also present, but for the sake of spoilers, they won’t be revealed here.
Of course, Batman can only take so much abuse from gun-wielding goons, and that’s where the predator mode comes in. Certain stages will still have you stalking criminals, using stealth as opposed to to outright fisticuffs, as you intelligently analyse and determine the best way to proceed.
Fortunately, the Detective mode vision is still around, but it’s been fine-tuned to be more effective in smaller areas, and somewhat of a hindrance in wide open spaces. While many fans will probably gripe about this dumbing down of the detective vision, it’s a necessary concession, as Arkham Asylum relied too heavily on that feature, making the predator sessions feel less organic and more stilted.
With Arkham City bursting at the seams with characters, challenges and side-quests, things do tend to get cluttered at times. Waypoints are highlighted with a handy bat-signal, but an optional mini-map would have been far more efficient, as frequent pauses tend to disrupt the flow of the game and bring things to a standstill at times.
Arkham City however, is a beautifully constructed playground, with high rise buildings and secret passages underneath the foundation. Gliding has been redesigned to be more immersive, with dive-bombing actions that can build momentum to knock out a thug or fly faster, while a grapnel hook upgrades allows you to build up kinetic energy to soar above the buildings.
For those who buy the game new, there is also a Catwoman code for download. Its a somewhat hefty add-on that clocks in at over 200 megabytes, and doesn’t really add any substantial meat to the story, but still makes for some more light-hearted and fun gameplay.
Catwoman falls under the usual stereotype of female characters in combat games, namely being faster, more agile and showing tons of cleavage, while her arsenal of gadgets is smaller than what Batman has. She’s also far more stealthier, able to crawl along ceilings and reach vantage points that the bulkier Batman would find impossible to do.
Caltrops to make opponents stumble, a restrictive set of bola snares and a whip are present, while her goggles give her a more limited detective vision. But Catwoman does feel nimbler and more intuitive, able to make mincemeat of anyone who crosses her path, while exploring Arkham City relies on climbing buildings and whipping to vantage points in a speed-challenge of sorts.
After the main campaign is done, there is still plenty of work to do however. Arkham City will still be open, and a new game+ mode makes the city far more challenging, putting your skills and mind to work, while the extra game mode of Riddlers Revenge will present all the challenges you need to carry on and prove how great you are at this Batman simulator.
If ever there was a chance to wonder what it would be like to be a super-hero, then Arkham City is the best simulator on the market today. The free-flow combat has been tweaked, to be as complex or as simple as you want it to be, while the core Predator gameplay mechanics have been expanded upon to allow for them to work outside of a closed environment.
With plenty of gadgets and new move-sets available, it can be overwhelming at times, but this is the game that shows off just how deadly the Batman, and his allies, are exactly.
Design and Presentation: 9/10
Arkham City may be the ultimate punishment for criminals, but for those of us playing the game, it’s jaw-droppingly impressive. The prison district is impressively detailed, with numerous nods and extras that reference every single bit of media that Batman has appeared in, while the lighting effects provide a moody atmosphere that complements the game.
Likewise with the audio, the game sounds superb. The voice-cast is professionally recorded, with characters coming off as believable and real, with the right voice matching the right persona. The orchestral soundtrack sets the scene beautifully, picking up at the appropriate time when action heats up, and becoming a subtle part of the atmosphere when players are exploring.
This is a Single-player only game, with no co-op, and only a leaderboard for those who want to show their scores off to friends after spending some time beating on waves of angry thugs. However, as an offline game, it’s incredibly strong, and Rocksteady has designed it to include numerous game-extending options to keep players hooked.
You’ll finish the core storyline in around 8-10 hours, but afterwards? Arkham City is one massive playground, and its just begging for gamers to sink hours in it to discover all its secrets.
Batman Arkham City isn’t just a grander vision of what Arkham Asylum set out to do back in 2009, its a prime example of what a game can offer its player. Engrossing, thrilling and without having to compromise its integrity, Arkham City sets a bar that not only surpasses most superhero genre games, but also surpasses anything else the industry is currently putting out as well.