Who’s afraid of the big, bad Bat?
If you’re not, you should be. As in Arkham Asylum, Arkham City’s Batman is dark, ferocious and uncompromising. While still very much the comic book hero, this is a grown-up’s Batman – a Batman for those that play their games at night. Adam West, we hardly remember thee.
What’s changed from the game is the scale. Arkham Island was isolated, claustrophobic and foreboding. Arkham City is larger, more elaborate, more varied. The city isn’t really a city at all, it’s an enormous prison complex situated in the heart of Gotham. By blocking off and walling up a section of Batman’s home town, the powers that be have created what they believe to be the answer to their incredibly high crime rate – get all the nut-jobs together and let a wacked-out doctor sort them out.
One way or another, Batman ends up in there and (ever the goody two shoes) sets about putting things straight. That’s all I’m giving away in terms of the plot, I don’t want to spoil it for you and I don’t want to be fall foul of Warner Bros and their desire for narrative secrecy.
Arkham City is an open-world, but not really in the same sense as GTA or Red Dead Redemption. This world is full, detailed and labyrinthine; not a section of space feels wasted, lost or filled with some pointless task (pick this flower, find this bird), resulting in a scaling-up that isn’t a dumbing-down.
This is achieved primarily through the inclusion of expansive interior environments and a veritable who’s-who of Batman villains. Joker, Penguin, Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy, Hugo Strange, Two-Face and many many others turn up for the party, in greater or lesser roles. Each of the primary antagonists stamp their own mark on the city – not only through their loud, dominating personalities, but via the various areas/buildings that they’ve commandeered as a lair.
For example, the Joker has taken a smelting factory, the Penguin a museum and Mr Freeze a police station. All three locations fit in with the world on the outside, but on the inside they’re very much the nest of their occupier – the factory turned into a sadistic funhouse, the police station an ice palace and the museum a gritty British thugs dream.
What’s quite remarkable is that Rocksteady have managed to fit so many different themes into Arkham City without the game feeling cluttered or messy. It certainly feels chaotic, but there’s always a clear thread of design running through the carnage. Each of the primary villains feels full, both in terms of plot and character.
Those bad guys not involved in the main story can be explored through side-missions (and through the hidden Riddler trophies); some of which feed into one another, often providing as much character exposition as the main thread. Basically, if you’re a Batman fan, chances are your favourite villain is going to in here somewhere and (with enough digging) you’ll likely be satisfied with their role.
However, the pace does take a little warming up to. The first two hours or so are slightly awkward, throwing you from super-villain to super-villain while you’re still trying to find your feet in terms of navigation and learning Batman’s abilities. The opening section can seem a little like hard work, but perhaps that’s the point… your situation is somewhat dire after all.
After those two hours though, things become more manageable. The frantic pace is retained but you feel as though you have enough control to get a grip on the multi events taking place at any one time. This is helped in that Rocksteady have stuck fairly tightly to the combat formula used in Arkham Asylum, bringing a welcome mix between the familiar and the fresh.
Non-boss encounters generally fall into one of two categories – melee and predator. Hand-to-hand combat is performed chiefly with a combo system of well-timed attacks, counters and dodges. There are various gadgets that turn out useful against certain enemy types, but your bread is butter is the combo system.
The emphasis on countering attacks helps to further Batman’s image as a bad-ass. Rather than run around like a mad man, unleashing attacks all over the place, it’s more effective (and cooler-looking) to stand still and let the enemies come to you. As soon as they attack you react by catching their arm/leg/knee/shoulder and breaking it. What follows is a short, sharp lesson in martial arts and a grapple hook away to deal with the real enemy.
However, the visceral combat can’t match the predator sequences when it comes to the provision of style. When Batman employs stealth is when he’s most deadly, and when he’s most deadly is when he’s most appealing. Predator areas are designed in such a way as to allow you to employ many a gadget. Skilled players will be able to design a chain reaction of gadget-fuelled remote attacks that (once triggered) clear an entire room while you simply watch from your gargoyle perch.
As in Arkham Asylum, both predator and combat rooms can be tackled individually from the ‘Challenge Room’ option on the main menu. You can pick between Batman, Robin and a certain other someone with a penance for tight-fitting rubber (leather, maybe?) outfits…
Catwoman’s approach to combat is similar to Batman’s, but different enough to warrant closer inspection. Oh, sorry, did I not mention that? Yes, Catwoman is playable in the campaign. I imagine you already knew that though, what with the nature of exhaustive hype and previews built around today’s big releases.
Our feline friend relies on stealth more than our flying mammal aficionado; she’s also faster, less powerful and sexier (a lot sexier). Plus, she’s not the moral stick in the mud that Batman is – if it gets results, she’ll happily break the rules. Catwoman’s appearances are few and far between but they’re impactful and memorable, memories kept fresh due to the fact that her moments (once completed) are playable whenever you want from the main menu.
It’s not only Catwoman’s shapely rear that looks good, the visuals all-round have been improved. Lighting aside, the improvements are not technical but artistic – variety is greater, landmarks are intelligently placed so as to allow for unhindered navigation, characters’ appearance alters over time and the increased scale provides a ‘neighbourhood’ feel to certain areas (a sensibility that Arkham Asylum, due to its focus on confined intimacy, lacked).
As expected in a game displaying this level of ambition, there are a few imperfections – albeit nothing game breaking or major. Some of the standalone side missions feel tacked on, only there because the ‘rules’ of an open-world game dictate that they should be. Glide animations can be uncomfortable because of the complexity of the environments (getting caught on railings etc) and some of the gadgets are less-than-useless in the face of others that are essential – just be careful how you decide to level up.
No matter what though, what can’t be denied is the quality and entertainment-factor of the overall product. Whether you like Batman or not, you’ll find much to like here. In the matter of only two games, Rocksteady has managed to create a Batman franchise that provides us with not only the best videogame incarnation of the Caped Crusader, but the best videogame incarnation of any superhero.
Xbox 360 version reviewed. Also available on PlayStation 3, OnLive and Windows PC. (PC version due November, 2011.)