Review: Batman – Arkham City (PS3)

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Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum was heralded by many as the most definitive Batman game ever made up to 2009. It garnered accolades from many and even from the Guinness Book of World Records as “The Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever”. Even with its flaws, it was an enjoyable romp as one of DC Comics’ most iconic characters, though the incredible hype machine had also cast a shadow over the sequel.

Stringing up bad guys on rafters and beating everyone down with the Bat’s martial expertise in a game soaked with as much respect for the source material as it was from the animated series was great fun in Asylum, so getting a sequel was almost a foregone conclusion especially given the ending. Two years later, here we are with Arkham City. And the good news is that it’s polished with the lessons Rocksteady had learned from the first game.

As with Asylum, Batman scribe, Paul Dini, has taken up writing duties with a story that plunges the Caped Crusader into an “Escape from New York” kind of world where a chunk of Gotham has been turned into a maximum security prison. It’s filled with the worst that survived the Asylum and which Gotham’s prisons apparently couldn’t handle.

Running it all is Dr. Strange who also pitches Bruce Wayne into the general population for saying not-nice things about his latest project. There’s also another problem – Strange knows who Wayne really is. But he’s holding onto that little trump card for his own reasons.

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One of those reasons is Protocol 10. As for what that is and how it will affect Arkham City, that’s what players will need to find out as they jump from rooftop to rooftop and pummel countless criminals. This is also a more brutal story than what was in the first game as we watch Batman pushed to the edge by everyone including the Joker who can’t resist torturing his nemesis for a laugh.

As the Bat is fond of saying in the game, he makes it clear that this isn’t the night for anyone to get in his way. Nearing the end, I could almost hear Batman’s calm composure straining onscreen with what many of us would like him to do and what he, instead, chooses to do as Gotham’s Dark Knight.

The approach that Rocksteady has chosen with Arkham City is wholly their own. It’s a side story that won’t challenge the comics, but that seems to draw from their strengths as much as it does with the animated series making it clear that Rocksteady is just as involved in telling this story as Dini is in writing it. It’s a great standalone episode following its own arc as it has started from Asylum, so even if you haven’t played that, there’s more than enough here to make up for it.

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Buying retail means that you’ll get two codes for DLC: one for the Catwoman content, and the other for Robin’s character in the Challenge modes outside of the main game. This is obviously trying to convince players to buy new as opposed to used or rented where they might not get these extras, but the main game won’t suffer without them. Catwoman’s story in the game is pretty light and relatively forgettable in providing a temporary distraction from being Batman.

To the character’s credit, her fighting style has its own unique look and the banter between herself and the Bat are short, but entertaining, snippets. The specific challenges she faces aren’t bad, especially since she doesn’t have the kind of gadgetry that Batman does, but if you don’t get her content you won’t be missing out on anything pertaining to the main story. This is Batman’s game from beginning to end. Everyone else is just dropping in to say hi or get a face full of gloved knuckles. As for Robin, he and his bundle of maps are just there for the Challenge modes which felt like a missed opportunity to do something more – especially when he does a short cameo in the main game.

Getting Batman around Arkham City is ridiculously easy thanks to the controls turning every move into a heroic, body crippling combo flowing from bad guy to bad guy though it’s almost as ridiculous to see some trash mobs absorb as much damage as they do. Fighting as the Bat is more about flowing hits from one enemy to the next in a dance of punches, kicks, and hair trigger counters.

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Using his grapple to soar from rooftop to rooftop makes travel simple, he’ll save himself if you fall into water, and his arsenal of gadgets allows anyone to clear the streets with smoke pellets, a disarming batclaw, or with a gliding kick. As nice as it is to glide from building to building, the grapple can get a little temperamental in targeting spots to swing from. Seeing it fly fifty yards in one instance and then not do the same thing when there isn’t anything between you and a rooftop gargoyle can be a little puzzling. Fortunately, it doesn’t actually interfere or break anything to the point where it can’t be ignored by how fun traveling around as the Bat can be.

The experience point system from the last game returns with more upgrade options to go through and if you have the Catwoman content, she also gets a few of her own. If you’re coming off from Arkham Asylum, the combat flow feels tighter and the tweaks to Batman’s gadgets such as to his remote batarang are welcome changes that simply smooth out the rough edges.

Even if you aren’t an expert in all things Batman, Rocksteady’s handling of the villains comes off so well alongside their biographical in-game info that you don’t really need anything more than to keep playing the game. The developers’ love the material is obvious and the artists have pulled equal parts beauty and grime from the Unreal Engine for every grinning face and neon-lit alley. Divorced from the comics, as an adventure game, everything you need to know is here.

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Kevin Conroy, along with Mark Hamill (for what may be his last turn as the Clown Prince of Crime), reprise their roles as the Batman and the Joker, respectively, as veterans from the famous animated series. Nolan North has temporarily traded in Nathan Drake for a turn as the Penguin sporting a new persona as a ruthless arms dealer and collector in Arkham City. A solid cast rounds out the rest of the entertaining voice work with some of the best lines in the game belonging to the villains.

Arkham City should also be known as Riddler’s Fun Park. Players coming from Arkham Asylum wishing for more to do and collect will find that the Riddler and Rocksteady have peppered the neighborhood with enough side missions and puzzles to forget why Batman is there in the first place.

On the Riddler side of things, he’s scattered secrets throughout Arkham City in the form of collectable trophies, often hidden behind puzzles, to riddles answered only when players can find what they are referring to in the area around them whether it’s a poster, a sign, or a big hammer. Simply having wonderful toys isn’t enough to figure these out. Most will test how well you can use them as the Riddler taunts you the Bat out of revenge.

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Altogether, the Riddler has about four hundred secrets total to scramble through and I wasn’t even halfway through his stuff when I finished the main campaign. Many of his trophies will test just how well you know the Dark Knight’s arsenal to get through the Riddler’s challenges. Later, it even extends out into its own sub-story when the Riddler starts playing rough with hostages, adding them as bait inside maliciously designed rooms that must be solved to save them. He’ll drop you a bone on where to find each one but only after you’ve uncovered so many of his ‘secrets’.

The side missions make the best use of Batman’s persona by often allowing him to do what is best whether it is saving someone from getting their face rearranged in an alley or in using his detective’s repertoire of skills to track down a sniper or a serial killer. One of my favorite ones has Batman following a trail of ringing phones and tracing each step in a custom mini-game.

These extras dovetail into even more goodies. An art gallery featuring concept art, a 3D model viewer, bios on the key characters for lore hounds to drool over, interviews between Dr. Strange and a few of the big villains, and maps for the game’s challenge modes are all up for grabs with nearly every discovery.

Outside of the main game, the challenge modes return to help practice Batman’s moves on crowds of bad guys while trying to rack up a respectable score against everyone else on the online leaderboard. At first, there aren’t many campaign maps to pick from, but that changes over time as you pry loose more of Riddler’s secrets.

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Challenges come in three varieties: ranked challenges, campaign versions with set modifiers such as fighting without the use of gadgets, or a custom challenge where you pick and choose which modifiers you want to play with for any number of combinations. Medals are earned for passing point milestones which also go towards trophies. Surviving the waves that each map throws at you sounds simple enough, but depending on the battleground, the enemies can also come in as many varieties with stun sticks, armor vests, or as your friendly neighborhood assassin.

After the final credits roll, any unfinished business is left for you to mop up when it tosses you back into Arkham City for whatever riddles, hidden trophies, or good old fashioned beat downs towards whatever upgrades you might be missing. It also unlocks the New Game + mode allowing a second playthrough with tougher enemies. A few tweaks, such as no counter indicators, are also activated yet leaves you with all of your upgrades intact so as to give you a fighting chance.

Rocksteady’s pugilistic beat ‘em up doesn’t try to reinvent the Batcave. It’s easy for it to feel like Arkham Asylum 2.0 with a much larger, and a more vertical, playing field. At the same time, it smartly builds on what worked within its gritty urban jungle gym layered with side missions, collectables, and psychotic villains making it a solidly robust single-player experience as well as a standout example of how to do a sequel right. Short of donning your own utility belt, and despite a few bruises of its own, it’s as close to getting behind Batman’s mask as anyone might get.

Batman: Arkham City
WB Interactive Entertainment / Rocksteady Studios
Xbox 360 / PS3 / (to be released later for) Microsoft Windows (reviewed on PS3)
Rated: T for Teens