I wasn’t always this big of a Batman fan, you know. It all started off well enough when I was about five, dressing up as the Bat for Halloween when Batman Returns hit theatres in 1992. Over time, though, I grew bored of the idea of a superhero without super powers, thinking of him as just some rich dude with a bunch of toys and too much time.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight films went a long way to helping me get back to enjoying him, but it wasn’t until 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum that really sold me on what makes the hero so special. The love and care that Rocksteady Studios put into paying their respect to Batman lore completely sold me, and I’ve been obsessively reading comics ever since.
Fast forwarding two years later, we have the chance to play the follow-up to what everyone considers to be the the greatest superhero game ever made, no small feat to be sure. We’ve heard promises telling us that Batman: Arkham City was to be bigger and better than its predecessor in every way, but the bar was already set so high — can it really be raised again?
Yes, yes it can. I’ll just get it out of the way right now: You should buy this game immediately. It manages to deliver on everything that was promised, all without missing a beat along the way. You probably want more details, though, so do read on.
The most notable difference between the two games is right there in the title: Arkham City is a much bigger place than Arkham Asylum, a small slice of Gotham set aside for the city’s worst criminals. They’re more-or-less allowed to roam free, with supervillains such as Joker, Two-Face, and Penguin fighting turf wars amongst each other for control. This sits poorly with Batman, and in a great opening 15 minutes he makes his way into the prison city to set the story in motion.
And what a story it is. Every aspect of is handled extremely well, with each character’s appearance throughout making sense and never feeling forced or contrived. Better yet, the voice acting is fabulous, with the top-notch work we’ve all come to expect from Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill in his last turn as Joker. We also get to see Nolan North in yet another game, but you definitely won’t recognize him as the Penguin, whom he (unsurprisingly) portrays extremely well. If there’s any issue with the story, however, it’s that most of the boss fights feel like what you’d find in a typical video game, with only one of them forcing you to think as Batman would.
The core gameplay is much like what you found in Arkham Asylum: a tremendous mixture of action, stealth, and detective sleuthing that puts you in the Dark Knight’s cowl unlike anything else out there. It’s all still worth speaking about in detail, since it all works so well.
The combat isn’t your typical button-masher experience, being much more rhythmic than something like God of War. You can try to get by with mashing the square button, but well-timed button presses, smart countering, and learning enemy tendencies will get you much further. You can also use your gadgets in combat, just as you could in Arkham Asylum. You immediately have access to everything Batman had at the end of AA, while unlocking even more toys as the story progresses. Just as in Asylum, City allows you to use these gadgets in combat, opening up a multitude of options of taking down thugs and hoodlums. Sometimes it’s a bit too much, though, and you can trip yourself up trying to use too many gadgets in a single combo. However, if you stick to a few as your bread-and-butter, you’ll find yourself taking down rooms chock full of enemies, racking up enormous combos and feeling like the ultimate badass. At least I did, anyway.
Stealth is an equally big part of Batman’s character, and Arkham City builds on what made it so much fun in Asylum. Fundamentally, these “Predator” areas work the same way — you swing around from one vantage point to the next, waiting for the right moment to take down a room full of armed enemies one at a time until the very last one is about ready to empty his bladder all over the floor. They’re better equipped this time around, though, with some of them wearing thermal goggles to better detect your position, and others carrying proximity mines. While Batman has a way of combating these measures with the right upgrades, you still have to be careful.
Then there’s the famous Detective Mode, which is something that every single Batman game before Rocksteady Studios took the helm ignored completely. The argument can be made that the biggest improvements are in this aspect. It was really good in Asylum, but ultimately it was just a “follow the trail to the next section” kind of thing. In City, you actually have to investigate crime scenes, looking for leads in other areas across the map. You wind up following bullet trajectories or searching for signs of a serial killer, and that’s just for the side missions. This time around, it takes some real brains to play the part of The World’s Greatest Detective.
Speaking of those side missions, they’re a fantastic addition to the main story, and increase the already-high replayability dramatically. There are twelve of them overall, and while they’re all optional you’ll find yourself compelled to answer that ringing payphone, pick up that Riddler trophy, or stop the two thugs beating on a single defenseless political prisoner. They’re also designed in such a way that you can ignore them all completely without missing anything from the core story, though hardcore Batman fans won’t want to. You can also continue playing the side missions after you beat the core game, so don’t worry if the narrative compels you to continue past the side stuff.
If you buy Arkham City new you also get a redemption code that allows you to play a few chapters as Catwoman. They’re no more substantial than any of the side missions, however, and playing as Catwoman isn’t nearly as fun as playing with Batman. Her attacks deal less damage, and she’s not nearly as well-equipped for dealing with a room full of armed goons or getting around Arkham City quickly.
Aside from the story, there’s also a tremendous attention to detail in the overall aesthetics. Character models are all brilliantly done — the Batsuit’s deterioration as the game progresses, the sickly Joker’s sore-covered skin, Mr. Freeze’s suit, and Catwoman’s, um, form…they all shine. The music is also reminiscent of the Nolan films and even The Animated Series, which is fitting considering that writer Paul Dini worked on the show alongside Conroy and Hamill. All in all, the entirety of Arkham City is a dark, dreary place that offers little hope to its inhabitants, with propaganda reminding them that there’s no chance of escape, and warden Hugo Strange telling them that they’re scum over the loudspeakers.
As an all-around Batman experience, Arkham City is at least as good as any of the movies, including the brilliant Dark Knight, although the story doesn’t quite reach the peaks of the most brilliant comic arcs (thanks in small part to a Teen rating). However, AC offers something that no other medium can come close to, and that’s the feeling of being Batman. I found myself with a Joker-like grin each time I took out a room full of enemies either with my fists or in silence, or grappling and gliding from one side of the city to the other in just two minutes.
Like most games, Arkham City isn’t perfect. The combat can be a little overwhelming if you try to do too much, and the camera can also betray you in tight corners. There also aren’t any fourth wall-breaking moments as were found in Arkham Asylum, and most of the boss fights aren’t terribly imaginative. At this point, though, I’m just picking nits. Everything works extremely well and is devoid of the kind of bugs that demand a day-one patch in many of today’s games. It does combat better than anything else out there, no stealth game makes you feel as powerful, and it might even be a better detective game than L.A. Noire (if those sections were long enough).
Buy this game, armed with the knowledge that you’re buying the best game of the year. You’d be batty not to.
Final Grade: A+