The follow up to Arkham Asylum has some pretty big boots to fill. With Arkham City, Rocksteady has shown how you do a sequel to a masterpiece.
In August 2009, the unthinkable happened. A videogame based on a licensed comic book character was released, and was not terrible. In fact, it was the opposite of terrible. Batman: Arkham Asylum was the pinnacle of superhero games, and was Game of the Year for many gamers and critics. Developer Rocksteady Games had come from relative obscurity to release one of this generation’s best. So they had some enormous expectations to live up to, even before beginning work on the follow-up to Arkham Asylum; Batman: Arkham City. What they accomplished is a masterpiece, one of this generation’s finest games.
In some ways, it was evident that Rocksteady knew that they were on to something special with Arkham Asylum, going so far as to include the game map to Arkham City within its predecessor. This Easter Egg stayed locked away for a long while after the release of Arkham Asylum, and wasn’t until Rocksteady themselves revealed the secret, that gamers were treated to their first glimpse at what was to come in Arkham City. That’s a ballsy move for an unproven developer to include in a licensed comic book game. They obviously knew some we didn’t.
|The city's your playground.|
Many things came together in Arkham Asylum in a way that few superhero games have ever accomplished. The rogues gallery included in Asylum was a veritable history lesson in the lore of Batman, and one of the major reasons for its success was the level of immersion the game gave you. Players truly felt as if they were the Caped Crusader, complete with all of the detective skills and physical prowess Bruce Wayne is given in the comics. There had never been another superhero game quite like it, and there hasn’t been one since. That means that Arkham City had a lot to live up to.
Arkham City seeks to improve on Asylum in every way imaginable. The stellar voice cast from the original is back, including Animated Series stars Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy. Other notable voice actors such as Nolan North round out the cast, and everyone gives a inspired performance. Among my favorites was Mr. Freeze, who is voiced by veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche, whom you may remember as Egon from The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. It’s worth noting that Mark Hamill has said that this game is the last time he will voice The Joker, although I have some difficulty believing that. It’s not like he’s doing much else these days...
|Joker's back...and not looking good.|
Once into the game, Arkham City starts off with what is quite possibly the best intro sequence I've seen in a game since Metal Gear Solid 2. And that's not even counting the cold open, in which you aren't even playing as Batman. I was afraid I'd lost the grasp of the control scheme since Arkham Asylum, but on screen tutorials, and relaxed enemy types get you back into form rather quickly. The HUD has been redesigned since Asylum, and for the most part, it is fantastic. There are frequently several different readouts on your screen, as Batman’s various gadgets pick up conversations between thugs, air temperature, homing beacons, and other such ambient distractions.
Whereas Arkham Asylum took place entirely within its namesake location, (albeit a much more spacious and varied version than is often seen), Arkham City opens up an entire portion of Gotham for Batman to patrol. Hugo Strange has convinced Gotham Mayor Sharpe to block off an huge swath of the city, for use as a super-prison. The dynamic between Strange, Batman, and the crazies inside the prison-city provides the crux of the game’s plot. Seemingly, every bad guy Batman has ever come across has found his way into Arkham City, and it’s up to Batman to find out how, and why. The story moves at a good pace, and the side missions frequently tie into the main plot.
|Some side missions reunite old friends.|
The scope of Arkham City is enormous, and the nighttime setting makes the world seem even more dark and foreboding. The world of Arkham City is very reminiscent of the Tim Burton Batman films, with snow falling on neon-lit alleyways, and old CRT televisions playing scratchy recordings of the game's many antagonists. Thugs patrol the streets, forcing Batman to stick to the rooftops, and police helicopters roam the skies, so as to not allow Batman to just go all Spider-Man over Arkham City.
The arsenal of weapons and tech avaliable to Batman at the beginning of the game is very close to what you finished Asylum with, save for a few gadgets you pick up through the course of the game. All of your old favorites return, such as the zip line launcher, the Batclaw, the explosive gel, and Batman’s cryptographic sequencer. Along the way you’ll pick up freeze bombs, the Remote Electrical Charge, and the Ultra Sonic Emitter; which calls a swarm of bats to attack your enemies. These tools come in very handy throughout the game, as the story retains that Metroid-like structure of revisiting areas to access new points via your upgrades.
|New enemy types are plentiful.|
The cast of characters in Arkham City is enormous, and encompasses almost every hero and villain you can think of from Batman lore. For better or worse, this also includes Catwoman and Robin, whom are playable provided you have purchased the corresponding DLC. The Robin pack was a Best Buy exclusive, and the Catwoman missions are included with all new copies of the game. Playing as Catwoman is neat, although realistically, she doesn’t play much differently than Batman. More frustrating is the fact that the XP you gain throughout the story is shared between Batman and Catwoman, so by the time you need Catwoman’s upgrades you’ve presumably put all of your points into Batman. As any sane person would do. There are also separate Riddler trophies which only Catwoman can pick up, although I rarely felt the compulsion to go out of my way to collect them all. You know why? Because there’s 400 of them in all. Yeah. There IS a payoff for collecting them, although whether or not it’s worth it is up to you to Google.
There are very few things to complain about in Arkham City, although it is impossible to turn a blind eye towards some of the game’s faults. The new HUD includes a Fallout 3-like compass at the top of the screen, with your objective marked as an exclamation point. There is no indication as to how far away you are from arriving though, and you will find yourself frequently checking your map to determine so. When you do arrive at your current location, a transparent arrow is located directly over the spot you need to go to, however sometimes this doesn’t load properly, or the marker blends in with the fog and makes it difficult to find. With such a massive game world, there should be a better way to orient yourself, and it’s a shame that the player frequently needs to take himself out of the world to check the in-game map.
|Spoiler Alert: There are Batman characters in a Batman game.|
Another problem I encountered was more of a personal preference. After accomplishing my goals, the game gives very poor indication of how to get back to the city to continue on to you next location. When Batman goes indoors, the HUD compass disappears, and the player is left to determine the proper route for themselves. Some of these indoors locations, such as the subway tunnels, are labryithian puzzles, and it is discouraging to have to spend 10 minutes just finding your way out of the damn things. I almost would have preferred the game provided some sort of “magic door” or some other way for Batman to get back out to the open air. Like I said, this is personal preference though, and I’m sure some gamers will enjoy all the exploration available to them. On a positive note, my getting lost did once lead me to a chance encounter with Killer Croc, whom I other wise would not have met.
As a whole, however these are minor faults, and Arkham City is fantastic. It is worlds better than Arkham Asylum, and the story and dedication to the characters is sure to please any Batman fan. The combat system remains among the best in games, and the parkour feels as great as any Assassin’s Creed. If Rocksteady can improve the HUD, and add some more variation to the boss battles, the third Batman game stands to be even better than this. For now though, Arkham City is the definitive Batman experience. Whether you are a fan of the comics, the Animated Series, the Nolan films, or the ::ick:: Shumacher movies, you’ll find something to love in Arkham City. It’s a thrill to be the Goddamn Batman.
Christopher Linendoll is in the market for some Batarangs. He can be reached via Twitter, or found in the hummus section of your local grocery store.