Holy f**k, Batman! And I thought the finale to Metal Gear Solid 4 was the most emotionally charged moment in video game history I’d ever experienced – that’s got nothing on Arkham City. Don’t worry, there will be no spoiling of the truly awe-inspiring finale to Batman’s latest adventure, but rest assured, I can speak for the quality of this game’s conclusion.
Essentially Rocksteady’s own The Dark Knight, this second instalment in the duology ups the ante in every aspect: more villians, a larger environment, higher stakes. There is no denying that this set-up, combined with the studio’s clear respect for the source material, could make for a great game, but nothing is set in stone. Therefore, let us see if Arkham City can match both its predecessor and its film counterpart, if not surpass them.
This time around, the story starts with a bang and just goes into oblivion from there. Six months after the events of Arkham Asylum, a new prison has been established within a section of Gotham City. Dubbed Arkham City, this area allows the prisoners freedom to roam where they wish, so long as they do not attempt to escape; this inevitably leads to the more powerful criminals establishing their gangs and taking territory.
One of the key objectors to Arkham City is, wouldn’t you guess it, Bruce Wayne, who is promptly captured and thrown into the prison area by security forces under orders from Hugo Strange, the warden of the city who has determined Batman’s secret identity and who plans to deal with Wayne and the various prisoners in Arkham with the mysterious “Protocol 10”. Promptly suiting up, Batman must discover the truth behind Protocol 10, put an end to the criminal operations within the prison, and confront Strange.
The good news is that the story is complex and well-paced, with many returning characters, clever twists and intense moments. Every reveal makes sense in the grand scheme, and the player will be drawn to the course of events from the intense opening until the very end. The writing has greatly improved and the characters are portrayed in likeable yet flawed manners, giving the world they inhabit more plausibility. The downside to all of this is that the story can be disjointed at times, feeling as though what the player accomplishes in the short term is inconsequential to the overall plot. There also seems to be a lack of depth to many of the villains present, who appear more liberally for the sake of fan service yet are not given much character development or time onscreen.
As for the DLC featuring Catwoman, it merely compliments and expands on the story elements with a smaller-scale tale of greed and misfortune. One mission that Selina Kyle takes on does fill in the gaps of a key story moment later in the game, and it does add to the opening moments, but otherwise it’s a standard one-shot adventure that at least benefits from cameos by Two-Face and Poison Ivy.
Fortunately, the gameplay does not share the story’s flaws. As Batman, the player can expect to traverse the large prison by gliding around with his cape or by using his utility belt, which will be packed with numerous new and old gadgets by game’s end. Rocksteady clearly knows how to handle the Dark Knight, as he controls well in motion and he has clear, yet subdued reactions to every action (cringing after close-range explosions, sporting damage to his costume with purpose).
Control is the key to the combat, which has been more refined than revolutionized. The old system from Arkham Asylum is still in effect, so Batman will attack, counter, stun and dodge his way to victory. However, enemies now have more variety in their combat methods and appearances – people carrying knives, larger one-armed foes wielding sledgehammers, soldiers carrying stun rods, specific gang-based enemies – which means Batman must also, in turn, adapt. This is shown by his ability to counter more than one attacker at once, and by his ability to use gadgets more efficiently in combat (tossing and detonating Explosive Gel, shorting out enemies’ guns with a Signal Disrupter, dive-bombing on a group of enemies and hitting them with the Remote Electrical Charge).
Of course, the game provides more than just combat. The upgrade system from Arkham Asylum returns in an expanded form, allowing simple but wide-reaching enhancements of Batman’s gadgets, armour and health with the use of experience gathered from completing tasks and surviving fights. The stealth and takeout moves are also back, and with all the tools and skills at the Dark Knight’s disposal, dropping on enemies from gargoyles and leaving them strung up in the air has never been more satisfying.
Batman’s detective abilities have also received some much-needed focus, as several of the side-quests and even key story moments require careful investigation of crime scenes and relentless searching for clues. This does mean that “Detective Mode” returns, but it is downplayed more for these moments and therefore is not as essential, which reduces the interruptions to the enjoyment of the game.
Speaking of enjoyment, one quest-line is specifically centred around the Riddler’s influence, as he makes a physical appearance this time and has plans to outwit Batman. Across Arkham City, there are over 400 trophies hidden away that Batman must find to learn the locations of several hostages held by the Riddler – as well as, you know, unlocking certain collectables in the main menu. Once found, the hostages must be rescued from numerous clever and challenging traps set by the Dark Knight’s psychotic counterpart.
Special mention goes to the boss battles, which are equal parts thought-provoking, intelligent and entertaining. Anything as simple as a fist fight with the Joker to something complicated like constantly switching tactics in a tense conflict with Mr. Freeze is well-executed here. It should also be mentioned that, in the instance that someone wants more combat or intense stealth segments, the player can access a wide range of challenge maps similar in nature to those in Arkham Asylum, complete with scoreboards and special objectives.
If the game has any flaws, they are minor and not particularly noteworthy. First, there are still instances of limitations with enemy behaviours and types, but the more challenging New Game Plus mode should alleviate those concerns by removing certain combat indicators and enhancing the enemy A.I. The other issue is with aspects of Catwoman’s gameplay; though she is quite fluid-like in combat, her whip-oriented climbing mechanic feels a little unresponsive at times, she takes significantly less damage than Batman, and her inventory is smaller and less universally useful than Batman’s.
Much improvement was brought to the presentation, though some aspects were altered from the previous game. The art design, for instance, paints Arkham City as a fallen place, filled with grit and darkness, but lacking some of the more outstanding colour and lighting of Arkham Asylum. However, the graphical quality, save for some pop-in, has significantly improved, resulting in more detailed locales and character models.
Sound remains an untouchable force of nature in this instalment. The sound effects are fitting and well-developed, but the soundtrack is moving and almost gothic in nature, giving the game a sense of brooding atmosphere and dread (actually, one theme in the Extended Soundtrack is called “The Brood”…but I’m not saying anything else about it). Voice acting stays strong throughout, with all of the actors giving life to their various supporting characters and villains, who range from Bane to Talia al Ghul. Kevin Conroy as Batman continues to work well, particularly in the Dark Knight’s more brutal moments, but Mark Hamill really went above-and-beyond in his apparent final appearance as the Joker. I kid you not, Hamill’s Joker is constantly charismatic yet occasionally tragic, rounding out this lovably insane clown’s emotional range quite well.
As stated above, the conclusion caught me off-guard. Arkham City was less cohesive and “special” than Arkham Asylum, as we had general expectations this time around, but its main premise, improved and expanded gameplay, and cinematic quality is strong enough to keep one playing to the end. This game also has more content and depth than its predecessor, and its key story moments will forever be discussed, so owning this game is definitely something to be proud of. Congratulations, Rocksteady, you matched your first effort with an amazing second outing – here’s hoping any third instalment or future project you’re planning can seal the deal.
-Kurt Hvorup, Founder and Administrator
Addendum: I promised a conclusive comparison of Rocksteady’s duology to Nolan’s trilogy, and I intend to provide it. Expect this “showdown” soon, and keep reading, gamers.