Rocksteady Studios learned a lot from its inaugural attempt at crafting an innovative and compelling superhero game in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Some two years in the conceptual and development oven, Batman: Arkham City is sprawling compared to Asylum. The combat is still free-flowing, but with the use of more quick-fire gadgets in brawls, melee feels fresh if not a bit out of control. The narrative will still hold the attention of casual Batman fans, but diehard devotees of this quintessential DC Comics hero may adore the expansive use of villains, even if we are inundated with them in a more cameo than leading roles. But while a lot of the changes and additions are relatively moderate, Rocksteady deserves enormous credit for giving us a beautiful, exciting, and highly addicting playground to explore all of the Dark Knight’s potential.
Batman: Arkham City opens with a bang. In minutes you find yourself perched atop Arkham City’s dark, snowy sprawl. After that opening segment, take a moment to soak it all in because you are in for one action-packed adventure. From the top of the highest skyscraper to the underground subway system, Arkham City is an absolute joy to explore. While it’s not nearly as large as some other open-world games—and you can argue that this is not a true open-world—Arkham City makes up for its relatively small size by its enormous density of side quests and pure atmosphere.
Picking up after Arkham Asylum, players are tasked with regaining control of the slice of city reserved for Gotham City’s criminals, gangsters, and the super villains vying for control. Blackgate prison and Arkham Asylum are now closed, and new mayor Quincy Sharp has ordered the relocation of all inmates to a super-prison some five-times larger than Arkham island. Dr. Hugo Strange controls the city, and while he serves as the game’s primary antagonist, he does so largely behind-the-scenes compared to the incredible presence of The Joker in Arkham Asylum. As such, you’ll want to learn more and more about Hugo Strange, helping drive the narrative to its incredible climax, but you may be a bit let down at the narrative in between that initial wow-factor opening and that jaw-dropping final chapter.
It’s the hours upon hours of narrative that will likely catch you off-guard. One minute you’ll hunt the infamous collector, nicknamed the Penguin, in a fantastically detailed museum, and in the next you’ll stealthily prevent Two-Face from dropping Catwoman into a vat of acid. This is only a fraction of the characters, both good and bad, you’ll encounter throughout the campaign. There are so many characters in Arkham City that it’s not uncommon to forget which villain you are hunting throughout the various levels. The Joker, voiced again by Mark Hamill, is an absolute menace and in many ways feels like the true super villain. Hamill’s performance, coupled with Kevin Conroy’s reprise as Batman, is easily one of the best this year, if not the current generation of consoles.
While Batman is perhaps best known as a superhero without a true superpower, he comes equipped with a utility belt full of gadgets to help his detective work, and of course fight hordes of thugs. You start off with the gadgets from Arkham Asylum, like the Batclaw, Smoke Pellets, and Cryptographic Sequencer, but you’ll find new gadgets throughout the campaign. You can now throw freeze bombs, shoot electrical bolts, and there are even tweaks to old favorite that allows you to use gadgets more easily in combat.
This allows that FreeFlow Combat system to feel fresh and more brutal. Tap a trigger button and in seconds you’ll electrocute a baddie, while deflecting an incoming baseball ball, followed by a roundhouse kick to knife-wielding thug. Combat is still quite exaggerated and allows for either button mashing, or a more clever focus on timing and finding the right opportunities. You’ll face a decent variety of enemies and have to rethink each battle depending on if thugs are wielding weapons like knives or electric prods. Batman is extremely tough and has generally no problems taking on 20 or more enemies fist-to-fist, but if you don’t give enough respect to the variety of foes, you will die. When those enemies carry guns, you are forced to approach the battle from a different, more elevated perspective.
Batman does his best work in the shadows. There are essentially two different encounters. The first, and most common, are relatively simple head-to-head fist fights. The second, and my personal favorite, are the ones that challenge you to eliminate enemies one at a time, hiding in cover. If you played Arkham Asylum, you’ll know what to expect. But Rocksteady has thrown a few kinks in the mix by giving some enemies thermal tracking and even the ability to mess up your detective mode. These sections, which occur later in the game, are probably the most challenging parts, but also the most interesting because you can approach each enemy in a different way.
The same can’t be said for boss battles. Given the stellar ensemble of villains, you may expect some truly epic boss fights, but they are generally on the light side, and some are exceptionally easy. There is really only one boss fight that offers a true challenge, the rest you can beat without much thought or practice. Nothing quite compares to that killer boss fight against Scarecrow in Arkham Asylum. Sadly, Arkham City attempts to recapture a bit of that twisted approach to a boss fight, but doesn’t come all that close. Rocksteady also tries to cram too many villains into one game, and while we do get to see a smidgen of their complexity as humans, we never see them all that developed to their true potential.
Even if the boss battles are a bit of a let-down, and the narrative is a bit light, you can spend tons of time outside the campaign following-up on side quests. You can save political prisoners, test your flying skills, and of course hunt down the 400 or so Riddler collectibles. Challenge rooms return with some tweaks, and this will, as in Arkham Asylum, provide plenty of opportunities to test your combat and predator abilities. But the game is greatly extended by Catwoman’s presence, which is available as an add-on to the regular game, free with a new copy of the game or for purchase via the PlayStation Network. Catwoman is tied into the campaign, so it’s well worth the extra content. Some may feel upset they have to purchase this content if they buy a used copy of the game, however.
Playing as Catwoman is a great break from the Dark Knight. She uses the same FreeFlow Combat system, but the animations highlight her fast, feline-inspired approach to fist fights. She comes equipped with her own gadgets, she traverses the city almost like Batman, but instead of soaring above the city streets, she whips onto skyscrapers and ledges and gracefully scales buildings. Her missions in the narrative are quite simple, but they are fun enough to keep the player engaged. It should be noted they are also fairly brief and feel minimal, leading us to believe more DLC will help fill in the holes.
Arkham City looks terrific, if not for some minor issues. It’s a dark, moody, and depressing game set in a world equally as bleak. But the level of detail in the city is awe inspiring. Yes, it borrows heavily from other games, but it also provides a complete package. There is something for just about everyone here, and if the eye candy isn’t enough to turn you on, know that there is enough content to keep you occupied for a long time, especially with New Game+. There may be some core components that aren’t perfect—for example, I’m really not a huge fan of the relatively simplistic FreeFlow Combat system, but I know it works—but as a complete package, it’s hard to find another game worthy of your hard-earned cash. Batman returns in one truly amazing game, and we simply can’t wait to see what Rockstedy comes up with for the third installment.