There’s little debate that Batman: Arkham Asylum was the best Batman game ever made, and probably the best superhero game of all time. That was 2009. Two years later, developer Rocksteady aims to make a bigger, better Batman game with Batman: Arkham City. Is Arkham City the new gold standard by which all other future superhero games will be judged, has Rocksteady hit their sophomore slump?
To get things out of the way quickly: yes, Arkham City is a good game. For the most part, it’s great. Almost every mechanic introduce in Arkham Asylum has been improved upon exponentially this time around. The most notable improvement is seen in the combat. The game still uses the wonderfully innovative, and entertaining, Freeflow combat system, which has Batman fluidly fighting multiple enemies at once. But where the first game would only throw one enemy at you from the group at once, they will now attack in small groups of up to four. This requires even more focus on the types of enemies you are dealing with, and more agility with the controller, as you can dodge out of the way, or utilize the impressive new multi-counter ability. By pressing the triangle button to correspond with the number of enemies about to attack, Batman can conter all of them at once, through some very acrobatic maneuvers. Add in the ability to use just about any item in your arsenal to help add variety to combat and you have one of the most satisfying hand-to-hand fight systems ever seen in a video game. It all seems much more brutal this time around; the hits have a nice, meaty sound to them, and the finishers will cause you to wince from time to time.
This variety in combat extends to the bosses. Where Arkham Asylum overused enemies infused with the Titan formula as bosses, Arkham Asylum likes to shake things up a bit. The Titan enemies are now treated as regular combatants throughout the story, and taking them down is much more entertaining than constantly dodging out of their way. The new bosses are a plethora of villains from the Batman comics. Everyone from Solomon Grundy to Mr. Freeze make an appearance, and for the most part you’ll fight each and every one of them. Each boss fight is different from the last, and usually requires your latest gadget in order to be successful. The true standout is the fight against Mr. Freeze, which calls on a more stealthy approach, rather than simply walking up to him and wailing on him.
While the appearance of so many villains my excite most fans of the comics, those unfamiliar with the source material will be left out in the cold. Who, exactly, is Solomon Grundy? What’s the history between Bruce Wayne and Talia Al’Ghul? With just about everyone making an appearance in this game, it’s too bad that the plot doesn’t lift even the smallest finger to try to explain these characters. Unfortunately, the mishandling of the villains is only one of a few problems with the plot in general.
Arkham City opens rather clumsily with Bruce Wayne getting kidnapped at a press conference just outside of the titular city. There is very little in terms of explanation for what’s going on, so players unfamiliar with the premise will feel disoriented once they are given control of Mr. Wayne. For some reason, Dr. Hugo Strange, the game’s main antagonist, knows that Bruce is the Batman. And then he disappears for hours. Out of nowhere, you are facing the Penguin, and then you are finally in the batsuit. If that sounds a bit clumsy, that’s because it is. The game starts fast, and plays loose with any sort of story for the first few hours. Nothing ever really feels at stake, and that’s because nothing is put into perspective for the player. The voice acting is great, but the animations that accompany it are stiff when rendered in game. We know Batman will succeed, even when he is buried under a pile of rubble, so the writers really needed to try to create tension somewhere else. Unfortunately, Hugo Strange is abandoned for the majority of the game, and the only interaction between Batman and the Joker is through a cell phone for the middle portions. For the most part, the game meanders from villain to villain, plot point to plot point, and it doesn’t feel all that coherent. Eventually, the writers pulled themselves together to deliver a fast-paced, riveting third act that both challeges the player, and effects the Batman universe. It’s too bad that getting to that point, plot-wise, is too random.
One of the biggest changes Rocksteady has made for this Batman game is the world itself. Arkham Asylum was a singular location full of corridors and test chambers. Now, with events moved to Arkham City, players have an open world in which to explore with Batman. Traversing this hub world is a joy. By using the grappling hook, and the wind under his cape, Batman can easily reach from one end of the city to the other without ever touching the ground, but it requires a bit of skill to pull that off. Random enemy encounters are, more often than not, engaged by the player, and never forced on you. The side missions that pop up are also a blast to play through, including chasing down payphones to stop Zsaz from killing a helpless hostage, to trying to pin down Deadshot through investigating crime scenese. Even the Ridder trophies are fun to collect, even if there are an obscene amount, and some are a little too difficult to reach. Arkham City truly is the star of this game, and it’s as close to perfect as we’ve ever seen for a hub city.
When all is said and done, Arkham City is most definitely an improvement on Arkham Asylum. It’s less personal, and more campy, but that reflects the Batman universe as a whole. It’s a little inaccessable to those unfamiliar with every ounce of Batman lore, but even non-fans can enjoy the game once they get into it. With a multidude of downloadable characters, including some very fun Catwoman missions, and a truly challenging New Game plus mode, Batman: Arkham City will hold your attention long after you’ve completed your first playthrough. With tempered expectations on the story, this game is the best superhero game ever made.