The billionaire bat with far too many a pseudonym makes his Rocksteady return in the company’s savoury sequel to 2009’s acclaimed caper, Batman: Arkham Asylum. Fans shocked that the previous iteration of the long-plagued superhero game franchise wasn’t capitalizing on the monstrous success of the Dark Knight, but was risking the road less traveled in creating its own original story and universe, were rewarded with a title that above all made you feel like the caped crusader. It was a gamble that paid in spades, er, rather riddler trophies, and two years later the Dark Knight once again aims to topple the supervillainous vermin of Gotham in Arkham City, a sequel to silence the skeptic and satisfy the silent.
Months after the Joker unleashes hell on Arkham Asylum, Hugo Strange has commissioned the prison’s expansion to encompass the entire eponymous city. But Strange is no stranger to wrongdoing, and locks up countless innocents including the playboy prince of Gotham, who’s made it his mission to shut down the hole of corruption. After breaking his bonds and donning his alter-ego, the story begins and leads Batman from one thug-infested alleyway to the next as he attempts to decipher Strange’s motives and the secret behind the oft-proclaimed Protocol 10.
Along the way, the Bat will cross paths with the most notorious of the franchise’s mythos, including Catwoman, the Penguin, Scarecrow, Bane, the Riddler, and of course, Batman’s spotlight-stealing No. 1 nemesis… the Joker. Rocksteady did plenty of justice to the mythos enthusiast in their original Arkham, and they don’t settle to disappoint in round two. Though character development can be an issue with the campaign juggling so many adversaries, structurally the solo venture remains solid via excellent pacing. Written with careful consideration and intent on upping the ante of Asylum, Arkham City’s plot never descends into tedium.
Building upon the mechanics of its predecessor, Batman is at last free to explore his element in an open world that surpasses the size of Asylum’s confines several times over. Grappling and gliding from rooftop to road, taking baddies by surprise never gets tiring, especially when coupled with a variety of about a dozen side missions that will keep Bruce’s brains busy as he tries to take down loose convicts like Victor Zsasz and Deadshot.
And herein lies one of the greatest traits of Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise (not to mention another alias): the World’s Greatest Detective is actually a detective. Yes, it’s a facet of the hero that’s been played down on the silver screen, but the investigative crime-solving that the Dark Knight has always been known for is back. Someone’s been mysteriously shot? Look around for a bullet and a cracked window, and you’ll be able to determine the shot trajectory, ultimately locating the shooter. These sequences are not all that interactive, but they go a long way in reinforcing the Batman character as more than just a capable pair of fists and nifty gadgets.
Speaking of fists, the combat system has been fleshed out to its fullest, with fluid action taking you from counter to critical strike with ease. That’s not to say that all of Arkham’s battles are a breeze, but between smoke pellets, your bat claw and batarang, and an intuitive melee mechanic, you’ll never walk into a brawl with a hundred inmates feeling outnumbered. And that’s what being the Bat is all about.
All that gameplay not enough for you? Want some more variety and replay value? Then how about a few dozen riddles and Riddler trophies strewn across the world by one Edward Nigma? And once the game’s collectibles, missions, and main storyline have all been tackled, you’re invited to do it all again in the New Game Plus mode, which carries over all your progress. Additionally, if you’ve got the points, you can download the Catwoman DLC, providing additional story missions – albeit not very long or challenging – and Riddler trophies. Suffice to say, boredom is not the engineer of evil in Arkham City.
From the streets to the skies, the game boasts a beautiful yet hauntingly resonant world. And this time, its graphical gems can be greater appreciated. Like the Splinter Cell games, a reliance on Arkham Asylum’s Bat vision feature tended to draw away from the stunning look of that game. This time, the filter has been tweaked so that you’re less inclined to rely on the visual crutch 24/7. To save the jargon, every avenue of Arkham looks damn good. From lively character models, to particles and effects, to environmental vistas like the Gotham skyline emblazoned with the Bat signal, the boys at Rocksteady have taken their time crafting artwork that universally reflects both graphic novel and movie license.
Arkham City might sound better than it looks. Of course, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill make their welcomed returns as Batman and the Joker, respectively, with their cat-and-mouse dialogue naturally highlighting all expectations. The rest of the voice cast do their part well enough, with excellent auditory ambiance that, again, makes you feel powerful and in control. You’ll be mashing baddies to a pulp as a friendly chopper leers overhead, reporting, “That’s affirmative… Batman’s kicking all kind of ass down there.” As the cherry on this quickly-becoming-obvious sundae, an epic musical score echoes the Christopher Nolan line of films, with its own two-note orchestra drive.
Arkham Asylum took by heightened surprise; Arkham City takes by delivering on heightened expectations. Rocksteady raised the bar and ensured the Dark Knight’s dominance as the most popular superhero currently grappling the media market. And they do it again. A fluid combat system, an open world to explore, a variety of missions, an ensemble voice cast including the ‘90s animated series arch-nemesis veterans, and an intricate story that represents the very best of Batman lore all weave themselves into one of the year’s indisputable best. Apart from a minor grievance with character focus and development, there’s really not much to grieve about here… and believe me, I’m good at nitpicking. If this were most any other year, Arkham City would be confident to secure Game of the Year. As it is, this is 2011, what may very well be the greatest year in gaming yet. But then again, as it is, that’s no detriment to the world’s greatest detective. If you’ve got the dough, suit up and become the bat.
- A. Fundamenski