Batman: Arkham City Review (Xbox 360)

When one thinks of what they want from a Batman game, the same things always seem to be brought up: good stealth mechanics, fighting mechanics and above all, to actually ‘feel’ like you’re Batman. Arkham City brings all of these to the table and delivers, what could arguably be, one of the best Batman experiences in recent times and is most definitely one of the best games released this year.

It all started with the release of Arkham Asylum back in Autumn of 2009, a game which many feared to be just another bog-standard superhero game but turned out to be a critically acclaimed entry for the history books. The Batman game that people had been waiting for had finally arrived. Running through the world’s most dangerous asylum, beating the senses out of mindless thugs and super villains, had never been quite so good. For that reason, it would be rather difficult for Rocksteady, the relatively new developers to the scene, to improve on what many considered the ‘ultimate Batman experience’, but they have risen to the challenge and created Arkham City, and in the process, have created a game which all future superhero video games will have to live up to.

The story kicks off 18 months after the events of Arkham Asylum. The bulging population of crazies in the prison has pushed its limits, and an area of Gotham City has been siphoned off as the new maximum security prison, home to all the super criminals and villains that we’ve all come to know and love despite their need to kill and maim. Familiar faces pop up in Arkham City, such as Poison Ivy and her plant armies, Mister Freeze, the small but cocky mouthed Penguin and of course, Batman’s arch-nemesis himself, the Joker. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when innocent people are unceremoniously dragged off the streets and tossed into the prison, including Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, who is snatched at a press conference imploring the closure of the prison. The city is being run by none other than Hugo Strange, who is in charge of Arkham and running it with a typical dictator attitude, even going as far as to sit in a giant, impenetrable tower (don’t they know this never ends well?). Batman then takes it upon himself to investigate what is really going on in Arkham City, and gets to kick several layers of criminal ass in the meantime.

The main story, that will consume around 8-10 hours of your life on normal difficulty, delivers the same quality of writing that you have to come to expect after Arkham Asylum. Being in an open world environment has given Rocksteady the chance to expand the story beyond one building and it has not failed. Plot twists arrive thick and thin along the way and the higher number of villains in the game contributes to a well fleshed out campaign that never gets repetitive. Although the increased number of villains leads to a more varied experience, the length of the main story is somewhat of a disappointment, even with taking time out to slowly absorb the plot. However, it is aided by the addition of a new game + (you restart the story with all your gadgets intact but tougher enemies) and side missions, another benefit of the open world environment.

There are 12 in total, which include you running after ringing telephones in chase of Zsasz, investigating sniper victims to apprehend Deadshot and being imprisoned in a dream-like state by, the wonderfully deranged, Mad Hatter. They all contribute to the atmosphere of the game, and none more so than the Riddler challenges. Scattered across the city are trophies waiting to be collected, some hidden in various puzzles to solve, as well as several ‘hostage rooms’ where you have to rescue a poor soul who will be burned to death, electrocuted or otherwise suffer a horrible execution unless you save them. Doing the Riddler side mission would, by itself, take up a huge chunk of your time so if that is your thing, you’re going to be spending a small block of your life going through these, although the vast amount of time you will spend gathering obscurely placed trophies may lead you to want to put your fist through your screen. 

Returning from Arkham Asylum are the challenge rooms, a series of, as you’d guessed, varied difficulty tasks ranging from clearing out a room of baddies as quick as possible, or kicking the crap out of three dozen enemies to achieve the highest score possible. The vast quantity of these will keep you going for a long time, and this is also the only chance you get to play as Robin, Batman’s sidekick and stick-wielding resident ass kicker. There are challenge rooms available for Batman, Robin and Catwoman so if you’re a particular fan of either, and it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t be, then you have a home in the challenge rooms. Some of the challenges are more than a little testing to the average player, so prepare for many raging sessions and potential ‘controller through the window’ moments before you achieve that all important high score. 

Making a return from the Asylum, and in finer form than ever, is the free-flow combat system. You have two buttons, and two buttons alone, at your disposal to punch, kick and leap across the room as you hop from one poor sap to the next. In case you’re wondering, that is the X button, and the Y button is to counter any foolish enemies who attempt to land a punch on Batman. The B button is to stun your foes and there are various combos available to upgrade to that allow you to unleash a swarm of bats to disorientate your enemies, or destroy their weapons and vice versa. It sounds ever so simple but when you’re surrounded by two dozen foes who all want a piece of you, it becomes quite tricky to keep that combo going whilst avoiding a sucker punch from behind. Throw in a couple of shields, stun weapons, armoured enemies and guns and a simple combat system suddenly becomes an all out brawl to the death. That being said, the combat system just works. The ease and fluidity, and overall sense of empowerment, of the combat system is something that Rocksteady really have to be commended on. It almost feels, as you move from one foe to the next with such delicacy and flexibility, that you’re orchestrating a symphony, albeit it with the sound of fists colliding with faces instead of musical notes. 

One drawback to the free-flow system, and there are few, is that it can sometimes lead to a feeling of repetitiveness as Batman finishes enemies with the same move he performed just moments ago. Also, if you see Batman perform a cool move during a fight, you are guaranteed to see it happen again and not too long after. It’s a slight fault with an otherwise fantastic system, and perhaps more of a personal issue than a widespread one.

Batman is not the only one in Arkham City to make full use of the free-flow system. His trusty sidekick Robin, who is only playable in the challenge rooms as mentioned earlier and for some reason, looks like Cole from the inFamous games, has his own set of combos and finishing moves. After playing as him for a little while, I am thoroughly disappointed that Rocksteady did not include a set of story missions for him as they did with Catwoman. Speaking of the feline femme fatale, playing as her really is a wonderful experience. She prowls, hops and pounces with every bit of ferocity and speed as you would expect from the feminine hero. The inclusion of Robin and Catwoman is something that Rocksteady did well, but it almost makes me wish that there was some element of co-op gaming, particularly in the challenge rooms, to take advantage of the added characters. I can just imagine one person playing as Batman whilst the other is playing as Robin and having to solve Riddler puzzles together, but alas, there is none of that to be had in Arkham City. Damn you Rocksteady! 

The world’s greatest detective should have the world’s greatest detective mode, which by no strange coincidence, is present in this game. With a quick push of LB, Batman’s field of vision becomes a sea of blue mixed with oranges and cyans to indicate armed and disarmed enemies, respectively. You’ll probably find that you’ll spend 50% of the entire game in detective mode, especially during the, very brilliant, stealth sections of the game. Sitting atop a gargoyle (yep, those are back from Arkham Asylum) and looking down on your foes, similarly to an eagle stalking its prey from above, feels so satisfying and the detective mode contributes to this feeling. You always know where your enemies are, what they’re equipped with and, heck, even how nervous they are. You can be certain that their status switches to ‘terrified’ when Batman strings somebody up from above!

It wouldn’t be a Batman game without the caped crusader taking time out to stalk his prey from the shadows, and you’ll be doing plenty of that in this game. There is only one objective: take out all the enemies in the room whilst trying to keep as low a profile as possible. Easy, right? Wrong. You can attempt the fist-in-the-face approach but you’re likely to get pumped full of lead for your troubles. The correct method is to skulk in the shadows and pick off your targets one by one, like Batman would. As you progress through the game, you are faced with tougher types of enemies to defeat, such as enemies with thermal goggles who can see you in the dark, jamming equipment to disrupt your detective vision and foes who lay down proximity mines. Strangely, the more difficult your targets are, the more exciting eachsession becomes. It is very easy to simply sit on top of a gargoyle for ten minutes, listening to the hapless idiots below you terrified at where the next attack will come from, with a big grin on your face as you plan where to unleash merry hell on them. With an open world environment at their disposal, the variations in terrain provide a marginally different experience than Arkham Asylum, where you were simply confined to a single room each time.

In conjunction with the free-flow combat system, Rocksteady has really gone out of their way to give you a game that not only has you playing as Batman, but feeling like Batman. Such a feat is not easily accomplishable and many other games have failed in their efforts. It is quite clear, from spending many hours on the game, that they simply understand what is wanted from a superhero game, specifically Batman. The stealth sections are intricately designed as to allow multiple different routes to clear out the area, meaning that you could choose to do it a totally different way the next time you played through the game, not to mention the various new gadgets that have been added to Batman’s arsenal this time around that allow you to mix up your technique.

All of the gadgets from the first game, such as the batarang and the explosive gel, have made a return and are available from the start instead of having to unlock them. Joining them are several new additions, including smoke pellets, a weapon jammer to disrupt enemy guns and proximity mines, and freeze grenades that can immobilise an enemy whilst you immobilise his friends. These are unlocked by earning XP, which is obtained from gaining big combos and just generally knocking out enemies and completing objectives. You can use them in combat situations, or in stealth sections. Either way, they add to the overall experience and, when used correctly, can easily aid with a tricky situation that you need help with. Plus, some of the riddler puzzles that are hidden across the city require the use of particular gadgets so you are almost guaranteed to use each one at least once.

Coming back to the point made earlier; the inclusion of these gadgets contributes significantly to the overall sense that you are Batman, and he does not like to go without his gizmos. The way that they are so effortlessly included into combat situations makes said combat even more exciting and it gives you the opportunity to mix and match your fights each time you encounter one. I know that I have mentioned the fact that you are made to feel like Batman several times in this review, but in a sense, Arkham City feels like a Batman ‘simulator’ and the gadgets that you can play with only add to this feeling.

Every good Batman game needs a set of villains to contest the dark knight’s skill sets, and Arkham City is bursting at the seams with them. From the intimidating, but very easy, Solomon Grundy (born on Monday, christened on Tuesday, married on Wednesday, ass kicked on Thursday), Ra’s al Ghul and the dream-like surroundings in which you face him on and Mister Freeze, who learns every move you make, forcing you to switch up your tactics. There is even a very surprising boss that appears at the end, which I won’t spoil for you! No boss fight ever feels the same, and some villains appear in the game that you don’t get to fight, such as Bane and Poison Ivy. It all contributes to the experience (yes, that again!) and the game really wouldn’t be the same without them. There has been a lot of talk that there are too many villains in Arkham City, but you can never have too many famous faces around, providing you make adequate use of them. Unfortunately, some of the villains, such as Poison Ivy and to an extent, Harley Quinn, do feel like they were included purely to make up the numbers and it is a shame as, particularly in the case of Poison Ivy, at the very most, a side mission could have stemmed from their appearance within the game.

For a game that is contained within a sprawling, open world city, one of the prerequisites is that it has to look pretty, and by all accounts, it does. From the moment you are dumped into the dark, miserable wasteland that is Arkham City, you are dazzled by the atmosphere and the beauty of what is, essentially, a cesspit of violence and death. Beyond the walls of the city, you can see the bright cityscape of Gotham, a stark contrast to the surroundings you’re going to be getting acquainted with. The graphics are top of the range, particularly the lighting. Catch Batman in the right light and an intimidating silhouette will spread across the ground; the perfect kind of mood to be set in a game like this. Not only have Rocksteady made every effort to make this game a stellar addition to the Batman franchise, but they’ve clearly put as much effort into making sure the city is as gorgeous and mood-setting as possible. It can sometimes be a little too dark in some areas, but that is easily worked around by adjusting your brightness or, if you are that way inclined, using it to further your experience as Batman. Also, the fact that you will spend a lot of your time in detective mode negates the effect the visuals will ultimately have on you, as you cannot see anything other than blue, orange and cyan. It’s almost counter-productive, as you cannot fully appreciate the excellent graphics without compromising the excellent experience as Batman, fulfilled with using the detective mode.

As well as being bewitchingly good-looking, Arkham City also sounds good to the ears. Returning to the role of the dark knight, Kevin Conroy sounds more believable as Batman than the throat cancer movie version. Also returning, for one final outing, as the Joker is Mark Hamill, who does an even better job at being absolutely maniacal than he did in Arkham Asylum. As well as a great duo at the helm of the story, Arkham City also benefits from a great ensemble cast, such as Nolan North voicing the Penguin and Stana Katic as Talia Al Ghul. Every character sounds alive due to the stellar voice acting, with plenty of inspired choices among the cast, particularly Grey DeLisle, who truly channels the spirit of Catwoman with her voice work.

As well as having a believable set of characters, Arkham City is a game that makes excellent use of sound in all areas. Hearing the wind whistle gently between your wings, or the subtle sound of an enemy being frozen to the spot by your carefully planted freeze grenade, all come alive gloriously. In the stealth sections, being able to hear your enemies talk as you flit from one to the other, pulverising each one, highlights just how good a job Rocksteady has done with their game.

So, is Arkham City worthy of being added to your collection? You bet it is. It would be a travesty if you didn’t. From the very first, captivating, moment right to the emotional ending, the story, albeit shorter than expected, is a high that you’re not going to want to come down from. It is a testament that Rocksteady took the best parts of Arkham Asylum and made them even better for their second entry in the Batman franchise, and shows just how big a future they have in the video game industry. Not only is Arkham City the best Batman game in history, it is also a benchmark for what all future superhero games will have to live up to, and it is an exceptionally high standard. One thing is for certain: Batman has never been this good before. 

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