It’s a good time to be a Batman fan. Since the nadir that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, followers of the caped crusader have been gifted some of his best story arcs, two great Nolan films and, with the release of Arkham City, two fantastic Batman games.
Following the closure of Arkham Asylum and the mysterious razing of nearby Blackgate prison, Gotham’s criminal population have been herded into the just-completed Arkham City, a walled-off section of wider Gotham City where they may pretty much do as they please short of escaping. Preventing such an event (other than hundred-foot high walls topped with razor wire) are TYGER, a private security firm who watch over the city from choppers and answer only to Hugo Strange, an ex-Arkham psychiatrist-turned prison warden.
However, from the moment Strange’s bloodless tenor first reverberates around the narrow alleyways, abandoned tenements and decaying heart of what was once a collection of thriving Gotham neighbourhoods, it’s clear he may not be the best man for this particular job.
Orwell overtones notwithstanding, it is not the floodlights and automatic weapons of TYGER that pose the biggest threat to the new fish of Arkham, it is those with whom they share her crumbling visage. Most of Gotham’s most notorious evil-doers reside within Arkham, and all are keen to stake their claim as its top dog (or penguin), recruiting thugs on the promise of food, weaponry or merely a slightly extended existence. Tensions are high, allegiances fluid, and warfare imminent.
Into this mess steps Bruce Wayne, not as a benefactor but rather as a prisoner, locked up without trial for protesting Arkham’s proximity to the innocent as well as Strange’s alleged mistreatment of inmates. Naturally, it’s all a ruse on Bruce’s behalf, and the delivery of a batsuit completes his infiltration into Arkham where he may do what he does best: some good old fashioned detectin’. Are the rumours of Joker’s Titan poisoning accurate? What is Protocol Ten? What’s Professor Strange really up to? In the beginning he has only questions.
Arkham Asylum’s greatest achievement was making Batman a complete badass without excising the challenge as a side-effect and therefore making the game too easy. As it does with many things in that game, Arkham City takes this concept and kicks it up several notches. Now with a small city to navigate, even the relatively mundane act of steering Bats across rooftops to the next mission is incredibly fun, fast and easy. Holding the A button will see him traverse almost everything, and he’ll stop short of toppling from the skyline, instead automatically perching atop railings and fences ready to pounce or dive into the fray.
Gliding over the fractured landscape of Arkham is even more thrilling. With grapple points everywhere and an easily obtainable grapple boost upgrade at his disposal, Batman can propel himself quickly across the game world, silently and in style. Dive-bombs and swooping low-passes never get old, nor does plummeting into the harbour (which, fortuitously, isn't fatal). In short, Rocksteady has made the most basic element of any game – moving the character – a joyful and empowering experience, something many other publishers ought to try sometime.
Along with the setting, the seamless combat of Asylum has been expanded too, with a number of new moves added to help counterbalance shielded or blade-wielding enemies. These also keep things from becoming a two-button mash-fest, as does the ability to quick fire most weapons (including a number of fun new gadgets) at close range as was possible with the batarang in Asylum.
The slow-mo finishing moves that put a full-stop on each encounter in Asylum are still present and awesome, but noticeably shorter to keep things ticking along. Other new additions are enemies tossing grenades to try and bring Batman out from cover, detective mode-jamming equipment on some baddies, and infra-red goggle-wearing enemies who make hiding in the shadows more difficult. All that said, there are still few enemies who will pose a problem if they aren’t toting firearms, and even that variety of scumbag are easily dispatched if approached in a stealthy manner.
Indeed, wading into large groups of thugs using new combos is sometimes just too enticing – however risky – so it’s a good thing the parry works as well as it does. Few games do many-on-one melee fighting as well as this.
Another thing Arkham City does exceptionally well is narrative. Written by Paul Dini, a man with a long association with the Batman brand who is responsible for some of its greatest comics and animated episodes, the story here is compelling. It's also appropriately wide-scale, and features a lot of classic Batman villains without feeling at all rushed, or like some kind of hurried police line-up. The dialogue too is exceptional, and there are plenty of nods to Batgeeks in references to multiple iterations of Batman as well as ample mentions or fleeting glimpses of minor characters, significant locations and prior Batuniverse happenings.
Of course, the greatest videogame story ever written would be all for naught if it we delivered to the player through, say, email logs on terminals scattered around the game. Fortunately Arkham City recognises the need to preserve momentum as well as hold interest, and here the influence of Hollywood is felt, which is not at all a bad thing.
From the outset, the game is incredibly cinematic, from the overall presentation to the fantastic orchestral score by Asylum composers Ron Fish and Nick Arunde. Amazingly, the game intro is even stronger than that of Asylum – itself no slouch – making judicial use of cinema devices such as crosscutting, flashbacks and foreshadowing to effectively convey vital information and set the mood whilst remaining playable and entertaining all at once. The point of view shot in the game’s opening minutes with Strange speaking directly to the player who is seen in the reflection in his glasses as Batman is typical; excellent use of a common device to pull the player straight into Wayne’s body and mind, all while keeping the plot moving.
As expansive as Arkham City is, it is still a very directed experience. There are many side-missions in the form of rescue or detective vignettes (easily referenced and switched between with a press of the back button), but the randomness and freedom of a Grand Theft Auto isn’t there. This is certainly not a negative, just a point of clarification. That the vast majority of the main story takes place within buildings rather than on the streets or rooftops of Arkham further underlines that the city is the setting, not the star.
A glorious setting it is though, striking a nice balance between Burton-era fantastical Gotham and Nolan-era grim reality. For a place perpetually covered by brooding clouds and assaulted by sleet it’s surprisingly colourful. Grey and rusty-brown clouds sweep overhead and searchlights are choked by smog, but a kaleidoscope of brightly flickering neon illuminates the crooked radio towers and skyscrapers which claw towards the heavens.
Fortunately, the internal environs of Arkham are just as alluring as its expanses, and many secrets in the form of Riddler trophies, Joker balloons, Penguin.. er.. penguins and other collectibles are everywhere. Buildings are labyrinthine and not mapped with the finest detail though, so remembering where that entry grate was is a good idea. Speaking of the collectibles, there are no riddles until a Riddler-centric side-mission, but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity. Scarecrow’s nightmarish levels have also been replaced with woozy trips down the rabbit hole, or off into the spirit world courtesy of a couple of staple DC characters.
Outside of the hugely satisfying main campaign and new game plus mode are Catwoman’s four-chapter heist story and an expanded challenge room mode, where up to three rooms may be strung together and certain modifiers employed over the course of completing them, some of which aid and some of which hinder the Bat. Catwoman’s segment intertwines with Batman’s but may also be played as a standalone mini-campaign which sees her whip, caltrop and bolo her way to victory. She’s even faster and more agile than Batman and can also crawl around on the ceiling, which distinguishes her a bit from the main event himself and mixes things up nicely. Side note or not, it’s great to be able to play as her for a while.
Arkham City does what everyone hoped it would yet feared it couldn’t; expand and improve on Arkham Asylum. Indeed, Arkham City is a bigger and better game in all regards, delivering an immaculately presented, rich, compelling play experience and gripping story while simultaneously respecting its source material’s legacy and pushing the Batman myth further forward.
A serious contender for game of the year, it’s a title that deserves the widest possible audience and immediate, plentiful DLC.