Last week Warner Bros Games, Rocksteady Games, and DC Comics unleashed what could possibly be the best Batman game ever; quite possibly the best video game based on a comic book license as well. This was no easy task considering how great Arkham Asylum turned out to be. It might be early and there's still a ton of games left to be released in the next month or so but I'm confident that Arkham City is already a major contender for game of the year. In the following write up of the game you'll find out exactly why I feel this way. I'll try to keep this spoiler free outside of mentioning some plot threads that carried over from Arkham Asylum which was released in 2009. If you haven't gotten around to playing that yet, I highly suggest doing so but there's enough going on here that's fresh that you could probably pick up Arkham City and still understand what's going on. On with the review.
Lets get up to speed real quick before we dive into this thing. In Arkham Asylum we followed the Dark Knight into the compound that housed Gotham's most dangerous criminals after the Joker set a plan into motion to take over the Asylum. This led to encounters with an assortment of villains ranging from the likes of the Scarecrow to Killer Croc. Of course in the end the Joker's plot was foiled by the world's greatest detective but not before other plans were set in motion, leading to our sequel. The warden of Arkham Asylum, Quincy Sharp manages to use the breakout and chaos to his advantage. Sharp launches a successful campaign to become the mayor of Gotham. Once elected he sets in motion the plan to section off a portion of Gotham as the new correctional facility dubbed Arkham City. And that is where things begin.
In Arkham Asylum the story was one of the strongest parts of the game. Sure there were some moments where things seemed to get a little wonky and outlandish but at the same time you're playing a character who's a billionaire and dresses up like a bat. You should expect things to get just a little crazy. In terms of Arkham City I can honestly say the story is just as strong. The project was written again by Paul Dini who wrote the story for Arkham Asylum and also worked on the Arkham City tie in comic. Some of you may also be familiar with Dini's work as he was one of the driving creative forces behind Batman: The Animated Series along with the likes of Bruce Timm and many other talented writers. Having a writer who's so familiar with the property goes a long way towards making a great story.
You'll also see some characters pop up in Gotham city that you wouldn't normally expect to see. With each villain trying to carve out their own little spot of Arkham City they'll pull out all the stops to make sure they're in control. Naturally Batman has to go and spoil their fun, but to that effect we get to see another side of Arkham City through the eyes of Catwoman. Back when it was announced that players would get to take control of Catwoman in Arkham City no one was really sure what role she would play in the game. What Rocksteady and the writers actually did was construct a story that plays out concurrent to one another but also converge at various points. In a sense each character has a specific plot line but their interactions with one another are integral to the overall story. There is a small tidbit in regards to that though. I've only had one playthrough so far and there does come a point in Catwoman's story where you can either make a choice to save Batman or leave him. I won't say which option I chose as not to spoil the outcome of either decision but it's interesting that Rocksteady saw fit to include such an option in the story as either decision still plays well into the behavior of the character.
So overall the story is good and plays out almost exactly the way you'd expect a Batman comic to play out. There are twists, turns, and surprises. The Bat-Family lends a hand in a pinch and the Joker runs amok just as he always does. If this all sounds vague that's because I'm trying my best not to give out details on the story. You have to see some of this stuff for yourself and experience the story unfolding before you. And once you take it all in, the ending will send you for a loop because it's so appropriate for the situation and yet it could be seen as somewhat controversial. In any case, it's a story worth seeing through to the end.
|Bruce and Selina take a minute to catch up|
As I mentioned in my initial impressions the gameplay here is solid. It took me a few minutes to get back into the swing of things without a tutorial to go through the motions of being Batman again. Once I was adjusted to the control scheme again it was smooth sailing, literally and figuratively. If you played Arkham Asylum you'll be right at home with the gameplay but like me you'll realize that it's a hell of a lot tighter than it was in the previous game. When you dub your combat system the "freeflow" system then having fluid movement and responsive controls is a must. Rocksteady proved they could do such a thing with Arkham Asylum and to even greater effect this time around. Not only that but they've increased Batman's arsenal so now you have even more options in dispatching your foes while maintaining that freeflow combo streak.
Don't worry, it's not just Batman's combat capabilities that have been expanded but he packs more of those wonderful toys of his. Favorites like the Line Launcher and the Batclaw make a return and you'll even get an upgraded grapple hook that can latch onto rooftops and be used not just to pull Batman up to the rooftops but launch him further into the air to continue gliding through the streets. New gadgets into a disruptor which can be used to remotely deactivate guns and mines. In a pinch you'll be able to get away from hordes of enemies by dropping a smoke pellet which will conceal you while confusing the enemy(sometimes in a fit of panic they will swing wildly and even hit each other). These are just two of the new gadgets that you'll get to play with but there are several others that you'll find just as useful.
Much like it's predecessor, Arkham City also contains some sections of it's own unique brand of platforming. It's not straight forward platforming but rather sequences that will require a bit of logic, proper timing, and use of Batman's tools. This is mixed with some very great stealth gameplay as well. A big part of being Batman is instilling fear in your opponents and nothing helps to do that more than silently picking them off one by one until there's only one terrified thug left, jumping at the slightest noise. In moments like this it helps to use the environment to your advantage. Certain rooms will have shoddy walls and windows. Staying out of sight and waiting for the right moment can lead to a takedown involving Batman punching right through that weakened wood panel to nab an enemy and incapacitate him. From a personal standpoint though nothing is better than perching high above your enemies and unexpectedly dropping down to nab them and string them up from said perch; leaving them on display for the rest of the group to see.
Lastly you'll be happy to know that the Riddler challenges and trophies make a return in Arkham City. You'll be able to find them all over the city either on your own or by interrogating Riddler thugs who will reveal the locations of trophies and puzzles. Once again they provide a nice distraction from the story related side missions and the main story itself. And once you've completed the main story you can still go back and soar through the city to complete the challenges and find the trophies. Or you can try your hand at the newly added Game+ feature. Game+ simply allows you to run through the main story and side missions once again but you get to maintain your upgrades and unlocked gadgets from your original run. This is absolutely key as in Game+ the enemy A.I will be tougher than before. Obviously this is the next challenge I plan to tackle. But if you're done with the story and you just want to beat up thugs in succession then the combat challenge maps will be more your speed. You'll be able to take on these challenges as either Batman, Catwoman, Robin, and in November after the release of a DLC pack, Nightwing. If you're an achievement junkie or just really enjoy the combat of the game I highly suggestion trying to complete these challenge maps.
This game is incredibly gorgeous. Yes, the characters appear beefy and I think that has become the hallmark of the Unreal Engine much like EPIC's Gears of War character designs. Despite this though all the characters appear just as you'd expect them to. Costumes and characters are recreated with exceptional amounts of detail. Rocksteady's graphics team really went all out in this case and it paid off. And while this is evident in the character art, some of which I'm sure you've seen from the promotional posters and marketing materials, it's the way the city of Gotham appears in the game that is the true marvel of Rocksteady's design team.
|Joker's never looked better|
The Unreal Engine lends itself well to creating gritty, dilapidated scenery. This works perfectly for Arkham City as the premise of the game sees this once great city turned to ruins. The city is dark, dank, and slowly crumbling bit by bit. As Batman stands atop the rooftops of the city he protects you can gaze out over the expansive area that Rocksteady has built to be your playground; stocked full with landmarks you would expect to see in Gotham. You'll come across sights such as the old police department building, the steel mill run by Roman Sionis(Black Mask) and you'll even be able to visit Crime Alley where you'll able to to have Batman pay his respects to a certain chalk outline. Attention to detail like this in such a vast map is what makes Arkham City so great. Things don't get lost in the shuffle and they manage to stay true to the source material.
What also helps is the HUD(heads up display) for the game. All the vital information you need to know about Batman, your health, your gadgets and the like are handled extremely well again. You'll see this sort of information only when you need to call it up or it's important to know such as in combat. Otherwise you're free to take in the scenery of the game without it being obstructed by ugly menus or a cluttered display of vital information. There are other little visual touches that are nice as well just as rips and holes in Batman's suits and cape as he continues on through battles and scrapes with enemies. So when I put it simply and say this game is gorgeous, you probably really won't understand until it's sitting in front of you on a high definition display in all its glory. I can honestly say it's one of the best looking games released this year and there's been some visually impressive titles released in 2011.
The audio isn't that far removed from the audio in Arkham Asylum. You still have your visual cues for when the coast is clear and when Batman is engaged in combat. It's almost becoming cliche to say but the score is just what you would expect from a game about DC's hottest property. The tone of the score is dark and brooding but with a certain sense of urgency. If I had to compare it to anything it would probably be Hans Zimmer's score for Batman Begins. It's very similar in what the score tries to convey in relation to what's happening on screen.
You will find very impressive voice over work in this game though. Like I mentioned in my impressions, this game is a bit of a reunion of Batman: The Animated Series with Dini working on the story and with the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in the respective voices of Batman and the Joker. And while the original voice actor for Harley Quinn was replaced by Tara Strong, Strong does her best to pay homage to the original voice of Harley. And before I forget, I have to applaud Nolan North's performance as the Penguin. Normally when I hear Nolan North is doing a voice over there's almost a part of me that can hear Nathan Drake's voice in that character but North's Penguin is so far removed from any character he's voiced recently.
Truly though, the stars of this show are Batman and the Joker. Luckily for fans Hamill puts in one of his best performances as the Joker perhaps since the Return of the Joker animated movie. And it's fitting that it was one of his more memorable appearances as the Joker as Arkham City is Hamill's last hurrah as the character. He definitely goes out with a bang in this performance. As for Conroy, he will still remain the defining voice of the character. He's able to convey two different distinct voices for both Bruce and Batman without the Batman voice becoming ridiculous(I'm looking at you Bale).
This game is pretty much the total package. The story, the gameplay, the graphics and the sound come together to make one of the most enjoyable games of the year for me. And there is something here for all kinds of players in the gaming spectrum. If you like stealth gameplay, there's plenty of that to keep you satisfied. Big fan of third person adventure games? This just might wet your whistle. And if you're a fan of Batman..well, more than likely you're already playing this right now so I don't even need to suggest you pick it up. I thought it would be hard for Arkham City to live up to the hype after how well Arkham Asylum was received by fans and journalists/publications alike but Arkham City lives up to the hype and then some. Warner Bros and Rocksteady have a real gem of a series on their hands here. I realize this is a very glowing review and you're probably wonder why that is. Outside of the length of the main story, I didn't have any problems with the game whatsoever. The main story clocks in at over 10 hours of gameplay but that's if you're trying to tear right through it like I did. And frankly I did that for the sake of the review. There's still enough content here to warrant repeat play which I think negates the length of the main campaign. and the side quests themselves which have other little neat details really pad out the experience. In the end I'd say this is a definite must buy.