Batman: Arkham City Review

Ok son, I think you and I need to sit down and have a chat. A chat about what people on the street are calling “collectables”. Your friends have probably told you they’re pretty cool, and that to get em’ you just you gotta do the occasional “side missions” or whatever you kids are calling it these days. But you’ve gotta understand, collecting collectables is a dark dark path that’ll leave you a mere shell of a person.

The game’ll start it off nice and easy; it’ll be like all “Dude you should totally check what’s behind that [nondescript object]!” “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if you flew through this sick set of floating hoops?” or “Hey, I’d really appreciate it if you could scan something [Batman character] related in this area”. And then, just like that, you’ll be hopelessly hooked. Then it’ll move you onto the hardcore stuff. Before you know it you’re scampering around Gotham mashing the scan button like crazy and maybe even SOLVING GODDAMN PUZZLES just to get that precious buzz for a few more seconds.

The symptoms of collectable addiction are both varied and depressing. You’ll start to isolate yourself from your family, fall in with rough crowds and in the worst cases, begin to forgo important life tasks such as saving the people of Gotham from imminent destruction at the hands of a deranged clown. Even when you do eventually get your grubby mitts on another collectable, it won’t matter one bit! You’ll already be thinking about that next fix that’s just one more menial task away.

Unfortunately Batman still refuses to move at an even moderately speedy gait unless you permanently hold down the appropriate button.

And what’s it all for? Nothing I tell you! Ok sure, there’s an achievement if you get them all. But let’s face it, there’s 400 of them and only one of you, so that’s never gonna happen. Uh, well I guess if you get enough you also unlock some awesome short stories that add a lot to the game’s storyline. Oh! And then there’s the extra combat challenges, some fun detective stuff and………. Wait. What I’m trying to say here is that the collectables in Arkham City are the work of Satan, and as such should at the very least be considered some form of controlled substance.

If this horrible story sounds a little familiar, that perhaps you encountered some of the broken homes left by 2009’s Arkham Asylum, a game you may have also heard wasn’t too shabby all things considered. Man oh man, I don’t envy Rocksteady Studios for having to try and top an act that classy. In all honesty I was totally prepared for Arkham City to be just another one of the half decent but slightly disappointing rehash sequels that came out this year. It’s not.

Once again much of the gameplay is focused around what Batman does best, namely using gadgets on things and/or inflicting painful but nonfatal damage to as many shady looking blokes as possible. To that end, the critically acclaimed “Freeflow” fighting system returns with a significantly expanded range of immensely brutal moves, yet still somehow continues to be just as accessible as it ever was. And I’m talking actually accessible here, and not the buzzword Fable 3 kind of “accessible” which is just a short way of saying “the combat it so shallow that a small woodland creature could defecate on the controller and still win” .

There’s no ridiculous combos to learn and no eldrich mechanics to spend a lifetime trying to comprehend. More than anything it’s all about perfectly timing your strikes to hit your enemies when they’re most vulnerable, much like being part of a British Trade Union. So long as Mr McAverage Gamer can get that part down, then they just need to focus on pressing the punch button when they want to deal damage, and the counter button when they need to deal damage with style. Obviously that strategy won’t solve everything, but for the more elaborate encounters there’s some handy button prompts for reminding absent minded Bat-men/women about certain integral manoeuvres.

Learning to glide correctly can seem though at first, but after a bit of practice it’ll become second nature

However that’s not to say the game doesn’t have any room for a bit of finesse when it comes to dissing out some street justice. Take the time to get a handle on the dark knight’s intricacies and you’ll be rewarded with the two most satisfying gifts that can ever be given: experience points and Batman looking like a total boss. In fact, once you get “in the zone” you’ll be seamlessly striking and countering so smoothly that the whole thing becomes almost hypnotic. If any other game had violence this fluid, it would just be part of some lame QTE that you have to do over and over at predetermined moments. But with Arkham City you’re right there in the action, controlling every punch, kick and batarang like it’s your own personal Batman fan-fiction. Well, it’s probably a bit more “work safe” than that, but you get the idea.

I guess a well-polished combat system shouldn’t be too shocking at this point though; if you’d spent any time with Arkham Asylum (if you haven’t, I feel bad for you) then you’d know that the Rocksteady Studio guys kinda had the whole “Batman punches dudes” angle down to a tee long before now. The core narrative of Arkham City shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either, particularly when it comes to escaped convict classifications in the context of winged man-mammal intercommunication. By that I mean if you’ve had even the slightest hint of exposure to any part of the expanded Batman™ media family then you know EXACTLY who almost every character is and what they’re all about right off the….uh…bat.

Hey guess what? The Joker is a murderous psychopath, Harley is disturbingly sexy murderous psychopath, Mr Freeze is semi-murderous psychopath out to save his wife at any cost, Catwoman none-murderous semi-psychopath who likes to both steal things and provided sexual tension, Bane is blah blah blah blah. Hell, even some of the specific story beats are as par for the course as humanly possible.

****** Yo, get this hot scoop! AT ONE POINT THE JOKER WILL CAUSE BATMAN TO QUESTION HIS SUPPOSEDLY UNBREAKABLE MORAL CODE, NAMELY THE PART ABOUT NOT KILLING THE JOKER!!111! ******

Plot synopsis: BATMA

Okay, so perhaps that’s a little harsh just to take it down to its base building blocks like that. For what it’s worth (which is a fair bit in my book) the oodles of supervillan vs Batman banter flows together some kind of awesome rap battle and is backed up by top class voice acting from series stalwarts Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. But more importantly, the storyline actually has some real MEAT to it this time around thanks to decent amounts of character interaction as well as few dramatic if not slightly predictable plot twists here and there. Overall it paints pretty positive contrasts to the previous game, which felt more like a “lost episode” you could just chuck into an unoccupied corner of the bat-verse without any significant impact on the overall continuity.

But for me, the real stars of Arkham City aren’t part of the usual rogues gallery and don’t own fancy caps, high tech equipment or even names of their own. They’re vital part of the comic book hero formula that’s criminally under-looked and are quite literally downtrodden: the Goons. Dotted all around Arkham City, they sit ever patiently in anticipation of the inevitable firm bat-kick to the face (what? they were standing in the way of MY collectables!). But when not engaging the world’s greatest detective in mortal combat, it seems they’re quite partial to a bit of a chin-wag. And boy will the game make sure you know about it. Spend even half a second within a block or two of some gossiping goons and the whole lurid conversation will be automatically broadcast on the bat suit’s on-board headset for seemingly no other reason than satisfying old Brucey’s morbid curiosity.

I know on paper that might sound a little annoying, but what makes it actually quite entertaining is that they’re often found discussing topics way outside their species usual repertoire, i.e. something other than “AAAAGHHH!” and “PLEASE DON’T HURT ME BATMAN!” (don’t worry, they still say that stuff a lot too). They talk about things like their fears, views on recent storyline events, how their crooked moralities work, ideals, heartbreaking naive aspirations, the difficulties of working for deranged maniacs as well as just generally how being a nameless hoodlum kinda sucks when it all comes down to it. Yeah it’s just glorified flavor text, but it goes a long way towards making Arkham feel like a living breathing world full of genuine and sometimes even sympathetic villains instead of just another mindless rent-a-thug factory.

This is of course provided you can get over the little ruffians bizarre and quite frankly uncomfortable obsession with prefacing every discussion pertaining to a female character with the word “bitch”. Normally I wouldn’t kick up much of a fuss about something like that, because I know full well that when a guy complains about this kinda thing too hard they just come across as some creep who deliberately overreacts to every case of implied sexism. But seriously, it gets WAY outta hand like you wouldn’t believe!

“Sure hope the Cat-BITCH don’t…………”

“That BITCH poison Ivy……….”

“BITCH better watch out for……….”

“The BITCH is here!”

“Crazy BITCH better………..”

“Hope the BITCH ain’t……….”

These are all utterances you can, and quite possibly WILL hear in rapid succession on an alarmingly frequent basis. If the rest of the goon chatter wasn’t so great then I’d just assume the script writer ain’t got much imagination, but instead I’m forced to presume the dude’s got some serious lady problems he needs to work out ASAP. But slightly worrying misogyny aside, Arkham City isn’t such a bad place live once you start soaking in the view.

Combat challenges are still both incredibly intense and a BITCHmassive pain to try and ace

Despite the usual trend for open world environments, every facet of the city is utterly gorgeous whether you’re gazing at the almighty arch villain’s throne room or just some irrelevant back alley that most players won’t ever even see. And don’t let the city’s post-apocalyptic motifs fool you either; turns out that a sightseeing tour around new Arkham is anything but boring. You can barely even glance in any one direction without seeing at least a couple of collectables stunningly lavish locations, many of which reference over seventy years of the dark knights history, ranging from painfully overt to the beautifully obscure.

Although that stuff might just sound like the usual fanboy/girl fuel, in practice it gives Arkham City some real personality that other video game settings often struggle to attain. It feels a place with some heart, a place with its own history, but most of all a place that actually matters in the grand scheme of (Batman) things. In all, it probably makes the city itself one of the most well developed video game characters of the year!

That said, how you actually interact with that character might come as a bit of a surprise as it isn’t so much a “sandbox” environment in the traditional sense. Yes it’s an open area for you to explore and everything, but it’s absolutely tiny when compared to its contemporaries like Saint’s Row the Third’s Steelport and or Skyrim’s….. Skyrim. But more surprisingly, nothing meaningful to the narrative ever really takes place there at all. Mechanically all it does (Other than being a warehouse for hundreds of collectables) is act as hub world that connects together all the enclosed indoor environments where the real story missions actualy take place.

Oh, and about those story missions! Uh, remember Arkahm Asylum’s? Ok, It’s those but a bit better. Beat up a whole army of punks single handed, solve an elaborate Metroid-esque gadget based puzzle and then witness an awesome scripted set piece unfold before you. Repeat until done. It’s more of the same for sure, but there’s been enough moderate improvements to every aspect of gameplay that it makes experiencing that award winning formula all over again a joy and not a chore. But with that in mind, understand that if you didn’t get a rise out of Arkham Asylum then this game is extremely unlikely to float your boat either (also, I don’t like you).

Hopefully Rocksteady’s use of immersive playable set pieces instead of static cutscenes will shame other developers into following suit

The developers have obviously put at least some work into dealing with the previous titles stumbling blocks too, but sadly it comes across as a rather half-hearted effort in many cases. A prime example of comes to mind when I unseal the painful repressed memories of Arkham Asylum’s answer to boss battles: awful bullfighting minigames with nameless doped up goons that could swat you dead in a couple of strikes. Good news: those have now been replaced with really awesome looking fights with fully fledged Batman villains! Bad news: all bar one of them is really REALLY monotonous to actually play.

But a lot of the issues Arkham City have are even more fundamental than that, relating more to how the game is structured as a whole rather than specific mechanics. The one that really bugged me the most is how the game will almost never allow you to blend together any of the styles of play it offers you. Due to Its open nature, this problem isn’t so readily apparent while prowling Gotham’s streets jumping from one type of task to the next. But as soon as you enter an unexplored room within one of those all-important story missions, you know full well within a matter of seconds whether you’re expected to:

a) Use your gadgets to solve a puzzle.

b) Hurt some goons.

c) Hurt some goons with stealth.

Attempts to mix and match any of said tasks will often prove either impossible or sometimes even act as a fast track ticket to the game over screen. A really impressive looking game over screen yes, but still not exactly the result you want to find from such an endeavour. But you know what? None of those issues were deal breakers last time around, so they most certainly aren’t this time either. Especially when in every other regard Arkham City manages to take all the strengths that made Asylum Asylum one of the best games of this generation and expands on them in unique and interesting ways! In essence it’s everything a sequel really should be, but ever so rarely is.

Good

– Freeflow battle system is even better than before.
– Well developed setting.
– Entertaining dialog.
– Collectables!

Bad

– Heavily segmented gameplay.
– Crummy boss battles.
– COLLECTABLES. MOOOOOORE.

Recommended Similar Game

Just cause 2 – A gigantic carefree open world game that somehow makes even more liberal usage of both gliding and grappling hooks than the caped crusader himself.

Assassin’s Creed 2/Brotherhood – No gliding or grappling hooks here, but still plenty of rooftops and crazy gadgets to be getting on with.

inFamous 1/2 – Much like Arkham City, its got heavy comic book influences and contains an unusually small but tightly focused sandbox experience.

Spiderman: Web of Shadows – As well as being another sandbox title, it’s also one of the few other decent superhero games out there! Unfortunately the Spiderman franchise went a bit downhill after this one though…

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