Batman: Arkham City ReviewGreg Knoll
Two years ago, Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum shocked the world.
What was previously a genre marred by useless titles and cheap efforts, existing solely to cash in on a booming movie franchise, now became yet another avenue for developers to tread, and for fans another medium. Asylum-released well after Dark Knight had blazed through theatres-proved to us that if developers care enough about actually making a good game, instead of making a game fast enough while it's still relevant, that anything is possible.
Asylum, though, was so good in fact that it made me-and probably many of us-very nervous. Was it luck and ambition, the drive of a not-so-well known studio to break into the industry? Was it something more, something deeper? And ultimately, the greatest question: could they do it again?
Nearly two years to the day, Rocksteady and Eidos released Arkham City, what was to be a larger, more varied title than the first, delving deeper into the myth and phenomenon of the Dark Knight and giving gamers a grander world in which to play with all those wonderful little toys...
It takes place only a year after the events set in Asylum. Given Batman's exhaustive efforts to free Gotham, I imagined I would see a city with its eyes finally open. Ready to embrace him and finally cast the super-criminals into a hole they could never crawl out of. Oddly, it was the exact opposite. They gave them more. Warden Sharp has become Mayor, and with his newfound power, sanctioned off a larger portion of the city to serve as a dwelling for every criminal inhabitant of both Arkham and Blackgate, leaving the bizarre, almost insane Dr. Hugo Strange in charge of it all.
Immediately that sells City to many. It creates a more involved world for us to traverse and strengthens the free-roam/sandbox appeal that was somewhat limited in the first. I'll say this, though I'm being honest: it's there-on a mammoth scale and it is exciting. That's not why I play Batman games, nor will actively seek that option out. I would be just as happy with a game that took place in an I.H.O.P. so long as I actually got to be Batman...to immerse myself in his world and feel like the Caped Crusader. That's why I bought Arkham City.
Only, I didn't get to be Batman...
Not at first anyway...I was simply Bruce Wayne. There I stood atop a stage, behind a podium, advocating the immediate dismissal of Arkham City. No sooner had I started talking than the guards of Arkham City-Tyger-rushed in, detaining me as if I was some common thug and without remorse or care, hurled me into a world that was ripping itself apart from the inside. Handcuffed and all but helpless, I lurched my way through check in, dodging-but unable to do anything else-several attacks directed at me. For some reason, Penguin made it his objective to destroy Bruce the moment he was inside those walls.
And I thought Batman was hated...
At first, it was frustrating. The wonderful combat present in the first game was limited by handcuffs, and I could simply dodge and try to survive. I wanted to lay into them as I had in the original. I'm impatient like that, and didn't realize-immediately-exactly what Rocksteady was doing. Those cruel geniuses were baiting me. Drawing me in.
As though they could read my mind, what I ultimately sought with the game, they pushed me into a fight I couldn't escape. My first welcome party was from The Penguin himself, his gift of bloodthirsty thugs. Lots of them. I dodged, once then twice, took a bad hit. But upon my third dismissal of a blow I managed to snap the handcuffs. I was free. And all those around me would fall...
Penguin escaped. I radioed to Alfred for support. I would watch the Batwing scrape the sky, would work my way up to an empty roof, of which the loyal butler had dropped a large container. Piece by piece I would put on the suit, place the cowl over my face. Completely adorned, I would stare out over the city-the city I loved and would once again need to save. In that moment, I was sold. In that moment, I was Batman.
I apologize. Most times, I try to remain objective. Give you information while trying not to gush like an utter fanboy...but that was without question the greatest thing I've ever seen in any game. It limited me, crippled me. Made me miss my gadgets and everything that was wonderful about the first game and Batman in general. Once I had them back, I tore through the city using every last one of them. Picking fights with thugs, scaling buildings and gliding over a much grander stage. Finally feeling as though I was home, and Rocksteady had given it to me.
Their brilliance, however, would not end there. Nor ever, actually. Asylum revolved around one central theme and focused on one main goal and nemesis-Joker. This time, nearly every famed character plays a much larger part. The ones we missed, hoped we would see in the first part, are finally present. It begins with saving Catwoman from the clutches of Two-Face, a rather simple battle made up mostly of thugs-an obvious effort to teach new fans the combat system, old fans a refresher. It also establishes exactly what a mistake building a huge prison in the middle of the city was, then placing every violent criminal inside its walls. Not five seconds after saving Selina does Joker make another attempt at her life via a sniper rifle. Not only is every faction inside hunting down Batman; they're warring with each other. That is the true essence of Arkham City. It centers ultimately around Strange, first finding out exactly what he's planning and inevitably stopping him but there are greater tasks at hand, and battles to be waged.
Some will find you hunting down Penguin, oddly enough to rescue Mr. Freeze from his clutches. Later, you fight the cryogenic madman himself. This perhaps was one of the best boss battles. Freeze is not like any other enemy. Taking him head-on is suicide so you must stalk him, come at him from the shadows. There's only one downside fighting someone as brilliant as Dr. Fries. He learns your tactics, studies you as you study him. Anything you use can't be used again. You must adapt, use your environment and vary your tactics in order to defeat him. Once again, Rocksteady shows its brilliance by not just allowing you to become Batman but almost forcing you to.
You'll face Ra's Al Ghul and his Demon Trials-a section much like that found in the first part with Scarecrow. Or try exhaustively to bring down the immortal Solomon Grundy. I dare to say that nearly every villain present in Batman's comics can be found here.
Side missions play a huge part in this as well. It's no longer strictly deciphering riddles and gathering trophies. Yes, that has returned but a greater emphasis has been placed on expanding the side quests and bringing even more faces into the game. You can opt to hunt Deadshot, using detective mode to analyze the trajectory of his bullet and tracing him to his last location. Or you can seek out the mysterious serial killer, one who's made a habit of cutting off his victim's faces. Race from pay phone to pay phone before Zsasz gets bored and slays the hostages you're so desperately trying to save. One even hurls you into a twisted, maddening world. I won't reveal the secret, as you simply have to play it but I will tell you The Mad Hatter is involved.
Such a task seems almost daunting, even to those familiar with Asylum but as with everything else, Rocksteady has expanded. The gadgets are improved. The batclaw can now yank guns right out of an enemy's hands, the remote controlled batarang can intentionally miss a target only to swing back and hit them from behind-completely catching them off guard. The line launcher has the option to change direction mid-slide, allowing Batman to go in a completely different direction.
The combat is smoother, and more than one counter can be used at a time. Brilliant animations where Batman stops mid-strike to raise his hand and block an incoming attack at his side, then finishes both enemies off with incredible style. Stun an enemy and you can perform a beat down-a blinding fury of attacks that no thug can escape. Every gadget you have can seamlessly be integrated within combat, each assigned with a quickfire button to work them in to your already impressive fray.
In some situations, it's almost necessary. Enemies are more abundant, smarter and are equipped with greater tools to battle the Dark Knight. Some lay proximity bombs in areas you may frequent, others have heat sensors that can track you anywhere-even when you're hiding in the rafters. They gang up on you, coordinate their attacks to hit you at the same time and pick up weapons that other thugs have dropped.
Yet another example of how vast and intricate City is. I could honestly go on for another five pages. Tell you of the side-story which allows you to play Catwoman or about Robin's appearances throughout the game. Speak on the abundant Riddler challenges or the improved graphics-ones that made the dark, gritty world of Gotham come to life. I would love to, and I would rave about those aspects and do the same about every other but...you simply need to play it. Find out for yourself how incredible and broadened the world Rocksteady has created. It's daunting and intimidating, a massive city filled with enemies and dangers that seem almost unyielding. One that finds you amidst a sea of madness and turmoil, alone but far from helpless, as when it's all said and done, Rocksteady has made a game that finally allowed me to say the one thing I've waited years for....
I Am Batman.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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