It’s been over 72 years since the world got its first exposure to the Caped Crusader, and in that time he’s covered a lot of ground. With a veritable mountain of comic book appearances, movies, and merchandise, Bruce Wayne has been around the block a few times. But no matter how many times he eradicates the criminal presence from said block it seems that some new crisis crops up to keep old Bats in the game. And while some of his exploits have been… less than impressive, a previously unknown game studio in London got their hands on him and in 2009 gave us what had up until now been the single greatest Batman game ever produced.
Two years later and Rocksteady Studios is back with Arkham City, the much-anticipated sequel to Arkham Asylum and a pretty good example of how to take your previous work and expand on it in order to effectively one-up yourself. Arkham City takes the same winning formula that made Asylum so enjoyable and cranked it all the way up to eleven. It’s not just more of the same; it’s a real expansion of what we saw before and takes nearly as big of a step forward as Nolan did when he went from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight.
|Come a long way, haven’t you, Bats?|
The game’s story takes place approximately one year after the events of Arkham Asylum. Warden Quincy Sharp has somehow talked the Gotham city council into cordoning off a sizeable portion of the city for use as a prison. Imagine Escape from New York, only replace Kurt Russell with Batman. Warden Sharp has relinquished principle control over the new prison facility to Hugo Strange, a villain who tends to be largely under-utilized within the Batman world despite his rather unique traits. At the outset of the game, Bruce Wayne is captured by Strange while giving a speech denouncing the new prison and is subsequently thrown in amongst the criminal population who are waging a massive gang war under the leadership of figures such as Two-Face, The Penguin, and everybody’s favorite clown The Joker. From there, you’ll don the cowl and go about trying to find out what exactly is going on in Arkham City and what you can do to stop it.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you boot up the game for the first time is that somebody did a serious overhaul of the graphics. While the game was no real slouch in the visuals department the first time around, things have been seriously beefed up for the sequel. Facial animation in particular is significantly more expressive, even managing to give the almost incessantly brooding Dark Knight a bit of extra emotion now and again. And once the camera pulls away from the close up shots you realize that movement and combat animations have been similarly improved. While engaging crowds of mooks in a fistfight, you’ll notice that Batman has a distinct animation for nearly every punch, every kick, every block, and every toss of a batarang from virtually every approachable angle. You’ll hardly ever see awkward repositioning of enemies as the game forces them into appropriate markers so Batman can carry out his attacks. The Freeflow combat system is back with a vengeance and it’s almost impossible to get tired of the simple joys of beating down the criminals of Gotham.
|This isn’t even remotely a fair fight; he’s Batman.|
What you’ll notice next is one of the defining differences between the Arkham games: Arkham City is big. It might not be the size of Liberty City, New Austin, or Florence, but when compared to the single prison complex of the Asylum that you were confined to last time, there’s a lot more ground to cover. The city is entirely enclosed either by high walls or the Gotham Bay, giving you a clearly defined play area to traverse, which you can do with remarkable simplicity using a combination of your grapnel gun and your cape to launch yourself into the air and then glide above the city like… well, like a bat. Unique districts and neighborhoods divide the city into a number of smaller areas that each have their own aesthetic and points of interest but can all be transitioned between fluidly with no loading times. Everything is placed in a way to make the city feel immense, but given expeditious use of your gliding capabilities you can still get from one end to the other in about three minutes.
This new installment in the Arkham franchise also introduces something that the previous game had virtually nothing of: sidequests. Legitimate, RPG-style sidequests. While some might question the utility of carrying out a tangential mission while Hugo Strange vies for a near dictatorial grip over Gotham, these additions to the main story are a welcome chance to immerse yourself in the Batman lore. Whether you’re investigating a sniper attack by Deadshot or frantically trying to track down Victor Zsasz before he kills again, these departures from your principle objective are not only fun, but are legitimately fascinating as you’re thrust deeper into Batman’s world. This applies doubly so to the Catwoman subplot which has you control Selena Kyle as she tries to make her way in Arkham. This isn’t just some tacked-on character skin that you can throw on for a few minutes of fun, Catwoman is a fully realized playable character with her own distinct combat animations and situational dialogue. Not only is it a an excellent companion to the main game that enriches the overall experience, but it’s a good use of free day-one DLC to help combat used game sales a-la Project Ten Dollar.
|Not in the faces!|
Additionally, if you played the first game then you’ll recall the Riddler Challenges that tormented you every time you entered a room in which you hadn’t solved the riddle, or every time you consulted the map with that one lingering question mark still hovering over it, letting you know that you weren’t done with the game yet, dear player. Oh no, there was still much to do. Well, Edward Nigma is back and he’s seen fit to nearly double the amount of challenges this time around, bringing the grand total up to a staggering 440 riddles, trophies, and challenges that need to be solved, discovered, and/or beaten. I’m not going to lie to you and say that it’s a piece of cake, but I will say that I am not a gamer that obsesses over collection quests. I don’t like them much and I’m just downright not very good at them. That said, I still managed to complete every last challenge the Riddler threw at me. Why? It’s because unlike most collection quests where you just stumble around Liberty City for hours on end looking for pigeons with nothing to show for it at the end except a few gamerpoints, the Riddler challenges actually give you a tangible end goal to work towards. You’re not just looking for a few trophies just to say you found them, you’re tracking these things down so that you can gain clues that will eventually lead you to the Riddler so you can take him down and stop him from putting innocent lives in danger. This is what other collection quests are missing, and it makes the whole experience not just palatable, but actually memorable and enjoyable.
|Remember when Jim Carrey was the Riddler?
Yeah, I try not to, either.
But at the end of the day what makes Arkham City such a fantastic game can be traced back to one simple idea: Rocksteady Studios just gets it. It would be impossible to make a game like this unless you were truly a fan of the material. Every bit of the game absolutely exudes the feeling that you are the Dark Knight and you are living in his world. The magnificent voicework by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill really draws you into this comic book come to life as you immerse yourself in a game that is so laden with Batman fanfare that you could spend hours marveling at the attention to detail present here, and believe me, I have. This is perhaps one of the most striking examples of why you should love what you do: because when you have genuine passion for the things you make then you have the ability to make something wonderful. And that’s really what Arkham City is: something wonderful.