When Batman: Arkham Asylum came out for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 two years ago, it wiped away all the horrid memories of the failed video game efforts featuring the Dark Knight – even though Batman Forever still scars us a little. No matter, Rocksteady Studios had gone all out to make Asylum a truly involving comic book endeavor, one that many fans thought couldn’t be beat when it came to delving into the world of their favorite crime fighter. Well, guess what guys. It’s been beaten.
Batman: Arkham City takes everything that worked so well in the original game, introduced a vast, new environment filled with things to do, incorporated the ability to use flight to your advantage, and has managed to include almost every crackpot that Batman has ever run into. The results are simply astounding and make Asylum seem relatively simple by nature. Seriously, it’s that much of an improved sequel. We can’t even begin to imagine how a third game would fare.
Let’s focus on the present, shall we? The game follows closely on the events of Asylum, with the city’s mayor allowing a city-wide institution to be built – and run by the diabolically powerful Hugo Strange. It isn’t long before Bruce Wayne ends up behind bars for protesting the complex, but he manages to get free, only to find that Catwoman is in trouble, following a break-in of Two-Face’s safe. He’ll need to rescue her, only to head into further events through Arkham City, as he hears of a strange new plot being hatched by Strange known as “Protocol 10”. What could it be? Can he stop it? Only by playing through the game can you find out.
What’s superb about Arkham City is how well the story meshes together, yet it gives you plenty of room to explore and get other things done. Your map automatically shows you where objectives are located, and you can spot them in the real world through a huge Bat-signal in the sky, but you don’t always have to go on the straight and narrow. You can head off on side quests, completing goals that range from rescuing political prisoners to following Zsasz’s heinous crimes throughout the city. You’ll run into other villains as well, but to spoil them here would kind of ruin the fun.
Arkham City is a HUGE place. The sequel is five times bigger than what Arkham Asylum offered, and you can tell through every corner of this location how much time and effort Rocksteady Games put into it. It looks simply astounding, and you can spot trouble by once again activating a Detective mode – something that actually doesn’t need to stay on full-time going into this game, thankfully. You COULD navigate through it on foot, but the real joy comes from flying around using your Bat-cape, zipping from location to location with your grappling hook, and occasionally diving to gain speed and keep yourself in the air a little longer.
The gameplay in Arkham City is astounding. Not only is your flight well-handled, but your gadgets really feel like they’re serving some purpose here, like your descrambler, your batarangs and, surprisingly enough, the Batclaw. We never would’ve thought of it as an accessory to getting around on a raft, but there it is. The fighting engine shows some refinements as well, as moving around from enemy to enemy and battling into one seamless combo is a thing of beauty. You can also expand your move set and other abilities by earning upgrades through the WayneTech systems. It all feels simply wonderful.
Like we said, you can also hunt for extras to prolong the game’s replay value. You can hunt down Riddler trophies, save innocents and take down thugs, or try out the game’s challenge rooms, featuring the likes of Batman and Catwoman, along with Robin (if you bought the game from Best Buy). All of them have great fighting and sneaking challenges available, and your best times compare with your friends’ on the online leaderboards. Then there are the Riddler challenges, these Saw-like contraptions where you have to save innocent folks in peril. These alone are worthy of play, as they’ll challenge your finest Bat skills. (Along with the virtual training challenges, too. Wow.)
Ahhh, Catwoman. Surprisingly, she’s just as playable as Batman is. She has versatile moves, the ability to climb around on ceilings (in some cases), and helpful gadgets she carries, including a whip and an enemy-crippling bolo. We’re glad that Rocksteady included her in the cut of playable characters. She deserves a game of her own – especially one that’ll replace that devastatingly bad Halle Berry example EA released years ago. Yuck.
Visually, Batman: Arkham City will take your breath away. Both the outside and inside environments are well worth looking into, and using the Detective mode will help you uncover a few secrets as well. The animation is superb, especially Batman’s cape, which, once again, looks like it’s practically floating around in real time. The lighting is elegant and lifelike, and the behind-the-shoulder camera view is once again perfect. We also like being able to fire off a weapon and switching to a first-person view of its trajectory, so we can follow it to its destination. Oh, yeah, and you can switch on 3D, either old-school or stereoscopic. It’s a little more distracting than expected (especially in dark rooms), but some of you may want to try it out.
The audio is just as loved by us. The music is pure dramatic Batman, as if Danny Elfman climbed into the game to conduct the orchestra. The sound effects are spot on, especially when you use a smoke bomb and hear it go “poof” into the ground, but it’s the voicework that’ll really surprise here. Every member of this voice cast is spot on, particularly Kevin Conroy, who could play Batman in his sleep, and Mark Hamill, bidding a fond farewell to his Joker character in style – for now, anyway. (C’mon, he’ll be back for part three.)
Let me conclude with this. You like comic book games? Buy Batman: Arkham City. You don’t like comic book games? Batman: Arkham City will make you a fan. It’s something everyone will absolutely enjoy, merely for the freedom you have within the game to pummel, fly, and do whatever else makes you feel Batty. The design is utterly unbeatable (at this rate, anyway), and the replay value is through the roof – even on the online leaderboards for the challenge rooms alone. This one could easily contend for game of the year in my book. After all, no one beats Batman.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]