Confront your worst enemies and fight for your life in a cordoned-off piece of Hell.
PC Release: October 18, 2011
By Ian Coppock
I know, I know, I haven’t reviewed Outlast: Whistleblower yet. I’ve been trying to bring back the Saturday edition of Art as Games, but with all the crazy stuff going on this summer, it’s been a bit of a challenge. But, I want to continue to bring the Wednesday edition to your selection of gaming media, and we still have a few Batman games to get through, so for now we’ll have to content ourselves with Batman: Arkham City; the sequel to Arkham Asylum and Rocksteady’s current magnum opus.
My last review was a bit hectic and unorganized, but this time I had an opportunity to order my thoughts before regurgitating Batman fanboydom all over the page. Most critics consider Arkham City to be the greatest Batman game ever made, an assertion that I for the most part agree with. This game brought several important changes to the franchise, such as an expanded open world and organic side-quests, and continues the deep, atmospheric narrative started off by Arkham Asylum.
Arkham City takes place one year after the events of Arkham Asylum, in which the Joker’s mad rampage around the titular asylum left it hardly capable of housing supervillains. To solve this problem, Arkham’s administrators decide to buy out the poorest section of Gotham City, wall it up, and dump an entire metropolis’s criminal population into a single area. SURELY nothing can go wrong!
To complete its new setup, Arkham City hires Dr. Hugo Strange, a character you comics fans out there might recognize, and the sketchy private military company TYGER to operate the super-prison. Gotham City becomes less discerning about who to dump into Arkham City, and soon innocent political prisoners are shacked up alongside the serial killers.
Batman, convinced that Arkham City is a ticking time bomb, campaigns publicly as Bruce Wayne against the prison. He immediately gets arrested by TYGER personnel and dumped into the complex alongside all of his favorite supervillains. Apparently the Bill of Rights has been revoked in Gotham City, and private companies can now make arrests. Whoop-dee-doo.
After calling in a supply drop, Batman changes into his real suit and sets out to investigate Protocol 10, an ominous-sounding contingency plan that’s to be initiated at dawn. You have one night to figure out what it is and shut it down, all while battling the criminals who are out for your blood. Arkham City is divided up into territories ruled by several big-name baddies, including the Penguin, Two-Face, and of course, the Joker. Other criminals run rampant throughout the slums, hatching schemes of their own without aid from armies of thugs. Meanwhile, you also have to manage the TYGER guards who patrol the prison from the walls and their helicopters.
Yep… in no way will this situation turn into a shit-show.
The basic gist of Arkham City‘s gameplay is the same as that of Arkham Asylum. Batman is controlled from an over-the-shoulder perspective, and you have to rely on a combination of stealth, gadgetry and melee supremacy to move around Arkham City safely. You can take out waves of unarmed baddies using the inventive free-flow combat system, which allows you to quickly attack and counter oncoming foes. In a dangerous upgrade from Arkham Asylum, enemies can now come at you with knives, and will sometimes throw objects at you or use car doors as shields. Batman’s suit can’t take sustained gunfire, so you have to be a bit stealthier in dealing with armed criminals.
The various bat-gadgets used in Arkham Asylum return new and improved. You can throw batarangs to stun enemies or hit distant switches, and use your grapple gun to reach distant ledges. This time around, you can also use it to propel yourself into the sky for sustained gliding, a welcome addition to the mechanic that was absent in the first game. Hacking computers, analyzing crime scenes and reverse-engineering enemy equipment round out Batman’s technical arsenal, and comprise an outstanding achievement in fun gameplay.
In an unexpected twist, Batman receives some help from Catwoman, who’s in Arkham City for her own reasons, and you get to play as the famed cat burglar on several missions. Catwoman plays differently than Batman; though she utilizes stealth, you have to climb up buildings and use your whip to swing around. She’s no less adept at combat than her hulking counterpart, but you’ll use caltrops, gas bombs and the whip in place of batarangs and thunder-punching.
Unfortunately for Catwoman, her visage in Arkham City is a shining example of gamedom’s rampant sexualization of female characters. Everything from French-kissing bad guys, to BDSM overtones, to just her outfit makes it difficult to take her character seriously. Her own self-contained story within Arkham City‘s narrative is fun to play, but Rocksteady went completely overboard on sexualizing her character.
With such stellar gameplay on Arkham City‘s roster, the game’s plot is reinforced by the feeling that you really are the powerful Batman. By the same token, though, Rocksteady stripped out Batman’s snobbish demeanor from Arkham Asylum and left caution in its place. Batman is still fully confident in his capabilities, but this time he’s less of a show-off about the danger he is up against.
Batman’s investigation into Protocol 10 puts him into some tight spots, and the character finally demonstrates some of that uncertainty, that doubt, that makes the character so much easier to connect to as a human being. He has exceptional willpower, and that willpower is tested and nearly broken throughout the course of the game.
The other thing I like about the Arkham games that is most evident in Arkham City is how very human the characters are. Nothing is black-and-white in the world of Batman, and neither are the divides between the Dark Knight and his greatest enemies. The Joker is, as always, many shades of grey (as well as God knows how many other colors). Mr. Freeze, who makes his Arkham debut in this game, is motivated by the tragic cause to save his comatose wife. Everyone can be related to on one level or another.
It’s not a matter of good and evil, it’s a matter of a bunch of very interesting, very messed up people put into a few square miles of slums. That should’ve been the game’s tagline, but more importantly, it gives the player reasons to care about the villains (more their origins and reasoning than their actions).
Arkham City‘s main storyline is about 12 hours of mayhem and broken bones, and comprises face-offs with Joker, Harley Quinn, Victor Zsasz (did I spell that right?) and a few other characters returning from Arkham Asylum. Arkham City also debuts this series’s renditions of The Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Deadshot, and the Mad Hatter, to name a few.
All of them are crazy, all of them hate Batman, and the ones not inserted into the main storyline are scattered around Arkham City in a series of side missions. The ratio of side missions to main story is thin, but you’ll encounter some real psychos, many of whom I didn’t list, out there in the frozen slums. The Game of the Year edition includes a small DLC called Harley Quinn’s Revenge that lets you play as both Batman and Robin, but it doesn’t really advance Harley’s character or include any new gameplay. The bulk of the fun is to be found in the main game.
Last but certainly not least: the artistic assets that bring this dark world to life. Similarly to the last game, Rocksteady’s artists expertly created a world that’s jam-packed with visual anachronisms. You’ll see old-style cars next to super-sexy security cameras, and other visuals that all carry the same air of dystopia. The score, written by returning composer Ron Fish, contains the same sweeping horns and jumpy strings present in the past game. It sounds similar to the biggest tracks from the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and they make an acceptable reference point if you haven’t played this game yet.
Arkham Asylum carried a hint of dystopia in its artwork and atmosphere. In Arkham City, that hint has expanded to saturate every goddamn locale within this terrible prison. It’s a weight that you’ll carry in your gut throughout the game, and coats the entire production in a simmering dread. Plus, with half of the slums drowning in winter waters or left to rust in the dark, it feels post-apocalyptic. Absolutely brilliant.
Arkham City has a few problems that, while minor, are still problems. The game has several interesting bugs, the most persistent of which was enemy thugs spinning in little circles during the stealth sections. I’d look down from my perch atop an old gargoyle and see what looked like a man forced into lockstep with a bugged Michael Jackson music video. This wasn’t anything game-breaking, but it didn’t do wonders for the game’s tone or functionality. Apparently this game was chock-full of bugs during its debut, but most of these have been fixed in the Game of the Year Edition.
The other thing wrong with Arkham City is its boss fights. Nearly all of them are grindy, rinse-and-repeat affairs that didn’t flow the same way the other gameplay elements did. You’ll fight several massive bosses, and Rocksteady did not do a great job with taming the wonky cameras or providing variety in what you’re up against. It feels jarringly out of place in comparison to the smooth gliding and hand-to-hand combat with regular-sized foes.
But, luckily for Arkham City, its gameplay woes are confined to a few short encounters, leaving it still a great game in the grand scheme of things. I highly recommend this title. The only version of Arkham City available on Steam is the Game of the Year edition, which includes a few bits of DLC, including a post-Arkham City story called Harle
You can buy Batman: Arkham City here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.