When I was sixteen I read a comic book called Batman: No Man’s Land. The comic is based around a post-cataclysm Gotham, where the city has become walled-off from the rest of civilisation; a Kowloon of the United States. From within the walled city Batman struggles to maintain control with no police, with gangs running riot and with violent turf wars being fought in a constant struggle for power. I’ve been a huge Batfan since I was a child and at the time of reading No Man’s Land, I remember thinking that every facet of that comic book would make a great video game. I imagined being able to control batman swooping from rooftop to rooftop, swinging from lampposts using Batman’s grapple gun, pouncing on unsuspecting baddies from the safety of shadows. I imagined the huge, corrupt city beneath Batman’s feet; the imposing task of restoring order to a city long since gone mad. The towering walls of No Man’s Land lent a sense of claustrophobia and the overbearing sense of helplessness knowing that no aid would be arriving. One day, I thought, one day I’ll make that game.
Fast-forward twelve years and my dream game has been made a reality by Rocksteady Studios. Everything I dreamt about being in my Batman game made it into Batman Arkham City. I’m not bitter that they got there before me; I have literally been waiting for this game for half of my life.
Arkham City takes place one year after the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Quincy Sharp, former warden at Arkham Asylum has dishonestly taken credit for Batman’s heroic takeover of the Asylum and stopping the Joker’s wild plan in the process. Sharp has used his false reputation to garner Mayorship of Gotham City. Sharp then claims that in the light of previous events, neither Arkham Asylum nor the nearby Blackgate Penitentiary are capable of withstanding the criminals held within; he orders both facilities be shut down and in their place erects a colossal open-air “prison” in Gotham, which he designates Arkham City.
The narrative opens up with our protagonist Bruce Wayne being arrested by paramilitary security personnel and thrown into Arkham City. It would seem at this point that it’s not just the criminal fraternity who are being interred in Arkham City, but anyone outspoken and negative about Sharp’s policies – or those of Sharp’s right-hand man and head warden of Arkham City, Dr. Hugo Strange. After a few choice scenes, you’re soon suited up and ready to distribute justice to the streets of Arkham City, Batman style. One lovely new feature is the addition of a second character – Catwoman. Catwoman is on a quest to reacquire her lost fortune. The nice thing about Catwoman is her move set, gadgets, strengths and weaknesses are greatly distinct from those of the Big Bat. Her storyline is a nice addition to the game and is very enjoyable, feeling almost like a second, bonus game included for free – it evens features some unique characters. The downside to this is the fact that Catwoman is locked upon starting the game, needing to be unlocked with the use of a code. In this reviewer’s opinion this in unfair and entirely unwarranted. Killing off the pre-owned games market with multiplayer codes is one thing, but locking content that’s already on the disk is appalling. The games loses heaps of points here as I wholly disagree with this invidious principle.
Arkham City is divided into territories, owned and ran by the various crime syndicates represented inside the walls of this mammoth prison. This makes traversal across the large environment quite difficult at first, but reinforces the idea that this is a lawless city with nowhere to hide. Scattered around the city is a nearly innumerable amount of Riddler trophies, riddles and other distractions, which will add something like fifteen hours of gameplay to mop up. The story is as solid with nearly every decent Batman enemy being represented. Each with territory, troops and often side missions even if they’re not directly involved in the plot. Each territory within the city exudes the emotions and character of its supposed owner. Be it the colours, the costumes or the architecture, each block has a character all of its own. The Joker, Harley Quinn, The Riddler, Zsasz, Bane and a number of others make a welcome return and franchise newbies include Hugo Strange, Two-Face, The Penguin, Deadshot and Ra’s al Ghul. Alfred and Oracle also make up the supporting cast along with a brief cameo from the Boy Wonder, Robin. This scattergun approach to the Batman cast is great for someone like me who is a rabid Batfan, as I know who Calendar Man is, I understand the relevance of Bane and Azrael the Avenging Angel. I can imagine this is a pretty insurmountable task for someone who isn’t as nerdy as me, though. Often whilst watching me play the game, the long-haired general would pipe up with “Who’s this guy?” or “Why is that funny?” when I’m giggling at an in-joke. Sure, she probably knows more than the average person on the street about Batman; she’s been listening to my frenetic ramblings for nearly a decade – but the fact is even she didn’t know who a lot of the characters are in this. Once you’re past Two-Face and The Joker, I can imagine the experience being a little bit overpowering, and a lot of the fan service going over your head. “Who’s that you’re on the phone to?”
“It’s not a phone. Anyway, that’s Oracle.”
“It’s Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. She used to be Batgirl.”
“Oh, do you get to play as her?”
“No, she’s in a wheelchair. Joker shot her in the spine. That’s why she’s only on the phone.”
These scenarios happen a lot when you play with a female in the room. I guess if you’re a Batman nerd then this won’t present a problem. If you’ve engaged in a little Arkham Asylum then you’re undoubtedly up to speed. Each of these many characters is lovingly represented with some stunning voice acting; Batman legend Kevin Conroy returns at the titular character (little fact for you here – Kevin Conroy has played Batman longer than any other actor, whether live-action or voice. Conroy is Batman), backed up by none other than Mark Hamill – who else could play the Joker? Other splendid additions to the voice cast include Maurice LaMarche, Kimberley Brooks, monster specialist Fred Tatasciore, Peter MacNicol and voice superstar Nolan North. With dialogue scripted by Paul Dini (writer of Batman: The Animated Series and co-creator of Harley Quinn), there’s no way the dialogue could have failed. The writing is superbly dark. Conroy himself describes the game as “really, really dark”. Lines like “How many bones do I need to break before you’ll talk?” or “Tell me everything you know or you’ll be eating through a straw” enforce that Arkham City is more Frank Miller than Adam West, with Batman having an awfully bad time and taking it out on whichever poor sap crosses him.
If you have played Batman: Arkham Asylum then you should quickly fall back into the familiar play style. Batman: Arkham City features nearly identical controls to its predecessor, with extra moves, gadgets and combos heaped on top. There are a few things missing actually, which doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, but made me wonder whose decision it was to remove them. I’d love to know who decided to remove the Advanced Batclaw, for instance. Some welcome new additions to the gameplay are in Batman’s advanced ability to glide. Whilst this was fun in Arkham Asylum, the possibilities are extended almost exponentially in Arkham City. Using some very handy, but often irritating Augmented Reality training scenarios, Batman is able to hone his gliding skills with the addition of several new moves to ensure that the Caped Crusader is able to float his way around the city without touching down on the tarmac once. With a few tech upgrades, you’ll barely feel the ground for the entire game. I would argue though, that the newest gadgets in Batman’s arsenal get used the least. Tightrope walking, reverse Batarang-throwing and line launchering got less than three uses apiece in my entire playthrough of this game. The latter is a strange bone of contention with me. I was actually stuck twice in the game until the game reminded me I even had the line launcher – I’d completely forgotten about it!
The additional combat moveset adds greater flexibility to the more aggressive elements of the gameplay; stringing together long combos when in combat is made more visually appealing and offers plenty of variety. The “freeflow” combat controls are tight and responsive – once you get the timing down right and are aware of your surroundings, it’s not unheard of for Batman to take down twenty or more enemies in a single fight, without taking a hit. Utilising a combination of gadgets, evade moves, counters and takedowns, you’ll often see a combo counter in the top-left of the screen topping off twenty, thirty, fifty-hit combinations and once the last skull cracks against pavement, you’ll feel a warm post-coital glow as Batman stands amidst the shattered bodies of a dozen broken men. New additions to the combat system include multiple counters, the ability to counter thrown objects and some excellent gadget upgrades. Some of Batman’s moves are impressively brutal – this is the Batman I love, the one who’s not afraid to break a few bones. You’ll be certain that more than a few of the Joker’s henchmen will be recovering from shattered collarbones when they limp home. Some of Two Face’s goons will be feeling the effects of a greenstick fracture to the shinbone after they wake up. I’m certain that at least one of the Penguins hired hands will be looking for their teeth in a drain after a two-part facial trauma against a manhole cover. The violence is beautiful. The slow-motion mode when delivering your final blow shows Batman’s fist hitting home in a satisfyingly heavy manner. Broken ribs, internal bleeding, punctured lungs and massive internal trauma are all OK in the Dark Knight’s book. As long as his opponents are left alive as he saunters off into the night, Bruce’s conscience is clear.
The stealth gameplay is as it was in the first game, but all gears have been tightened and the dials twirled to eleven. Sneaking up on unsuspecting victims to silently knock them out is satisfying, with Batman often employing a sleeper hold or a swift strike to render the perp unconscious. Sneaking is a key part of being Batman. Batman is one man, always outnumbered. He places his manoeuvrability above all else, sacrificing armour for the ability to move unheeded. In Arkham City the only guaranteed way to proceed alive is to avoid fighting large groups of armed men – always fight on your own terms, taking advantage of enemy patrol patterns and gaps in their line of sight. Manipulating your environment is crucial; the gargoyles, air ducts and grates make a delightful reappearance here, but some newer additions to the stealth mechanic are remote shocking devices like the Sonic Batarang and the Freeze Mine. I’m disappointed that there are no silent variants to the faithful grille and gargoyle takedowns, leaving only the noisy version instead – these raucous takedowns are always magnificently amusing but will alert your enemies to your position, leaving a real need for more silent variations. Another disappointing omission here is the ability to move bodies. One thing that always gives Bats away is the fact that someone always stumbles across the cataleptic figure of their comrade and informs the gang to your presence. I would have liked to see a way of disposing of the insentient guards to cover your tracks for just that little bit longer. It’s a shame, as the visual elements involved in the takedowns are perfection distilled.
The visuals in Batman: Arkham City as a whole are spectacular. Huge environments rendered in moody dynamic lighting. Little things I notice whilst playing make me very happy, like the ultra-fine bump map over Batman’s cape and cowl is so small it may as well have been a material. It’s still there though, and in the few scenarios where the camera is close enough, you can make out the fine, grainy roughness; I also love how Batman’s costume get progressively more destroyed as the adventure pans out. Ice and glass are particularly impressive here, with lovely ice shading throughout the game; being set in winter, I’d imagine this was a priority. The characters are incredibly well designed; the entire design process is steeped in its own unique Rocksteady style, but in keeping with the comic-book ethos. Utilising Unreal technology, the range of character animations is roughly double that of the previous game. I could go on, but another crying shame is the fact that I missed the gorgeous graphics from spending upwards of 70% of the game in Detective Mode. For those who don’t know, Detective Mode is a vision mode where the entire game is viewed as a dim, muddy blue colour and items of interest such as objectives and enemies are picked out in a bright orange hue. This makes the game a lot easier, being able to track enemies through walls and providing a greater level of perception of the layout ahead. The problem is, it’s so good that I hardly ever have it off. One thing I would change is to lower the intensity of Detective Mode, making it more of an Augmented Reality experience, highlighting aspects within the HUD without washing out the beautiful visuals.
The main story is only one of the Caped Crusader’s many worries; there are dozens of side missions to undertake, from working alongside Bane, to tracking down the serial killer, Victor Zsasz. There are a dazzling accumulation of side quests and they really add to the richness of Batman’s story; you’re left up to the order in which you do them and can even skip them entirely and focus on the main tale. Of course, I thought these were great. Adding a greater lifespan to the game is an excellent bonus, but the reason I liked it is that it reinforced the ethos that Batman is a furiously busy chap. Back luck may come in threes, but for the Dark Knight it seemingly comes in tens. Desperately choosing who to save now and who to save later is part of the fabric of Batman’s life and the side missions are nothing short of overbearing, with no less than four hundred Riddler secrets to boot.
Not only that, but there are hidden Easter eggs concealed around the map; finding everything will require you to truly undertake the mantle of The World’s Greatest Detective. This actually proved too much for me. I did it – I found every trophy, I solved every riddle – but the arduous task of trudging around the huge map looking for a tiny green question mark truly took its toll on my patience. Whilst the riddles are fun to solve and a lot of the trophy challenges are a welcome distraction from the main discourse, I just feel there were too many, and all the extraneous content would have better suited a DLC episode, rather than having Catwoman locked at the beginning of the game. The Riddler’s story is an excellent addition to the main feature and has impact on the ending of the game – I however feel that many gamers will miss out on this section of the narrative due to the strenuous nature of hunting down the voluminous clues.
Upon completing the game you’re offered the Game+ mode, which is a more challenging version of Batman: Arkham City for the discerning gamer. The ever-present Challenge Mode is also on offer, which is a truly excellent addition to the game, and was so in Arkham Asylum. My gripe with these however is that I would infinitely prefer the Game+ mode to be relegated to DLC-on-the-disk, rather than Catwoman. Ultimately, Game+ is nothing new; it’s just the same game again, whereas Catwoman’s scenario is fundamentally a new game. Overall, Batman: Arkham City was a thoroughly enjoyable game – when it’s good, it’s 10/10 good – the closest I’ve played to the perfect game in a long time in fact. But when it’s bad, it’s 5/10 bad. So even at its worst, this isn’t a terrible game, and at its best it’s excellent. If you can get over the pitfalls that stop this game being flawless, you’ll have a magnificent time.