Batman: Arkham City offers an evolution of the experience from the first game
How high were the stakes for Batman: Arkham City developer Rocksteady Studios going into the sequel? The first game was a sales and critical success, with over two million copies sold in the first month of release, and it became a Guinness World Record holder for Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game ever. Simply put, Rocksteady was responsible for what was the most comprehensive Batman simulator outside of growing up in Gotham, the son of murdered billionaires, and they created one of the most fully-realized, expertly-crafted games of the last decade.
It was a no-brainer, then, when publisher WB Interactive announced that a sequel was coming down the pipe. But how would Rocksteady handle their sophomore effort with the Bat? How would they walk that fine line between keeping true to the original while expanding and iterating on the core Arkham Asylum experience? When they announced the title, Arkham City, it sparked concerns (at least in this gamer) that the tightly-controlled experience of the first game was being traded for an open world title that might not be as well-served by the mystery and nearly perfect progression of the first game.
And now it's finally here, and you can put your fears to rest that Rocksteady has been overambitious: for both (very) good and (slightly) ill, Arkham City offers an evolution of the experience from the first game, giving Batman a larger operating theater in which to cut crime out of Gotham.
That metaphor wasn't too labored, was it?
****Minor spoilers about the story below.****
Escape From Arkham
Arkham City takes place one year after the events of Arkham Asylum, and in a stunningly shortsighted move, the local government of Gotham has walled off a section of the city and populated it with inmates from the asylum as well as Blackgate prison, the mayor and city councilmen apparently having never seen John Carpenter's treatise on what happens when you create city prisons. The entire complex is run by the not-at-all nefarious Dr. Hugo Strange, who's turned Arkham City into a police state, albeit one where Two Face and the Joker are still able to get themed costumes and weapons for their henchman.
In the pretty stunningly bleak intro, Bruce Wayne--holding a press conference denouncing the creation of a Thunderdome in the middle of Gotham--is arrested by Strange's Tyger security forces and thrown into AC to fend for himself. Also: Strange has something called "Protocol 10" up his sleeve and he has an ace card: the bad doctor totally knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Strange mostly takes a backseat to your real antagonist, though: the Joker, who's dying after overdosing on Titan at the end of the first game. I won't spoil why, but for the next 10-12 hours, you'll be looking for a cure for Batman's nemesis while also attempting to control the warring criminal factions behind the walls of Arkham City, and figure out what Hugo Strange is up to.
It's Like Arkham Asylum, Only Better In Some Ways
I wasn't kidding when I described Arkham City as an evolution beyond the first game, as it takes the mostly fully-equipped Batman from Asylum and throws him into the more open playground of the City. You start out with many of the tools you ended with from the first game, picking up more equipment and moves along the way as you brutalize and terrorize Batman's rogues and their henchmen.
The best melee system in video games returns with more moves and a bump in the number of pieces of equipment you can deploy in hand-to-hand/hand-to-sledgehammer/hand-to-knife combat encounters. I started my game off on the "Hard" setting, expecting to jump right in and start wailing on enemies with ease, but their AI seems a little more savvy than in the first game, and you'll have to account for parrying multiple incoming attacks. No longer confined to the hallways and corridors of the first game, you'll have wide open city streets and rooftops to battle the colorful inmates.
The "Predator" challenges return as well, with stealth encounters in not only the closed environments from the first game, but also the open-air locations of the city, requiring you to stealthily take down gunmen and snipers using Batman's upgraded arsenal. Speaking of guns, Batman continues to not be able to take a bullet, so if someone has a gun, you'd better dispatch them ASAP.
Also returning are the Riddler Challenges from Arkham Asylum, including the trophies and hidden environment objects from the first game--400 in total littered throughout the city. I love that Rocksteady expanded on this concept, but I'm a bit disappointed that many of them are just easy-to-stumble upon trophies here and there, and less of the really interesting environmental puzzles from the first game requiring you to get just the right angle to line up a question mark. And it wouldn't be an open-ish world game without a few side quests thrown in involving other Batman rogues who are making trouble around the city.
So it's more of what we all loved from the first game, right? Where's the "but?"
Some Rough Patches
My major complaint is that moving from the closed environment of the Asylum to the open city loses probably my favorite element of the first game: the "Metroid-vania"-style exploration, which rewarded you with more of the story and environment as you acquired new equipment and upgraded your Batman. It meant that Arkham Asylum was always emerging right in front of you, and rewarded obsessive exploration. Here, you start out with most of the tools you'll be using throughout the game, meaning that outside of locations closed for story purposes and some Riddler puzzles, most everything is open to you all the time. This openness affects the story as well, given that because you're free to explore a larger environment, Rocksteady is unable to push you towards the next bit of plot as effectively as they did in the first game.
Speaking of the story, while the first was no Batman vs. the Black Glove, it did deliver on an ever-escalating plot that made Batman feel constantly beaten down by Joker's ever-emerging plot. Here, the cavalcade of side characters and additional villains dilutes the story somewhat,as the script by Paul Dini has to find something to do for all of the guest stars in the game. And the final reveal of the forces behind Strange are far less interesting or shocking than Dini seems to think they are. Strange is even diminished a little by this reveal, and overall throughout the game, as he's set up as an enemy who knows everything about Batman/Bruce Wayne but never really deploys that knowledge in any real way against him.
There's also the language thing: man, someone must have told Rocksteady that they could get one swear word into the game, and like a teen learning his first cuss word, Arkham City drops the word "bitch" nearly every chance it can. It's a T-rated game and it's an expansion of the moody, dark atmosphere of the first game, but the swearing comes off as cheap and often lazy, directed more often than not at the few female characters in the game. I'm not going to pull the sexism card here (and maybe I'm giving Rocksteady too much of the benefit of the doubt), but it simply feels like really, really bad writing attempting to move towards edginess. Seriously, the game is crazy with dead bodies being strung up and dudes talking about skinning other dudes.
Some of the Best Voice Acting In Video Games This Year
But even if I have some complaints about the script, that shouldn't take away from the excellent performances by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker. Hamill in particular, gives a performance that can only be described as "epic." I don't mean that in the frankly boring way the word keeps getting tossed around ("this brownie is epic"), I mean truly that Hamill brings the role to a place of epic villainy, making him a terrible, toxic force throughout the city and in Batman's head, and the performance feels like what would happen if Batman: The Animated Series was allowed to continue on its own timeline, this is the kind of horrible place Batman and Joke would end up ultimately. Conroy shouldn't go overlooked here, though, basically playing the straight man to all the chaos, he "gets" the ultra-competent version of the character and is for the most part straight-up unflappable no matter what horrors the city throws at him.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned the Catwoman content--which you can only play if you've bought a new copy of the game or paid for the DLC. Well, it's in there and it's not terrible, but it doesn't add a whole lot to the experience. Since Rocksteady wasn't sure if 100% of their audience would be able to play this content, it doesn't really serve the overall story very much, and the sequences are pretty brief and occasionally inessential. Her combat and traversal abilities are slightly different from Batman's and she gets a couple of upgrades in the menu, but she such a small part of the game, her inclusion ultimately feels like a bullet point on the back of the box. I wonder if there was a version of Arkham City that started with you juggling between Catwoman, Batman, and Robin, because I get the impression that the scope of additional characters was a little broader than it is here.
I've detailed some real concerns with the sequel to Arkham Asylum, but in the cold light of day, with my hater hat off, I was thrilled to be playing as Batman again. My complaints and concerns come from a place of being spoiled by the quality of the first game which makes all of the places where the sequel stumbles more evident. I'm hoping that for the next game, Rocksteady takes a little more time to consider how they wish to iterate their experience (I don't think we need a new Batman game every two years--I'd be happy if they supported this one with DLC story for a while).
Batman: Arkham City is on shelves now for the PS3, 360, and PC.