The Knight is Darkest Before the Dawn
A video game review of Batman: Arkham City
By: Lawrence Napoli
Not enough praises can be sung for the partnership between WB Games and Rocksteady for breaking the mold when it comes to adapting video games from popular licenses. Batman: Arkham Asylum received critical renown for finally getting this kind of adaptation right in delivering an experience unique to the character, supported by exceptional voice over work, graphics and game play that was easy to learn and difficult to master. The inevitable sequel to such a massive success presents the unenviable task of eclipsing a former game of the year contender and Rocksteady took this challenge head on. If one word can be used to describe the overall grandeur that is Batman: Arkham City that word would be “escalation.” The overall area that can be explored has been increased as has the number of items in the environment that can be interacted with, a larger percentage of Batman’s rogue gallery has been recruited for cameos, the control scheme has been refined and additional playable characters with completely different game play mechanics have been introduced. All of this degenerates to excessive window dressing unless it can all be pulled together into a cohesive and enveloping story because that is what the Dark Knight is truly all about beyond all the martial arts, detecting and costumes. Let’s just say that the tale of Arkham City satisfies in surprising ways.
A great Batman game must involve a great story and although the events of Arkham City follow the plot twists revealed in the ending of the first game, the Titan substance angle only seems important to the player when the issue is reintroduced towards the beginning and addressed at the game’s end. The real conflict revolves around the controversial philosophy of imprisonment that was approved by Gotham’s government faster than the Patriot Act. Dealing with criminals short of execution continues to be an important issue in the real world of today and what this game explores is one of the most popular opinions concerning the consolidation of vast amounts of criminals in isolated geographic areas removed from the rest of society. This amounts to the whole “they should all be put on an island” theory, but the problem with that is the number of inmates would be too large for a cost-effective amount of guards to regulate. Thus, the criminals must be allowed to “patrol” themselves so long as they stay within the confines of their designated area. Anarchy that is allowed to reign supreme even in isolated areas can prove to be very volatile and is constantly seeking a way out. Now one adds Batman’s entire rogue’s gallery to populate this fictional “prison island” and one can easily connect the dots to form one very dangerous powder keg.
Certainly, this plot point conveniently provides a scenario (similar to Arkham Asylum) which places Batman in direct conflict with every one of his signature enemies at once. As neat as that concept continues to be, we have already visited this type of story in the first game. Going back to the well once again suggests that no one villain can consume Batman’s entire attention for a dedicated period of time, but fans of the comic books will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth as the Dark Knight has spent his entire career putting an army of psychos, murderers and thieves behind bars.
That being said, the key strength to Arkham City’s narrative remains the mystery of the all but instantaneous creation of this prison consolidation program. The player knows from the very beginning that Hugo Strange is running the whole operation, but that individual doesn’t have the resources, finances and political connections to make it happen by himself. Who’s pulling the strings? Why are they doing it? Batman is here to find out as he constantly forges uneasy alliances with former rivals within Arkham City to get at the truth as only the world’s greatest detective can. I don’t want to give any of the story away (as I consider all of my reviews to be spoiler free) but taking a glance at those not featured in Arkham Asylum might be helpful in understanding the questions I just posed.
The look of Arkham City represents an even darker, yet detail oriented interpretation of the bowels of Gotham City. A noticeable upgrade is the look of the environment. Interiors and exteriors depict a very stylized and grim Gotham that reflects a very appropriate sinister tone that harkens back to Tim Burton’s vision in the first Batman film. Gotham is forever destined to be experienced at night and therefore the use of light is essential in generating contrast. Thankfully, the city is outfitted with a vast array of neon signs that label virtually every building which allows the entire environment to glisten with life. Interiors reflect more of the personalities of the signature criminals that have assumed control over certain blocks in Arkham City. There will be no confusing the lairs of Mr. Freeze vs. the Joker what with all the Easter Eggs strewn about which consequently, must be examined in order to solve the vast majority of the Riddler’s challenges which earn experience for Batman allowing him access to more advanced skills.
Character costumes are once again noteworthy for how they clearly draw inspiration from cannon, but are not slaves to it. My personal favorites are Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and the now playable Catwoman, but every noteworthy character looks, feels, sounds and moves the way they ought to. I could also go on and on about the immense quality of the voices that give each and every character their due individuality, but this is one of those phenomena that channels The Matrix. No one can be told of the brilliance, you have to hear it for yourself and rest assured this praise extends well beyond the fine talent of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil.
A video game that revolves around a “ping” hand to hand combat system must have precise control and although Arkham City’s is not entirely perfect, it does see an improvement over its predecessor. The one element of Arkham Asylum’s combat flow that delivered regular deposits of frustration was when I attempted to incorporate Batman’s various gadgetry to chain together with his melee strikes which was helpful in dispensing with foes that were better equipped or simply more difficult to bring down. The concept of “ping” combat is that it is a quick striking and countering style that places the emphasis on speed and reaction time and that is the reason why a “targeting” system for the fighting was never installed. Arkham City still has no targeting system within the heat of battle, but I feel that projectiles home in on targets more reliably. This is a necessary amendment seeing how the volume and frequency of Batman vs. the mob conflicts increase exponentially while playing the game. Combos must not be broken for the simple fact that Batman cannot take an unreasonable amount of damage from gunfire or melee attacks. I recommend the reader to learn to leap frequently in between strikes to give yourself an extra second to reposition the camera and aim the general direction of your next strike in advance with the analog sticks. Being an Arkham Asylum veteran, the combat system was easy as pie to pick up, but I definitely fell in a number of fights as I got used to some of the new enemy types and the particulars of handling them in the middle of a combo.
General movement in Arkham Asylum sees a vast improvement over the simple running, grappling and gliding from the first game. Normal walking still sees Bruce Wayne moving around with the grace of an Abrams tank, but quite honestly, the player is doing something wrong if he or she is walking around too often. Arkham City is a large place and Batman must go from one side of the map to the other quickly because there are some missions that are time sensitive and so the Dark Knight must take to the air. The speed and range of the grapple gun has increased which makes scaling even the tallest buildings in Gotham no problem. Later on, Batman can learn a skill that can link grappling with his glide, creating a sort of catapult effect which further increases his movement speed. Perhaps the most useful movement mechanic is the introduction of the dive bomb maneuver which allows Batman to dive in order to gain momentum only to pull back up into his glide which extends the distance his flight and even change course so long as he still has enough altitude. Catwoman, on the other hand, requires some getting used to. Her regular movement is much faster than Batman’s but she employs the use of her whip to aid in scaling up buildings combined with a neat jumping mechanic that allows her to hop up the rest of the way. This makes the cat much slower than the bat. She can also crawl along the ceilings of certain designated areas which is necessary to acquire certain Riddler trophies, but not as useful in stealthy combat situations as you would think.
The only other problem I encountered (and I nitpick here) is getting your character to simply step off a fence or rail and onto the immediate level surface adjacent to it. Several tight areas like the alleys in Arkham City require the player’s attention because it is a popular hang-out for thugs as well as excellent staging grounds to enter enemy infested areas. If too many bad guys corner you, jumping might land you on a railing from which you cannot unglue yourself in a timely manner. The key would be to simply avoid small spaces all together, but a simple solution to this problem would be the inclusion of a short range button trigger that launches Batman towards the closest enemy the same way he can line up opposition from distance with his glide kick attack.
Extras and Aesthetics
Arkham City has an incredibly high replay value. Getting through the main part of the game is relatively no problem requiring about 10-15 hours of game play depending on how thorough the player is in regards to discovery. The march towards 100% complete, however, poses a much more ominous task. Thankfully, the entire map remains available on story mode’s completion to finish up side quests, solve Riddler puzzles and collect Riddler trophies. This element of the game will consume the lion’s share of time spent replaying the game.
Then, of course, is the “New Game Plus” option which allows you to restart the game from the beginning with every skill, gadget and upgrade the player unlocked in the first play through. The trade off is that enemies will be more difficult and the prompt to counter any enemy’s attack will not appear on the screen. These changes don’t seem too challenging, but suggests a more stealthy approach in the completion of this mode.
It would be impossible to comment on the extras of this game without mentioning the highly lauded inclusion of virtually, every Batman costume to ever grace a comic book. The most recent addition was the Sinestro Corps Batman uniform that can be downloaded with select copies of Green Lantern on Blu Ray. I believe that costume only existed in one panel of one comic book when Sinestro attempted to recruit the Dark Knight for his skill in manipulating fear so I feel its inclusion to be a desperate attempt on DC’s part to pad the sales of an otherwise abysmal film by linking it with one of the best games of the year. With so many costumes being relegated to specific retailers for reservation rewards, one really has to wonder if any of them are really worth it. As absolutely cool as it would be to stomp around Gotham as Batman Beyond, I certainly would not scale the ends of the Earth for that specially marked NOS energy drink can. Seriously, I only scoured the convenient marts within a 5 mile radius of my home. All of the costumes will eventually be available for purchase, but I am very curious as to how much these skins will cost. They do not impact game play in the form of special bonuses, but they really ought to considering the diversity of the costumes and the fact that all of those Batmen would approach combat in different ways. I myself have access to the Batman animated series skin and as freaky as it is to see a cartoon mix it up with more realistic looking bad guys, it wouldn’t be worth $5 (a standard fee for any DLC). The new costumes can be used in the normal game mode (once the story is completed), new game plus mode and the various challenge modes.
Finally, the Riddler challenges replace the Joker challenges from the first game which adds various campaign objective maps in addition to the combat and predator challenges. These modes will allow Bat-fans to test the waters with new playable characters outside of just Batman and Catwoman. Robin and Nightwing will eventually be available to gamers via DLC sometime in December for all systems (those who reserved their game at Best Buy already have access to Robin). This is a nice supplement to a very dense game that claims will deliver unique navigational and combat experiences for every add-on character to the extent that Catwoman differs from Batman. If that is so, every DLC addition will be considered a day 1 purchase by yours truly.
Batman: Arkham City is a first class interactive experience that is so close to perfection in every element that makes a video game that I simply cannot conceive where Rocksteady can take this franchise without breaking it in some unfathomable way. This is the new, quintessential Batman simulator that is layered with so much mystery and challenge that I find myself digging in to achieve the platinum trophy for this game. The sad truth is that this game will not get the deserved recognition in best game of the year awards because it is linked to one of the most popular and profitable IP’s of all time. The Call of Duties might get the most sales, the Uncharteds might showcase the most originality, but Arkham City delivers such surprise and satisfaction that I cannot consider this game as anything other than one of the best 2 games of 2011.