Arkham Asylum had only one major flaw – the game was so painstakingly, overwhelmingly, wonderfully thorough in its depiction of the Batman universe, we couldn’t imagine what was left to cover or accomplish in a sequel. The developers at Rocksteady got every element of the character right, from his combat to his gadgets to his previously neglected detective skills. They featured half a dozen of Gotham’s greatest villains, then included hidden references to nearly 30 more just as fan service. They created a setting with enough macabre detail to capture the comics’ horror, but with enough epic scope to somehow fit a Batcave, Batmobile and Batwing.
This was it. This was the perfect Batman game.
Yet from the moment we started Arkham City, all we could think was: Arkham Asylum was practice. Compared to its sequel, the “best superhero game ever” and our choice for Game of the Year 2009 seems like a tech demo, a first draft, merely a blueprint for what the perfect Batman game can actually be. This is it.
For an immediate idea of how much bigger and better Arkham City is than its already incredible predecessor, take a look at this list of the Batman villains mentioned in Arkham Asylum, but never seen. Half of those now play major roles in the sequel, in addition to return appearances by all except one of the rogue’s gallery introduced in the original. Throw in new heroes like Robin, Alfred, Vicki Vale and Talia al Ghul, as well as a bunch of surprise cameos we wouldn’t dare spoil here, and you have a cast numbering in the “holy cow, did Joel Schumacher direct this?!” range. That fear is unnecessary, however, because the game’s writers and developers have succeeded in fully developing and fully justifying every character’s place in a narrative that makes complete logical and dramatic sense. It’s really rather miraculous.
Seriously, this story is special, combining the humanity of the best Animated Series episodes, the brutal darkness of a Frank Miller comic and the confident risk-taking of a Christopher Nolan film. There are no moments as subversive as the fourth-wall break in Arkham Asylum, but there are countless moments of awe, shock and squealing fanboy glee – hell, you’ll be overpowered by all of those emotions within the first 15 minutes of the game alone. By the last 15 minutes, you may honestly choke back some tears, and not for a reason you’d ever predict or ever expect a superhero game to deliver.
Grand Theft Gotham
Of course, the most obvious upgrade in Arkham City is, well, Arkham City. At the time the original game released, a small island asylum seemed like the only possible setting for a properly done Batman experience – attempt to render the sprawling streets and skyscrapers of Gotham itself and you’d sacrifice BioShock-level detail for GTA-style size, and might as well be developing a Superman or Spider-Man game. The sequel, though, proves that assumption wrong. The asylum remains on an island of sorts – a bordered, quarantined section of Gotham City – but is at least four to five times as large as before, and if anything, more detailed.
Stand still at any point and the magnitude of both Arkham City’s epic scale and atmospheric intricacy will floor you. Endless rooftops stretching into the horizon, each with a different neon sign (Ace Chemicals, where Joker was born) or peeling billboard (“The Terror”, Clayface’s famous movie role) or deadly booby trap (left by the Riddler, no doubt). An apartment building that can be instantly recognized, not only because Selina Kyle’s cats are outside one of the windows, but because every building in the environment is unique. A gigantic carnival Ferris wheel that, when scanned with Detective mode, reveals a hidden body in each compartment. Snow falling as helicopter spotlights crisscross through the night sky and fire burns in the distant background, leftover from a battle that – at some point in the game – you fought.
Who are we kidding? You won’t stand still. While Rocksteady hasn’t given players the keys to the Batmobile yet, gliding and leaping and diving and climbing and rappelling across this expansive playground with the use of Batman’s cape and tools offers just as much exhilarating freedom as tearing across Liberty City on a motorcycle. An example Achievement / Trophy: “Jump off the tallest building and glide for one minute without touching the ground.” Yesssss.
Next page: 50 hours of gameplay!
World’s Greatest Multi-Tasker
Arkham City is such a spectacularly realized setting, you’ll want to spend a lot of time there. And thanks to the generous amount of side missions and ridiculous number of collectables Rocksteady has packed into the game, you can. Remember the 240 Riddler challenges in Arkham Asylum? The sequel has over 400, and they’re much, much more complex. Even when you’ve tracked down a particular puzzle (now accomplished by isolating and interrogating the right thugs for information, not merely picking up a map), and even when you’ve figured out which series of gadgets to use, pulling off the “solution” requires a surprising amount of physical intelligence: aim, reflex, timing and pure platforming skill.
But while those trophies and trivia were all the extras the first game offered, they’re just the tip of the iceberg in Arkham City. Interwoven throughout the main story mode are optional, yet extremely substantial and satisfying mini quests starring their own characters and featuring their own angles on the Batman persona. While traveling from a big Joker showdown to a bigger Penguin showdown, you might randomly decide to answer a ringing payphone and – after listening to the eerie voice on the other end – need to race across the city in order to prevent Zsasz from murdering someone. On a whim, you might enter a rundown toy factory and suddenly find yourself teaming up with Bane to destroy weapons of mass destruction. You might notice a mysterious figure watching you from the shadows, approach him or her, and be left with a series of symbols to decipher. You might scan bullet trails to track down a sniper, or trace blood trails to track down a serial killer.
Or you might do none of these things, if you choose to ignore the cues and clues. How long Batman: Arkham City takes to finish can vary wildly, but we’d estimate the core game at about 20-25 hours. Go for everything extra and it could easily keep you busy for a quality, mostly non-repetitive 40-50 hours.
All those wonderful toys
Rocksteady has upped their game with Arkham City, and they expect you to do the same. We described the increased difficulty in Riddler puzzles – that carries over to combat and stealth. Previously, a simple counter move or quick escape to a gargoyle could get Batman out of any sticky situation, but now enemies carry shields, wear armor and swipe at you with knives or electric rods. They scan the shadows with infrared sensors, block your Detective vision with signal-jamming backpacks and intuitively know when to destroy your safe spots.
Luckily, you’ve got the new gadgets and new moves to match. A gun that freezes thugs in their tracks. A smoke bomb that enables you to perform silent takedowns in the middle of a brawl. A remote electrical charge that zaps a henchman directly or, fired at a generator, shocks a whole room at once. A disruptor that blocks bullets without the carrier of the weapon even realizing he’s been disarmed. Best of all, most of these – including the gadgets carried over from Arkham Asylum, which you start the sequel already equipped with, and many more we haven’t mentioned – can be integrated seamlessly in the freeform flow of combos. Excuse the clumsy metaphor, but if the original’s combat played a bit like a musical rhythm game, Arkham City adds explosions, electrocutions and double head slams to every other note.
Cat vs Bat
Oh yeah, and you get to play as Catwoman, too. She’s not as fun to control as Batman, but her segments are a refreshing change of pace and her animations – whether swan-diving off a rooftop, cartwheeling through a fight, crawling upside-down beneath a catwalk or furiously whipping an enemy into submission – are mesmerizing to watch. She’s also important to the overall story, so it’s unfortunate that new buyers are asked to enter a code to unlock her, while used buyers have to spend an extra $10 for the privilege. Also sad? That Two-Face and pretty much every thug Catwoman encounters immediately refer to her as a “bitch” or fantasize about what they’d like to do to her. It’s the only lazy writing in the game.
Next page: The verdict
We’ve tried to describe as much of Batman: Arkham City’s awesomeness in this review as possible, but there’s so little space and so much more to admire. The epic, soaring music. The arguably greatest graphics of the year. The predictably stellar voice acting, but with a particularly perverse performance by Mark Hamill as the Joker and especially enjoyable take by Nolan North on the Penguin. The menus filled with bonus short stories that address any questions you might have assumed were left unanswered. The Riddler’s Revenge mode that challenges you to clear a room of enemies using specific equipment or strategy. The clever little choices, like having the Bat signal be your custom waypoint marker. Even the bosses are cool this time.
The worst part of Arkham City, then, is wondering and worrying - once more - what Rocksteady can possibly do to top it for a third game. We can’t wait to find out.
Is it better than…
Batman: Arkham Asylum? Yes. Yes. Yes. Anything and everything you loved about Arkham Asylum has been preserved, then improved beyond your wildest imagination, for the sequel. What seemed like a revelation in 2009 now seems like practice in comparison. We just pray Rocksteady can make this giant a leap for the third entry. Batman: Gotham City, please?
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows? Yes. We’re highlighting this particular Spidey because it also starred a staggeringly large cast of characters and, if that turned you off, you might be concerned about Arkham City. Don’t be. The heroes and villains appear here for legitimate, logical reasons, and behave exactly as you’d expect them to – unlike the Wolverine in Web of Shadows, they won’t randomly quiz you on obscure comic book history. Also, with the Caped Crusader swinging between buildings and Catwoman sticking to ceilings, this Batman game is kind of a good Spider-Man game, too.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Depends. Each title boasts amazing stealth, diverse combat, stunningly imagined settings and a gravelly-voiced, no-nonsense badass of a hero. We’re only comparing them here in the hope that you’ll realize their similarities and want to play both Game of the Year 2011 contenders. Go on. Do it.
For those who skipped straight to the end
Batman: Arkham Asylum was the greatest superhero game of all time. The sequel, Batman: Arkham City, is five times bigger and about a billion times better. You do the math.
Oct 14, 2011