Some games are released with such a tide of hyperbole that it is difficult to resist sneering at: how could a game justify so many perfect or near perfect scores from those lucky enough to get their hands on a copy pre-release? Well, here’s how. First leave it in the hands of Rocksteady, who have now made two of the greatest console games every released, and who have rather unthinkably bested both Arkham Asylum, the game almost officially decreed as the best ever by fans, and more recently Gears of War 3, which I personally thought wouldn’t happen for a good long while.
Then add in an irresistible property – in this case of course Batman, who has long flown the flag as DC’s premier caped crusader (Superman pales by comparison as a too-perfect goody-two-shoes) – and whose comic universe has featured a veritable treasure trove of story arcs and characters from which to mine a vast narrative play-ground for this sequel. Key to Batman’s success as a comic book property, and now as a stellar video game character is his gallery of rogues – a collection of villains to rival any good force, with the charisma to match their malevolence.
Batman: Arkham City has that strong foundation, and so much more. It is, without a doubt the finest looking console game I have ever seen, and not only is it designed to perfection (and remarkably in keeping with the comic book universe) the graphics verge on next-generation quality in places. Though the playable landscapes are enormous, they are precise down to the most infinitesimal of details, so the same level of commitment to aesthetics is evident in both the sprawling skyscapes and the minutiae of a dank, dark alleyway.
Outside of the comics, Gotham has never looked this good before: Christopher Nolan can count himself very successful for creating a perfect atmosphere, and great characters within his own run in charge of the franchise, and Tim Burton’s insanity-laced architecture is probably the most in-keeping with the gothic spirit of the comics, but Rocksteady are able to marry the spirit of Arkham with an architectural style and visual personality that is downright astonishing.
As I said, the villains are a very important aspect of Arkham City’s brilliance – every one is designed in such a way that they are both instantly recognisable and also uniquely Rocksteady: Penguin in particular, who has been reimagined as a cockney kingpin, with a bottle driven into his eye in place of his usual monicle is a touch of genius. Harley Quinn has lost the nurse’s outfit in favour of something equally sexy, and a little more in keeping with the character (I think I love her), and Joker bears the considerable scars that Asylum left. Harvey Dent/ Two Face is very much of the Nolan school of design, Catwoman looks amazing (her design team clearly have a derriere fixation) and new characters the Abramovici Twins fit the Rocksteady Batverse, though not necessarily the comics I have to say, even if they are disappointingly simple to beat.
But it isn’t just a matter of design – the villains have bundles of personality, thanks to a tight script and exceptional voice-work, particularly from Mark Hamill – the greatest of all Joker actors – which adds substance and swagger to the beauty of their designs. These are villains we can truly love to hate, and that is helped considerably by some very impressive boss battles – which perhaps will help certain gamers forgive and forget that Joker battle that whimpered at the end of Asylum.
The combat mechanics of Asylum were very good, with their slow-motion near-pornographic kill shots, but they weren’t terribly challenging in Normal, and the most cynically critical amongst us might even suggest that they tended towards limited dimensions with most of the thugs too similar and too easily dispatched once the player had spent more than a few hours within the game. But this time out, Rocksteady have tweaked and changed – the slow motion is still there, and the fluid, balletic style still pervades – but this time out, it is even more difficult to get away with button-mashing to get through squirmishes, with the bias towards intelligent reactive combat based on what the enemy is doing.
The mechanics are governed by three separate functions – attack, counter and evasion, with new counter-attacks, including multiple foe take-downs (something which has also been added to the silent take-down option as well), and the addition of weapon-specific defences, like a dodging backwards movement to counter knives. There’s the same option of special attacks, like the combo-friendly beat-down, and there seems to be a lot more special attack goons, with various weapons or armour, thrown in to mix it up, and try and add something to the combat experience. But there is still a nagging feeling for me that despite its bells and whistles, you can guide Batman through any skirmish, no matter what size, by simply dualing attack (X) and counter (Y). Still, that shouldn’t necessarily be counted as a detraction from the game’s quality, because it plainly isn’t - there is still an inordinate amount of pleasure to be had in beating up bad-guys, and Rocksteady seem to know as much, as they’ve multiplied the bodycount by roughly two.
Key to making Arkham City better than Arkham Asylum was evolution. Features that were already strong elements of Asylum have been honed to even higher quality – that combat system has been tweaked as I say, and enemy AI has also had a bit of an uplift. Instead of just being walking cannon fodder, goons can now inflict a lot more damage if you lose concentration or get to cocky with your counters, and there are far more of them to fight each time out.
The biggest, and best evolution for me is the change to the Detective Mode, now called Augmented Reality (though I prefer the old name and will stubbornly refuse to call it anything else in general conversation). In Asylum, the DM helped way too much, and indeed even felt like a compulsory feature at times, so too much time was spent with it turned on – the rewards were too easy to come by, and too greatly outweighed the effort of actually working some things out for yourself. The only time it felt particularly appropriate to turn it off was in the set-piece rooms, with their bias towards stealth, which meant, rather counter-productively for the design team, that most of the good-looking backgrounds weren’t seen the way they were intended. This time, it is less of a necessity to always go into the Augmented Reality mode, and consequently the gamer feels less like a great big cheater when it comes to uncovering secrets.
Those set-piece rooms (themselves mini-challenge modes) have now also had a bit of a gloss – they are more difficult, and require more attentiveness, and a combination of behaviours and skills to beat without detection, which is surely the goal in each case. The thrill in these rooms is in being Batman, disappearing into the darkest corners and attacking without detection to confound and terrorise the surviving goons.
Aside from the main campaign, which sees Batman trying to uncover a murky plot called Protocol 10 (you’re getting no more than that out of me, in case the spoiler police crack down on me), there is a veritable smorgasbord of side-missions and collectibles. The Riddler’s challenges have had a huge make-over, with massive benefits: in City there are a number of totally new collectible types – with hostage missions based on riddles (which are a touch easy for a master of riddles I have to say) standing out as the best – and a new way of collecting, with informant goons dotted around the streets who will divulge the whereabouts of Nigma’s secrets in their immediate vicinity if you interrogate them. That adds a whole new element to combat as well, as you are encouraged not to knock the informant unconscious, in order to throttle the valuable information out of him immediately afterwards.
The sheer scale of Riddler’s challenges is immense – there are 440 of them littering the map, with the skill needed to unlock them ranging from stupidly easy to fiendishly tricky (combat achievements count towards the final total), and the time needed boosting the main campaign’s 15 hour runtime to at least another 10 hours, unless you’re like Columbo on steroids.
The best of the side-missions is definitely the Zsasz race-style one, which involves running across the city to answer ringing phones in time and then tracking the signal to find where the charismatic serial killer is. The challenge is great, and encourages a combination of mobile skills and cunning to make it to the phones, and there’s also the added bonus of it featuring Zsasz’s origin story. All-in-all, the cumulative effect is one of diversity, and even after the main campaign is complete, there is a massive amount of material left to uncover, which will no doubt keep players coming back for a significant amount of time.
I would love to say at this point, like others that the addition of Catwoman with her own missions and a decidedly different combat style is the high-point of the whole game, but sadly my press copy of the game didn’t include a code (which I can wholly understand). Looks like it will have to be an additional purchase, along with the numerous alternate skins, Nightwing and Robin – but really, the Batman-only game is so vast and engrossing that I didn’t really notice the lack of kitty play-time. Besides which, I’m not 100% convinced I would be able to concentrate properly on the task at hand given the opportunity to watch Catwoman’s shapely behind, and Arkham City’s swollen gallery of thugs would get off scott-free.
Like in Asylum, the musical accompaniment to the gameplay is phenomenal – the score reteams Rocksteady with Asylum’s conducting duo Ron Fish and Nick Arundel and they do their damnedest to channel the glorious spirit of Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight, while injecting their own touches to create one of the greatest game soundtracks ever put together. The classical score is most prominent in the menus, where sound effects and dialogue can’t interfere, and such is its quality that it’s possible to happily spend some time in the menu screens – which incidentally look just as good thanks to their gorgeous super-slo-mo images.
Within those menus, as well as the solo campaign and challenge maps, players also have the opportunity to take in some beautiful artwork, and 3D character models – a practice that needs no excuse or explanation once you’ve unlocked and navigated through them all. Unlike other games where artwork is an unlockable feature, with Arkham City it feels like an actual reward, as you are afforded the opportunity to further celebrate the ridiculous level of quality that goes in to each and every design. Yes, it’s showing off, but why the hell not when the game looks this astoundingly good?
Now, I don’t want to offer all of these positives without offering a sense of balance, because even the most perfect of things tend to have the odd blemish if you look hard enough. For Arkham City, the narrative is a little too ranged: the sandbox world is an incredible size, and the sheer number of side missions can occasionally mean that sections of the game feel slightly under-nourished and the Bat jumps from one major set-piece to the next rather breathlessly at times, with an implied urgency that makes completing side-missions along the way a faintly odd decision. But then that is a personal predilection, and not a real fault with the game – I suppose it all depends on how you choose to tackle each part of the game.
My personal problem with the combat system pervades as well: despite the new additions, and the tune-ups on the enemy AI, combat can feel a little on-dimensional after a good few hours locked into the game, and I can’t help but wish you could turn off the counter warnings from the outset. Because even though there are more goons to fight off, with new weapons and a greater Bat-blood-lust, the detective skills that the game encourages means that their behaviour can quite easily be logged so that physical movements that precede a particular attack become like a second language. Not only that, but the warning system precipitates an almost balletic movement that means the gamer need only respond to whatever the enemy does to survive, and it is too much of a safety net.
Which means, unfortunately that while Arkham City is brilliant to play, it isn’t hard enough. Of course, there has to be an element of brand authenticity – this is Batman we are controlling in combat, and he simply wouldn’t be bested by a group of henchmen (and Batfans would no doubt have been up in arms if he had been). Supervillains have risen to being super precisely because they can occasionally match their superhero counterparts – henchmen are merely the hired help, so it feels right to be able to dispatch numerous thugs at once without the Batcowl sprouting too many beads of sweat. And indeed, the quality of the boss battles greatly atones for the limitations of the henchmen skirmishes, with some hugely innovative set-ups, and a definite commitment to challenging the player.
If Batman: Arkham City were to have one mantra it would be “Become the Bat” – more than ever before, the gaming experience encourages you to think like Batman, to approach action as he would (and the rewards are there too for such an approach) rather than steaming in like one of the demi-God superheroes. It is no coincidence that we are allowed to see the transition from Bruce Wayne to Batman early on, or that the first achievement is called “I Am Batman”, because Rocksteady have busied themselves with creating the most immersive Batman experience yet created.
We’re not just talking one of the finest games of this year, we’re talking about a bona-fide flag-bearer for the entire industry, and if and when the next sequel comes (fingers crossed for Batman: Gotham City) it will take some beating. But in the hands of Rocksteady, you can’t help but feel confident.