Batman: Arkham City review
|REVIEWS - VIDEOGAME REVIEWS|
We've been 'Arking' on about it for a while, but has Arkham City glided to new heights?...
I’m going to be honest with you guys. Can I be honest with you? Okay. When I first turned on Batman: Arkham City, a game I had been anticipating quite eagerly – it’s not in my top three of the year, but it’s pretty high – I was a bit disappointed. That probably goes against everything you’ve heard about this game so far. Allow me to explain.
One of the many things that made Batman: Arkham Asylum so successful was its surprisingly compelling storyline, which was established from the get go as Batman escorts the Joker to the prison for the criminally insane, only for Mister J to break free moments after his incarceration; ensuring that the lunatics quite literally take over the Asylum. Immediately there was a clear sense of purpose and direction.
Not so in Arkham City. The opening scene is an initially confusing speech involving Bruce Wayne publicly denouncing Arkham City – and rightfully so – but it seems somewhat out of character for Wayne – a man who desperately wants to conceal his dual identity as Batman – for him to be making statements about the criminal element of Gotham, even if he is a well-established philanthropist.
Mid-way through his speech, Wayne is held at gunpoint and arrested before being brought into Arkham City himself…and nobody seems to ask why. It’s a small detail, but it really rankled with me that something so glaring had been overlooked so easily. Thankfully, once inside, the story quickly picks up the pace, but the initial motivation for Batman to get into Arkham City is cloudy to say the least. For the first two hours, I just wasn’t into it, mostly because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, or why. In that regard, Arkham City doesn’t hold your hand, but it gives you the keys to the car a little sooner than it should, and being dropped into this sprawling, enormous environment can be a little overwhelming when you’re not yet sure why you’re there. In short, the initial story introduction felt a bit thrown together and lacked a certain authenticity that Asylum had.
Perhaps it’s an odd complaint, but understand this: Arkham City is a massive game. Calling it a “city” is no exaggeration. It’s impossible to move from one storyline objective to another without encountering a side mission or five along the way. And you’ll stop and investigate each and every one of them because it’s all compelling. This is a great thing – it adds a whole load of optional things for players who want to do as much as they can. However, I definitely felt that I wanted the storyline to be established a little more than it was before I was given free access to the entirety of Arkham City.
Now that’s out the way, I can tell you what an incredible game this is. Arkham City is Arkham Asylum expanded five fold in all aspects, the idea being to contain all of Gotham’s criminals in one place. That way, if they raise havoc and kill people, it will be each other, not innocent civilians. Perhaps a sound argument, but any support you might harbour for this contention is quickly shattered once you’re inside. Arkham City is, as one inmate frequently puts it over Batman’s short-wave radio device, hell. It’s the nightmare scenario of anarchy and mayhem running amok where even hardened criminals are scared into little more than weeping lost boys.
So-called “supervillains” are the dominant forces, naturally, frequently vying for power in a turf war between The Penguin, Two Face and of course, the Joker. Word on the street is the Joker is very ill indeed, and everybody ‘s heatedly debating who will be the next power to take over in what is universally agreed as being Joker’s city. The characters are powerful and engaging as ever, though appearances from some of them are fleeting at best, and initial expectations of this being more focused on the villains absent in Arkham Asylum are crushed quickly. I initially expected this to be Two-Face’s game in the same way that Asylum was Joker’s – but no, this is still very much Joker’s game, perhaps more so than before.
The man behind the iron curtain, running the show and endorsing the continuing suffering that is Arkham City is Dr Hugo Strange, psychiatrist and Batman-obsessive. Strange (apt name) serves as Arkham’s administrator, and though his face to face appearances are limited, his voice rings throughout the city constantly in an eerie, commanding tone that is strongly reminiscent of Christopher Lee’s Saruman from Lord of the Rings. Strange, though often invisible and holed up in a lofty tower, is a compelling villain indeed.
Other villains make appearances, too. The Riddler is back, but his inclusion has far more prominence this time around. This time there are a staggering 400 Riddler trophies to collect, along with numerous puzzles and side missions all featuring Edward Nigma. If you were so inclined, you could be playing Arkham City’s side missions and collecting its trophies or achievements long after you’ve finished the main story mode. There’s also a new game plus mode that allows you to carry over all your accumulated EXP, upgrades and Riddler trophies.
To say any more about who features in this game would be spoilerific, and should be experienced first-hand, but there is one particular anti-villain that has to be mentioned, and that’s Catwoman. If you buy the game new, you’ll get a free code inside the box which allows you to download the Catwoman DLC. I highly recommend doing this before you start playing Arkham City, as Catwoman’s story intertwines with Batman’s, making for a refreshing change of pace when you switch between the two characters. Make no mistake, this is still very much a Batman game, but Catwoman’s chapters are a pleasure to play. Where Batman is a tank, Catwoman is a ninja. Though her attacks are not as powerful at Batman, she’s more lithe, quick on her feet and to some extent, I’d have to say I prefer her combat style to that of the Caped Crusader. This has nothing to do with any flaws in Batman’s combat, it’s simply a matter of preference. And if Rocksteady were to announce a standalone Catwoman game, I’d absolutely be first in line to pick up a copy, but the genius of the Catwoman segments is their length – they include just the right amount, and at just the right time.
Visually, it’s almost hard to say anything. Graphically, Arkham City is perfect. Honestly, I never encountered a shoddy texture, frame-rate issue or anything even remotely resembling a critical thought of the game’s graphics. The aesthetic, a mesmerizing blend of comic-book world and stunningly realistic facial animations (over here, L.A. Noire) is top dollar. It’s a very colourful world, too. By incorporating a fresh spectrum of pastels throughout, AC has built on Asylum’s somewhat monotone greens and browns, giving each villain’s hideout a unique atmosphere.
It’s a beautiful game, with art styles and environments that compliment each other perfectly, and it’s difficult to imagine any way that any aspect of the way game's looks could be improved upon.
The world of Batman here couldn’t be further from that of Nolan’s; where Nolan is conservative, realistic and tight, Arkham City is colourful, over the top and almost overflowing with possibilities. Despite the action feeling very “comicy”, it never stops feeling like a very adult game. It’s a brilliant demonstration of how the fantastical can still be kept firmly within the realm of the believable. This Batman universe lacks Burton’s gothic morbidity or Nolan’s ultra-realism, and is perhaps closest to Joel Schumacher’s artsy, eccentric style – except, of course, it doesn’t suck.
The sound is also universally excellent. The soundtrack manages to be pitch perfect – echoes of Nolan’s Batman trilogy are evident, but Arkham City is very much its own beast. The music (along with everything else in the game) makes you feel like Batman.
Equally as good, if not better, is the voice acting. It’s getting increasingly difficult to recall a time when videogames didn’t have voice acting, or if they did, it was of the ham-fisted so-bad-it’s-good variety, but Arkham City is a masterclass of videogame voice acting. This is how it’s done. Kevin Conroy as Batman, Corey Burton as Hugo Strange and of course, Mark Hamill as the Joker...all of which are sensationally good. Hamill in particular is on fire. He’s so good in fact, that these days when I summon the Joker to mind, I no longer see Heath Ledger’s movie-stealing performance from The Dark Knight, I see Arkham City’s Joker slapping his knee as he leans in and tells me “You know there’s plenty wrong with me!” If there were awards for videogame voice acting performances (there should be), Mark Hamill would be the unrivalled contender this year.
The combat here is much the same as the first game, which is to say it’s intuitive, fast-paced and bags of fun. Few videogames are as enjoyable as Arkham City when it comes to pummelling your foes into tiny, broken-boned sacks of meat writhing on the ground in agony. In fact, I’m prepared to go out on a limb (unbroken, that is) and say this is hands down the most fun you can have with combat in a current-gen game. Part of this is down to the fact that there are so many variable animations that Batman cycles through in combat, it really feels as if you’re watching a well choreographed fight from a movie. The cleverest thing about it is its simplicity - all you have to do is attack or counter, whilst occasionally being challenged via a button combination. Rocksteady were very clever by keeping their fights so simple – if it were up to the player to pull off spectacular moves with overly complicated button combos ala Devil May Cry, chances are we’d make a pig’s ear of it.
Instead, Arkham City tests your reflexes to the max. If you lose your combo chain, it’s always easy to see where you made your error, and you’ll never be able to blame it on the game engine. It also always feels new. Every time you play the combat it feels like you’re watching Batman’s moves for the first time.
Along with the gadgets from the previous instalment (all of which you have from the start of the game), there’s an electric charge gun, smoke pellets and a grapnel that allows you to experience continuous gliding over the neon haze of Arkham. Gliding in itself is a pleasure in this game. There are several training modules you can run to help you perfect your glide, and as frustratingly close as you’ll come to nailing it, you won’t stop until you’ve perfected each one (I spent forty minutes on the last simulation alone).
There are many more things I could say about Arkham City. I could tell you about the inventive ways in which characters have been remodelled and brought up to date, like Penguin’s monocle being traded for the sharp end of a beer bottle, or how The Riddler’s challenge rooms will probably end up consuming more hours of your life than is strictly healthy, or how when playing as Catwoman you’ll swing across the city with the express purpose of trying to time your jumps so you get a little box in the corner of the screen that reads “perfect”. But that would be redundant. All that really needs to be said is this: go and buy Arkham City.
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