Two years ago, developer Rocksteady stomped out the notion that licensed video games were always doomed to failure with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Never before had a video game captured so accurately the fiction of a comic based character, or any character from any other form of entertainment media for that matter. It was the quintessential super-hero game and as of the release of Batman: Arkham City, it is now the second most quintessential super hero game. AC takes everything that was great, flawed or otherwise about AA and overhauls it to the nth degree. This game belongs in any gamer’s collection.
The story picks up several months after the happenings of AA. Quincy Sharp, formerly the warden of Arkham Asylum, is now the mayor of Gotham City. In an effort to win over the population, he cordons off a dilapidated section of Gotham, dubs it “Arkham City” (thus the title of the game) and moves all of the city’s criminals there to essentially let them run rampant. Dr. Hugo Strange, a mysterious and shady psychologist, is put in charge of the city. Now Batman, being the world’s greatest detective, has concocted a plan to get himself into Arkham City to see what Strange is up to with his unusual experiment.
Even though I have never read a Batman comic in my life with the exception of a few Allen Moore graphic novels, Rocksteady made me feel like I’ve been on board with the character and his universe since day one. AC does the comic fans a ridiculous amount of service here in the form of character bios, easter eggs and plenty of cameo appearances from villains and heroes alike…and not always in the way you would expect. I even found myself getting caught up in reading all about a particular character in a bio or listening to a voice mail from them from time to time.
For those of us who have no desire to find out anything more about anything in the DC hero’s universe, you will honestly not even notice because everything else about the Arkham City is incredible. Take the setting, for example. Though I found the island Arkham Asylum took place on to have a bit more charm than Arkham City, the amount of detail and level of expansion over the first game’s setting is simply too impressive not to be astounded by it. There are not enough works to describe its visual splendor and they add just another layer to the already incredible levels of atmosphere. It’s large over world and countless dungeons are all dripping with detail.
Hidden away in this sprawling, criminal infested metropolis are countless diversions that, despite the quality of the main storyline, will invariably pull you away from time to time. There are the 400 some odd Riddler challenges and riddles to be solved, for instance. The collection of these trophies comes in a very “metroidvainia” fashion in that at the start, some of these trophies are inaccessible and Batman must be leveled up so that he may obtain the ability or gadget that can get him there.
In addition to the Riddler’s twisted brain teasers are even more side stories and missions. I was tracking an assassin to prevent him from killing a high profile political prisoner. Coming upon the faceless corpse of an inmate, I was then hot on the trail of a serial killer, using my Detective Mode to track blood trails and match DNA. Next thing I knew, I was racing to a ringing telephone to intercept a call from serial killer Victor Zsasz to prevent him from murdering a helpless hostage and tracking his calls while listening to him tell me his sadistic tale about how he came to be who he is so that I may track him down. I was, for all intents and purposes, Batman.
All of these activities I found myself enthralled in were held together by an incredible framework of game play mechanics that were introduced in AA and have been polished to a solar sheen here. Following the basic attack, counter and dodge that made up the occasionally choppy combat in the first game, Rocksteady have made combat a joy. You can now counter several enemies at the same time, making for more balanced fights when Batman gets swarmed by a crowd of baddies. Also added are hotkey presses to use his gadgets quickly while in combat, adding another layer to the deceptively simple system. I was deftly moving from enemy to enemy, punching them in the face, breaking the arms of the two goons trying to jump me from behind and stunning others with my batarang with ease. Rocksteady was also sure to throw in many different enemy types and bosses to keep me switching tactics as well, which kept the combat feeling fresh to the end.
Players who prefer a more subtle approach to combat also have a wealth of stealth options available to them. Via the clever use of one of his many gadgets, players can turn Batman into quite the predator to scare the ever living crap out of his enemies before knocking them out. Entering a room patrolled by armed guards, I scanned the area with the detective mode scanner to get a head count. Then, I grappled up to a gargoyle and waited for an enemy to pass underneath so I could string him up. Watching his compatriots start to freak out and fire their weapons wildly into the air as I thinned their numbers was some of the most fun I’ve had all year.
Outside of the main campaign is even more content to be experienced. For one, you can do a new game plus, which allows players to start a new story and keep their gadgets and level from their previous play through but ratchets up the difficulty, making you feel more like Batman than ever. Then there are the Combat challenge rooms, which have players doing a plethora of different activities such as fighting off waves of enemies. There are also the Predator challenge rooms, which are basically the stealth-based counterparts of the Combat challenges. Finally, there are the Riddler Campaigns which put players in tough combat situations where Batman may have less health and a time limit in which he must take out a certain set of baddies. Make no mistake; AC lets you stretch your game purchase to the absolute max.
There is one more feature I should mention, but for as good as it is, I was thoroughly annoyed about how I had to obtain it. Catwoman has her own mini-campaign to play through, but the only way to get it is to use a download code included in new copies of the game, or by a separate purchase from an online market place. Me, being without the ability to connect to Xbox Live, could not download this and thus missed out on a portion of the game. Why Rocksteady went this route is beyond me.
All in all, Batman: Arkham City is everything that a video game sequel should be. Bigger, prettier and more polished in the game play principles its predecessor introduced. After playing the game for 20 hours and beating the main campaign, I am at only 50 percent completion and plan on going all the way to 100. Rocksteady has created a game with so much character, so much atmosphere and so much mystery that it could keep anyone coming back for more. I can imagine very few types of people that would dislike this game.