joker arkham city Batman : Arkham City Review
If you haven’t heard about Batman: Arkham City or its 2009 predecessor, Batman: Arkham Asylum, you just might be living in a cave. Not the batcave mind you, but some dingy moss-lined cave complete with centipedes and icky little creatures that scuttle across you while you sleep on the stone floor. There has been a ton of hype with regards Rocksteady Studios latest game, and while I was going to give this one a pass and wait for the PC release next month, the fine folks in our very own  GamingTrend forum have played me like a fiddle. I succumbed to a phenomenon known as the forum effect, where a few people excite the masses and we throw ourselves headlong over the edge of blind gaming purchase.

As I break down what works and what doesn’t, believe me when I say this title isn’t flawless, the issues I’m going to point out aren’t likely worth holding back a purchase of the game. So if you’re looking to buy a game to play now, or to make someone happy come holiday season, Batman:Arkham City is a safe bet. Now lets get to the detective work, shall we?

“I know – I’ll record it and post it on the Internet!”

thumbs Batman Arkham City Batman flies through gotham Batman : Arkham City ReviewI’ll be the first to admit that I am not a Batman enthusiast. In the past I’ve enjoyed the comics, the movies and even several games, I am by no means fanatical. In fact, you may even catch me making the “yeah, but he doesn’t have any super powers” argument. I have played some of Arkham Asylum, mainly because of recommendations and a fantastic price on a Steam Holiday Sale last year. I found the game to enjoyable but less to my standard gaming fare as it was very much like the Metroid Prime series – lots of corridors and backtracking to use newly unlocked tools and abilities to expand already-visited areas. I tend to prefer the sandbox style games such as the Crackdown, Assassins Creed, inFamous and Just Cause series, where free roaming is encouraged and climbing as high as I can and and launching myself with reckless abandon is the norm.

When I realized that the premise of Arkham City falls very much in line with my personal interests, the idea of actually being Batman and having a city to explore really appealed to me. I’ve not read any of the comics pertaining to this particular story line nor have I completed the first game. In fact, while it does tie into the first game and the comic content that fill in the time between the two games, the experience of playing Arkham City on its own has shown me that no prior knowledge is required. You can pick it up and enjoy it without having to worry about being lost on some long and twisted plot – the game is whole unto itself in that regard, and while there may be some villains you may not be familiar with, there is enough mainstream content that anyone with a casual interest in Batman can connect to.

I’m getting bored of watching you. Why don’t you just come find me?

thumbs Batman Arkham City double hand crush Batman : Arkham City ReviewI have some criticisms of the game, which I’ll get into in a bit, but I need to get this out of the way now: Batman: Arkham City is fantastic in both presentation and execution. The attention to detail seen in the visuals and in the audio is both convincing and compelling.  I hadn’t seen any tearing or bad textures, and even though there are moments where you can’t see the enemies you’re engaged in fighting, the camera work is well done. Bruce Wayne’s persona is intimidating and cuts quite the figure. As the game progresses he takes more and more damage, which is reflected on his outfit, even going so far as to have a tears in his cape by the end of it. If I had to nit-pick the graphics that stood out for me, the biggest would be that Arkham City really isn’t a normal urban setting at all and it looks a little like Vegas vomited all over it. Most of the main villains have been able to leave their mark on the city. The sheer amount of Riddler side-quest stuff is staggering, and it’s all in your face and can be very distracting.

Audio cues and clues, directional sound and an appropriate use of  music work well to set the tone . Equally impressive is the voice work – there were only a few moments where I wished the characters would stop talking because they kept repeating the same thing over and over. When you catch up with several of the big villains they cycle through the same taunts or lines frequently – this tended to happen near the end of the game so by the time you get there you’ve already heard most of the best lines anyways. Speaking of best lines, I didn’t bother checking out the voice talent until after I’d finished Arkham City- apparently Mark Hamill was the one who stole the show with voicing the maniacal Joker. That is quite a feat, given that the game boasts some very experienced voice acting talent.

A true mark of the developers’ attention to detail is when you can notice, and can be impressed with, the dialog of the various underlings. Sure, they may be street thugs, but they have their own opinions and interests. I’ve caught people unawares while they were doing sit-ups, or chatting about the fallout between rival villains and their own future ties, and as you progress their dialog changes too. They feel less like paper dolls, and I really dig that. Otherwise there isn’t a whole lot to say except Rocksteady provides a solid experience for a game that is very convincing in its presentation.

Hey, Bats, I know you can hear me. I want you to hurt these guys. They’re nothing to me!

thumbs batman arkham city video game image steel mill Batman : Arkham City ReviewManeuvering Batman through the broken-down streets of Arkham City is actually pretty straightforward. As you gain additional skills and abilities, often there is a tutorial mode which will provide you with on-screen prompts when appropriate. This method does work but it is buried in the Waynetech screen and since they dump you into the game with very little warm-up, the curve may be longer for some. Batman doesn’t fly, but he can sustain a very long glide if you launch yourself from high perches and use his dive-and-swoop moves to propel yourself. If you complete four of the Augmented Reality  flight training objectives, you get an an improved grapnel that allows you to not only pull yourself up to the ledges, but propel yourself past the ledge to continue flying. I mention this in my review because in the game they don’t, and before you have that ability moving around the city can be cumbersome. These missions are available almost as soon as you’re into Arkham City, so I would suggest you seek them out if you’re finding it too boring to walk.

Batman is generally a hands-on kind of guy, and so he relies on a lot of up-close fighting. The face buttons (A,B,X,Y) dominate this kind of combat. X is the button used most, which is your attack button. Batman will string together various strikes with it to take down his foes, but it’s timing that matters. To increase combo rating (which raises damage and allows you to execute special moves), you will need land hits, not swing-and-miss, and not let too much time elapse between attacks. Thankfully he moves towards the nearest directed opponent- the Dark Knight will leap automatically and it has a real sense of fluidity in his movements. Next is the Y or counter attack which will automatically counter normal attacks from any direction, as well as catching and returning a thrown objects, or even handling single or simultaneous attacks with cinematic flair. A, or jump, can be added to the mix as well as B to swing your cape at assailants which will momentarily daze them. All of these skills grow and new gadgets and combat options open up for you to select as you build experience.

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

thumbs Batman Arkham City Batman in front of moon like moody ET Batman : Arkham City ReviewAlong with a solid combat engine, Batman wouldn’t be Batman without a tool belt. There are several types of batarangs, the grapnel which allows you to zip up buildings, and, returning from the previous game, an explosive spray gel – all are almost immediately available, and while all tools have limits in how much can be deployed at once, there is no ammo counter to worry about. There are other gadgets and improvements that you earn along the way, and since I don’t want to ruin any surprises I’ll just say this: you get some pretty cool gadgets but none of them break the gameplay. Most of the combat-related tools also have quick-execute options. One example would be batarangs where you can simply tap the left trigger (LT), or to spray the gel on the ground you’d hold LT and hit X, and repeat it a second time to trigger its explosion.

The best tool by a country mile is the Waynetech detective view- an  x-ray like view which shows skeletal frames, bodies and clues. This also means lighting isn’t an issue, and except for being near thugs with jammers, I found myself using the LB to switch into that mode almost half the time. Being able to choose whether you see the world through detective view, even while in combat, or the plain ol’ boring eyeball mode is well executed and switching is as simple as hitting the LB.

Come on boys! He’s just one man! One man dressed like a lunatic and armed to the teeth. Go get him!

That brings me to my first real issue with Batman: Arkham City – the lack of clear objectives and no real combat tutorial to speak of. Yes, there is a breadcrumb trail for the plot and you can follow it, but given that you’re in a dark and destroyed city section filled with bloodthirsty criminals who have been quarantined ala the movie Escape from New York, you’d think Batman would have brought On-Star with him. At the beginning, it’s almost overwhelming with how much is going on around you, and while you can assign a custom marker on your map and the classic bat signal will appear above it in the sky, if you have an outstanding upgrade point that you’re saving for later, the “Level Up” text replaces your compass entirely. With no manual and no tutorial mode the controls and combat are things that take a bit to learn, so being tossed into Arkham City can be disorienting and needlessly hard to approach.

There are a plethora of side-missions available, and it’s also hard to tell whether you NEED to complete a side mission when it’s presented – I was always worried that there would be some consequence for ignoring a cry for help while I chase down a plot-based event. On top of that, the aforementioned Riddler quests are literally everywhere – even in places where they shouldn’t be. I have no idea where he got that much spray paint from within the confines of a large area prison, or managed to run wiring inside brick and concrete, or why he’d set up destructible walls, but I’d expect he had a full-time construction crew working around the clock to accomplish some of these mini-tests. Most of those aren’t all that hard to solve so you do get some instant gratification, but the “land against one wall, spring to the next wall and then to a pad on the ground” were too frustrating for me to bother with. This means these silly pads are going to blink and glow all over town as I deliberately ignore them. Frankly, they rank right up there with rooftop races in the first Assassin’s Creed – it feels forced and awkward.

Tell the fat lady she’s on in five.

thumbs Batman Arkham City New thugs Batman : Arkham City ReviewOn the flipside, while Arkham City feels like it’s full of things to do, after completing it I’m finding that there isn’t a lot of replay value to be had. The interactions in the main plot line are far more interesting than most of the side missions, so the draw wasn’t there (for me). Arkham City is a actually a fairly small sandbox, certainly compared to games such as Just Cause 2 or Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and there are experiences that contradict the feeling of freedom as most of the game is played in closed areas. With exception to choosing to learn to fight better and go with a harder mode, the game shines best on the first play through.

There were also a few sandbox-related issues I would like to point out: the center of the city is walled off so you spend time traveling around it instead of across it. Most buildings are pretty similar in height and description, and while there are landmarks and covered in Riddler’s litter, most areas are dark, dirty and similar in presentation. Even though it looks different, Arkham City doesn’t really break away from the formula that the Arkham Asylum put forth – you’re still using larger open area to move between closed areas where all the gaming really happens.

You can’t explore every nook and cranny – limits are imposed by way of not having the right gadgets to allow you to explore, and should you feel it necessary, you’ll be revisiting the same areas later. Batman doesn’t keep track of those limits (eg: having the tool to get past steam vents) so you’ll be traipsing over hell’s half acre looking for steam pipes when you obtain the prerequisite equipment. This isn’t just a side-plot device mind you, it is the games’ main exploration restriction method.

I tend to be a completionist during my first run-through, but it takes something special to draw me back in. I don’t feel like re-exploring the city with Catwoman so the only thing to do (besides some challenge modes) is to complete the Riddler’s answer to the question “Who wants to stand in for the Easter Bunny this year?”. There are a few things I’d like to finish up, but it’s not like the game is going to be any different the second time around. The humor, while very worthwhile, isn’t going to be funnier the second time around. The only thing that has me wanting to play it again is the difference in combat with the respective levels. Playing easy, for me, was like being good at an instrument in Rock Band, and then playing easy. My own sense of combat rhythm, honed from years of being handed Dynasty Warriors games to review is tuned to be much more rapid than the “Normal” or “Easy” settings. And, should you chose to play at a higher difficulty, be warned that you will have to have some fantastic reaction time but it can be very rewarding.

Tell me Bats, what are you really scared of? Failing to save this cesspool of a city? Not finding the Commissioner in time? Me, in a thong?

thumbs batman arkham city video game image magma Batman : Arkham City ReviewThe last two points I’d like to address are criticisms of sexual exploitation and DLC content. There have been rumblings of the fact that all the women in Batman: Arkham City are simply sexist and set unrealistic expectations of the female form. They’re right, in a way. The women in this game are definitely designed to ooze sexual appeal and their proportions are borderline impossible. But, by the same token, the men too have unrealistic body proportions. Batman and company are no less impressive in stature – this is the same imagery that we’ve come to expect from comics and I just can’t get worked up over that. There are also comments made by thugs, murderers and thieves about these women – taken out of context they would be offensive, but knowing that you’re operating in a prison for the most violent and dangerous offenders, their comments don’t even approach the line drawn by prime-time R-rated dramas.

Conversely, the DLC-at-launch trend is getting my hackles up. It doesn’t feel at all like something has been added, but instead, right from development, that they were planning on how they could take things away. From exclusive pre-order “gifts” to DLC codes packaged with the game, it doesn’t pass the smell test. I’m not prepared to provide a review of content for a disk-based game that has a download requirement to play – otherwise I would then also need to consider to cost of having Internet access in the value section, and then a great number of games engaging in this practice would certainly fall short of the mark.

It is for this reason that I am not considering the Catwoman playable character DLC in this review – for many people it is an extra cost. The sad thing is that Catwoman is able to travel everywhere Batman can go, and has a complementary set of skills in combat so entire city is built for her as well – but to get her, you’d first need the code from your new purchase, or buy the license from the online marketplace. Then you’ll need an Internet connection to use the code and receive the subsequent download, which means that if you don’t have the Internet where your console is, this content is useless. I could go on about this topic, but the point here is that while the Catwoman add-on content is a fantastic addition to an already solid game and may well contribute to value and re-playability, I will not be reflecting it in the score.

Hey, Sharpie. Love what you’ve done with the place.

On the up-side, there are other playable characters that are planned such as Robin – this is good for the game as it does provide people with a fresh take on Arkham City. Along with planned DLC there are some challenge maps, collectables and storylines that are revealed with the Riddlers trophies, and around a dozen side-missions. Overall Batman: Arkham City is a fantastic romp with the Dark Knight through a suitably dark and depressing city, with your fists, your toys and a fantastic new take on the story. While it engages more sandbox gameplay, it ultimately is a true sequel to the Arkham Asylum in both feel and presentation and is a worthy purchase, even if it isn’t that long or that large. The game holds up to the hype, and while the Riddler’s collectables run roughshod over Arkham City, it’s nothing that the Batman can’t fix.