With Batman: Arkham Origins hitting shelves today, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at Rocksteady’s ambitious sequel to Arkham Asylum.
In Batman: Arkham City, we find that Gotham has partitioned off an older section of the city as a gigantic prison for the inmates of Blackgate as well as those from Arkham Asylum, and they are engaging in ever deadlier turf wars in their new home, creating a Darwinistic nightmare where common criminals are hoping to survive by allying themselves with the most powerful of villains. Overseeing this dystopian penal colony is the enigmatic Hugo Strange who has created the prison for his own purposes and who also knows Batman’s true identity. Arkham City begins with Bruce Wayne being captured and put in the penal colony with a stern threat from Strange that the world will know his secret should he interfere.
Building on Its Roots
Upon first playing Arkham City, my impression was of a sequel that was more of the same, only bigger. Don’t get me wrong. In terms of the Arkham formula, more of the same is a Good Thing™. Replaying Arkham Asylum showed me just how wrong I was. Arkham City is not just a bigger and more ambitious Batman game than Arkham Asylum. It is, without question, a better game, and it cements the Arkham series as a credible alternative Batman myth with a life of its own. While containing cursory nods to DC canon, the Gotham of Arkham is unquestionably its own place, with its own take on Batman, his allies, and his enemies.
From beginning to end, the narrative flow seamlessly. While the premise is extraordinary, almost to the point of unbelievable, every element of the plot ties back to that premise and gives it weight. Where Arkham Asylum has a final act that knocked me out of my suspension of disbelief, Arkham City has no such moment. In fact, by the end, I was kind of wishing that the writers would give Batman a break. Make no mistake, the ending of Arkham City is one of the most intense, surprising, and disturbing conclusions to any video game I’ve played. And Rocksteady makes it work. Even if the game was fundamentally broken in some way, which it is not, the story alone would make it worth playing. Future Batman screenwriters should be taking notes.
Helping the script along is a great cast of voice actors; like Arkham Asylum, much of the voice cast from Batman: The Animated Series returns. One notable exception is Harley Quinn, but the new voice actor does such a fantastic job with her character that it doesn’t matter. Nolan North joins with a very unique take on Penguin, and he too tackles the character with such ability that his Penguin simply becomes the way Penguin is supposed to be in this world. There are more characters I want to talk about (including one that crushed me when they were unexpectedly eliminated), but I don’t want to spoil anything on the off chance you haven’t played this game yet. Every character is wonderfully portrayed. I’m still not sold on the art direction, but it doesn’t matter. The characters are that good.
Despite obvious similarities to its predecessor, every element of Arkham City has received small iterative tweaks that make for an even better Batman experience. Combat is still a borderline rhythm game, requiring perfectly timed blows, counters, and combos, but the fights just seem to flow better in Arkham City. Batman also has access to a wider variety of gadgets, and those gadgets fit seamlessly into exploring this larger world. There were only a couple times where it felt like the developer was artificially holding Batman’s abilities and arsenal back for the sake of the narrative. (“You mean, Batman could have gone and gotten that gadget at any time?”) Those few simple video game tropes like do nothing to taint the experience, however. Arkham City makes you, the player, feel like a superhero like no game before it. It’s not a case of controlling Batman; it’s about being Batman.
Bigger and Better
Arkham City‘s environment is remarkably bigger than Arkham Asylum‘s. We’re not talking about a gameplay world as big as Los Santos, but every inch of Arkham City is crawling with personality and Easter Eggs waiting to be found by fans of the series. Arkham City may not be the largest sandbox to play in, but it’s one of the best-realized. Like Arkham Asylum, this game lives firmly outside the canon of any of the movies or comics while making nods to famous Batman storylines throughout the game’s environments. It’s hard not to smile when a reference to No Man’s Land or Sword of Azrael appears on the sidelines, but you might not have long to gawk before an inmate swings a metal pipe at your head.
Adding to the impressive nature of these details are the numerous Riddler challenges, many of which actively reward you for finding the small touches littered around the game world. There are 400 Riddler challenges to complete in Arkham City, including trophies to find, riddles to solve, and combat moves to execute. Many of the combat challenges will unlock as you naturally progress through the game, though some take a conscious effort, and the trophies range from easy to downright devious. There is one trophy I’ve never managed to get. More than quick experience points, these challenges eventually lead you through a side quest involving Riddler and hostages he’s scattered throughout the prison. Where Riddler’s capture was an entirely off-screen event in Arkham Asylum, here you get to face off with the twisted genius in person.
Arkham City also introduces a number of additional side quests involving solving assassinations, tracking mysterious symbols, rescuing political prisoners, and investigating faceless murder victims. Some side quests merely add a layer of depth to the story while others provide hints at what may be coming in future installments. “I’ll look into it tomorrow,” Batman says about one villain cameo, teasing a possible plot line for whatever Rocksteady has in store for a next-gen Arkham game. The main story may take six to eight hours to complete, but you’ll invest a great deal of more time into Arkham City if you want to experience everything the game has to offer. If you are like me, you’ll be playing the game long after the closing credits roll.
Beyond the Bat
Another way Arkham City is different that its predecessor is the inclusion of DLC that adds to the story. The first of these additions is the ability to add Catwoman to the main game. She’s present on the sidelines throughout, but the Catwoman DLC let’s you play as her in a plot thread that weaves in and out of the game’s main narrative while running parallel to it. The DLC even gives you a chance to end the game early, but that ending does not bode well for Batman. It’s a fun alternate history moment, but it also cuts the game short with no benefit for doing so.
They could have simply reskinned Batman as Catwoman and called it a day, but combat with Catwoman is faster and requires more finesse. Physically, she takes less damage than Batman before going down, but she can also escape a fight more quickly. She has few gadgets, but they are effective tools in combat. Unfortunately,Thief Vision feels like a largely useless version of Batman’s Detective Mode, especially since you can’t use it to see through environmental obstacles, and you cannot tell armed enemies from unarmed enemies with it.
Adding Catwoman adds forty Riddler challenges to the game, and her agility can make some of the more difficult Riddler trophies more manageable. She also comes with her own set of challenge maps and skins. Since my copy of Arkham City came with Catwoman, I can’t imagine the game without her. Adding Catwoman to the gameplay experience adds another level of depth to an already deep game.
The other big addition to the game is Harley Quinn’s Revenge, a story that takes place after the events of the game. In it, you alternate between playing as Batman and Tim Drake’s Robin. Like Catwoman, Robin comes with his own gadgets, combos, and combat style. Unlike Catwoman, however, I found myself annoyed when fighting as Robin. He simply felt slow, and I caught myself getting kicked around by thugs because Robin would take that one second too long to execute a knockout. I was really looking forward to playing as Robin, but I feel his is the only character Rocksteady failed to capture as ably as the others in the Batman universe.
Harley Quinn’s Revenge is a far more linear experience than the rest of the game, but it’s appropriate. Given the urgency of events, it would seem odd if Robin was inexplicably pursuing side quests. The atmosphere is very dark and tense with a few surprises scattered around the environment, and the combat goes beyond challenging to downright punishing. It took me three tries to get through the final barrage of enemies in easy mode. I don’t think I ever did complete it on normal or higher. Still, the DLC is worth the price of admission for more time in Arkham City and for a better glimpse at the toll recent events are taking on Batman. It makes me wonder if Bruce Wayne might be taking a back seat in the next-gen sequel.
Other extras include challenge maps and additional character skins. The challenge maps are enjoyable enough, but I wish the skins offered more to the game. You can’t use additional Batman skins in the main game unless you’ve already completed it once at normal or hard difficulty, and Catwoman and Robin skins can’t be used in the main game at all — only in the challenge maps. Additionally, the skins don’t apply in all of the cut scenes, which can be distracting. It would be neat, for example, if you could play through Harley Quinn’s Revenge as Nightwing instead of Robin.
Challenge Maps live up to their names, and none of the challenges feel impossible. Some of them just take time to hit all of the special conditions to earn a perfect rating. Finally, the New Game+ mode offers a good challenge, notably removing any indicators for counter-attacks, instead requiring you to pay closer attention to enemy animations for you to know when to react. All side quests and Riddler challenges completed during the main campaign carry over to the New Game+, allowing for a more focused experience.
A Darker Knight
It’s hard to believe, but the events of the Arkham City main quest take place in one night — a single night that pushes Batman to his breaking point. The story begins dark and grows darker as the game progresses. Between the events of the main plot and those in Harley Quinn’s Revenge, I’m eager to see where Rocksteady takes their Dark Knight next. As big and bold as Arkham City is, it’s evident the writers and developers are still leading up to something still bigger and more ambitious, but we’re going to have to wait a bit longer to find out what that is.
Arkham City serves as a great piece of fan service while never feeling restrained by the source material. The core game is fantastic with some extras that some will find more engaging than others. The DLC is pretty good, but the skins feel like a cash-in with the very limited ways you can actually use them. None of that takes away from the core experience though. Batman: Arkham City is arguably among the best superhero games ever made, and it would stand as a great game even if no license was attached. Whether you love Batman or simply love well-made games, a trip to Arkham City is a worthwhile investment.