I have, on more than one occasion, railed against games which allow the player no agency, which require the player to, essentially, go from point A to point B to point C without allowing them to choose their path and which provide minimal (if any) differences in the final possible outcomes. As with any good rule, there are always exceptions. Enter the sequel to the 2009 Rocksteady title Batman: Arkham Asylum, the newly released Batman: Arkham City.
Perhaps though it is not really an exception to the rule that makes Arkham City as great as it is (and it is great), but rather an expansion of it. Arkham City may provide a required order to the main missions, but there are a whole lot of side missions and the world in which it takes place is pretty large. Therefore, while the main plot is linear, you can avoid actually traveling along it for quite some time.
If you know Batman, then while you’re aware of Arkham Asylum as a location, the idea of Arkham City may find you drawing a blank. Within the game, this is a section of Gotham that has been walled off and currently houses the former inmates of the asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary. The whole explanation (or at least the logic) of why this was done is somewhat murky, making it feel as though it only exists so that Batman can be allowed to roam around in a far more open world than he had in the first game. There are probably a dozen different ways this could have occurred, making the choice a little odd, but the wonder of the rest of the game makes it easy to forget this issue.
The entire affair starts off very differently than the original game — here we start with Bruce Wayne being incarcerated in Arkham City. The place is run by Hugo Strange, and Strange, somehow, knows Wayne’s secret identity. Rather than being trapped in an insane asylum being run by the inmates, here Batman is an inmate…. not that being an inmate stops him from getting a batsuit and some of those wonderful toys. From there, Batman runs into his old nemesis, the Joker, who is still smarting from his use of the Titan formula in Arkham Asylum.
Asylum established an incredible tone for the franchise, and it’s something City picks up on brilliantly. This is a dark game, one suited wonderfully to the Dark Knight. Whatever other faults it may have, Arkham City has atmosphere in abundance — the game’s feel is wonderful.
Much as Arkham City is just a larger place to put really, really, bad people than either Arkham Asylum or Blackgate, Arkham City is just Arkham Asylum writ large. The controls are larger the same, but you have a few more toys; many of the original bad guys appear, but there are new ones too; Riddler’s hidden trophies still abound, but now there are many more types; etc.
From this writer’s point of view, one of the biggest issues with the original title is the huge advantage offered by utilizing Batman’s “detective mode.” Detective mode allows the Dark Knight to see heat signatures, locate hidden objects, and generally gain an advantage that he probably shouldn’t have. Unfortunately, Detective mode returns here for Arkham City, and it is just as powerful as before. Beyond that, whenever the game introduces a new obstacle it is also very quick to allow upgrades to help alleviate it. The most obvious example of this takes place after Batman encounters bad guys who can spot the hero’s heat signature even when he is hiding. Encounter these guys, then finish the level, and you’re offered an upgrade (the next time you have enough XP) to get a sort of a heat cloak which will negate the baddies’ ability to use this new tool.
In point of fact, where Arkham City most suffers is not with its control scheme, its plot, its look, or its feel, but with its difficulty level. Get a few upgrades and it becomes no problem whatsoever to take down a group of 20 bad guys at once. The bosses are rarely difficult to defeat – even huge lugs like Solomon Grundy (who is helped out by the Penguin during the fight) easily fall prey to the Bat’s arsenal. On more than one occasion you will square off against one of Gotham’s arch criminals, defeat them, and be utterly sure that there simply has to be more to the battle; that you’re going to go around a corner, see that they’ve come back, and then have to “really” beat them. The fact that there is so much to do in the game certainly helps make up for the ease with which you can accomplish various tasks, but those wanting something resembling a challenge will certainly want to ratchet up the difficulty as high as possible.
At this point it is required of me to touch on an issue that may make no difference to you if you have bought the game new, but will matter greatly if you have opted for a pre-owned copy – Catwoman. If you don’t buy the game new, you won’t be able to play the Catwoman missions which appear as a part of the main storyline (at least not without buying an online pass in addition to buying the game). As this article notes, Catwoman is locked if you buy a used copy. But, as is also noted in the article, you can’t play Catwoman if you’re console isn’t connected to the internet as her portion of the story is DLC. She will appear in the game if you buy it used (or aren’t broadband connected) but not as a playable character. This is not the worst example of trying to ensure that everyone buys a new copy of a game that we’ve seen, but it does feel relatively wrong. I will not pretend to know where the balance lies between developers and publishers attempting to recoup the cost of making the game/turning a profit and the existence of a second-hand market for games, but it does not yet seem as though the right balance has been struck.
Faults aside, Batman: Arkham City is a spectacularly wonderful game. Losing Catwoman is unfortunate, but it really isn’t a deal breaker either – if you didn’t know it was possible to play as her, you wouldn’t really know you were missing anything (she is mentioned in the manual, so if you open it, you can’t remain oblivious). Additionally, the game world is big enough, and there are a substantial number of side missions to go through, that it will take you a long time to go through it all if you opt to pursue 100 percent completion. It is an atmospheric, moody, title with a great look and great controls. It is wonderfully voice acted and despite the horrors that await you around every corner of Arkham City, it is a joy to behold on virtually every level.
As must-have titles go this holiday season, Batman: Arkham City is up there near the top of the list.
Batman: Arkham City is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco, Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.