Arkham Asylum rocked my expectations of what a game based on an established franchise can be, if handled properly. One moment, videogames based on comic book superheroes are all dumb and doomed to mediocrity at best, the next, we’re looking to the next game based on Batman as a probable contender for a good many Game Of The Year awards before anyone’s even played it. Those are the kind of expectations that it’s almost impossible to live up to, the kind of expectations that result in crippling emotional issues because no matter how hard you try, your parents never- wait, now’s not the time or place. Despite crushing expectations, Batman: Arkham City is totally awesome.
Fast forward six months from the events at Arkham Asylum, and Sharpe, the warden of the facility, is now mayor. If you discovered the “secret of Arkham” in the prior game, you’d probably already be raising an eyebrow at the implication of what it means to have such an unstable individual in power. Of course, walling off an entire district of Gotham City, tossing the crims in, and calling it Arkham City wouldn’t really make a lot of sense to an ordinary person. Mayor Sharpe is a mere pawn in a much larger and more sinister plot, of course, and to get to the bottom of it, Batman finds his way in.
If you’ve played Arkham Asylum, you’ll be familiar with the degree of polish in this title, and feel right at home with the combat, Riddler puzzles, detective vision, and stalking armed enemies. The most significant difference in the two games is the scale. Arkham City covers a nice spacious open world area with plenty of dark alleys, but it doesn’t make a huge difference in the narrative structure from the first game, as it’s still a largely linear affair. Navigating the cityusing Batman’s powers circa Arkham Asylum would probably be a pretty tedious affair though, so thankfully Batman’s grappling hook is substantially more powerful now, and allows him to reach the top of the buildings with ease, and can also be fired while gliding. After completing a few gliding challenges, the Grapple Boost becomes unlocked, which supplies enough acceleration while grappling to allow you to launch off of the grapple point and continue gliding, allowing continuous flight around the city.
Speaking of the city, a lot of work has gone into making it an interesting space to traverse. Obviously, the thugs and various low-lifes which make up the bulk of the residents are patrolling around, ready for a beating, but there’s also some political prisoners who aren’t stoked about living in the this newly renovated neighbourhood. The city is also positively littered with Riddler trophies. There’s a few riddles that require a picture, either of something specific, or of a green question mark using perspective to align it, but these are heavily outweighed by the sheer number of trophies. The trophies manage to be a little more interesting this time around, by sometimes being encased in a dome that requires a small physical puzzle to be solved. Collecting the trophies and riddles solutions also drives the Edward Nigma sidequest, where he presents a hostage in a puzzle of some sort for you to solve in order to save them, so it’s pretty cool that there’s some added incentive meted out to fuel the collect-a-thon.
As far as the story goes though, there’s not a huge amount going on in the streets, all the meaningful main story interactions happen indoor environments, so there’s still quite a linear focus at the core of things; there’s just more reason for you to dawdle between Batman’s pressing appointments. The narrative manages to convey the desperation of multiple groups, with Penguin, Joker, and Two Face’s gangs frequently talking about the current goings-ons as you creep around undetected, and the story twists and turns without being too difficult to follow.
Gameplay has been refined, and given how fantastic Arkham Asylum was, it’s hard to imagine much room for improvement, but there’s enough difference in the new game that it’s worth mentioning. The combat was probably my favourite part of AA, being as fluid and demanding as Ninja Gaiden, but with an even difficulty slope. Now, you can be attacked by multiple enemies at once, and to counter, you have to press the Y button as many times as there are attackers. The resulting counter is usually pretty cool to watch, with Batman flinging one thug around to hit a couple of others, or simply punching out in multiple directions to great effect. The gadgets have been bolstered to include an electrical gun which can be used to activate doors and powerful electro-magnets (how do they work? They rip the guns right out of your enemies hands,) smoke bombs (which will occasionally cause enemies to attack each other in the blind confusion,) a freeze grenade (basically your own personal deployable raft,) and even more. Besides the grapple enhancements, Batman can also perform a dive bombing free fall, which can then be used to transfer the momentum of his fall back in to gliding.
It’s worth mentioning that Catwoman is a playable character. She’s tied up in a Project-Ten-Dollar-esque code that you’ll get if you but the game new, and will cost you if not. For my money, the Catwoman stuff seemed skippable. There’s easily enough meat in the existing game that I never felt like Catwoman was filling a conspicuous void. It’s a little shifty that there are specific Riddler trophies that only she can get, too, but that’s the world we live in now. Her traversal of the city is a little odd, too. Catwoman iconic whip becomes her grappling hook equivalent, which makes it seem ridiculously long at times, and understandably it doesn’t reel in, and in place of being able to go straight up like the detective, she latches onto walls and it becomes a weird rhythm game to leap from hold to hold. That’s all very niggly though; even if the game were entirely Catwoman, I’d still be happy. Kevin Conroy’s excellent voice acting might seem a little out of place coming out of her mouth though…
The Bottom Line
Sequels often get accused of being an easy cash-in on something already proven. Batman: Arkham City is no such lazy attempt. With a plethora of new gadgets, moves, enemies and things to do, the only issue players may have is being paralysed by all the options of things to do. Simply put, it’s a game you should own.