Rocksteady Studios’ second game ever, Batman Arkham Asylum, was surprising on a number of levels. Firstly, it was genuinely surprising that a licensed title could be so good, and secondly it was a massive surprise that such a young team were capable of making a game as phenomenal as Arkham Asylum. After the game won multiple awards, including the inaugural newbreview.com game of the year award, and the studio was snapped up by DC Comics’ parent company Warner Brothers, it was inevitable that the studio would be hard at work on another Batman game.
But considering how good Batman Arkham Asylum was it was hard to imagine how they could possibly improve on it. Well, ye of little faith, it turns out that Rocksteady have managed the impossible – not only have they made another great game, but they have made a game that is so good that it has almost rendered Arkham Asylum unplayable in comparison. Bravo Rocksteady. Bravo.
From the outset it is clear that Arkham City is bigger, bolder, and better than its predecessor. From the moment you start the game the developers have gone to every effort to teach you everything you will need in order to survive the night in Arkham City in an entertaining and engaging way.
The city itself may not be the biggest in gaming history, but it is incredibly dense. Almost every other building features a puzzle, courtesy of the Riddler. With over 400 Riddles to solve, and each completed Riddle offering various unlockable items, such as concept art, character models, and short stories, Arkham City is filled to the brim with content.
There is literally something to do on every street, and there are a wealth of side missions to distract you from completing the main story too quickly. These are all too easily picked up thanks to Batman’s ability to listen in on private conversations. I lost track of the number of times that I would be travelling across the city with the intention of sticking to the main story, only to find myself spending half an hour trying to solve all of the Riddles that caught my eye on the way.
These side missions range from protecting victims of assault, to battles with established super villains. It is worth noting that no two side missions are exactly the same; one set of missions will have you destroying certain objects that are strewn about the game world, others will have you examining murder victims and looking for evidence that will lead you to the perpetrator, while others simply task you with going to a set place and kicking the living crap out of whoever gets in your way.
For those that are unfamiliar with Batman’s combat system, which remains mostly unchanged from Arkham Asylum, the premise is incredibly simple: the key to winning battles is to string together a long chain of attacks without being hit or being interrupted. The trick to performing lengthy combos, and gaining access to special moves, is to carefully time your attacks, and successfully perform counters. Fortunately Rocksteady have included a handy flashing icon that appears above an enemy’s head indicating when you need to press the counter button. In Arkham Asylum Batman could only counter one enemy at a time, whereas now Batman can counter multiple enemies at once, resulting in some truly spectacular counters.
The beauty of the game’s combat system is that it is incredibly easy to to pick up and play, but there is a tonne of depth, especially when you take into consideration that you can now use a number of gadgets in combat. There are also numerous special enemies, such as the armoured henchmen, that cannot be defeated by conventional means. Yes, you can get through fights by simply button bashing, but in order to excel you will need to master the art of reversing moves, and know every move in your arsenal.
Another key feature of the game comes in the form of Batman’s reliance on stealth when facing enemies that are armed with firearms. As Batman is only human he can easily die when coming under sustained fire. In Arkham Asylum there were specific rooms that were dedicated to stealth, whereas Arkham City has entire sections of the City that are basically giant stealth challenges.
As fantastic as the combat is, it pales in comparison to the beauty of the stealth sections of the game. Nothing comes close to the feeling of empowerment that you feel as you slowly pick off enemy after enemy, and watch as the survivors start to break down and cry, trembling at the very thought of you getting your hands on them.
When you start the game you have access to about half a dozen of Batman’s gadgets, and by the end you will have a twice that number of weapons in your arsenal. One of Arkham City’s biggest strengths, in terms of gameplay design, is the way you are literally transformed as you progress further and further through the game and are able to purchase upgrades, including bullet resistant armour, new special moves, and new gadgets. At the start of the game you may fumble your way through fights and stealth sections, but by the end you will be a fighting machine, obliterating foes left and right.
Batman’s main means of traversal is using his cape to glide across the city. This is performed by simply running off of the edge of buildings. You can perform a dive bomb in order to gain more momentum, potentially allowing you to glide across the entire city without ever hitting the floor.
Completing the gliding training missions (which are by far the most tedious thing about the entire game) unlocks a new upgrade for Batman’s grapple gun, allowing him to perform a massive boost when launching up to roof tops. This actually proves to be an essential upgrade for later on in the game, so it is advisable that you just grit your teeth and get through the gliding training as soon as you can.
One area that Arkham Asylum fell short on was on the boss fights. While some of them were fairly inventive, overall the boss fights were a repetitious chore more than anything else. Fortunately Arkham City’s boss design is substantially better. The boss battle with Mr Freeze in particular is the one of the best boss battles in recent memory. Mr Freeze is able to adapt his defences based on the way you attack him, which means that you have to constantly switch tactics in order to defeat him. For instance, if you use a ledge to jump down on to him, from that point on he will freeze all of the ledges on the level, forcing you to rethink your strategy. On normal difficulty the boss fights are just about challenging enough without ever being frustrating, which is a rare trait these days, while on hard mode they are incredibly difficult, without being cheap.
Completing the game unlocks a new game+ mode that allows you to carry over all of your upgrades and completed Riddler Challenges to a new game. However to offset any advantage you might have, enemies are infinitely more powerful, armed with better weapons from the outset, and your counter indicator is disabled, making countering enemy attacks that much harder.
After you are done with the story mode, you can play through the game’s numerous challenge missions. These are broken down in to three categories: combat challenges, which have you fight off four waves of increasingly difficult enemies, Silent Predator, which are stealth based missions, and Campaign missions, which string together a sequence of Combat Challenges and Silent Predator Challenges.
The Campaign Challenges are easily the most challenging as you have a set number of lives, and there are various modifiers included that have both positive and negative effects on you. These range from granting you less health, and having an enemy that cannot be harmed until everyone else is defeated, to granting you regenerating health, or electrified batarangs that take out enemies in one hit.
You can also play custom challenges that allow you to add your own modifiers, if you want that extra level of challenge. All challenge scores are recorded on online leaderboards, which allow you to compare your scores with friends and strangers alike.
New copies of the game come with a download code for playable Catwoman story missions. Catwoman is no mere reskin of Batman, she has her own distinctive character animations and move set, complete with unique weapons. Catwoman is also playable in the game’s challenge mode and with two alternate costumes, one based on her costume from the Batman comic book The Long Halloween, and one based on her Batman the Animated Series costume.
Catwoman’s missions are fairly short, and tend to revolve around fighting your way through one specific room, or sneaking past armed enemies. As fun as these missions can be, they’re not massively important to the game’s overall narrative, and those that buy the game second hand shouldn’t worry too much about missing out on the Catwoman content.
Of course once the story is completed you can return to Arkham City and continue any pending side missions… or you can just patrol the streets looking for punks to brutalise.
Graphics – 5/5: Although I am not a big fan of most of the character designs, Arkham City itself is a beautiful grim and snowy environment. The City oozes character from every brick, and really feels like a nightmarish penal town.
Sound – 5/5: Featuring brilliant performances from the voice actors, including Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker respectively. The music also manages to be evocative of Danny Elfman’s score from Tim Burton’s Batman Movies, Shirley Walker’s work on Batman the Animated Series, and Hans Zimmer’s work on the recent Batman movies.
Gameplay – 5/5: Flawless combat, fantastic stealth, and some light detective work make for a brilliant Batman experience. Once the game’s story is out of the way you can dedicate the rest of your life to collecting all of the Riddler’s riddles and working your way up the challenge mode leaderboards.
Longevity – 5/5: The game’s story mode will take about 10 hours to complete if you ignore all distractions. Meanwhile the sheer number of entertaining Riddler puzzles to solve, and the lengthy challenge mode, really do make this the complete package.
Overall 5 out 5
Rocksteady have managed the impossible: they have taken the definitive Batman experience of Arkham Asylum and improved on it in every possible way. By taking Batman off of Arkham Island and throwing him in to the dingy streets of Arkham City Rocksteady have made not only the finest Superhero game, but one of the best games of this generation.