Batman: Arkham City is an incredible sequel to a game with some of the most robust mechanics you’ll find anywhere in the medium.
Picking up six months after the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, the inmates of that institution and the violent prisoners of Blackgate Penitentiary have been rounded up after events that transpired in a comic series leading up to this game into a prison known as Arkham City at the behest of Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange, who came into possession of Batman’s true identity by unknown means, has thrown Bruce Wayne within the confines of the fences controlled by his TYGER guards to incite deployment of his shadowy ‘Protocol 10’. By its end, Batman will run up against many of his legendary enemies including The Joker, who is suffering from fatal side effects to his exposure to his Titan experiments from his previous takeover of Arkham Asylum.
The story needs to immediately establish the character of its location, and while little about the events that lead to the creation of Arkham City is explained, it starts with the active turf war between Two-Face and the Penguin. From that point on, you know the truth: This prison city is a powder keg. Separated by invisible borders but tangible hostility, many members of Batman’s gallery of rogues have taken control of their own section of the city. From the rusted mills of the Industrial District to the fortified, partially burned out husk of the courthouse, Batman has no safe haven, no Batcave, no place to rest.
Where this game and its predecessor truly succeed is in designing mechanics that allow for diverse gameplay and then build environments to be exploited by them. Batman is once again more than capable of tackling a room full of thugs in a less than direct manner and it’s in those moments that the deliberate design is realized. Arkham City does for the third-person action genre what Super Mario Bros. did for platformers and Halo: CE did for first-person shooters: provides options.
One particularly memorable boss encounter really explored this idea. A game of cat and mouse, the boss needs to be crippled so that Batman can get in close. The room gives plenty of opportunities to use gadgets, environmental hazards, and stealth but the boss, breaking tired, patterned-based battles, will only fall for each once, necessitating careful consideration to what the players options really are. It’s the kind of battle that shows the designers exceptional understanding of what their game is and is reminiscent of Hideo Kojimas work on MGS3: Snake Eater. This scenario is about gameplay, not difficulty.
For those situations where Batman has no choice but to fight his way out, combat has also been expanded to accommodate a more diverse variety of combat scenarios and larger groups of enemies. More a web than a branch, modifications have been made to include some logical maneuvers including counters for multiple assailants, new weapons and more combo take-downs that all add more depth to an already deep system. The problem is, more gadgets and moves also add to the complexity in the moment to the point where it can all sit on the wrong side of the dividing line between intuitive and overwhelming.
Traversing Arkham City is exceptionally easy. Enhancements to the Grapnel gun that enable Batman to vault over his grapple point into a glide and the ability to dive bomb from it to gain speed make getting around the city quick and fun. In a brilliant stoke, the waypoint system that was implemented puts the Bat symbol into the sky to designate your location. It’s both functional for the world, appropriate for the character and unobtrusive to a UI that could easily have been cluttered with a garish arrow icon.
And with such an active city, utilizing all these features is key for completing the many side objectives in the game. You’ll find many of the tried and true mission types that appear in open-world games, but they fit so well within the larger Batman fiction that they remain compelling. You’ll do race missions to-and-from payphones scattered about the city for the psychotic killer Zsasz, stop assaults on political prisoners Strange has thrown into the city and scan crime scenes to track down a serial killer. While typical, most of these sides have their own stories and end before they feel repetitive. Easily the most time-intensive of these is the 400 Riddler challenges comprising trophy hunting, riddles, location specific destructible items and physical and combat accomplishments. It’s a bit much, especially the trophies, despite there being a decent amount of variety to obtaining them.
This game makes substantial additions to the already incredible foundations set with Arkham Asylum but Rocksteady Studio’s needs to make careful decisions going forward to make sure that the next game doesn’t get far more complicated than it needs to be. With two incredible, game-changing releases, their next title has an incredible standard to live up to.
DEVELOPER: Rocksteady Studios
PLATFORMS: Playstation 3, XBox 360, PC