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Feature Review: Batman Arkham City

Batman-Arkham-City

Undoubtedly by now you have heard some things about Batman: Arkham City. I mean, there are terms people seem to like throwing around with this game; things like “10/10”, “Game of the Year”, “Best superhero game of all time”. But I’m not here to pat anyone on the back. I’m here to get into the nitty gritty, and show this game for what it truly is – without sugar coating it.

Which is why I can say to you, with complete honesty, that this is the best superhero game of all time.

Even that doesn’t really do it justice. We gamers are an elitist bunch, and superhero games are up there with anime-fighters or JRPG’s – you really have to know you like it before you buy it, and this restricts their exposure. I mean, the last superhero game I bought (that wasn’t from this series) was Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions, arguably in the top end of superhero games, and that would have been impenetrable if I hadn’t grown up watching Spiderman cartoons.

Arkham City, and even it’s predecessor Arkham Asylum, is not like that. This is a game that every self-respecting game owner (genre preferences aside) should own, despite (not because of) the fact that it is a superhero game.

Much like Uncharted or Deus Ex, this is a genre-breaking game that sucks you in and wins you over no matter what your preferences (sidenote: that's not a guarantee).

I think my brother said it best when he said “I hate Batman, but this game is awesome.”

But let’s move past the fact that it’s awesome and into my attempts to explain why.

From the opening moments to the end cinematic, above all else Batman: Arkham Asylum is a game obsessed with story. Set in a portion of Gotham City which has been “gated off” (see: a massive freakin’ wall built around it) from the rest of the island, the inhabitants are largely allowed to run free and do as they please. While this sounds like a good thing (from a subverted point of view) due to large and dangerous personalities like The Joker, The Penguin and Two-Face running around – this largely makes life a living hell for your average miscreant.

Which was kind of the point I guess.

In steps Batman, or more accurately Bruce Wayne, incarcerated after his secret identity was discovered by Hugo Strange. Not that a simple wall is likely to stop a man with a remote-controlled jet, but hey this is just how the story starts off. Needless to say, in a matter of minutes Bruce Wayne makes his usual transformation into his ass-kicking alter ego and we are set down in the middle of a city-sandbox to solve crimes and save lives.

You know, Batman kinda shit.

But the difference here is: this isn’t Grand Theft Auto. We aren’t left in a massive cityscape with a quest icon in the distance and very little story besides that (although it comes close). The environment around us is hell-bent on reminding us of the current story; whether it’s through Batman’s surprisingly repetitive internal thoughts, intercepted radio transmissions, missed calls from the Joker or just the random mutterings of the other in-mates.

Batman: Arkham City comes with it a set of purpose, an overarching desire to continue the main narrative which is deliciously interrupted with tantalising side missions and activities. It’s somewhere between the “story or bust” motivation of Arkham Asylum and the “what story?” motivation of Grand Theft Auto.

This is a good thing.

And that’s the game in a nutshell. A great story, set in a sandbox filled with great and varied side-quests. It’s a small sandbox, don’t go in expecting San Andreas, but it’s roughly 5 times the size of Arkham Asylum and there is plenty of Riddler-filled rewards for exploring. Not to mention the occasional villain-easter egg.

So if the game is operating off so simple a premise, why are critics frothing at the mouth about it?

Well it might just be a story-centred free-roam sandbox in a nushell, but it’s in one hell of an attractive nutshell. Which roughly translates too – it employs a variety of polished and sensible mechanics which just make the whole thing feel slick and enjoyable. In short, it makes you feel like Batman – even if you didn’t know that’s what you wanted.

First there is the combat. I’ve talked about it at greater length in a “Let’s Get Mechanical” article a couple weeks back, but I’ll touch on it briefly. The free-flow combat system employed is deep like a traditional third-person fighting combat system – but the introduction of timing and rhythm to build combos and conditionally activate “finishing” moves gives the whole ability an addictive quality. I’ve heard people call it the Dance Dance Revolution fighting system, and I guess it is in the best possible way. It’s the kind of fighting system that makes you seek out large groups of enemies, just to watch that combo multiplier build - and when you add some of Batman’s most iconic combat moves to this, it’s just a joy to play. Throw in some improvements over Arkham Asylum, in-combo gadgets, more finishing moves, a few new enemy types – and we are done here.

The stealth chambers from the original game return and are similarly improved. In Arkham Asylum these were rooms filled with gun-totting henchmen who would predictably patrol around and wait to be invariably picked off by Batman in the dark of night – and this is basically the way it plays out in Arkham City. Sure, the guards have a few new gadgets (infa-red, signal blockers) and they might be marginally smarter (not always rushing an unconscious comrade, sometimes destroying gargoyles) but generally I got a feel of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” – which is fair enough.

And do I need to mention the obligatory “remember: Batman is a detective” moments? You know where you pop on your Bat-goggles and act like the only clue isn’t smack-bang in the middle of your face? Yeah they are still around, but seem to have been pared-back from the original game – probably because they never really put up much of a challenge unless you missed something incredibly obvious.

That might have come across as a little bitter, but really I was just rushing to get it out of the way – because any real Batman knows that his true skill (and mystery/puzzle-solving ability) stems from his gadgets. And that is something this game did amazingly well. Sure, we lost a few things from the first game (I missed separately detonating my explosive gel SO MUCH) but really with the amount of new gadgets introduced, on top of the amount of first-generation gadgets which made it through to the sequel – I was impressed. It got to the point where I wondered if a new player would be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless supply of situation-appropriate gadgets I had on offer. But I haven’t heard anyone complaining so I guess not.

Then there is Catwoman, an aspect of the game I was not thrilled-about. Mostly because the trailers made her look like one long sex-joke. Which, as I found out, she totally is.

Catwoman acts like a sex-obsessed degenerate with a predictable personality (or lack thereof) and scant morales. Basically like in the comic-book. But as I quickly learned: I don’t care what she does in the cinematics. Because Catwoman is awesome.

Why? Well first we have her extremely-acrobatic inspired melee combat – which totally makes Batman look like some half-drunk steroid pumped fool. Then we have her whip-and-flip mode of transport, which essentially has her diving off buildings – without the safety-net of a pair of wings, like we have on our caped crusader. The two combine to make a character which is just, pure fun to run around with – especially when used as a breather from the main story.

Which is exactly how the Catwoman chapters fit in, little 5-15 minute excerpts which augment the main story without being required knowledge. In short, she was worth the download.

But back to Batman.

I talked about Catwoman’s movement, and how it differs from Batman’s. Now if you played the first game you know that Batman loves a good glide on those wings of his, but he hasn’t quite mastered flapping them yet. Not that this is a problem for Arkham City, since they give you both the ability to make some amazingly dramatic dives (which make you look like a total badass) to gain some momentum AND they also give your grapple a nice little upgrade that effectively lets you use grapple-points as ramps to gain more air. Put the two together, and yeah – you can fly.

But back to the story.

The lack of a mini-map really puts an intimate spin on things, as I said before it’s not the biggest sandbox so just telling you to fly a direction (via a waypoint in most cases, a trail in others) works to the games advantage as you start to recognise iconic buildings and places – even telling sections of the city apart based on whose henchmen you see around the place. This helps for localising different parts of the story (so I have to see Joker again? Well I know where his crib is) but also reminds you what it’s like to be trapped in such a (relatively) small portion of Gotham for the entirety of the game.

The main story runs about 15 hours (despite the 25 some places promised) with additional side-missions, not to mention the extensive network of Riddler challenges, taking the number up around 20. Then you have the external challenge modes from the original game and the Catwoman/Robin content on top of this. In short, it’s a big game for what it is – but don’t be expecting Skyrim.

And it’s not perfect, despite probably being a perfect sequel.

The characters can feel a bit 2-dimensional, parts of the plot are a bit contrived and some of the bosses are very reminiscent of the mob-swarm-plus-Titan we experienced in the first game. Particularly the Bruce Wayne section (which was thankfully short) and everything including Penguin felt pretty sub-par, but you really have to stretch to find a problem with this game.

And that’s the thing, a perfect game is an impossibility – even when the game improves on virtually every aspect of the original title. Let’s not forget this is a sequel to the game of the year for 2009, and it outdoes it completely.

I’m trying desperately to avoid story spoilers, but the ending in particular makes this game everything that Arkham Asylum was not.

I could talk about this all day, and I’ve barely scratched the surface on some parts, but suffice it to say that this is a game that everyone should play at least once – regardless of what you think you know about superhero games or even what you know about Arkham Asylum.

Batman: Arkham City was everything I expected it to be. And these days, that’s pretty damn rare.

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