Following up one of 2009's best games is no easy task. Batman: Arkham Asylum not only provided an addictive and compelling third-person action-adventure title, but it completely redefined superhero games. There was really no debating at the time: the team at Rocksteady Studios had made the best Batman — and perhaps the best comic-book-inspired — game ever.
We've strapped on the Dark Knight's boots for another tour through Gotham's worst and lived to tell the tale.
Arkham City is now the best Batman game ever made. It's an honour I'm sure Rocksteady Studios will be proud to own considering it's trumped its own predecessor on almost every level possible. It's a game that's polished and an absolute thrill to play, with production values that rival anything the video game industry has to offer.
Of course, the big question on everyone's mind is whether Arkham City offers an experience that eclipses Arkham Asylum. Fear not, as I'm happy to report Arkham City dwarfs the previous title in not just the sheer size and scale of the playable world, but in actual gameplay hours as well. Make no mistake, Arkham City is enormous; we're talking five times the size of Arkham Asylum.
Fans of Arkham Asylum will be greeted by the familiar puzzles and collectible trophies placed around Arkham City compliments of The Riddler, in addition to handfuls of separate side missions and stories that revolve around characters from the Batman universe. The single-player campaign alone is a massive undertaking, but combined with the other content and challenge fighting maps and leaderboards, Arkham City is truly the complete Batman video game package.
Arkham City is an absolute shrine for Batman enthusiasts, from the casual to the hardcore. There are so many characters and so much lore in Arkham City that at times it can actually feel a little overwhelming. So many villains have been squeezed in that I'm a bit curious how the team will handle keeping them around for what I sure hope will be a third game.
There's an incredible amount of gameplay variation in Arkham City; not once did I ever get the feeling that things were becoming redundant. It's an amazing accomplishment for such a gigantic game, but where this variation really shines is in the game's already stellar combat system. Fighting has got to be the most satisfying experience in Arkham City, with Batman (and Catwoman) being able to pull off beautifully orchestrated moves that are a blast to execute and difficult to master.
Rocksteady Studios enjoyed massive critical and commercial success on Arkham Asylum because it allowed gamers to actually feel like Batman. With that comes a specifically defined and stylistic aesthetic that the team once again nails in Arkham City. From the dreary streets and alleyways to the over-the-top towering Gotham architecture, every effort has been made to give players the feeling that they're involved in something epic.
The game is able to convey a cinematic experience during gameplay, with its canted camera angles and sweeping motions — tactics that are historically reserved for cutscenes.
Of course, these details also keep Arkham City looking a lot like Arkham Asylum, just perhaps on a much bigger scale. With plenty of darkness and shadows filling the screen, you'll want to calibrate your TV's brightness settings just right.
So what's new in Arkham City? Players will notice new gadgets introduced to Batman's arsenal, as well as a much more logically laid-out XP rewards system that allows for the upgrading and unlocking new tech, combat moves and other abilities.
Players will also be able to play as Catwoman, who has her own set of abilities and her own simultaneous campaign in both the single-player and challenge maps. We should point out that a code is required to unlock that content, which is already loaded onto the game disc. A buyer beware goes out to those who plan on purchasing Arkham City used, as they'll need to purchase a new code to access Catwoman.
Smack in the middle of one of the most jam-packed gaming seasons we've seen in years, Arkham City easily shines through, achieving an elite status very few titles are ever able to achieve.
There is more than one reason 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum was such a critical and commercial success. First, it was an excellent piece of interactive entertainment, easily one of the best of the year. Second, it had the relatively simple task of overcoming low expectations. Having spent the past decade blowing off terrible Bat-games such as Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu (2003) and Batman: Dark Tomorrow (2003), there was little expectation that it would be more than another cheap cash-in.
Arkham Asylum overcame the odds, and the bigger, badder sequel is arriving to much buzz and eager anticipation, including a Times Square launch event. Is Batman: Arkham City a great game? Yes. Is it as ground-breaking as the original? No. If anything, it's nearly identical in terms of its gameplay mechanics and basic structure. That's a good thing on one hand, no need to mess with a system that works, but it also makes us yearn for another big leap in comic book games (and certainly this year's crop of Green Lantern and Captain America games haven't done much on that front).
The major addition to Arkham City is a free-roaming map of the prison-within-a-city, taking up a big chunk of Batman's home town of Gotham. Missions and events exist as fixed points on the map, which players can travel to at their leisure. It's a lot like Grand Theft Auto or any other recent free-roaming game, and quickly becoming the default for modern action/adventure games, even shooters such as Rage.
The vibe is very Escape From New York, with criminals basically running their own affairs behind giant walls. Regular announcements about food drops are heard over the public address system, but it's hard to imagine who has to come in and pick up the garbage and sweep the streets (and burning questions about the legality of the Arkham City prison remain, perhaps best not to think about those too carefully). The city itself becomes a character in the game, with distinct neighbourhoods and plenty of detailed architecture, much as it did in L.A. Noire and GTA4, or films such as Dark City and Blade Runner. Not that the human (or semi-human) characters themselves fall flat; the voice cast is gleefully over the top, which is usually grating, but somehow works in the exaggerated comic book universe.
The game's biggest strength is something so many games lack: variety and pacing. Short segments of intense action are separated by more casual exploration and detective work, and players never find themselves doing the same thing for too long. There's still an over-reliance on the game's Batvision goggles, which can spot clues, see through walls and probably reprogram your universal remote control. As in Arkham Asylum, it can become a crutch. Another small quibble: Batman's slow default walking speed worked fine in the confines of Arkham Asylum, but in the wide-open streets and rooftops of Gotham, you pretty much need to keep a finger hovering over the "run" button at all times.
But minor issues aside, Arkham City still stands out as a must-play amid a crowded pre-holiday field, which already includes excellent games such as Gears of War 3, Deus Ex: Human Evolution, Rage and Dead Island.