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‘Batman: Arkham City’ Is the Best Batman Game Ever [Review]

To say that Batman: Arkham City was one of this year’s most highly anticipated games is underselling things quite a bit. After all, its predecessor, 2009′s Arkham Asylum, holds the world record for being the most critically-acclaimed super-hero game of all time, and with good reason. It translated one of the greatest super-heroes of all time, his most iconic villains and and a creepy, threatening setting into a solid adventure that put players in control of some genuinely thrilling action, and for the sequel, the developers at Rocksteady promised to top it in every way.

So when Arkham City was released last week, I was as excited about it as anyone else — maybe even moreso, since being able to take on the role of Batman as he just straight up wrecked crooks is pretty much everything I’ve wanted since I was six years old — and for the most part, it lived up to the hype. As a Batman video game, it’s an almost perfect gameplay experience. As a Batman story, though, well… it’s a great video game.More than anything else, the structure of Arkham City reminded me of 2008′s Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, a game that managed to be incredibly fun despite the fatal flaw of just not being very good. Both games take a massive open-world city structure — Manhattan for Spider-Man and a pretty sizable chunk of Gotham for Arkham City — and then provide a storyline reason for filling it with a ton of enemies, a much smaller number of civilians that need saving, and absolutely no other authority that can do the job than your protagonist.

In Arkham City, the McGuffin du jour is that the events of Arkham Asylum have led the ruling class of Gotham City to build a gigantic super-prison by just straight up walling off fifty blocks of downtown real estate and putting Hugo Strange in charge of watching over it from a crazy hundred year-old steampunk Eiffel tower. It is, without question, one of the most monumentally ridiculous premises ever put on paper, especially when you consider that they just happened to pick a section of town that includes, among other set-piece friendly locales, a natural history museum, The Penguin’s nightclub, an abandoned amusement park, the chemical plant from the Joker’s origin, and THE ALLEY WHERE BATMAN’S PARENTS DIED.

Seriously: You can go to Crime Alley and the game gives you the option to press A to “PAY YOUR RESPECTS.” This actually happens, and it might be my favorite thing in any video game ever.

But when you get right down to it, that’s no crazier than the year-long No Man’s Land arc from 1999, where Gotham was devastated by an earthquake and abandoned by the government, and that’s what the developers seem to be drawing a lot of inspiration from. A lot of the same elements are there, from the themed gangs led by Batman’s arch-villains carving out territories to the whole post-apocalyptic Escape From New York feel of the environment. In a way, it seems like they were going more for a pure adaptation of No Man’s Land than the whole “prison city” aspect. If nothing else, the fact that nobody bothered to remove any exhibits from the museum before they built a giant wall around the neighborhood and started dumping axe murderers into it seems like a pretty weird choice on Gotham’s part.

But for the game, it works, and the end result is a giant ruined cityscape that makes for a blast to play around in. Rocksteady was certainly building on what they’d done with Arkham Asylum, but Arkham City incorporates those elements into a completely different style of gameplay. Rather than being built around the tight, claustrophobic corridors that emphasized stealth and quick takedowns, Arkham City is built on movement through the open world and what that allows you to do.

The stealth aspects are still there, and they’re still a huge part of the game, but there’s an equal focus given to moving through the city itself. Using Batman’s grappling hook to launch himself into the air and gliding with his cape is now a much bigger part of the game, and it leads to a much richer experience in terms of the developers’ stated goal of letting players “be Batman.” The same techniques are there — the good ol’ Glide Kick returns in all its slow-mo face-wrecking glory — but it’s been ramped up with new options, like, say, gliding on your cape and then dropping from a hundred feet in the air to absolutely demolish someone in one hit. And it’s easy to do, too; they don’t make it difficult to do what you want in this game.

The same goes for the combat. It’s the same style, but they’ve added new animations for counters, including the ability to counter two guys at once. Incidentally, this mostly happens in the form of grabbing their heads and knocking them together WWF-style, but occasionally you’ll get one where Batman picks a man up and then hits someone else with that man’s body. That, my friends, is a proud Batmanning tradition that dates back to the Golden Age.

But it’s not just the new animations that make it fun to fight in this game — they’ve streamlined things a little, too. It seems a lot easier to use your gadgets in combat this time around, with “quickfire” commands that let you empty your utility belt at guys with everything from electric shocks to ice bombs. One thing that I really had a good time with was being able to do a simple move (Right Trigger + B) to have Batman do a one-handed cartwheel while spraying the ground with explosive gel, rather than having to select it and spend the time drawing his little bat-symbol on the ground like you did in Arkham Asylum. There’s even an on-screen display that tells you how many bad guys are going to be affected when you detonate it, which comes in pretty handy. That and the ability to actually pull guns away from armed crooks with the batclaw really seem like just taking the next logical step from what they already had in Arkham Asylum, and it’s a huge improvement over something that was already pretty solid to begin with.

Another product of the open-world style of gameplay comes in the form of side missions, and that’s something they take full advantage of. It definitely feels like everyone involved in this game is a Batman fan, and while they’ve packed as much stuff as they can into the main story, the side missions are where they really get the chance to have some fun without having to shoehorn characters into the main plot. Not that fans of shoehorning really need to worry about this one — because brother, there are some tenuous connections — but allowing guys like Bane, Deadshot, and Mr. Zsasz to have their own stuff going on is a nice touch that adds a little to the experience.

Plus, it opens the door for downloadable content. There hasn’t really been much announced yet, but it’s almost inevitable that we’ll get something, and the structure of this game would allow for a whole lot more than just the challenge maps you could get for Arkham Asylum. In that game, there wasn’t really a whole lot to add into the story, but with what they’ve done here, you could just drop it right in — they’ve even got locations already in the game for new bad guys to set up shop. As someone who really enjoyed playing this game, I’d definitely be up for some Mass Effect / Fallout / Grand Theft Auto style expansions, and with the amount of source material they have to draw from, it’s not hard to start imagining where they could go.

Seriously, Rocksteady: Drop KGBeast in there. For me.

While we’re on the subject of DLC though, copies of the game come with a code that allows you to unlock Catwoman as a playable character, and she provides a vastly different style of gameplay, for a couple of reasons.

In terms of pure game mechanics, Catwoman emphasizes stealth more than Batman — she doesn’t get nearly as many gadgets or the same armor upgrades than he does, which might be the devs’ way of reflecting the fact that she absolutely refuses to zip up her costume. Say what you want about Batman being tough, but that dude wears a head to toe suit of bulletproof armor; Catwoman’s taking on guys with machine guns with everything covered except her vital organs. Girl is fierce.

There’s also no gliding for Catwoman. Instead, she gets around with her whip and by pouncing her way up buildings, which is fun, but involves a compltely inexplicable mechanic of ranking you on whether you hit the button at the right time. It tells you if you’re too soon, too late, good, or “perfect,” and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. As near as I can figure, there’s no reward for getting the timing right other than Catwoman climbs up a wall a fraction of a second faster, so why bother?

The other way that playing as differs is, as you might expect, the way that the game presents her. Unlike Batman, whose movements, combat style, and even voice are built to convey brutal, intimidating violence, Catwoman’s given a far more sexualized attitude in everything she does. By and large, I’m perfectly okay with this. I mean, I’m a guy who absolutely loves Bayonetta, and while I could do with a little less of the counter where she kisses a bad guy before she finishes him off with a snapmare takeover — that’s how you get the herpes, Catwoman! — there are more than a few that are just perfect for her character. The takedown where she gets her knee around a guy’s throat and then chokes him out while idly checking her nails in boredom? That’s perfect for Catwoman. It really fits.

But then there’s the dialogue you hear while you’re playing, and man. They could’ve thought that stuff through a little better. We’ve already mentioned here at ComicsAlliance that the game seems almost obsessed having dudes call Catwoman a b*tch; in my playthrough, some dude yelled it out twice just in the opening sequence, which seems a little excessive. There’s a sequence in Catwoman’s levels where you fight the security guards — military types — and in my experience, they didn’t say it once, so I’m willing to look at it as a choice to have the scum-of-the-Earth henchmen types say it because, hey, maybe they didn’t realize that hearing “b*tch” literally every three minutes over the course of an hour would get a little tiresome and off-putting?

But when you get to the actual threats of rape? The lines where guys talk about how Catwoman needs to be careful because “these guys haven’t seen a woman in years,” and when the fight banter is dudes ordering her to take off her costume and then talking about getting underneath it while trying to stab her? Even taking into account that these guys are purely there as villains to be beaten, that’s about where it starts to be indefensible. You can trot out the excuse that they’re just writing realistic bad guys, but this is a game where a guy costume jumps off skyscrapers because his bat costume has a magic collapsible hang glider and fights a 600 year-old immortal and a cryogenic scientist wearing a refrigerator. “Realism” isn’t really a factor in the decisions they’re making about dialogue, or anything else.

For the record, I also think it’s weird to hear Oracle call Deadshot a “sonofab*tch” and to hear Kevin Conroy’s Batman say “dammit.” But then, I’m a well-known prude who abhors foul language of any sort. Honest.

It’s a shame, too, because other than that, the Catwoman sequences are a lot of fun, and her other interactions with the villains are really enjoyable. Grey DeLisle — better known to me as Daphne from Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc — does a great job with her voice, and the entire sequence with Poison Ivy builds to a pretty nice punchline.

That brings us at long last to the story, and if you’d like to avoid spoilers, you may want to skip this bit.

As you might expect from the sheer kookiness of the premise — which I actually do love — Arkham City‘s storyline is all over the map. Assuming that the map includes places like “Steampunk Robots Underneath Gotham City” and “Batman Needs To Be Talked Into Saving People’s Lives,” I mean.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to really like about this game, and I definitely like that Rocksteady is going their own way in terms of creating a world with their versions of the characters and a world that makes sense for them to operate in. To its credit, that makes stuff like Harley Quinn’s costume a little easier to take, because when you see that they’ve got the Penguin as a dude whose monocle is actually shoved into his head to take the place of an eye, it’s hard to argue that it’s not in the appropriate milieu.

But more than anything else, that’s what the storyline serves to do: It feels like it’s just there to move you from one point of gameplay to the next, introduce characters, and create an atmosphere, rather than actually, you know, telling a story. There are certainly events that lead into each other, but a lot of the time, the logic between them seems pretty shaky. It’s not the more seamless experience of story and gameplay coming together that you get from, say, Mass Effect, but since Mass Effect has 100% less Batman kicking dudes in the face in slow motion, I’ll call it even.

One of the things that David Brothers and I have talked about in regards to Arkham Asylum is that he doesn’t think it’s a good portrayal of Batman, because Batman doesn’t save anyone, and the people he does help tend to end up dead anyway. Arkham City seems to have at least made an attempt to address those concerns: There’s an entire faction of innocent “political prisoners” locked up that need saving from the actual crooks, and it’s an ongoing sidequest in the game that you can hear them being threatened in alleyways and swoop down to stop them. But then you get to things like Hugo Strange ordering a mass murder of the inmates, and while you’re climbing up a tower, there’s constant chatter in the background confirming hundreds of casualties.

It’s incredibly frustrating, especially since the implication is that all the time you spent rescuing people is now rendered pointless. It makes me wonder if that was a conscious decision on the part of the developers to put the reader in Batman’s boots by making them feel regret at not being able to save everyone all the time. If it was, it’s an intriguing choice that does a good job of messing with the player’s head — like a more cerebral version of Arkham Asylum‘s faked system reset, one of my favorite parts of the game — but if not, well, it’s just frustrating.

I find the story in Arkham City interesting, in the way it keeps things moving to bring in new elements, often throwing them in so fast that it seems to forget what it was just showing you. Again, spoiler warning, but there’s a part of the game where Batman’s dying — he seriously has minutes to live — and he can see no other option but to completely ignore the fact that there’s a Lazarus Pit like ten feet away and go do something else. Seriously: He is in the same room. There are ways to work around it, but since the game only presents you with the information that a Lazarus Pit brings you back to life, it’s really weird that he doesn’t just flop right into it.

There aren’t a lot of (intentional) surprises, either. The identity of the villain behind Arkham City is telegraphed pretty well, as is most of the plot. There is one big twist at the end, but it seemed more of the “wait, what” school than anything else, setting up a boss fight that I honestly never saw coming. Mostly because in a game with Hugo Strange, Ra’s al-Ghul, Two-Face and the Joker, you’d never expect the final boss of the game to be… well, who it is. It’s a strange choice, and while it doesn’t make the story compelling, it definitely added a nice wrinkle.

I will say, though, that the location of the final boss fight was a beautiful surprise and one that, as the World’s Foremost Batmanologist, I absolutely loved. And that goes back to what the story does best: It tosses logic and realism out the window right from the start in favor of giving you interesting things to do and interesting places to do them, and in that respect, it succeeds.

In the end, there’s a lot to love about Arkham City, and for me, it lived up to the pretty considerable hype. It’s beautiful to explore, interesting to get through and an absolute blast to play, and I hope there’s more coming from Rocksteady soon. I’m almost out of sidequests.

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