Review: Batman: Arkham City
I was considering not writing this review because it can be summed up in one word: ‘awesome’. But I’m trying to be a legitimate blog here, so I should really do my best to expand upon my thoughts. I will also need to be careful with the overuse of the word ‘awesome’, because everything in this game is ‘awesome’. The freeflow combat, the story, the side missions, the game world, the game play and, most especially, the rich look into the the world of Batman.
Clearly some very big Batman geeks made this game.
Game rating: 5/5: Great!
The Internet is currently filled with glowing reviews and praise for Batman: Arkham City, the sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum. Did you know that the first game, Arkham Asylum, holds the record for the best reviewed superhero game ever in the Guinness Book of World Records? You do now. And it’s no surprise. Arkham Asylum was a glorious achievement in the world of video games, especially superhero video games. It made up for decades of mediocre to crappy Batman games, and revolutionized the depth and breadth to which superhero games could reach. Arkham Asylum was clear proof that with a love of the character and a lot of creativity, superhero games could be something special. And then the game developers, Rocksteady, went and made a bigger, better and deeper game for the sequel, Arkham City.
The Batman: Arkham games are to superhero video games what The Dark Knight movie was to superhero movies. We’re not just talking a game changer. We’re talking revolution!
As I said in the opening, this review isn’t going to be very complex. I loved Batman: Arkham City (and I’m still loving it), so I don’t know if I have any real critiques or flaws to nitpick about. If I did, they would be so immaterial as to be a waste of typing, and typing is a pretty limitless resource. So for this review, I thought I’d just sum up the few specific points that I think are the best things about Arkham City. Why is this game such a revolution? What makes this different from, say, the latest Super Mario Bros. video game? If you didn’t know anything about video games, how would I explain to you why Batman: Arkham City is so amazing?
Let’s start with Batman himself, quite arguably the most popular comic book superhero ever.
Batman is popular not just because he dresses in black and stalks criminals in the dead of night, both of which are really cool. Batman is a popular superhero because he does not have super powers. He’s just a regular guy who trained himself to be at peak physical perfection, who learned a wealth of martial arts and who built himself a ton of neat gadgets and Batmobiles. Batman is popular because any one of us could be Batman, in theory. Money and training aside, superhero fans like to read about a hero who has to rely on his own wits and abilities when standing toe-to-toe with guys like Superman or Darkseid. He’s just a man, like any of us, fighting for what’s good and right in the world.
And he’s really badass while doing it.
Beyond that, Batman has the coolest supporting cast and Rogue’s Gallery in comics. Robin, Alfred, Batgirl, Commissioner Gordon and many more noble and heroic individuals populate his world. They have to face off against the likes of the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler and others, some of the vilest and yet more creative super-villains in all of comics. It’s not just a dark vigilante beating up purse snatchers that comic book fans love, it’s the whole world of Batman. From his gadgets to his vehicles to his sidekick to his greatest foes, Batman’s world is just a really cool place to visit.
Rocksteady understands this perfectly.
In creating the Arkham games, Rocksteady recreated the feel and energy of Batman’s world, and Batman himself. Not tied to any particular movie or TV show (like many superhero video games are), Rocksteady was free to pick and choose what parts of Batman they wanted to use, and redesign some of it on their own. They borrowed the iconic voice actors from the cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. They used the look and characters from the comic book, creating a picture perfect Batman costume instead of trying to make it all black or more modern like in the movies. For the bad guys, they reached deep into the Rogue’s Gallery for characters like Mad Hatter, Hugo Strange and Deadshot instead of relying just on known villains like the Joker or Catwoman.
And they created a disgustingly beautiful vision of Gotham City. The iconic hometown of Batman has always been as dark and gothic as its hero, and so for the game Arkham City, Rocksteady designed a fully-realized, villainously-populated corner of Gotham. It has tall skyscrapers for climbing, grinning gargoyles for diving off and more shadowy nooks and crannies than your average English Muffin.
This is another great design of Batman: Arkham City: the open-world gameplay. Back in the day, video games were side-scrollers where your character just walked from the left side of the screen to the right. Well nowadays most games are open-world, in which your 3D character can walk or climb anywhere they want in a giant sandbox of a game world. That’s Arkham City, and it’s wonderful. Batman has an automatic grappling hook for climbing skyscrapers and a giant cape for long-distance gliding, and with those he’s able to cross several city blocks in a matter of seconds. But then he’s also able to go down to street-level and just walk around, if that’s what you want. You have total freedom of movement to be the Batman that you want to be. And the game world is populated with tons of random thugs, so you can swoop down and just start busting heads anytime you feel like it.
Most of the story missions take place inside certain buildings, like the Joker’s Steel Mill headquarters or a Gotham City Police Station. So the game consists of Batman moving across the open world city from one building to the next. Your style of movement and fighting don’t change inside the buildings, so it’s the same style of movement, just in a confined space. Tons of fun still.
Let’s talk briefly about the story, just to get you caught up. The first game, Arkham Asylum, dealt with a prison break/riot at the infamous insane asylum where all of Batman’s crazy villains are held. The Joker busts everybody out as part of some sinister plot, and naturally Batman shows up to put him down. Fast forward a few months (or years, I dunno) to the sequel, Arkham City. This time, the former warden of the Asylum, Quincy Sharp, is now the Mayor of Gotham City. He has teamed up with classic Bat-villain Professor Hugo Strange to open a new asylum in the heart of the city. What they have done is essentially walled-off several blocks of Gotham City itself, buildings and all, and then just thrown all the inmates inside to live and operate like normal.
The idea is ludicrous! They don’t even empty out all of the displays in the museum before including it in the walled-off section of the city. But silly as it is, the idea works for the video game, because it gives you the open world of Gotham City while simultaneously explaining why you only get a small portion of the city. Recreating the entire Gotham City would take too much computing power.
So with this new prison, Batman gets himself locked up, and he has to figure out what secrets Professor Strange is hiding while also taking down classic villains like the Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Ras al Ghul and more. Batman is aided by Catwoman in this game, with the feline femme fatale added as a playable character. Rocksteady created a few side missions for Catwoman that are littered throughout the story mode. She moves and fights in the same general way as Batman, but has her own style. Also no grappling hook for Catwoman, just her iconic whip.
The story is great. It’s long and rich, featuring many cameos from many fun characters. There are probably twice as many characters in Arkham City as there were in Arkham Asylum. And not all of them are part of the main story. The game is filled with more than a dozen side quests involving even more villains. While exploring Gotham City, you may stumble across a mysterious body or hear a sniper bullet ring out. Batman can take time away from the main story to investigate these other disturbances, opening up even more adventures. And these side quests don’t feel tacked on. They are completely optional, giving players even more to do in an already fun game world.
So I’ve rambled on about Batman, the game world and the story long enough. While those are all key to the success of Arkham City, the truly standout factor, the totally unique and wonderful awesomeness, is the gameplay.
I’m talking, of course, about the freeflow combat and the predator rooms. These are the bread and butter of the Arkham games. They were perfect in the first game, and Rocksteady brought them back for the sequel. You can play them in both the storyline and on the side in Challenge Maps. Rocksteady didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, instead just adding more fun to the mix. I’ll start with the predator rooms, because those are easier to explain. Basically, take a big room, like an open warehouse, give it walkways, railings, grates on the floor, and corner offices; then throw a handful of armed, patrolling guards.
As Batman (or Robin, Catwoman or Nightwing) you use stealth to move around these rooms, taking out the guards one by one. You can sneak up behind them and knock them out, drop down from the ceiling, grab them off the walk ways, pop out from the grates or anything you can think of, using all of Batman’s gadgets. The guards will notice when one of their fellow guards goes down, so they’ll get more scared and jumpy. If you’re spotted, they’ll shoot at you until you can find a way to hide. And basically you just pick these guys off one-by-one, toying with them until you deliver the final blow! It’s an absolute blast. And, like I said, the game gives you Challenge Maps on the side. So if you feel like just firing up one of these rooms for the fun of it, you can!
And finally, the absolute standout of the Batman: Arkham games is the freeflow combat system. This is the hallmark of the games, the unique, completely original style that puts the Arkham games in a league of their own. And it’s no surprise that these games were originally designed as rhythm games, like Rockband or Dance Dance Revolution.
I’ll post a video so that you can see how this works, but let’s see if I can’t explain it first. Rocksteady rewrote the book when it comes to fighting a gang of thugs. Rather than the typical form of ‘locking on’ to one thug and delivering punches, kicks and other attacks like most games, Rocksteady created a rhythmic, flowing system that easily has Batman taking on an entire room of thugs! It all boils down to two buttons “attack” and “counterattack”. All you as a player have to do is aim Batman and hit the “attack” button. The game will take care of the rest. The game will move Batman to the thug and animate the attack, whether it’s a kick, a head-butt or whatever. Then you quickly pick another target and hit “attack” again, and the game will move Batman over to that new target and deliver the blow. Counterattack comes in to play when a thug gets close enough and tries to attack Batman. You just hit “counterattack” and Batman won’t even interrupt his flow as he blocks the blow and fights back.
Basically it’s a dance. You bounce from opponent to opponent delivering blows our blocking their own, until the whole room is finally knocked out. It has to be played to be truly experience, but here’s a video:
There is a lot more to talk about with the Batman: Arkham games. There are hundreds of Riddler trophies, unlockable characters like Robin, witty dialogue, big action scenes and more. There are a variety of different fights and opponents, and more super-villains than the Legion of Doom. But if I were to get into all of that, I’d be typing forever. This article is already long enough.
Batman: Arkham City is a beautiful game. It’s rich, it’s deep and it’s filled with exciting adventure. And even when the story is over and you defeat the Joker and save the day, you can still go back into the game world just to fool around and finish up all the side quests. Or maybe just play some Challenge Maps as the Boy Wonder. Batman: Arkham City is one of the greatest superhero games ever created.
Now I just can’t wait for the third one.
And speaking of all the great things to do in the game, be sure to check out my list of The 6 Best Easter Eggs in Batman: Arkham City.