After the chaotic events of Arkham Asylum, only the corrupt world of Gotham City would let the madhouse’s warden become mayor and allow him to hire Dr. Strange to cordon off a whole section of the city for a new asylum/prison. Dr. Strange being the head-case he is, it isn’t long before innocent civilians find themselves locked up without warning or trial. Soon enough, we’re walking Batman himself through the prison gates too, albeit as Bruce Wayne.
It’s going to be another long night for the Batman. Arkham City takes on an open-world approach with various missions available around the city map. It’s clear that films like Escape from New York have heavily influenced the landscape. Electricity is limited and streets are littered with trash, barricades, burnt out cars and mobs of angry thugs. Famous in-mates like Two-Face, Penguin and Joker all have their own areas and gang members. Despite the place being a shit-hole, they’re still all having a massive turf war.
There are too many spoilers lurking down these streets so we’ll not say anymore about the plot. Batman will team up with some famous names though for many fetch missions, arena brawls and rescuing hapless civilians. Detective elements are similar to before, with the addition of tracking bullet trajectories, and hacking computers with analogue stick minigames.
With a huge area to patrol you’ll be grateful of the improvements to Batman’s movement skills, although story-specific points need to be reached to gain some of them. The grappling gun gets a boost that allows you to accelerate past the anchor point and continue gliding. The best part though is being able to dive down then pull up, gaining height again. Combine this with grappling and you can stay airborne for ages before diving down onto a goon’s back, just for the hell of it. New gadgets like the electrical gun can be used to open doors and move objects, or ice grenades can create platforms in water or block hot air pipes. All gadgets can also be used in combat along with improved remote batarangs and more.
The fighting skills are still incredible, with brutal considered strikes combining with killer counter moves. Batman can now counter three enemies at once and many of his gadgets can be utilised mid-combo with quick-fire controls, making it much easier to string together 30+ hits. Armed enemies are now less threatening thanks to smoke bombs and gun-yanking skills. Rooms of armed guards are still best handled with individual stalking and it remains a hugely rewarding Batman experience despite the lack of changes.
The screen-blueing detective mode has apparently been scaled down so gamers wouldn’t want to rely on it as much. Anyone after hidden items is still going to have it turned on a lot though as the only hindrance I found when using it was the compass disappearing. In addition to seeing guards through entire buildings and looking for electrical switches, it’s useful for spotting ringing telephones or muggings.
The game’s graphics are too good to have detective mode constantly turned on though. Character models are generously detailed, even down to the goons. The constant light snowfall against the Gotham city lights in the background add a fantastic atmosphere that’s lacking from Nolan’s movies. Despite the high-end graphics, the run-down city look gets repetitive very quickly, especially when you can see the pristine Gotham City in the distance, unused, again.
One of the most impressive elements of the game world is the dialogue. The voicing of the main cast is just as strong as Asylum, even Nolan North’s new cockney take on the penguin fits in well. The Joker’s insanely funny and perfectly bounces off Kevin Conroy’s deadpan Batman. A special mention needs to go out to the voicing of the hired goons too, as you’ll pick up hundreds of lines of dialogue around the city, giving you info for side-missions or just general chatter on current events and rumours. They really help to create an intense atmosphere and a better insight into the minds of usually faceless characters.
The main story seems to be shorter than Asylum. The first game made the side-quests feel integral and they naturally incorporated extra characters into the main story. These side-quests are very separate and missable thanks to the open nature of the game. You can finish the game with several key gadgets missing from your utility belt and have gaping holes in your bios and Riddler collections.
I was surprised to finish the game so soon as I barely had chance to look into the side-missions. Thankfully, you can carry on after the story or open up a New Game + mode, as it’s well worth taking your time and checking in on the Riddler. In addition to picking up trophies, lining up signs and scanning in image-relating riddles we have some new tasks. Many of the trophies are trapped in cages that can only be released by passing small, but tough tests. These may involve using batarangs or explosive gel to trigger light switches in a certain order or under timed duress. They can be frustrating until you realise you probably don’t have the right kit to reach it yet.
With over 400 Riddler tasks, including trophies and riddles, it’s a much bigger task this time around. Then there are the new challenge rooms where you have to rescue a civilian from a deadly trap, by solving puzzles or with some nippy platforming. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll unlock maps for a separate challenge mode, which will have completionists gasping with joy if they can get past their fist-gnawing difficulty.
Playing as Catwoman for 10% of the game is a welcome distraction too. Her climbing skills are strangely reliant on horizontal travelling as she struggles to initiate climbing from street level. Her combat skills are flawless though. She’s faster than Batman is and her moves are animated in a fantastic combat style that makes her a joy to control.
So how has the game managed under enormous expectations, surely there are a few cracks in Rocksteady’s return? There are some discrepancies that stop the game scoring higher (not that this isn’t an awesome game). The city feels a bit samey visually even though it’s not particularly large and the placement of a large un-passable fortress structure in the middle is a pain in the arse when you’re crossing the city. The boss fights are slightly better, but still rely on dodge/attack mechanics and the final showdown comes up way short again.
There is an uncomfortable underlying sense of Rocksteady holding back. Batman’s a massive franchise now and they’ll want to save ideas for next sequel. Which could explain the lack of vehicles; the Batmobile doesn’t even get a cutscene this time around. Yes, poorly made vehicle sections have ruined plenty of good games over the years, but you can’t just ignore icons like the Batmobile and Batwing. Rocksteady, if you can go from an ok FPS title to the awesomeness of Arkham Asylum, we have faith that you’ll be able to handle this. Besides, you know you’re just begging to let us loose in Gotham City proper next time around.