It used to be that superhero games were incapable of being great, as if there were some unwritten law handed down from the gods of gaming to developers, plaguing the genre for decades. Luckily, that gospel was never preached to Rocksteady Studios, who in 2009 decided to figuratively take that rule, hold it in front of the masses, and burn it with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Two years later, the studio has done it once again in what some may have thought to be a difficult task: create an even better sequel.
Take Arkham Asylum, blow it up to five times the size, make it an entire section of Gotham City, throw in a complete smorgasbord of villains, and you are only scratching the surface of what makes Batman: Arkham City shine. The attention to detail in recreating the dark and gritty world of the Dark Knight will not go unnoticed by fans. The city itself is full of several iconic landmarks such as The Monarch Theater and Crime Alley where the Wayne’s met their end, Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge, The Solomon Wayne Courthouse where Two-Face was forever changed, and more.
The level of intimate knowledge possessed by Rocksteady doesn’t end there. Characters both on Batman’s good and bad side are found aplenty in Arkham City through both the main story and side content. Some take up starring roles, while others make their appearance via side missions or cameos. Regardless, it really shows that the studio knows its source material and wants to give the fans as much as possible.
The main cast is what drives yet another compelling narrative, where Batman goes through hell to once again save the city he has sworn to protect. Unable to solve the danger that the facility of Arkham City presents as his alter ego, Bruce Wayne is forced to try politics in an attempt to bring down the institution. It all goes wrong as Wayne is taken prisoner and left with no choice but to don the cape from the inside and deal with the likes of Ra’s al Ghul, The Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Hugo Strange, Two-Face, and The Joker.
The plot twists and turns several times in a dramatic fashion that may leave even the best detective guessing just what the heck is going on in Arkham. Rocksteady made sure to add a few moments of faint foreshadowing, and while players may not realize these until the credits roll, it will create an epiphany of admiration.
With help from a supporting cast including Nolan North, Troy Baker, Stana Katic, and several other seasoned voice actors, it’s easy to see why Arkham City features one of the most talented ensembles in voice acting for the year. It’s Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy though, reprising their roles as The Joker and Batman, that steal the show. Every moment the two share together is gold, and it’s obvious that Hamill pulled out all the stops for what we now know to be his final performance as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Once in the boots of the Caped Crusader and roaming the streets of the seedy urban prison, the time comes to do some damage to the thugs that follow Batman’s greatest foes. The smooth, intuitive, deep combat makes a return from Arkham Asylum, but this time around it’s even richer than before. Players will be able to attack, counter, stun, and vault over enemies like before, but now several of the game’s gadgets can be seamlessly used via a quick fire mode. This includes new additions such as the remote electrical device and freeze grenades as well as the batclaw, baterang, and explosive gel. There is even a satisfying beat down combo for attacking stunned enemies, the ability to counter multiple attackers at once, and more of the powerful takedown maneuvers.
Enemy types will vary to increase the challenge and keep players thinking as the game goes on. Thugs brandishing armor, shields, sharp weapons, and electric batons will require specific tactics to defeat and enemies wielding firearms will eventually work their way into combat as well. Even when guns aren’t in a group’s possession, the ability for them to arm themselves will be present as the narrative progresses. This adds a strategic factor that players must keep in mind when trying to string together combos and determine primary targets.
As fun as it is to pound in the faces of a few bad guys, stealth is where Batman’s real mettle is tested. The stealth functionality in Arkham City is just as you would expect given its predecessor, but like combat also features some new additions. New gadgets like the disruptor, which will make an enemy’s gun ineffective, and the smoke bomb are of great help when you find yourself in a pinch or wanting to take out multiple goons. Other gadgets can help distract and freak out your prey; the remote electrical charge causes a thug to fire his weapon wildly, perhaps hitting his cohorts. It adds more choice to an already varied means of instilling fear in the hearts of criminals.
Boss battles in Arkham City are numerous and avoid repetition, so they all have their own unique feel, though they do come across as gimmicky at times given what it takes to win. Some are downright easy, but they stay true to who it is you’re taking on and they never fail to entertain.
While the game’s graphical presentation is close to flawless, there are a few performance issues. Tiny animation glitches here and there can have Batman knocking out or interrogating enemies through objects like subway cars. There are also times when the game needs to briefly load after a frame rate drop in order to catch up with what’s going on, but those rare occasions only happen while trying to do several things at once (e.g. entering detective mode after coming out of a grapnel boost into a glide after changing your objective and having just finished a fight).
If you’re looking for longevity from your purchase, Arkham City is an admirably lengthy candidate. With a 40-hour long campaign, featuring side quests and over 400 Riddler challenges to check off, the single player alone can keep players invested for quite a while. But only playing the normal story mode would be a disservice to everything else that the game provides.
Challenges make a return and do so in force. There are 24 in total that are split evenly between combat and Predator (stealth) modes. The Challenge Campaigns string together different challenge maps to endure for a tougher test. There are even Custom Challenges that will allow players to pick from a certain number of modifiers (also featured in limited fashion in the Challenge Campaigns) to make them easier or tougher. Each features three medals to aspire towards for achievements and leaderboard bragging rights.
If brawls and stealth operations aren’t for you, then New Game Plus mode likely will be. The variety of enemies that came at the latter part of the normal story come at you early, and there are no prompts for counter opportunities. Players need to be even more careful and analyze each situation as it evolves with even more precision.
If you felt that Batman: Arkham Asylum threw you head first into the world of the Caped Crusader and made you one with your inner Dark Knight, then Batman: Arkham City will have you drowning in immersion. From the amazing acting, thoughtfully crafted and exciting plot, and gritty feel to the depth of combat and top-notch soundtrack by Nick Arundel and Ron Fish, it outdoes not only its predecessor but the majority of the year’s current offerings. There may be some nitpicky problems keeping it from being perfect, but they won’t tear you from all the things that this game does so right.