Batman: Arkham City. Let me start by saying that the precursor to Arkham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum, is one of the best games I’ve ever played. And I’ve played a lot of games.
So, when the sequel was announced, I was both excited and worried. How could developer Rocksteady top what they’ve already created? Well, in some ways they have, but a lot has been sacrificed.
Here’s the basics. You play as millionaire Bruce Wayne. In the previous game, you helped to contain various villains that were trying to escape from the insane asylum in Gotham City (called Arkham Asylum). Well, things have gone south. A section of Gotham City has been walled off and used as a holding place for both the mentally deranged and the criminally dangerous. My first big question is WHY? We are thrown into the game with very little information about why they would create this. Let’s just let the world’s most dangerous people hang out and come up with diabolical plans. To top it off, acclaimed supervillain Hugo Strange has been put in charge. WHAT? It doesn’t make sense but let’s roll with it.
Bruce Wayne comes out and says “This is a horrible idea!” but is promptly arrested and thrown into “Arkham City” by Hugo Strange. He manages to get his Batman gear sent to him and then begins working on cleaning up the city and containing all of these villains.
So what works?
In terms of gameplay, Arkham City is a great game. The combat is fast and fluid and it’s easy to manage a battle against 20 thugs. You truly feel like Batman. When you’re able to escape to the shadows, you’re also given a huge array of weapons and gadgets you can use both in and out of battle. These options give you a thousand different ways to handle stealth missions. You’re faced with a room of 10 thugs with machine guns. If they spot you, you’re swiss cheese. Maybe you decide to dive down from overhead. Maybe you decide to crawl under them through the grates. Maybe you decide to throw out a decoy, wait for everyone to gather around it, and then swoop in. You can use freeze bombs to incapacitate, your batclaw to rip their weapons from their hands, and a remote controlled baterang to knock them unconscious. Each new room is a whole new set of choices and it’s absolutely thrilling.
So we talked about Batman. But now let’s talk about his villains. There are a lot of them but some of them truly stand out as being well-developed and engaging. One of my favorites was Mr. Freeze.
The Mr. Freeze storyline is more fleshed out than some of the others, as you can actually sense his motivation and the voice acting is pretty convincing. There are even side quests after you defeat Freeze in which you can help him in his quest to save his wife. The actual battle with Mr. Freeze is the embodiment of choice. You can “analyze” his suit and it will give you like 10-12 recommendations for how to defeat him. If he steps in water, electrify it. He can’t see off ledges, so hide and wait for him to walk by. There is a huge array of options and it actually feels like you’re outsmarting him and it’s a satisfying battle when you finally do finish him off.
The cornerstone of the entire villain roster is the Joker. Mark Hamill has lent his voice once again (having done Arkham Asylum and the classic Batman: The Animated Series). I don’t want to spoil much but the Joker’s role is pivotal and actually very thought-provoking as Batman flirts with the line of what he’ll do to protect the city.
I also appreciate the amount of detail and little things that make this world feel deep. As you travel the city, Harvey Dent posters litter the alleys. You’ll even run into side missions that expose entirely new villains, ones that often don’t get much love in these sorts of games. If you choose to answer a ringing phone, serial killer Zsasz will lead you on a string of adventures. Mysterious hero Azrael will give you cryptic prophecies. Even one of my favorite villains Hush appears, in a nod to what might be a sequel.
One of the coolest little details revolves around the villain The Calendar Man. He commits crimes on various holidays. I found his cell underneath the courthouse on accident and as I neared the cell, he said, “You’ll want to come see on April 1st… Unless you’re a fool.” I was like… “It’s almost April 1st.” After doing some internet scouting, it turns out that if you visit him on the actual holidays, he’ll tell you stories of who he killed. I went into my PS3 and changed the date to April 1st. When I visited The Calendar Man again, he told me a bizarre story of who he killed. I changed the date to Mother’s Day and another story came. Without cheating, this little quest would take you a full year. When you complete all of the holidays, he’ll escape from his cell. Kind of interesting for those of you that love these little details.
I also want to mention the Riddler. In Arkham Asylum, there were riddles you completed but you never really saw the Riddler. In this outing, he’s communicating with you directly and taking hostages. It’s a cool subplot that reminded me of Saw a bit, or even the killer in Heavy Rain. The tricky thing is that the Riddler’s quest only becomes available as you collect his trophies (of which there are 400). I don’t have that kind of determination, so I only completed the first couple of his missions, in which you outsmart him and save hostages. It’s still a cool idea and gives something for you die-hard completionists to do.
So what doesn’t work?
My biggest complaint is that some amazing villains were relegated to afterthoughts. Two-Face is only seen in one of the opening scenes. Why even include him? The Penguin features as a centerpiece but only as a way to slow you down on your way to Mr. Freeze. You only fought Penguin’s lackeys anyways, why include him? These villains could have held this game up, if they were given substantial roles. Though, it would be hard to feature a final boss battle with the Penguin or Two-Face, who are really no physical match for Batman.
The main storyline is really convoluted. You track down villain A to give you information on villain B who has you fight villain C and then villain D shows up. It’s a string of random encounters that feel forced. Part of me almost wishes that the game were structured as a series of side quests that didn’t have to be connected. To defeat Penguin, you complete these five missions, all focused entirely on him. Once you capture all 10 villains, the final quest kicks in. That would have made more sense than trying to fit Mr. Freeze, Ras Al Ghul, Hugo Strange, Joker, Penguin, Solomon Grundy, Harley Quinn, and a handful of other villains into a coherent story.
That’s what Arkham Asylum nailed on the head. It never felt weird that two villains would be working together, because they were all held in their unique prisons. And it didn’t overwhelm you with villains but gave a lot of little nods to the DC mythology. We’d see Mr. Freeze’s prison and learn about him but we’d never see him. I didn’t mind.
Overall Arkham City just felt like too much was forced in. The only villain you don’t ever see is Scarecrow (more on that later). That’s a problem. We didn’t need so many villains but the story would have been tighter if less villains were thrown in but given more substantial storylines.
The game is amazingly fun and you truly feel like Batman. The villains are plentiful but some of them get lost in the shuffle. Others truly shine though, like Mr. Freeze and the Joker. The game offers plenty of things to do, including interesting side missions and a robust series of “Riddler challenges” to complete. My verdict, 4/5. Arkham Asylum was such a concise and tight story that this just felt like a mess in comparison.
In Arkham Asylum, you could find a blueprint for “Arkham City.” In this game, there are hints as to what’s called “City of Terror,” which will likely be the next installment. If you noticed that Scarecrow was absent, he’s been busy. In the video below, you can watch Batman discover a secret boat that was used to deliver goods to Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow. “City of Terror” is the password to the boat. Could the next game feature all of Gotham City as Scarecrow attempts to terrify its population into submission? One can only hope.