This review was originally posted on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor in preparation for the release of Batman: Arkham Origins.
With the release of Batman: Arkham Origins so close, it seems only natural to continue to look at the fascinating game franchise the entire Batman: Arkham series has managed to become in just four short years. Today we go forward into the game that considerably upped the ante, and established a new and even broader standard of quality and depth – Batman: Arkham City.
After the massive success of Arkham Asylum late in the summer of 2009, fans were ecstatic about the fact that they’d finally received the Batman game they’d been waiting decades for. Also ecstatic was Warner Bros., immediately reacting to the immense sales and interest that the first game created. A sequel was a foregone conclusion, and in that effort the studio made a lot of significant changes to its games division in preparation for it, the largest of which was probably their acquisition of Arkham Asylum developer Rocksteady Studios in early 2010. This was obviously a very savvy move on the part of Warner Bros., since Rocksteady became a very serious and watched game development studio after the massive success that their first Batman effort proved to be. After announcing that a sequel was coming through a foreboding trailer featuring a sick, decrepit Joker viewing absolute mayhem on the streets of Gotham, anticipation kicked into overdrive, and never really settled down until after the release of the game we came to know as Batman: Arkham City.
The story picks up about six months after the events of the first game, and a lot seems to have happened in the intervening time. Quincy Sharp, the man who’d served as Arkham’s warden during the incident of the first game, has managed to take most of the credit for containing the Joker’s plot in the Asylum, and has used that newfound political capital to swoop into the mayor’s office of Gotham City. A mentally disturbed creature himself, Sharp takes marching orders from Arkham psychiatrist Hugo Strange: an old adversary of the Dark Knight’s who has deduced that Batman is in fact Bruce Wayne. Strange convinces Sharp to use his new position to create Arkham City, a new, larger facility to house both the mentally disturbed and brutally sadistic criminals of Gotham on the very streets of its most disturbed neighborhoods. While Bruce Wayne attempts to rally public support against turning a part of the city into a lawless war zone (the same part of Gotham where his parents were murdered, no less), he is captured by Strange’s guards and taken inside.
It’s not long before Bruce evades and escapes from the reach of the guards (oddly enough with the unintended help of the Penguin) and suits up as Batman to take to the streets of the newly established Arkham City, where enemies lurk around every corner, in an attempt to stop Strange and shut down the new prison once and for all. Through all of this, though, one old enemy in particular is using both Strange and Batman in feeding an even greater quest that could potentially reach far beyond Gotham’s borders, while the chaotic Clown Prince of Crime is all too ready to put his own interests back into motion.
Arkham Asylum was a notable game release for a multitude of reasons, but the primary factor that made it such a great game was the control scheme, and the abilities you could easily tap into through it. Freeflow combat returns in Arkham City, although now it even allows more ways to dispatch opponents in the middle of an ongoing fight. Now, in between dashing between dozens of enemies, you can actually steal weapons from their hands and break or disassemble them to prevent someone else from picking them up, and you can also use your gadgets in a “quickfire” method to deal out more damage in much quicker fashion. You can even call on swarms of bats to disorient your opponents while you take them all down.
More gadgets also make their way onto your utility belt throughout the single player campaign, including smoke bombs, a remote electrical charge (or “REC,” which can be used to open doors or to shock and disable enemies), and even some technology you can acquire from Mr. Freeze to stop enemies in their tracks. Old favorites return in an upgraded sense from Arkham Asylum as well, with new ways to use the famous batarang, an upgrade to the function and interface of the cryptographic sequencer, and the solid reliability of the line launcher and grapnel gun help make traversing the harsh streets of Arkham City that much easier.
Unlike the last game, Arkham City allows you to glide on your cape at great distances, and even to engage in full-on, horizontal dives to either hit enemies harder, or to swoop up at the last second to give your glide greater lift, speed, and elevation. Eventually, you can upgrade your grapnel gun with a boost that allows you to keep gliding across the city without even touching the ground, making it very useful especially when Batman is racing against the clock.
As with Arkham Asylum, the boss fights in Arkham City require you to adapt your tactics to meet the realities of both the environment as well as your opponent. While before it was hard to imagine anything better for Batman fans than Arkham Asylum‘s boss fights, the sequel managed to draw from a wider variety of both the size and tactics of your opponents to give an experience that definitely feels upgraded, and again forces you to think like Batman. Arkham City is currently home to what is now my favorite boss fight in any video game I’ve ever played, when you’re forced to go up against Mr. Freeze in the remains of the Gotham City Police Department’s central precinct. Because of Freeze’s powered refrigeration suit and his effectively deadly and ranged freeze gun (as well as his exceptional intellect) Batman has to go very slowly when attempting to taking Victor out. Hiding around the forensic lab inside the GCPD, you have to set very specific traps for Freeze that you can only set once. After each new tactic is used, Freeze finds a way to make sure you can’t pull off the same trap twice, and it makes for a gaming experience that is just, simply, pure Batman.
Aside from the main campaign, which sees you go up against the likes of Two-Face, the Penguin, Solomon Grundy, Ra’s al Ghul, and the Joker, Arkham City features a number of side missions that can be played at any point during the main campaign, or even after its completion. Some side missions will lead you to forge unlikely partnerships, others will put all of your skills in both deduction and tactical skill to the test. Villains you encounter in the side missions include the infamous Suicide Squad hitman Deadshot, serial killer Victor Zsasz (who's even more bone-chilling than his turn in Arkham Asylum), the mind-controlling Mad Hatter, and even a surprise appearance from the enigmatic Hush. The Riddler also returns, and instead of simply forcing you to find his clues, he’s now taken hostages with elaborate, life-threatening puzzles surrounding each of his abducted victims. You have to really think about how to get these people out of the various death traps you're confronted with, but be sure to use every trick at your disposal: Riddler doesn’t always play fairly.
Conspicuously absent from Arkham City is Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow. After thoroughly enjoying his parts of the last game, I was hoping that Batman would encounter him again in Arkham City. While this wasn’t exactly the case, astute players will definitely find clues surrounding Dr. Crane throughout the Arkham City prison, and some of those clues may hint to a terrifying future to perhaps be found in this game’s true sequel. (2017 update: it was.)
New Playable Characters
One of the biggest new additions to be found in Arkham City is the ability to play as characters other than Batman. Across the story mode, there are a few levels where you find yourself in the form-fitting suit of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who stars in something of her own side story which runs parallel to the events that Batman experiences. A playable chapter taking place after the events of the main campaign, called “Harley Quinn’s Revenge,” allows you to play as Batman’s partner Robin. In the game’s returning challenge mode, you can play as Batman, Robin, Catwoman, and also Nightwing, who all have their own unique move sets and different gadgets to take down the criminals of Gotham City either by stealth, or through direct hand-to-hand combat.
Catwoman actively uses her classic bullwhip to take enemies down, along with some nasty gadgets like caltrops and bolas to really put the hurt on. Robin’s primary weapon in combat is a bo staff that can also expand to act as a bulletproof shield, but he also makes use of “birdarang” shuriken and his zip kick to bring the thugs down with authority. Nightwing, as you might expect given his circus background, is very acrobatic. His primary weapons are modified escrima sticks that can give out powerful electronic discharges, in addition to some very specialized and unique martial arts that only Dick Grayson can deliver.
As with the last game, the challenge mode in Arkham City definitely increases the game’s replay value significantly, and leaderboards even make it competitive. With the addition of new playable characters to the mix along with new game types, it’s definitely a welcome expansion to the franchise.
Design and Story
The design of Arkham City, when compared with its predecessor, is where a lot of the major differences between the games really become apparent. While there’s certainly a continuity in architecture and even layout to a degree, the environments in Arkham City are extremely broad and rather wide open when directly compared to its predecessor. In a lot of ways, it feels like Arkham City stands as kind of a stark contrast to the design of Arkham Asylum, since that game gave an overwhelmingly creepy and almost claustrophobic vibe when compared to the environments of its sequel. The most significant continuity between the designs of both games is in the characters, with the square jawed, detailed Dark Knight and the uneven, evil smile of the Joker fully returning with even greater depth and resolution than we had in the first game.
Since the game takes place in an actual segment of Gotham City itself, there are an incredible and exhaustive amount of Easter eggs present throughout the entire game map. Some of the truly awesome locations you can visit in the city include Harvey Dent’s campaign office from his time as city district attorney, the site of the Bat-Signal on top of the GCPD's central precinct, Maroni’s Italian Restaurant (left over from a time before the “freaks” took over the city), Pamela Isley’s botanical shop, and yes, even the very alley where Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered. If you visit that location in the game, the audio changes from the powerful musical score to faded echoes of gunfire ringing in your ears. You can even pay your respects on the site that gave birth to the Batman, as a somber musical tone takes over as the Dark Knight kneels at the outline of his parents and remembers why he fights.
Kevin Conroy returns in another pitch-perfect vocal performance as the Dark Knight, while Mark Hamill reprises the Joker in perhaps his finest turn on the role in his 20+ years giving life to the character’s vocal chords. Other standout performances from the voice cast include Wally Wingert’s return as an even more sadistic Riddler, veteran voice actor Corey Burton ("Superman: The Animated Series") as Dr. Hugo Strange, Nolan North (Uncharted) as the Penguin, and Maurice LaMarche ("Futurama") as Mr. Freeze. Taking over the role of Harley Quinn from originator Arleen Sorkin is Tara Strong, previously known to Batman fans as the voice of Batgirl in "The New Batman Adventures." Stana Katic ("Castle") also surprises in a great turn as Talia al Ghul, the Daughter of the Demon. As any modern gamer will tell you, the quality of the voice acting can certainly make or break a game’s narrative, and this is a cast (and a director) that certainly adds to the authenticity, truth, and fun of the whole experience.
Writer Paul Dini returns to tell the story of the game, and like practically everything else, seriously increases the scope with which to tell a broader, bigger Batman story. Utilizing all of the bigger environments and greater cast of characters to their full potential, Dini takes us on a journey not only through one of the most rigorous tests Batman will likely ever have to endure during his career, but on a confrontation with his own mortality provided by the sadistic and desperate actions of the Joker. Batman actually finds himself fighting for both his and Joker’s lives at the same time, because oddly enough, saving the Joker will lead to saving Gotham. It’s an incredibly compelling story especially when told by the deft and passionate mind of Dini, and chances are that if you haven’t spoiled yourself beforehand, you really won’t see that ending coming.
Batman: Arkham City is really nothing short of an incredible gaming experience, taking full advantage of the medium and the characters to both tell a compelling story and make for a great evening in front of your game console. While I might personally prefer the environment and atmosphere of Arkham Asylum just a little bit more than that of its sequel, it’s very difficult to ignore the fact that Rocksteady took the lessons from their first outing with the Dark Knight and improved practically every facet of gameplay considerably. That’s saying something, because most people didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with it the first time around!
As a Batman gaming experience, or even a Batman experience in general, Arkham City stands as a nearly perfect representation of what the Dark Knight is all about, and taken along with Arkham Asylum, I don’t think you’ll find a greater way to get to know Batman than by doing the best thing that this game does: allowing you to become him. Arkham Origins certainly has a lot to live up to if these two games are any indication, but even if it doesn’t quite pull it off, nothing can diminish the fact that Arkham Asylum and Arkham City encompass the best that superhero gaming has ever produced thus far, along with telling what may be one of the best Batman stories of the last 20 years. If you missed it, you should definitely remedy that, as both its predecessor and Arkham City have been two of the greatest video games ever released on this generation of consoles, and certainly the best ever when it comes to comic book video games.