Tuesday, October 25, 2011

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham City.

2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum was noteworthy for simply being a Batman game that wasn't terrible. In fact, it was excellent. Not only were its mechanics perfectly serviceable (exploration, puzzle-solving, stealth) or utterly remarkable (combat), it succeeded in presenting a quality, fleshed-out and familiar-enough-to-be-immersive rendition of the Batman universe.

Arkham City completely one-ups its predecessor, in every regard.

If one holds the game up to the representatives of almost any one genre, it suffers in comparison. Its world - a beautiful, gothic cobbling of an old wrecked downtown neighborhood - is too compact to impress against the likes of inFamous or Red Dead Redemption. It's not an open-world game, specifically. Its combat lacks the frame-specific needs and tactile feel of a Devil May Cry, its platforming is a watered-down Assassin's Creed with flight controls, but it's also not - specifically - a brawler or platformer.

If Batman owes its design and structure to any one franchise, it is Zelda or Metroid - and when compared to those, Arkham City is a stunning success. Put simply, you explore an overworld and gain access to "dungeons," lorded over by Gotham's finest supervillains - upon leaving one, you will invariably be in the possession of a new gadget that grants you access to ever deeper areas of the city.

Great! Good start - I love games like that - and the icing on the cake is that this game is called Batman.

"The challenge of making a Batman game isn't just that it needs to be a good game - a game that would be enjoyable if the licensed property weren't attached - but that Batman himself has been passed through so many hands over the years. The most famous departure from what we consider to be Batman was certainly the camp TV series from the 1960s, but even some of Batman's most important aspects - his rule of never killing, for example - were added at a later date by folks far removed from Bob Kane. How does one plug in to our unspoken expectations for what The Dark Knight should be, when there have been so many changes - so many interpretations of the source material?"
-Batman: Arkham Asylum review (2009)-
With a much larger playground to offer, Arkham City has a much larger canvas to fill, and it does so with nimble strokes drawn from the past twenty years of Batman interpretation. This piece of background music will instantly bring to mind Tim Burton's films or The Animated Series, while that swooping score is much closer to Christopher Nolan's more recent films. Art direction leans heavily on the comic books and Burton's bolder style - which does a wonderful job of making the player buy into the world - and there is story, story everywhere.

A mark against Arkham Asylum and a great deal of Arkham City is that, while it does an exemplary job of assembling and capably realizing our unconscious expectations of the Batmanuniverse, it often offers little in terms of original story. While a great deal of our love for Batman is due to style, atmosphere and archetype, what we really remember about the shows and comics and movies are the excellent stories. Mad Love, Heart of Ice, Batman Returns, The Killing Joke - 2009's Arkham Asylum cannot hold a candle to these classics. While a great deal ofArkham City's narratives are similarly familiar water to tread, the Joker arc is one of the best Clown Prince stories I've ever witnessed.

I will never hear the words "that actually is... pretty funny!" the same way, ever again.

Elsewhere, I find myself pleased with the amount on offer here, in terms of fleshing out character and context. Asylum provided too little exploration of its villains, but here a great deal is showcased through the chatter Batman picks up through his cool surveillance gear. The Joker's goons talk about how screwed up their boss's relationship is with the crazed Harley Quinn, and you may overhear Two Face's boys discussing how your most recent-run in with Dent bodes for them.

It all serves to make Arkham City feel like a living and legitimate window into the Batmanuniverse, in much the same way the cast's familiar (Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy) and otherwise remarkable talent (Steve Blum, Grey DeLisle, Corey Burton) elegantly evades one's cynicism and immerses them in the title's reality. It does feel a bit off-putting when a thug heckles you in Nathan Drake's voice - recognizing Nolan North does the game a disservice, there - but he does a fantastic job as The Penguin, while Hamill has never been better as the Joker.

As with the best adventure games, there is a massive amount to discover beyond the central narrative's bonds. Doing searches of your environment will often uncover a small, crucial twist on a story you thought you knew, by way of tiny tableaus or discarded evidence. Be sure to check out Harley's Asylum uniform in Joker's lair, then look at the floor to the left - I don't think thatlittle chestnut's been breached in any other interpretation of the character.

Very nice.

Gameplay has been similarly expanded and refined, entirely to the title's benefit. Story missions see a mix of navigation, combat and (sometimes utterly devious) puzzle solving while side missions content themselves with focusing on a single facet of the game's mechanics. If you wish to invest twenty or thirty hours in a playthrough of Arkham City, the game has more than enough content to keep you occupied.

The optional puzzle solving and Riddler trophies see the greatest growth, here, with four hundred puzzles, collectibles and riddles to find and solve for completists. Psycho killer Victor Zsasz tasking you with zipping across the city in order to find a ringing phone before he executes a victim is a suitably grim task, but it's simply a cleverly-disguised race minigame, which tests your skills with the fantastic tempering of Batman's glide ability and the proper use of the grapnel boost (which sends you flying off a rooftop, wings out).

The intricacies of Batman's diving, swooping flight are taught with another sidequest, soon revealing it to be a much more supple and responsive mode of transport than it seems at first blush. In the City, curiosity leads one to discover all sorts of delicious, meaty stories and situations that await them off the game's beaten path - and using City's pleasurable navigation to find them is a welcome indulgence.

Least changed but most refined is the combat, which sees the addition of a few neat moves and a bit of context-sensitive coolness, but small tweaks and amendments to its formula make it a much more intricate and unforgiving beast. It is deeply satisfying to counter three enemies at once and send them all sprawling to the pavement, and a sweet thrill to successfully evade and counter a blade-wielding thug's flurry of slashes - made doubly impressive by the fact that no one else has ever done combat in the same way as Rocksteady's Batman. It is mechanically unique - which alone should exclude it from success - but it's intensely pleasant, and wonderful to watch.

The combat system fits the game, the world, your enemies and most importantly the protagonist perfectly. Batman isn't about superhuman simplicity (inFamous) or flashy, smashy combos (Devil May Cry, God of War) - he is about confidence, strategy and perfect, patient timing.

The vicious aggressiveness which would serve you well in any other game will get you killed inArkham City. Batman's best defense is not offense but patience, and your ability to adapt to whatever the fifteen goons you're facing are (sometimes literally) throwing at you. The moment you find yourself losing your temper with the game and attempting to be too aggressive,Arkham City will beat you bloody. When you find yourself getting your bell rung by a series of blows you failed to counter or evade, don't throw a blind punch at the nearest goon.

Back off. Stay calm. Let them come to you, grab the first guy's fist out of the air and wipe the floor with them with careful, adaptive precision - because you are Batman, you keep your cool, and these thirty muscle-bound, two-by-four wielding henchmen are no match for you.

It's all too rare, that that can be said of a game. It's so different, yet it succeeds. Batman's combat is deeply different - mechanically, emotionally unique - while managing to be exceedingly fun, flashy and rewarding. Rocksteady deserves a standing ovation for that alone.

Batman: Arkham City is an exceptional piece of work, from tip to tail. It delivers a breakneck story that had me all but ignoring the side quests until my second playthrough. Its serviceable technology is entirely bent to the task of realizing a beautiful, involving world, occupied by wonderfully well-realized and deeply drawn characters.

More than merely a great game with classic structure that harkens back to Metroid and Zelda, Arkham City strikes out on its own in terms of substance, with mechanics pioneered by Batman alone. Its résumé reads like a wish list of gaming: a fantastic central character, an involving story, a stunning beginning and a moving ending. Artistically striking, structurally comfortable and mechanically unique. Wonderfully fun in all its facets - oh, and an open-world game that really rewards exploration.

Love for its source material bleeds from every scrap of dialogue, every perfectly-cast villain, every elegant explosion of violence from its hero, which can do no less than inspire the player to invest further in its wonderful world. Arkham City is a title of uniformly high quality, with no weak link about which to complain.

This is one of the best games of the year. Plus, it's Batman.

  • a spectacular vision of Gotham and its denizens, cobbled together from decades of Batman source material and interpretation
  • one of the best casts of the year
  • Mark Hamill outdoes himself as Joker
  • making your way around the city with the grapnel gun and glide mechanics is fun on a bun
  • excellent music
  • the boss fights are a huge improvement over Asylum's - constantly switching style and mechanics
  • in fact, the overall production values are great
  • the Joker's arc is one of my new favorite Batman stories
  • one of the best openings I've ever seen, and I loved the ending
  • a ridiculous amount of collectibles and side-puzzles to solve
  • lots of interesting side-quests with cool stories of their own
  • it's like a holiday turkey, except the stuffing is made up of every important Batman villain ever
  • fantastic - and fantastically unique - combat, which is very satisfying and challenging on the harder difficulties and New Game+
  • it's got a New Game+!
  • Arkham City feels alive thanks to its dense population and amount of peripheral narrative
  • I'm Batman

  • you can only go through New Game+ once, then you need to start up a New New game to open it up again
  • Nolan North using his normal voice as a thug really takes you out of the experience
Arkham City is an excellent game from any angle, and one of the best titles of 2011.

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