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Video Game Review – Arkham City

Tim, no reading, there may be spoilers.

As for the rest of you, it’s been ample time for you all to have played, but as Tim recently played Arkham Asylum for the first time ever, it seems a good time to talk about the sequel. Arkham City is fodder for every gaming hall of fame going, a neat blend of sandbox with high quality story, stealth and action, puzzles and combat, and perhaps one of the best representations of Batman ever put to a screen of any size. Arkham City was also going to be the last ever appearance of Mark Hamill as the Joker, promising he’d only return if they ever animated The Killing Joke (they did, he did).

Overview

Developer Rocksteady Studios
Platforms PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC (Windows, OSX), Wii
Worldwide Release
October 2011
Genre Action
Price
£14.99 (Steam)

Story

Once again you step into the cowl of the Dark Knight, although not straight away. As Bruce Wayne you arrive at the gates of the newly opened and titular super-prison to tell the good people of Gotham what a terrible thing Arkham City is for both Gotham and the inmates, blending together those of both Arkham and Blackgate, the criminally insane and the criminally adept merged into a single warring horde. The private security force TYGER move in to arrest Wayne and throw him in with Gotham’s worst.

Suffice to say the cowl is dropped in shortly thereafter, and you’re left with an enormous space in which to explore the origins and purpose behind the construction of the city, while plunged into a pressure cooker of gang warfare, Twoface, Penguin, and Joker have divided the city amongst themselves, and are recruiting from the hordes of goons and other supervillains to jockey for supremacy.

The game is something of a tour of Batman’s rogues gallery, Hugo Strange and Ra’s Al Ghul form the backbone of the actual story, while the Joker serves to drive the chaos ever higher. Serial killers Victor Zsasz and Hush stalk the shadows, Mr Freeze, Bane, and The Riddler pursue their own ends, and Catwoman sweeps in as both an opportunistic thief and alternative playable characters for certain missions that switch up the pace and inform little elements of the narrative as a whole.

This is an enormous game, make no mistake about that, and a few paragraphs can simply not do justice to all of the brilliant little elements woven together, the cunning and plotting of the major players, the warring gangs, the levels of criminal intrigue. A shanty town houses political and white collar prisoners, brought to the lowest of social status, while Cobblepot finally has the power he always wanted with no force to push him back. And the Joker… the Joker, post Titan-Mutation is a trip, who makes it a personal mission to harass and goad Batman at every waking moment over the phone, or through various kidnappings and minor acts of terrorism.

Style

The sheer size of the game could lead to a degree of repetitiveness in terms of surroundings, varying very little from heavy urbanised and industrial districts cut with high security walls. But in truth you could be dropped into any location in the game and have a solid idea of where you are. Unique architecture, major landmarks like the Church, the Steel Mill, the Iceberg Lounge, and Wonder City, different lighting effects, and yes, the different types of street thugs walking around, all help make it easier to navigate the labyrinthine streets and soaring rooftops.

The depth of the city also appeals to one of y gaming wishlist items, tremendous depth, I love a fully realised 3D environment, and as the City fully utilised Batman’s gliding and swooping capabilities both as a means of transport and a combat mechanic. The speed is a harsh contrast to the game’s stealth-heavy sections, which transition neatly and clearly one into another and back into rolling action combat, and again into investigation and puzzles, all scattered throughout the diverse cityscape.

It all leads to the potential for sessions of several hours without pauses or breaks that serve to undermine the notion that the events of the game take place in one night, but to aid the illusion there is a slowly growing amount of wear and tear on the batsuit, rips in the cape, tears in the armour, a few bruises that never fade. One cannot help but chuckle when hours elapse between Hugo Strange’s countdown announcements to the mysterious Protocol 10, as he sinisterly proclaims only ten minutes have passed.

Missing from Arkham Asylum, I freely admit to missing the Scarecrow’s funhouse levels, mostly from a design perspective, the nightmarescapes born of toxic overdoses of Dr. Crane’s toxin were a genuine delight. Instead we must settle for the bizarre headtrip from Ra’s Al Ghul as he tries to pass the League of Shadows onto Bruce again, and an fun little brawl-fest in a Wonderland themed hallucination courtesy of Jervis “Mad Hatter” Tetch. Both are fun, neither served as an adequate substitute for one of the greatest moments in Asylum.

Gameplay

For players of Asylum, it was a treat to be able to breeze through a short intro and be almost back up to full strength. Many of the combat upgrades and technology options are already ready and waiting for us, at least enough to make us feel like we’re not restarting from scratch. Tech options are a little more diverse, offering a wide variety of new upgrades, but as a PC player I often found it hard work to incorporate some of the more entertaining tech into combat scenarios. A five button mouse helps, but there are still so many combat abilities left unexplored.

On the subject of combat, the transitions from move to move are vastly improved, not to say that combat in the earlier game wasn’t a joy to behold, but the areas in which you now fight make terrain a key part of combat in ways it wasn’t before. Batman leaps of railings and and elevated spaces to lend power to his attacks (not that it translates into actual damage, but it looks cool), and boss fights often rely on high levels of strategy rather than adapting the normal flow of well timed button mashes. The fight with Fries that forces you to change tactics with every blow struck is often cited as one of the series’ pinnacles, but the Riddler challenges, and fights with Solomon Grundy and Hugo Strange are far more dynamic challenges of the Dark Knight’s skills than those in Asylum. That’s not to say they’ve removed the Arena-Pit style fights from the game, but personally I find it far more entertaining when a train occasionally drives through my fight.

Catwoman I must say breaks the flow of the game for one very simple reason. It is far less fun to leap from building to building trying (and failing for the most part) to pounce your way up the sides before leaping to the next one, than it is to grapple-glide your way around, propelling yourself from gargoyle to rooftop in an effortless and far faster motion. Crossing the city, you might as well walk. In combat I’d say she’s more entertaining, a few little toys like caltrops and her whip do make her fights very different, and her attitude in combat is more playful than sinister, but she’s only fun in short bursts. And of course her “decisive moment” may be the weakest instance of decision making in a game. It’s barely even symbolic.

But by and large this is a game that perfects the notion of sequel. It’s bigger, more involved, expands on the original, changes, fixes, upgrades, and yet never strays far from the feel of the original. Oh, and it ends with Mark Hamill singing “Only You” in the Joker’s voice. All in all, this is as close to perfection as one might find in a game, including some components that will appeal to any gamer, and capturing what it means to be the Bat, without having to lose your parents at an early age, move to the Nepalese mountains, learn to be a supernatural ninja, and then return home to use your vast fortune to feed a vanity project that could have easily been outdone by spending the same money on political reform.

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