Doctor Hugo Strange has taken over Gotham City, amongst other villains, and turned it into a mega-prison. Huge threatens to destroy the once proud city, even taking the innocent citizens trapped inside with it. Wanting to help, Bruce Wayne launches a campaign to clean up the streets and take back the city, only to be kidnapped into the madness. With a plan intact, Wayne turns to his alter ego, Batman, to take care of business and stop Strange before the city is decimated.
The best thing about Batman: Arkham City is that Rocksteady focused on the story first. Getting your audience invested in the game is important, and strong stories are the cornerstone for doing just that. It helps immensely that the cast from the animated series was readily available for voicing over the characters they have played for years. Regardless, the story that the devs have intact for Batman: Arkham City works incredibly well and sucks you in from the opening cinematic sequence. Once they have you then they simply don’t let you go.
This is the drawing point to the game. You’ll want to play Batman: Arkham City because the story is driving it all. You’ll care about the characters, you’ll care about the perilous situations that come with those and most of all you’ll constantly want to see what the next chapter in the game brings you. Getting attached to the story and seeing how Batman finds his way through bad guys, danger and death is why you will continually play this game after you have finished it.
Again, Rocksteady wanted to bring you a story that is first before everything else in the game, and they didn’t falter at all on that delivery.
Of course, a written and acted story is one thing, visuals are a wholly other.
If Rocksteady didn’t get the visuals right then it wouldn’t matter how good Mark Hamil plays the Joker. Using the Unreal Engine 3, just like in the first game, the devs at Rocksteady have put together the perfect vision of a corrupt Gotham City. Expansive, alive (even though it’s near death), the environment really supports the story pretty darn well. The story tells of a decimated Gotham City, so you will encounter broken buildings, crumbling structures and in one scene you get a part of Gotham that is pretty much under water. On top of this, the lighting, shadows and details of the destruction are very evident on all the buildings. You’ll find gaping holes where an explosion has occurred or very dirty textures that reinforce that this city hasn’t been the same in some time. The lighting portion of the game helps provide the ‘Dark Knight’ mood to the game, as you get a good moon reflection that will follow you appropriately as you go Assassin’s Creed on rooftops around Gotham. You also get some very sharp and pronounced neon lighting that reminds you that Gotham is a big city with a lot of old, tacky elements of the past still intact. In addition to the lighting elements, this time around the shading and shadows look a bit more refined. For example, when Batman is chatting it up (one of many times) with Joker, you get a lot less drop off and stringy jaggies in the shadows falling off of Joker’s face. In the first go around with the game, cinematic sequences with characters seemed a little rough in those areas; sometimes it looked a bit overdone. This time around everything seems to fit where it needs to fit, and act like it needs to act.
Graphically, though they are still using the same engine, the games looks much better than the first. You still get that very raw, very real (less cartoony) version of the Dark Knight’s universe. It’s cruddy, evil and visually fun to watch.
Story and visuals are one thing, but what about the controls? Is Batman: Arkham City going to treat you like a three-year old and give you a 10 minute recap of what the X button does? Or is it going to over-complicate everything by quick onscreen guides that pop up once in awhile? Having gamed for over thirty years, the process of learning controls in this generation of games is nothing short of insulting to one’s intelligence. I understand that newbies are hitting the scene with some of these games, but it’s positively mind-numbing to sit through an entire process of learning controls in a ‘no good reason’ environment.
Say what you will, but in games like this I want to learn as I go. At the same time, it should make sense with what’s going on in relation to the story at that particular time. Don’t put me through training in the middle of Gotham City when there are bad guys running loose, as that really wouldn’t make any sense.
With all this said, Rocksteady probably has the best control scheme and learning device for a third-person action game that I’ve seen in some time.
Batman: Arkham City has the aurora of complication around the controls, but once you open that complication up then you’ll find how incredibly simple it is to control the Batman. You are led into the fighting controls one step at a time through various enemies you encounter as the story moves forward. For example, when you start the game you are taught the very basics of punching, dodging and pulling off a special attack or two. As you go further and further into the story, you start seeing enemies with knives, guns, stun sticks and shields. Each has a different way of being brought down. Again, for example, when you run across the first thug sporting a knife you are asked to parry then attack. More importantly, you learn as the new enemies appear in the game. By the end of the game, the controls will feel second nature, which is a huge plus in my book. Rocksteady did a great job with the fight controls of the game, and even more so when it comes to using Batman’s utility goodies.
The weapons and utilities that you use in the game are controlled by an ever-growing menu that can be accessed using the directional pad. Each direction, including diagonal, is assigned a multitude of weapons. For example, if you press up you will access the grappling tool. If you press up twice then you would access the two-way grappling tool. It’s a pretty clever way of doing things, and it makes life easier during action packed moments. The only caveat I have with this method of accessing certain weapons/tools is the diagonal direction. Anyone who has ever tried to do a ‘Tiger Uppercut’ in Street Fighter will sympathize on how irritating it can be to get that diagonal direction down perfectly the first go around. I had some trouble during very heated moments in accessing my freeze bombs, remote controlled Batarangs (so cool and useful) and my machine to break passwords. Bigger fingers might have more success in accessing these things, but skinny girl-like fingers (like mine) made it a bit frustrating at times. I’m not sure what solution might be implemented to make this process simpler, but maybe going the RAGE route to choose items might not be a bad idea.
Speaking of items, prepare yourself for some fun. While each item certainly has its own ‘function’ in the story, you’ll still find plenty of unprompted uses for some of the goodies Batman acquires. For example, when you acquire the remote controlled Batarang, it does more than just act like Gene Simmons’ (yes, from KISS) victim seeking bullet from Runaway. You can use the RCB to give you a nice view of a landscape or level, or just use it to go cruising around Gotham City without actually having to go. Anyway, you’ll find multiple uses out of different items in the game, so that you don’t feel like you’ve got an item for one purpose. Also, you get a lot of items to play with in the game. You get multiple types of batarangs, freeze bombs, a weapon disruptor, and various other goodies that will make the game even more fun than it already is. On top of this, you can also upgrade certain items to better versions. For example, the original grappling tool can be upgraded to pull weapons out of the hands of thugs. That will be of particular interest right before the final encounter in the game (not going to give away the moment — just know that you will realize why that’s important after you die the first three times). Batman can fire off the grappling tool and yank a weapon out of the hands of an enemy, thus giving him enough time to swoop down and take care of business before the enemy recovers the weapon. Good stuff.
Speaking of upgrades, you also have character upgrades in the game. You can upgrade things like Batman’s armor level when it comes to weapons, armor level when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, and several other attributes that will make fighting, and maneuvering, easier in the game. You can upgrade things like stealth, which allows Batman to reside in a room of thugs without easily being detected. Again, good attribute upgrades that extend the life of the game and story.
With good controls, fun weapons and interesting upgrades intact, how does the game flow? Instead of having meaningless tasks in-between major portions of the game, Batman: Arkham City seems to do a great job with integrating every piece of the gameplay puzzle (big or small) into this one flowing story arc. For example, when you have to find a helicopter that contains access to the main building in the game, it doesn’t feel forced. It’s the next step in the story and it’s a logical step that Batman would take if this was a movie or a comic. On top of this, there is seamless action continuing and still the constant danger of threat all around that will disrupt the process of finding this one helicopter. Now, the cool part about this example is that the helicopters are systematically firing upon the thugs in the game, which means that all of them are in the air. So, that will force you to jump around the rooftops of various sized structures in order to get close enough to fire the grapple onto one of the choppers. It’s a rush and it’s intense, and most importantly it’s not meaningless. This one example is how the smaller tasks of the game are integrated into the story and how painless they feel when you’re going through them.
Again, it all goes back to the story, which (again) is the driving point of the gameplay.
With all this ‘the story is the driving point’ speak, this game still very much has a sandbox feel to it. Through out the game you will encounter side quests. You can choose to go straight through the game if you want, but there are times where you can break away from the main story and do a few other things. For example, you will find Riddler trophies and challenges all over Gotham City. The trophies provide unlockables in the game (art, stages, etc.) and also set you up for challenges you can complete during your main quest. For example, I picked up a Riddler trophy that challenged me to throw a remote controlled batarang at full boost into an enemy. Once accomplished, I received XP for the completed challenge which provides opportunities to ‘level up’ Batman (see upgrades for why). Collecting these trophies is one thing, but the part to the equation is figuring out how to get to them. There is also a puzzle element to the Riddler portion of the game, but this is one example of how you can do side quests. You also have other opportunities, a la L.A. Noire, to rescue people from thugs who have bad intentions. Regardless of what you do in Gotham City during the game, you can still have some fun outside of the main story, which always extends the life of the game.
Having gone through the story, graphics and gameplay, how long will it all last? If you’re a number crunching gamer then you should expect the main story to put you around 10-13 hours of total gameplay. That accounts for almost no side quests. By reading that you will think to yourself, ‘Wow, that’s short’, but nay-nay, good people! The game has such a great story created around it that you will be enthralled with the end result, and not disappointed by the ’10-13 hours’ worth of gameplay. There’s something great about a single player game that doesn’t have to rely on multiplayer to make the entire package interesting. You’ll want to get to the conclusion of this story and you will walk away happy, and wanting more (not in an empty feeling sort of way, but in a ‘God, I loved that game’ sort of way). That speaks volumes for Rocksteady’s talented team of developers. They seem to have had a very focused goal on how they wanted this to turn out, and it feels like it was perfectly executed. It’s like a BBC television production. BBC television productions don’t try to stretch out storylines because they can; rather, they end a story where it needs to be ended — regardless of how many episodes it might have under its belt. Rocksteady followed that method and the game feels like it should end where it ended.
After saying that, you will get about 5-7 hours out of the game thanks to side quests and the multi-episode Catwoman DLC. The game knows that you want more out of it, so after the credits roll at the end the game returns you back to gameplay. It’s nice because it’s almost encouraging you to continue, which all games should.
Anyway, Batman: Arkham City was fun to play. While it has some very stiff competition in front of it for ‘Game of the Year’, it certainly should be in contention for that title. It’s got action, balanced gameplay and plenty of things to do when you need a break from the main story. Rocksteady did a fabulous job with the title and I hope they treat the next Batman title the same way they treated this one.
Go get it.