What makes a great sequel? Is it the games that go the road of Uncharted 2 and give you the same basic premise but completely refine every aspect, creating the purest and most polished experience possible? Or is it how The Witcher 2 operates on the same basic premise as its predecessor, yet it shifts and changes offering a truly unique experience? Regardless of where your preferences fall, Arkham Asylum is easily one of the best sequels I’ve ever played.
All is not well in Gotham after the events of Arkham Asylum, as large section of the city has been walled off, isolated, and loaded with Gotham’s nastiest criminals, who are given the run of the place. At the center of the madness lies Dr. Hugo Strange who kidnaps Bruce Wayne, tells him to stay out of his way and to allow him to initiate the mysterious “Protocol 10” or the world will learn that he’s Batman. Along with Strange, the veritable who’s-who of Batman’s rogues gallery makes their presence known in some form or another. While some of these characters are only present for side-missions, most of the villains are connected to the central plot in a much tighter way than they were in Arkham Asylum.
Not only are the villains much more fleshed out with respect to the overall plot, the story is simply better than Arkham Asylum’s. In Aslyum, the majority of the plot is already known and the majority of the game is trying to foil Joker’s plans. In Arkham City, the concept of “Protocol 10” isn’t known for quite some time and the mystery surrounding it provides for a much better driving force.
Along with Batman, the ability to play as Catwoman is a welcome addition to the series. While her gameplay is incredibly similar to Batman’s, her addition is more than just a sexy woman with nearly exposed breasts, as it seems that even Selina Kyle is attempting to capitalize on the chaos by looting what she can while everyone is scrambling about for power. What makes this interesting is that even her story is connected to the overall plot. Story writer Paul Dini has done an absolutely amazing job connecting all the little story-arcs into a near magnum-opus of a Batman game.
One of the (small) complaints I can give is that Arkham City doesn’t have the same eerie feeling surrounding it that inhabited the original. Arkham Asylum seemed to be pulsating with a dark and decrepit aura and due to the dark nature of its origin, it felt that the asylum was as much of a character in the game as any villain was. This feeling is not so pervasive in Arkham City, although that’s not to say the same feeling of dread can’t be found; it’s just that the environment doesn’t seem to be quite as focused as in the original.
Where Arkham Asylum borrowed many concepts from a previous story, Arkham City does the same. A lot of the concepts and designs are taken from the “No Man’s Land” storyline where Gotham was separated from the rest of the United States due to an enormous earthquake. Much like the books Paul Dini borrows from, there is a sense of hopelessness, isolation and abandonment that is hard to shake off, even when the story ends.
Developer Rocksteady has stated that Arkham City is about five-times larger and five to ten hours longer than Arkham Asylum and short of measuring the city with a ruler, it definitely appears to be the case. Your time spent crusading around will vary by the amount of side-quests you choose to complete. Speaking of side-quests, there are certainly a lot of them. Without giving too much away, the first side-quest you are likely to stumble upon would be Victor Zsasz and his telephone seek-and-find quests. Zsasz has kidnapped several hostages and taken a page out of Simon Gruber’s book of villainy, as you must race to the next payphone within the time limit or a hostage dies.
While the concept of racing from payphone to payphone doesn’t seem like the best concept on paper, it works much better in the game and I can promise that the side-missions get a lot better the further you get into the story. Best of all, they’re all very substantial – not the sort of quick, throw-away side missions you’d find in most sandbox games. Along with Zsasz, there are other minor flight challenge obstacle courses to complete for an upgrade to his arsenal of gadgets. All of the side-missions help Arkham City’s world feel more connected, intertwined and more “open world” than Arkham Asylum could have even hoped to achieve.
Gameplay, at its core, remains largely unchanged from the last iteration. Sure, there are more gadgets, takedowns and things to do but Arkham City takes a very large, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance on gameplay. You are still given the same types of fighting, stealth, brawling and the always fun attack-from-above. There’s just more of it now, and it all looks and feels better than ever.
It wouldn’t be Batman without laying down some pain and Arkham City throws more brawling combat your way than in the original. Much like Asylum, you can attack, while aiming the left analog stick to the direction of your attacks, as well as countering and disorienting your enemies. One of the only downsides to this is how little of a tutorial you are provided. Arkham City expects you to remember all of the nuances of the original.
One of Arkham Asylum’s weakest points was its boss fights, but fortunately, they are much improved here. While most of the bosses still come down to finding and exploiting a pattern or using the environment to your advantage, they’re a lot more fun and intense, and there’s a much better variety of them this time.
The highly coveted Detective Mode (unsurprisingly) returns and much like the first iteration, you will be using it a lot. While the main story online only requires you to use it sparingly in certain buildings, it’s the actual city where you won’t want to ever turn it off. Like the original game, however, the filter obscures much of the game’s detailed environments, so it might have been nice to see it be less obtrusive this time around.
You are definitely given plenty of incentive to keep Detective Mode on, though. This is due to the fact that of all items to receive a major upgrade in the sequel, it’s the Riddler’s challenges that arguably get the biggest overhaul. The number of trophies, riddles, challenges and hostages is simply staggering. Swinging by a single building without Detective Mode on will make you feel like you’ve bypassed about ten secrets just waiting to be plundered.
Once you’ve completed the main quest, there is a New Game+ feature as well as the tried-and-true challenge maps from the original that make their return, now with the option to choose Catwoman as well. I personally have never been into them that much but these optional challenges provide a good amount of replay value for anyone who wants them.
Like its predecessor, Arkham City is a fantastic looking game. At a glance, there does not seem to be a ton of improvement, but more careful observation reveals improved animations, lighting, textures and particle effects. Batman himself shows signs of wear and tear as the game progresses, also much like Arkham Asylum. While I might have expected a larger visual leap, the game is still dark, dreary, and gorgeous.
It should come as no surprise but the voice acting is as top-notch as you would expect. Kevin Conroy still provides the absolute best voice for Batman while Mark Hamill can still create the absolute best and most twisted laugh for the Joker imaginable. The one downside is that Arleen Sorkin doesn’t reprise her role as Harley Quinn but Tara Strong does a sufficient job with the character. Arkham City also features a stellar supporting cast of veteran voice actors such as Nolan North, Maurice LaMarche, and Steve Blum which all give their respective characters the desired flair and personality that makes the Batman world as fantastic as it is fascinating.
While the voice acting is certainly stellar, it wouldn’t be nearly as deep without the powerful script that accompanies it. The writing team certainly deserves credit not only for the main characters but even the dialogue that accompanies each group of thugs is worth stopping and listening to if for nothing else than getting a slight clue as to where you should look next. Along with the script, Dini keeps with the mature overtones and pushes the boundaries of the “T” rating by having multiple NPCs, both good and bad, die fairly violent deaths.
To call Arkham City a simple improvement over the original would be to understate the attention to detail, rich characters and the city itself. Much like Arkham Asylum, fans of the source material will get more enjoyment out of the game, however, even those who aren’t familiar will be hard pressed to find fault with this, especially if they loved the original.
Being the Official Batman Aficionado of Piki Geek, it may seem unfair to review a Batman game as I may appear to be predisposed to giving the game high marks regardless of the content. Arkham City defied even my expectations, though. When looking at the replay value, the plethora of secrets, the additions to the story, length and size of the environment, it’s just one of the absolute best sequels I have played in the modern age.
Batman: Arkham City was released on October 18th, 2011 for Xbox 360 and PS3. The PC version will be available on November 15th, 2011. Review based on the PS3 version.