Ever since Rocksteady Studios came out of nowhere with their critical and financial success Batman: Arkham Asylum, fans of Batman and third-person action games have been eager to see what would come next.
Now that question has been answered, as Batman: Arkham City has taken the basic setting and fundamentals of the original game and thrown them into an even larger open world environment. With the development team is making it clear that they were taking on a much larger story, with far more villains to keep track of, some had begun to wonder if Rocksteady was biting off more than they could chew. Now that we've played our way through Arkham City, can we say that the team has managed to improve upon a winning formula?
Thankfully, the answer is an undeniable 'yes.' By taking the moody and grimy atmosphere of Arkham Asylum and applying it to a game world many times larger than that of the first game, Rocksteady has managed to create an experience that is far more satisfying, and a breeding ground for creative gameplay.
By populating Arkham City with over a dozen villains and rival factions working to impede Batman's progress and put citizen's lives in danger, the result is an even better opportunity to get inside the mind of Batman. While these gangs and outlaws can be passed by entirely for those seeking to follow the main storyline, having the option to engage with them at will is a fantastic design choice that will keep many players immersed in the world over the weeks to come.
As for the main storyline, those who enjoyed the story and setting of Arkham Asylum are in for a treat, as Arkham City's plot is far richer and well-directed than many feature films. Arkham City's launch trailer showed just how many challenges would be put in front of Batman, from a range of foes both old and new. The game is framed around new warden of Arkham, Hugo Strange, whose personal vendetta against Batman explores various aspects of the caped crusader's history - with more than a few twists and turns along the way. Strange isn't alone though, as perennial villains Penguin and Joker have offered up their services as well. Suffice to say, the night in which this game takes place is sure to be among the worst of Bruce Wayne's life.
Long-time fans of Batman comics were thrilled over the past few years to see the potential of the Dark Knight's style of drama realized in Christopher Nolan's soon-to-be film trilogy, and Arkham City brings a similar respect for the character's past. It's also worth noting that gamers who feel they have an idea of what Rocksteady has in store for them story-wise are in for a surprise. Plenty of surprise characters make sudden appearances entirely suited to their personalities, and are sure to be a treat (even if some Bat-fans may have predicted their inclusion). In this age of countless preview events and 'exclusives,' Rocksteady should be applauded for keeping the most important and striking story points under wraps.
A story is only as good as the game mechanics used to tell it though, and that is where Arkham City shines. The standard combat moves and gadgets are back from Arkham Asylum, but with a few new ones thrown in to spice things up. The combat itself will be familiar to anyone who has played through a similar third-person action title, like Assassin's Creed or any number of brawlers. The basic system of striking, countering, and stunning isn't what makes Arkham City's moment-to-moment gameplay satisfying though - instead it's the their frequency and implementation of the difficulty curve that finds a great balance between being challenged and feeling like a badass.
Whenever a new gadget or combat attack is unlocked, a situation arises soon after that doesn't just give the player an opportunity to use it, but makes them feel more powerful for having begun to master it. A majority of the game's combat arenas aren't based around clearing one room after another, but throwing Batman into a mob of enemies and left to fend for himself with his wits and gadgets - as opposed to his physical strength. Fans who may have been disappointed to find their desires of taking on groups of 30 enemies or more dashed by early previews need not worry, as you surely won't miss it. Having 10 or 15 goons, some bearing shields which need to be bypassed, and stun batons (which can't be countered), encircle you offers more challenge than sheer numbers could have provided.
For those who prefer stealth to all out assault, there are plenty of situations where simply dropping into a group of armed guards will result in a quick death - so strategy and stalking is a must. Since some guards are equipped with thermal-vision goggles, scanner-jamming devices or machine-guns, the large-scale sabotaging and booby-trapping from Arkham Asylum is back, and far more free-flowing than before. Whatever the case, players are usually given a chance to examine any combat situation so they can establish a strategy before getting into the action.
The game does feature a handful of boss battles to break up the standard hand-to-hand combat, which are fairly entertaining and satisfying to master. They do stick fairly close to a system of watching for visual cues, dodging attacks, then attacking when an opening arises, but the settings are usually varied enough to keep it from becoming monotonous. The showdown with Mr. Freeze is particularly good, with the player having to outsmart the villain in varying ways, since pulling the same trick on the genius doctor twice is impossible. In hindsight, more villains offering a twist like Freeze would have been even better but, with episodic DLC, that is still a very real possibility.
For those who purchase the game brand new, a separate campaign as Catwoman is included for download (no luck for those who buy a used copy - who will have to purchase the femme fatale's section on the PSN or XBLA). With a completely separate means of traversal and whip-based combat, the experience is a nice change - while still being based on similar fundamentals.
Whether playing as the Bat or the Cat, Rocksteady sticks to the less-is-more mentality where combos are concerned. Different enemies require different combos to take them out, but attacks are only ever limited to three-button attacks that are fairly intuitive - and believe us, players will need to use them. Simply dropping into melee and button-mashing won't work for long, so players will need to start thinking smart - thinking like Batman. By choosing when to strike and when to counter, Batman can begin to take over a fight, with one punch leading smoothly into another, and gaining force in the process. The fact that the player need only to pay attention to be successful, and not memorize extensive move-sets is a bold choice, but one that ultimately pays off.
As satisfying as the main story is, that isn't where fans will have to end their experience. In terms of replayability, it's hard to think of another third-person action title that can compete with the various Challenge Modes of Arkham City. Whether it's trying to survive hordes of enemies or solving the various puzzles posed by the Riddler, it might have been an understatement when the developers claimed the game possessed over 40 hours of gameplay. Players can even challenge themselves after completing the campaign with the new Game Plus Mode, removing any combat indicators and introducing harder opponents from the get-go.
More than anything else, Batman: Arkham City proves that Rocksteady is the real deal, and that the ingenious game design and narrative told with Arkham Asylum wasn't a fluke. They simply 'get' Batman, his motivations, his methods, and why fans love him, and they've put that into every aspect of this game. Character and genre aside, the gameplay never ceases to be entertaining, moving from satisfying combat that challenges players to understand and utilize all the tools they've been given, to gliding and swinging through a cityscape populated with opponents and instances of all shapes and sizes.
Whether you're a Batman fan, or simply a fan of inspired and finely-crafted gaming experiences, this is one game that other developers should look to for direction. We don't know what's next for Rocksteady, but whatever the case, they've shown that they can deliver a game that exceeds even the highest expectations.
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Batman: Arkham City is available now for the Xbox 360 and PS3, with a PC release coming November 18.