So, having been a huge fan (understatement if there ever was one) of Batman: Arkham Asylum, I was waiting with baited breath for Batman: Arkham City, delivered by Rocksteady Studios. I don't normally pre-order games at the store or even online via D2D distribution methods, but for this one I was willing to make an exception. Arkham Asylum was, without a doubt, one of the most satisfying purchases on the XBox I have made to date and needed a good kicking to pull if off its podium. Since we are talking Batman here, I think we can all agree that the only thing capable of pulling Batman off a high and hard-to-reach vantage point is another Batman.
I will also warn the comic book fans out there that this review is not being written with the DC Comics in mind. While I do like comics and such I am not a collector in any sense of the word and have other hobbies that make no time for keeping up to date on the latest in the DC or Marvel universes. I do understand, though, that the current ranges of Batman games are the result of a reboot of the DC comic universe where they go back to the beginnings and retell the stories many people in my age group (30's onwards) grew up reading. Hence why those of us with a pedestrian knowledge of Batman and the setting will look at the new games and wonder where all the awesome redesign work fits in. And it is awesome, without a doubt. Even though such a comment is purely based on aesthetics.
Going back to the beginning of this blog you might see I have never reviewed Batman: Arkham Asylum. It is one of those games I have not gone back to since completing to the fullest extent. But I will say it is one of those games where I have endeavoured to compete to the fullest and doing as much of the side missions as possible. It does not have the same re-playability as some games, though, and once done you have pretty much done entirely. The bad guys are gone, the last easter eggs have been found, the collectable bonus content has been unlocked as much as you care for and all you are doing is running around a set piece. I draw your attention to this point about the easter eggs and side missions as I will come back to these concepts later and at least I can highlight, in retrospect, the slight differences in game philosophy at work between Arkahm Asylum and Arkham City.
Since my Gears of War 3 review, I have been trying to work on a better template to lay out a review. I will start by touching on the storyline and what the game is about, then get to work on the heat of the gameplay, the good and bad included, and then dissect the story and presentation/immersion of the game towards the end.
|The chinstrap is back with a menacing vengeance.|
Anyway, Sharp has given control of the new super-penitentiary to Professor Hugo Strange, formerly of Arkham Asylum, and father of the Arkham City concept. A private security force, TYGER, purchases the ruins of the old Arkham Asylum island across the bay, and is also contracted to provide exclusive security to the new super-penitentiary as well as being used to bolster Gotham's own police force for a time while dangerous criminals were being rounded up. Finally all known criminals have been brought to Arkham City, which is a walled off section of Gotham's old dock lands, and all seems well. However, something does not sit right with Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, when he is attacked by TYGER security one night on watch over the city. (See the trailer below, which is a prelude to the game). Hugo Strange's name pops up so he as well as Commissioner Gordon try to get Arkham City shut down. Batman also steps in as Bruce Wayne to voice his support to such a campaign but many petitions are blocked. Eventually, at a press conference outside the gates of Arkham City, Bruce Wayne is arrested by TYGER security in a rather heavy handed looking operation and wakes up in a room with Hugo Strange, who knows he is Batman, and being told he is now a resident of the prison.
And thus begins the game, in what I like to think is the best intro sequence to a game I have yet to play. The level of involvement in being processed by TYGER is something rare in games still. You have to initiate action by rocking the chair back and forth trying to escape. You have to counter the kick from a guard and break his knee, you are then dragged to the gates and thrown into the prison city where you are set on by other prisoners looking to give new arrivals a warm welcome. Fight these guys off with your cuffs on before being ultimately beaten down by some of the Penguin's boys who wants to thank Bruce Wayne for all the bad blood between their families in the past. Of course, he does not know he is dealing with Batman in his Sunday clothes and gets a royal whooping.
|Advanced free-flow combat makes a fight like this actually work.|
There is a levelling system in the game which lets you upgrade Batman with more capabilities and sometimes new gadgets or an improvement to existing ones, as well as some new attacks and counter attacks. SOme of these are special combo attacks you can use once you reach an uninterrupted hit combo of 12 hits, and eventually 5 when you upgrade on a level up. These often give you the ability to knock out one or several henchmen putting them out of the fight. And the more of them there are in a group, the longer you have to beat each one down to knock them out permanently.
I have always found it hard to play any melee based game since Arkham Asylum, as many of them fail to live up to the way the Batman games handle unarmed combat. I touched on this with my review of Space Marine a while back, wishing it had the same level of precision with strikes on an enemy. But Batman is not all about running into a room head first and kicking arse. Batman hangs from the rafters and takes down the enemy one at a time in the shadows as well, and many games have failed to mix a workable stealth system with combat. Metal Gear Solid on the old PS1, for instance, opened the genera of stealth games with a good initial venture into the mechanic as a central gameplay feature. It was done well, also, though when the game fell into a combat situation, the controls were all taken up by stealth moves and aiming a gun was tedious and nothing like a pure combat games. And likewise games that attempt to bring in stealth as an option in combat have little options available though they do combat very well. Batman has none of these problems, with stealth being achievable not only in equal measure but also as a means of continuing combat.
|Different thugs for different villains. These guys belong to Two Face.|
Sometimes, well nearly all the time actually, combat is made a little easier with the use of the 'detective vision' gadget where Batman can see the city in a different light. A blue one to be precise. Detective vision is mostly used by Batman to assess the area for threats that are not always apparent. You can see enemies through the walls up to a good distance away, and when you hear some of them speaking (and Batman can hear quite far away with his microphone sensors in his ears) the detective vision picks up which person is speaking. This never becomes an important factor in the life of Batman while playing the game but it is a nice touch never the less. More improtantly, though, Batman will see which enemies are armed with a gun, knife, bat, pipe, bottle or riot shields. Gun enemies show up orange, others show blue with hand held weapons themselves being yellow. Looking around and centring your view on an enemy will give a status readout on them showing if they have a weapon or not and what it is, and if they have armour on then you see them clad in yellow plates and a marker shows this too. Also you can see their heart rate and a nervousness indicator based on this. Again, not needed in any form of game play but it is nice to see how much terror you are inflicting on someone.
|Cape gliding is a good way to get around and in many places|
it is essential, unless ice water dousing is your thing.
|Drop a smoke pellet and grapple away from the gunfire. Otherwise|
they will follow you and keep shooting until you are out of sight.
This helps to keep the flow of the combat even though it does sound like the game is always in easy mode. This is not the case, though, since it is overall well balanced and still manages to be challenging despite having a counter for every circumstance you can find yourself in. Sometimes being reckless will get you up to your eyeballs in enemies and you can be taken down quickly.
|Mr Freeze is, for me, one of the best of the|
bad bunch in the game.
Finally, we come onto the visual department. The Unreal engine has been upgraded again and the latest one is on show here in Arkham City. Textures look very nice, and very detailed, and lighting and water effects are well done. In short they are applied very well to the game. That is all to say really. I have not seen any glitches in my play through and some of the twisted reality effects benefit from this competent rendering. (more on this in a moment) Of course the art team have also done an amazing job in realising the new vision of Batman and the cast of this series keeping a consistent theme and feel for the locations mixing classic looking Gotham City architecture with modern influences.
The game is an open world sandbox feel though with a linear storyline at the centre. Go to point A, beat up bad guy B after fighting off his minions, he tells you about location C and go there to find object D and so on. It does diverge a little giving you multiple objectives, but they all need to be met to progress past that mission hub point. So really, the only open world element of the game is that you can go anywhere from the start, with the exception of mission specific places. You can take any kind of route you wish to the next location without always having to go through one place that links to another like Arkham Asylum.
|The Riddler watches as you make your way past his 'clever' traps|
and save one of his hostages.
Other side quests use the detective vision to unlock clues, such as the sniper in the city killing people who are not your average prisoner. You follow the path of the bullet when you find a dead body and see where the shot came from to look for clues. This is also done when you find murder victims with their faces removed and bandaged and you have to gather evidence to find the killer. There are the occasional ringing phones that you have to answer, sparking a mini mission to run to another phone before the timer expires and then trace the call to find the location of Zsasz. Each trace ends before completed but gets you a little closer each time.
Anyway, these and other such instances are only there for fluff and can be ignored if you want to head into the heart of the story and forget all of the rest, but they do provide some enjoyment without feeling like you are being pulled in too many directions. Many of them trigger on a progress timer relative to the central plot anyway and you can always leave a lot of them to the end of the game when Batman decides to go back and take care of the unfinished business left. I hear a couple of the side missions can only be done as long as the main plot is active, though, and I am not sure which they are since I covered them all before the game ended with a couple of exceptions which needed tying up.
|Sorry, but the Mad Hatter is just not as scary as the Scarecrow|
was, though his background plays a key role in the plot.
|Good ol' Joker and Harley Quinn. Laugh it up...|
However the game does deliver a nice twist near the end, (note I said 'near' and not 'at'), where the real mastermind is revealed. And then suddenly there is a rerun of the end of Arkham Asylum with yet another showdown with The Joker. Just because, y'know. It seemed a little tacked on at the end and honestly it was not needed in my opinion.
|Puuuuurrrrrr..... Need I say more?|
|The Penguin gives Bruce Wayne a front gate greeting to the City.|
The ride is still fun, though, and overall the game is very much worth buying. Even if, like me, you are not a comic book buff.