Sometimes, these articles just write themselves. The main thing that sets Batman: Arkham City apart from Batman: Arkham Asylum is something you already know, just from having read this sentence. Whereas the first game was set in an asylum, this game is set in a city.
See, in the world of Batman, there are a metric ton of criminals on the streets, and after the events of the first game, an entire district of the city has simply been walled off and all of the ne’er-do-wells just chucked in and left to more-or-less fend for themselves. You want to know who else has been chucked in there? Batman.
Now, naturally, he is like a kid in a sweet shop here. A whole chunk of city filled to the brim with criminal goons to duff up to his heart’s content. Or perhaps that should be to YOUR heart’s content, because the central design ethos that made the first game such a success – to make you actually feel like you are Batman – is alive and well in Arkham City.
All of the combat and stealth techniques of the first game are present in the sequel, melded together beautifully so that you can swap between stealth and heavy hitting, then back, as often as it takes your fancy in most fights. Walk a tightrope out above a couple of chatting goons, then drop a smoke bomb into their midst, dropping in to silently take out a few while the one you’ve left staggers around blindly. Then, as the smoke clears, you stride out toward him, emerging to grab him by his throat and question him, before knocking him out and zipping back up into the rafters, the whole thing taking just a handful of short seconds.
As said, the environment is the big star though. Zooming over the rooftops of Gotham, swinging from cable to cable or gliding with your wings spread, the neon-lit skyline is breath-taking and evocative. The designers have obviously spent plenty of time with the movies, as they have captured the look and feel of Batman’s famous home town perfectly. Arkham City is ruled over by the various gangs of the classic Batman villains: Joker, Penguin and Two-Face star, with the Riddler operating covertly throughout everyone else’s territory as a sort of wild-card. You can add to that list Bane, Poison Ivy, Mister Freeze and, well, just about every other Batfoe you can think of, really, with greater or lesser roles to play. True, it can get a little complicated at times, when you’re trying to listen in on the conversations of thugs on the ground, and also the communications networks of the villains, as well as receiving phone calls yourself from certain major characters, and all the while swinging, running and fighting your way across the rooftops and through the streets of Arkham City.
The city is pretty open, and there’s always stuff to do. The Riddler has, naturally, spammed the city with secrets for you to find (which in turn unlock concept art or additional challenge levels) and there are wrongfully imprisoned innocents in the city who are generally at the receiving end of some kind of gang brutality into which you can intervene. Other villains will initiate more side-quests as you go along, and there’s something to be said for just cruising the streets looking for a scrap.
But it never gets samey. There’s plenty of variation as you progress, most of which can be solved with some new piece of Bat-technology you didn’t even realise you had until it comes in useful (such as the Bat-ice-thickness-detector, which allows you to cross a frozen pool without falling through the ice). This incidental stuff is all really easy to puzzle out, allowing you to just crack on like the world’s greatest detective that you are. This is important – the idea is to make you feel like Batman, whether you’re tracing a phone call or silently taking out all of the henchman in a room one by one, Arkham City manages to never be frustrating or difficult to control. Combat just looks so smooth… and once you learn that it’s not clickclickclick, but more like click…click…click, choosing your targets each time, stringing together awesome, movie-worthy combat routines is pretty easy to pull off.
So I loved it. What stops Arkham City from getting ten out of ten? Well, a couple of pretty minor points, that’s all. Firstly, it’s pretty system intensive, even causing some momentary slowdown on the Chillaxe! I have to qualify this though, by saying that I had every setting turned up as high as it will go, including completely unnecessary 32x antialiasing. However, once I’d started the game there was no clear way to change the video settings in-game, so I was stuck with it. It was just a scant few moments when any slowdown was noticeable though, and for the vast majority of time the Chillaxe handled Arkham City's steep requirements worthily. Additionally, I had some trouble with Games for Windows Live, although that’s pretty much to be expected – I think of it as a ‘frustration tax’ that we just have to pay for some unknown reason these days. The jump in difficulty between Medium and Hard levels is substantial – I started playing it on Hard, and frankly wasn’t up to it with no prior experience of the Batman games, but I had a ball on Medium. Anyway, as I said, it’s not really about being challenged – it’s about being Batman.
Other than that, I suppose it’s not the most innovative in terms of modern gameplay. Sure, swinging wildly across the rooftops of Arkham City is amazing fun, but it reminded me of happy days playing Spiderman 2 all those years ago. Combat is combo-driven a la God of War/Darksiders/Force Unleashed, and the free-running reminds me a little of you-know-what. Oh, and Penguin’s English accent… I could write a whole article about just that. It’s a horrible mangling of the Queen’s English, straight from the Dick Van Dyke school. But I suppose it adds character.
There are a couple of times when attention switches away from the caped on, to Catwoman, and while the skills you learned as Batman are certainly transferable, Catwoman does play differently. In combat she feels faster but slighter, and rather than gliding around the city she tends to pounce and climb around, and has her own suite of gadgets and gizmos. Whenever you leave one character and take on the other, there’s a feeling of regret (because the one you were playing was so fun) mingled with excitement (because the one you now get to play is awesome), and that’s got to be the sign of a good game.
Arkham City really takes to heart the design principle of allowing you to be the Bat. It builds on what worked well in Arkham Asylum (including Mark Hamil, sublime and menacing as the voice of Joker) and opens the world up considerably, allowing us to see Batman in the city – his natural environment. I’ve been spoiled for great games recently, but Batman: Arkham City can certainly compete in this challenging arena. A great Christmas present for a crime-fighter.