Some developers just know what they are doing. For a handful of development teams crafting something brilliant seems to come almost naturally. Valve are one such example. Ever since they emerged with Half Life you are forced to sit up and take notice whenever they announce a new title. Rocksteady, the brains behind Batman Arkham City, appear to be rapidly entering that category. All eyes were on Rocksteady’s sequel to Batman Arkham Asylum which arrived with very little expectation in 2009. As it mopped up several awards and critical reviews an inevitable followup was always on the cards and the big question was, could Rocksteady repeat the same trick twice?
With the eyes of expectation watching them they could simply have added a couple of new villains, tell a different story, change the location and called it a day. Batman Arkham Asylum was so good that few probably would have complained. Instead though Rocksteady have sealed their status as a development team to follow closely. They have been incredibly brave. Instead of playing safe they’ve pushed the bar even higher with Batman Arkham City. The latest outing of the caped crusader is dripping in atmosphere, massive in scale and absolutely brilliant. Batman Arkham City never rests on its laurels. In short Rocksteady have probably produced not only a contender for game of the year, but the game of the year.
The action picks up eighteen months after the events of Arkham Asylum. Former warden Quincy Sharp has become major and set up a huge swathe of Gotham City as a maximum security prison. In charge of the facility is Hugo Strange but something appears amiss behind the walls of Arkham City. Thugs, who have to fend for themselves, have formed factions with several of Batman’s most infamous villains, including a sick Joker, and have carved up most of the territory between themselves. Meanwhile Strange is throwing anyone he considers a threat into Arham City which includes Brace Wayne who Strange has learned is Batman. As if things aren’t bad enough already Batman learns that Strange is planning to execute something called ‘Protocol 10’ before the evening is up.
Without giving too much away the storyline is again excellent. Penned by Paul Dini, who was involved in Batman the animated series and Arkham Asylum, it allows several well known villains to weave in and out of proceedings. It was perhaps one area which might have bogged Batman Arkham City down. As the list of confirmed appearances ticked upwards during the development period one wondered if justice would be done to all of those who inhabit Gotham’s seedy underbelly. Thankfully the storyline gives each of them enough room to shine and they are all bought to life by some excellent voice acting. The story is a big achievement for Batman Arkham City but just like the original game it is overshadowed somewhat by the superb freestyle combat.
Rocksteady started from a solid foundation for the combat in Batman Arkham City. It has received a polish this time around but will be instantaneously recognisable to those who played Arham Asylum. One button allows Batman to strike out at his opponents whilst another one, pressed at the correct moment, allows him to counter any attacks on himself. All of these can be linked up allowing Batman to continue his attacks without breaking stride. Meanwhile the caped crusader can dodge and spin over enemies to keep it all going and to get out of tricky spots. It remains one of the most deceptively simple things but it works brilliantly. Mastering it takes some real skill despite the easy controls and there is nothing more satisfying than ploughing through a roomful of thugs in one single flowing move without having a hit landed on you. The developers have also furnished Batman with a few new special moves, the ability to counter more than one opponent when called for and to use more of his gadgets during brawls. Throw in lots more brutal animations and Rocksteady have made a brilliant system near perfect. It fits the character perfectly, never lets the player get bogged down and allows you to sweep into any situation, regardless of the odds, and feel like you can come out on top. While in other games you may look to avoid a fight in Arkham City you’ll be seeking them out.
You’ll never be short of a fight or anything else to do either. As soon as the game starts you are free to tackle things how you see fit. You can either follow the main storyline, get involved in the numerous side missions or simply take to the streets and break a few bones of the many bad guys who litter the streets. It leads to perhaps one of the few problems in Batman Arkham City. The game can initially overwhelm as there is so much to do. The main story will take easily around twelve hours to complete but there are also numerous side missions to take care of, many of which feature there own subplots and throw another villain into the mix. Meanwhile the Riddler quests from the first game also return. It is almost a campaign in it’s own right and to fully complete Batman Arkham City is going to take some effort. The world may not be as vast as other games but it is incredibly detailed and has lots of stuff packed into it. Even after a few days in Arkham City you’ll still be finding secrets.
Throw into the mix the Catwomen missions and you’ll add another couple of hours to the story. It is worth noting that whilst the Catwomen content is not on the disc it is available to anyone who buys the game new. Regardless of how you come across the game it is worth downloading the missions before starting the game for the first time. The adventures of Selina Kyle are nicely woven into the main Batman story and provide a nice change of pace. Indeed it even alters the start of the main game. Batman and Catwomen essentially handle the same. Catwomen though is much more nimble in combat and gets around with pounces, ceiling runs and some nifty rhythm button pressing to climb buildings. As much as the idea of publishers holding back content may annoy some the added Catwomen content is worth seeking out.
Elsewhere Batman’s arsenal of gadgets has been expanded. He now has access to freeze grenades, an electrical gun which can be used to power up devices and smoke pellets. Finding out just how these tools can give you an edge in combat is one of the joys of Arkham City. Meanwhile his line launcher has been refined and is now more than a simple tool for getting across large gaps. It allows Batman to change direction mid flight and makes getting around Arkham City very easy. Not that getting around without the line launcher is difficult. Batman can launch himself to the top of buildings with ease and glide across the sky. Most of the gadgets and the batsuit itself can be upgraded through the course of the game by earning experience from fights. Both Batman and Catwomen feel the benefits of upgrading making them more resilient to gunfire and regular combat. Also back from the original game is the detective mode which allows you to check crime scenes for evidence and gives you valuable information about some of the foes you are facing such as what weapon they are carrying.
Away from the main campaign the Challenge rooms also make a welcome return. These pit Batman against an increasing number of foes and give you quick access to the brilliant combat. Points are awarded for variation, gadget use and how cleanly you take down a room. Again the deceptively simple nature of the combat keeps you coming back for more to try and beat your previous high scores. Its also the perfect place to hone your beat down skills.
In the end Batman Arkham City is a resounding success. Rocksteady have approached the sequel with confidence and a real knowledge of the source material and it comes across in their game. What is even more impressive about Batman Arkham City is that this is a sequel. Producing a brilliant game once is one thing but to do it twice is something else entirely. Batman Arkham Asylum started from such a good point it was difficult to see how Rocksteady could improve upon the formula. Improve upon it they have.
Even better is that Rocksteady took a big gamble. Batman Arkham Asylum was tightly controlled and full of detail. By moving the action out of the confines of a small area and into a bigger setting there was a risk that detail would be lost and the game unfocused. However that is not the case here. Batman Arkham City may have the feel of an open world game but its tightly crafted. But that isn’t the biggest reason why Arkham City works. The game works because it makes you feel like Batman himself. It gives you all the tools you need and a combat system which allows you to pick apart a room full of goons in a few heartbeats. There are not many games which allow you to inhabit a character so perfectly. There are a few niggles (some people might well be overwhelmed a little) but frankly they aren’t worth lingering on.
In all likelihood there will not be another game better than this by the time the year finishes. There still feels as if there is more of the story for Rocksteady to tell yet as well. In some respects it still feels like there is another act to play out and if that is the case it does beg the question... how can Rocksteady make this series any better than what it already is? Then again, many probably thought that back in 2009.
The best Batman ever?