Hypnotic reviews: Batman Arkham City
Let me preface this by saying that Arkham Asylum is one of my favourite games. I will therefore not only review Arkham City on its own merits, but on the merits of a sequel to one of the greatest games of all time. A lot of it is dependant on being familiar with the first game, so if you haven't played it, buy it (it's cheap nowadays) and play it before reading this. You can thank me in the comments. I played the PS3 version (CE) on hard.
One of Arkham Asylum's biggest problems were its story. It had a nice premise and a great set-up for a game, but felt sloppily pieced together. It was very much a video game story. Even if it was one of the best adapted video game stories, that's not a high bar.
Arkham City's story is a big improvement. It's absolutely over-flowing with classic batman characters, with all the ones you know and love, plus some more obscure ones. Where it really shines is the way all the characters have their own motivation and the way they're intertwined with each other. Not only is every villain, no matter how minor, well developed; they stay true to their comic book origins as well. Everything that happens is believable within the Batman world, which which helps a lot with immersion. Rocksteady's love for the source material shines through everything they do, and the story reads like fan-fiction gone wild. However, notice that I specified that the villains are all well adapted. The one character that feels out of place is actually none other than Batman. I don't pretend to be the biggest Batman fan around, so take this as the layman's opinion it is, but there are several moments in the story where Batman just doesn't feel like Batman.
The story's biggest flaw, however, is a lot more subtle. I said that the story's like a fan-fiction, and that's not always a good thing. The story's biggest problem is pacing. There are some wonderful set-pieces, some over the top and some genuinely heartbreaking. But when 5 of them happen in the same 15 minutes they lose all their appeal. This isn't really that much of a problem until the end of the game, but once I started thinking about it I couldn't stop seeing it throughout the game (sorry if I've now spread this disease).
Given the open nature of the game it's hard to give a specific timeline of the campaign. I can only say that while it could be longer, it isn't short. It can however feel a bit padded at times, once again this is a pacing issue. It would have benefited with more, but shorter chapters. The game leaves a lot of doors open and when the end credits rolled I felt a bit cheated. Maybe I just didn't want it to end, maybe it's preparing for a sequel or DLC, maybe I'm impossible to please, but there was just so much more to be done.
The game has some great side missions. They're all as well made as the story and the fact that people aren't forced to play them given how much trouble Rocksteady's put into them is baffling. There aren't that many of them, and they're usually pretty short, but what's there is a lot of fun.
The Catwoman DLC is a mixed blessing. The story parts are a fun change of pace, and oddly enough has expert pacing. Not the Catwoman parts per say, but where they're located in the main story line. There is however not much of it, and it can go several hours between Catwoman missions.
Catwoman is just as much fun to fight with as Batman is, and while the basic mechanics are the same, it's the small details that astound. The battle animations are great and she has a few gadgets of her own, though limited compared to Batman. Just like Batman has detective vision, Catwoman has thief vision. It's shaded red instead of blue and is much blurrier and strains the eyes. Catwoman doesn't have a cape, which means that getting around in Arkham City, a relatively big place, can be a pain. She's faster at running than Batman, but it's impossible to run around without encountering dozens of enemies every few blocks. She climbs using a timing microgame that can be hard to get used to. Because of this it takes much longer to climb buildings, which is a big part of moving around in Arkham City. The story part doesn't really make use of the open world, so it's not much of a bother there, but in the post game you're free to change to Catwoman at any time at specific places, and it discourages you to play as her.
Another reason not to roam around as Catwoman is that when you're playing as Batman, you can tag trophies you currently can't get to (a much needed addition), however you can't see these as Catwoman and you can't tag as Catwoman. There are special Catwoman trophies that you can see on the map, if they've been tagged previously by Batman. Some of them provide a fun challenge, getting to a place that's easy to get to as Batman, but requires a change of tactics as Catwoman, and some are obvious bait for people to buy the DLC is they got the game used.
After you've completed the game you unlock new game+. It makes the game harder while still letting you keep your gadgets and Riddler challenges. The story works surprisingly well with this, with a few surprise twists that warrants some rethinking. It's obvious that Rocksteady set out to craft a story that still holds up the second time, and experiencing it again but with a steeper difficulty curve adds much needed longevity to the game.
The gameplay is, thankfully, true to Arkham Asylum. The basics are still there, just expanded upon. The combat in Arkham Asylum is in my humble opinion the best any game has ever had, and Arkham City is basically the same. In fact, it's pretty much identical. It's a silly thing to complain that they didn't change perfection, but even the upgrades are mostly identical. Of course not everything is the same. What's been kept has been polished to perfection and there's one or two additional gadgets and enemy types. They're fun to use and adds a much welcome layer of strategy, which the combat severely needed. Arkham Asylum's combat was very skill based, and the new options for tackling a combat situation makes you use your brain just as much as your fingers, which is something I never realised I missed until then. It solidifies the franchise's stand as the best combat ever.
The predator part of the game hasn't changed much mechanically, but still manages to feel different. The enemies now have gadgets of their own, some of which you can use against them. The maps force you to move around more and take more risks, and it gives you a lot more options for handling a situation.
There are still Riddler challenges, and while the trophies are a lot more challenging this time, challenging both your reflexes and mental capacity, the riddles themselves are lackluster. They were one of my favourite parts of the first game, but they translate really poorly to an open world. The massive world makes it almost impossible to find everything you're supposed to, and given that the riddles aren't nearly as clever any more, the whole process eventually becomes more akin to guesswork. After you're completed a certain number of Riddler challenges you get access to a special challenge room. They're unfortunately not that challenging, but still a lot of fun.
The open world integrates surprisingly well with franchise. Whenever you get bored you can just jump down into a group of enemies and start a fight. It's fun to get around (as long as you play as Batman) and it goes quite quickly. It's not a massive playground, but what's there is amazingly detailed. You can't go a minute without finding a Riddler trophy to collect, and the side missions are as previously mentioned well done, but after a while these things simply run out. There are a hell of a lot of Riddler challenges to complete, but only a few side missions and the only regenerating activity is beating up thugs. The open world is fun while it lasts, but after about 10 hours it becomes more of a commute. That may not be a problem for most people, but it is a pretty big misstep for an open world game.
There aren't that many bosses in the game, but the ones that are there are nicely done. They're all well designed and requires different tactics, but they have one big flaw. They're ridiculously easy. The bosses usually don't have many varying attacks and they're all avoided by a simple double press of the X button (A for Xbox 360). There is a predator boss or two this time around and it's a welcome addition that works perfectly with the game, it's the best boss in the game by a long shot.
Difficulty is handled brilliantly. One of the best things about the game is that if you know what you're doing, handling 30 enemies at once is a piece of cake, and if you aren't paying attention a single lowly grunt can kill you. I've mentioned several times that the combat in this game is the best I've ever seen, and this is a big part of why. However, once you've gotten accustomed to the combat (which happened to me a lot earlier than the game intended given how much time I've spent with Arkham Asylum) it takes too long for the game to ramp up the difficulty. A personal issue I had was that the attack indicators, which were disabled in hard mode in Arkham Asylum, are mandatory in Arkham City until you've completed the game, and by that time you're used to them.
Levelling is something that extremely few games get right, and this is not one of them. Just like the first game, every time you level you get to choose an upgrade. Arkham Asylum had a good balance of always having something just out of your reach, like a good levelling system should. Arkham City did the opposite, always giving me one more upgrade point than I need and insisting on blocking my objective marker until I allocate it. It's probably due to me easily getting distracted by side missions and Riddler challenges, but that's no excuse. The levelling system should be an incentive to explore and to do better in combat.
The game's no Battlefield or Uncharted, but damned if it's not the best looking game I've played this year. It has good graphics, but that's not the important part. It's the characters. The character designs are just perfect. The Batman universe has some distinctive and inventive character designs, and Rocksteady has managed to stay true to them while still giving them Rocksteady's own unique spin. The meticulously detailed characters are so gorgeous they've replaced the images I have in my head for characters I've know and loved for years.
To top it off, the voice work is some of the best I've ever heard, with special props going to Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Joker, a true masterpiece. Even the grunts have great dialogue, hundreds of different dialogues you can randomly overhear relevant to where you are in the game.
In Arkham Asylum you would receive the original comic book character design as well as info on its comic origins once you'd met them in the game. In Arkham City you get the character design from the game and info of how they relate in the game's canon. It's a minor and very personal complaint, but I really liked seeing the contrast between the original designs and the game's.
There are a lot of complaints that games these days have too little colour. I'm one of those people complaining, and this game is definitely guilty of this. However, this is the one time I'm willing to let it slide. Batman simply doesn't work with anything other than a dark colour pallet. The City itself is very dark, but ridiculously detailed. It's the little things that do it, nods to classic Batman stories hidden throughout the city and making sure that every nook and cranny looks just right.
The inside locals are all colour coded. It makes every location feel different and instantly recognizable, but is also very clichéd by now. It does however provide a nice change to the pitch blackness of outside.
I do have one aesthetic complaint, and it's regarding a character revealed at the middle to end part of the game.
Before I played the game I was worried. I was worried Rocksteady was trying to do too much all at once, and would lose the charm of the first game. I was worried that it couldn't possibly live up to my expectations. But within 10 seconds of playing the game I had a smile on my face. It felt just like the game I loved, and the more I kept playing the more I realised that it was even better.
Pros: Best combat you'll ever play, a must play for anyone remotely interested in Batman and/or great games.
Cons: For an open world game, it has surprisingly short longevity.
Value: $100 (This is a new grading scale that I'm experimenting with, where I state how much I am willing to spend on a game knowing what I do now, assuming the standard price for a game is $60.)