Review: Batman: Arkham City (X360)

British developer Rocksteady scored something of a coup in 2009 with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Its brilliant realization of the Dark Knight in the gaming medium came at critics and gamers from completely out of left field. Not only was it one of the year’s best video games, it was easily the best Batman video game of all time. But, back in 2009, that latter compliment was seen as damning with faint praise.

This is because, up until Batman: Arkham Asylum swooped in, nearly every single video game starring the caped crusader was utterly awful. What made Rocksteady’s game sublime was that the developers exploited the core of Bob Kane’s finest creation; the different facets of Batman’s character informed the gameplay mechanics, which moved seamlessly from puzzle-solving, to agile platforming to brutal combat. All of it was packaged together with a fantastic story and presented with delightfully Gothic trimmings. Batman: Arkham Asylum was clearly the work of Batman fans who knew the terrain, and whose love for the character was evident.

Arkham City’s story begins several months after the events that took place in Arkham Asylum. It seems the power-that-be took offence to the Joker’s shenanigans in the last game, and so, with a nod to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, they’ve turned several neighbourhoods in Gotham into a maximum-security prison to house Arkham’s former inmates. Arkham City is run by an enigmatic figure called Hugo Strange who is brutal in his treatment of any criminals who try to escape, but seems wholly unconcerned with what goes on inside the prison walls. His hands-off approach in the actual running of Arkham City has led to a vicious turf war for control of its streets, with most of the prisoners joining gangs that are run by Batman’s most nefarious foes. Suspecting that Strange might not be playing with a full deck, Batman decides to head into the prison to check things out.

It’s worth bearing all this in mind, because Batman: Arkham City, Rocksteady’s follow-up has a higher standard to live up to. Given how perfectly formed the mechanics in Arkham Asylum were on its release – and remain to this day – Rocksteady could have easily got away with setting its game in a new environment, adding a new story and a few new characters – and then leaving everything else untouched. It’s a testament to the studio’s creativity, then, that instead it used the gameplay and structure of Arkham Asylum as a starting point and then built on these foundations.

Rocksteady have outdone themselves in the creation of Arkham City. The huge, sprawling super-prison of Gotham looks like something out of a dystopian nightmare. Gothic spires point accusingly at the night sky, gargoyles leer down on the alleys below and the city’s landmarks and streets look dilapidated and broken. Furthermore, the whole environment is huge when compared to the area housed in Arkham Asylum, and players will want to explore every inch of it in their quest to end Strange’s reign of terror.

Players who picked up a copy of Arkham Asylum will find a lot of elements in Arkham City familiar. The lion’s share of their activities will involve fistfights, following clue trails, solving puzzles, collecting trinkets and using Batman’s agility to navigate the huge environment in the game. Detective Vision, which allows players to note the position of antagonists through walls, as well as switches, vents and trophy positions, makes a welcome return. Players also have access to the Dark Knight’s collection of wonderful toys to aid them in their adventure – most of which are unlocked at the beginning of the game, setting Arkham City head-and-shoulders above every other superhero game sequel in existence right from the start.

Players earn XP from fights, trinket collecting and puzzle solving, which allow them level up Batman’s gadgets, his suit capabilities and his combat combos. Rocksteady have also added a few new abilities and gizmos to Batman’s already impressive repertoire, which enrich the overall gaming experience.

First of all, there have been a couple of tweaks made to the way in which Batman navigates his environment, which is handy given the size of it. Players can still use a grappling hook to zip up to rooftops and ledges and Batman’s cape still allows them to glide gracefully over big distances. However, by pulling the right trigger in mid-glide and then pulling back on the right stick, players can extend Batman’s gliding time, giving him the ability to stay airborne for longer. Also, once it’s unlocked, players can use a grappling hook boost to allow Batman to overshoot the ledge he’s rappelled onto, shooting him skyward.

Alongside the boost, Batman has a host of new gadgets, including (among others) remote-controlled Batarangs, smoke pellets (to obscure his position during fights) and an item called the Remote Electrical Charge (REC). This last item allows Batman to activate generators in his environment, with which he can open doors or activate industrial magnets to strip foes of their weapons. Batman’s combat has also received a polish; battering multiple opponents is a lot more fluid and fun than before, and finishing moves and takedowns look a lot more brutal.

Of course, half of Batman’s appeal is his rogue’s gallery, and Rocksteady have tapped up quite a few of the caped crusader’s villains to populate their game’s plot. Two-Face and The Penguin are a couple of antagonists who turn up in Arkham City, rubbing shoulders with The Joker and Harley Quinn, who make a return from Arkham Asylum. As the main story progresses, more of Batman’s best-known nemeses begin to appear, although to reveal who they are and how they fit into the plot would be doing anyone reading this review a disservice. The game’s story is one of its strongest assets, and the less players know going in, the more they will enjoy it.

Alongside the rather lengthy main campaign, Arkham City is teaming with side missions, which players can dip in and out of at their leisure. It’s also worth noting that once the main story’s over, players are free to explore the city further, clearing up any side-missions they haven’t finished yet. Once again, offering details about most of these side-missions will ruin the experience somewhat, as they involve their own little subplots and protagonists.

However, at this point we feel we’re on safe ground to reveal the villain involved in one of them, who also looms large over the landscape of Arkham City as a whole: the Riddler. It seems Edward Nigma took umbridge at the fact he was outsmarted by Batman in Arkham Asylum and so has gone to great lengths to defeat him here. To that end he’s placed tons of trophies and riddles throughout Arkham City, marking them up with his question mark calling cards all over the city’s skyline. If Batman collects enough of them, missions open up on the map, and Batman will have to head to these locations to save hostages that the Riddler has taken captive.

Collecting a lot of these trophies doesn’t just involve snaring them with the Bat Claw or pulling down sections of walls, as was the case in Arkham Asylum. A lot of them are protected by puzzles, which range from laughably easy to fiendishly cunning. Make no mistake, the Riddler sub-quest is far more challenging this time round and as a result, infinitely more satisfying to play through. Once the main game’s content has been completed, players can head into the game’s challenge rooms – an expanded take on the same mode which featured in Arkham Asylum.

Catwoman is also thrown into the mix as a playable character, provided the player unlocks her content. Batman’s erstwhile feline love-interest has a series of quests to accomplish which run in tandem to the game’s main campaign and she too, has a series of Riddler trophies to collect. She handles differently to Batman in combat; her attacks pack a little less punch, but her movement feels lighter and more fluid.

Catwoman doesn’t have Batman’s array of gadgets, but she does carry a whip, a set of bolos and caltrops to hamper her attackers. She also has “Thief-Vision”, her version of Detective Vision, which allows her to see hidden heat signatures. She’s able to navigate the rooftops and spires of Gotham just as easily as Batman and is also available for the challenge rooms outside the main game.

Rocksteady have done themselves proud with Batman: Arkham City. Rather than simply revisiting old ground, the British developer has upped the ante on its impressive last outing and delivered a game, which stands head and shoulders over its previous efforts. Despite facing stiffer competition than its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City is easily the best Batman video game of all time and while it may be too soon to call it the best game released all year, it’s going to take something pretty special to top it.

Graphics: 8
Sound: 9
Gameplay: 10
Lasting Appeal: 9

Overall: 9.5/10