The comic book video game genre has been one of the most disappointing genres of video games in history. Almost as bad as movie-to-game adaptations. Neither of which is worse than game-to-movie adaptations, though. You'd think that with all the awesome source material at their disposal, that game developers would have been able to come up with some pretty amazing games. But other than a few stand-outs, Spider-Man held the crown as the king of good comic book video games for almost a full decade during the 2000's before Rocksteady blew all previous comic book-themed video games out of the water and gave us the first truly great comic game with 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum. I cannot sing that game's praises enough. It was like a video game love letter to Batman fans (and all comic book fans in general). Despite being a little tedious towards the end, this game delivered an unparalleled experience that made all comic book games before it look as embarassing as Super Mario Bros. the Movie! Elements of Arkham Asylum's design (such as the free flow combat system) have even found their way into other games and genres such as Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and Uncharted 3.
A sequel was inevitable, and hopes were high for Arkham City (which the developers had enough foresight to tease with a secret room showing the sequel's map in the first game). Arkham City promised an open-world map with a longer story, more villains, and Catwoman as a playable character. “Bigger, better, more” seemed to be the motto going into this game. Well, they definitely got the “bigger” and “more” parts, but not necessarily “better”.
Goin' round in circles
The “open world” map in Arkham City is kind of a funny thing to advertise. After all, the Arkham Asylum map from the first game was pretty expansive. The outdoor environments were divided into three separate sections, and there were a few pretty large buildings to explore. You'd fight your way across the open courtyards on your way to one of the indoor areas, then you go through a mostly-linear path of rooms and hallways, and come out a backdoor that leads you to a new path through the courtyard areas to the next destination building. The format of Arkham City is pretty much the same, except the dividers have been removed from the outdoor areas. But you still pretty much just go back and forth across the map from building to building.
And you have to do it over and over again.
Going back and forth across the map gets tedious very quickly.
A very large chunk of the game consists of literally going back and forth across the map - usually between the Joker's Iron Mill area and the Penguin's museum. The game seems to go out of its way to extend its length by forcing the player to waste time running back and forth across the map. And it gets kind of irritating after a while. It's not as bad as other games, and the first game's method of coming out a backdoor to an alternate path to the next destination is still used fairly frequently. But you still end up doing laps around Arkham City eventually.
The game is also flooded with unnecessary item-collection. The Riddler trophies are back, but this time they have more of an in-game effect. After you collect enough of them, you'll unlock access to a hidden door that allows you to solve a puzzle to rescue a hostage. I like having to match wits with the Riddler and that there's actually something on the line and a sense of accomplishment this time, but collecting the trophies is just so tedious and boring. I really wish they would have just ditched the trophies and only required us to solve the examination riddles (in which you have to scan a specific item in the environment based on a clue given by the Riddler). Also, the hostage rescues are completely optional. Which seems a bit out of character for Batman. It just doesn't seem right to me that the game should just let Batman be able to ignore that there are hostages whose lives are on the line. But it's not a huge deal, I guess.
Bottom line, though, is that the “open world” just isn't all that interesting. There's not much going on except for there being bad guys to fight everywhere and the occasional mugging. There's a few side quests that are well-integrated, but like the Riddler trophies, most of it is optional. A few cool things happen out-of-the-blue, but once they happen, you can usually forget about them and move on.
Put bluntly, it started to become apparent to me that most of the random junk that happens while exploring the city are just kind of cheap methods to prolong the game. Arkham Asylum was a perfectly adequately long game, and had plenty of bonus and side content to keep you playing after the credits roll. The story was very well paced and kept moving along smoothly for almost the entire game. Every villain that you encounter focuses and progress the game's narrative (except maybe for Croc), and the backtracking wasn't so bad because the environment kept changing and felt unique each time you had to go through it.
Arkham City, though, just started to drag after a while. Rocksteady threw so many extraneous villains into this game for the sole purposes of serving as fan service and slowing Batman's progress down. I'm not a huge Batman fan, so I probably couldn't appreciate all the cameo appearances as much as some of the more hardcore fanboys. It got to the point about two-thirds of the way through the game that everytime a new villain popped up out of nowhere, I'd sigh and roll my eyes: “Really? Again?”
I do have to admit, however, that (like the first game) Rocksteady did a good job of giving each boss fight and villain encounter a unique feel - even though most of them were derived from boss archetypes in the first game.
Beating Mr. Freeze will require you to be very aware of your surroundings and the capabilities of your various gadgets, as he won't let you use the same trick twice.
But one new boss fight that stood out was with Mr. Freeze. This particular encounter turns into a battle of wits between Batman and Freeze. Batman cannot attack Freeze directly, so he has to find sneaky ways to trick or incapacitate Freeze. But Freeze won't fall for the same trick twice, so you'll have to continually update your plan of attack and find new ways to use the environment and your myriad of gadgets in new and creative ways. Best of all, the game actually lets you figure these tricks out for yourself. It doesn't just tell you how to damage Freeze. So when you beat him, you really feel like you defeated a villain with your own cleverness and moxie. Pat yourself on the back. Unless you cheated and exploited the explosive gel too much - which Freeze doesn't adapt to so well. Shame on you.
The game's story is complicated and engrossing, but it just goes on for way too long and drags itself out for no real reason.
Batman is still badass - despite cheesy new gadgets that would've made Adam West blush
Fortunately, despite the drag of the game's extended narrative, the gameplay and controls remain as fluid and fun as they were in the first game. The freeflow combat system has been updated with a few new wrinkles and enhancements. You can now counter multiple enemies simultaneously, which allows the enemies to be a bit more aggressive in combat and adds a bit more challenge to it while still allowing the player to feel sufficiently badass!
And oh yeah, you will feel badass.
“If we put our heads together, we can totally stop the Batman!”
Or, you know, the other way around.
Augmenting the new combos and counter mechanics is simplified freeflow gadget controls. It's now much easier to string together a combo of punches, kicks, counters, batarangs, grapple disarms, explosive gel, and so on. And there's a lot more gadgets now too.
One of these new gadgets is a really welcome addition: the inclusion of smoke pellets makes me wonder how Rocksteady managed to leave this simple, yet essential, Batman gadget out of the first game. So now, if you glide into a pack of angry badguys, and they pull guns on you and surround you, you can drop a smoke bomb and grapple away to the ceiling, just like Michael Keaton! Just don't stay in one place for too long, because in this game, the enemies are actually smart enough to look up, and they will find you. The inclusion of this gadget is so cool! So much so that Rockstar went to the trouble of programming the bad guys to comment “He's got smoke bombs. He's got everything!” every time you use them!
A few of the existing gadgets were improved as well. For example, you can now detach your line gun and re-fire it mid-zip. It's a subtle, but very useful addition.
The remaining new gadgets, however, are (at best) dismissable, or (at worst) outright gimmicky. One such gimmicky device is the new electric charge gun, which Batman assembles by literally ripping some weird, nuclear-battery-thing out of a machine in the Steel Mill and plugging it into his Batgun. This scene made me pause the game mid-cutscene and ask my PlayStation “Did that really just happen?” And not in a good way... Sigh... This gadget can be used to stun enemies at a distance in combat or can be fired at generators, magnets, or certain electric devices to activate them. Can you say “Deus ex machina”!
"What are you doing?" indeed.
Yep, Batman's so badass, he can just pull random glowing shit out of industrial facilities, attach it to his Batgun, and have fully-functional new gadgets.
Another new device is a Mr. Freeze ice gun that can be used to freeze enemies in combat or create ice rafts in water. Both these devices prove very useful - and essential - to traverse some of the game's areas. But the idea of these devices is just silly. Granted, the first game had the magic remote hacking device (which is still present in the sequel, by the way), but these new gadgets go above and beyond in the cheese department.
One thing that is retained from the first game - which I really like - is that early in the game, you'll come across areas that you can't access without one of the gadgets you'll get later. These serve to tease you with hidden goodies (usually just the aforementioned Riddler trophies, sadly) and a bit of mystery with regard to “ooh, what kind of gadget am I gonna get that will let me go there?” It also helps to make the situations feel a bit more believable. You don't get the gadget and then suddenly and conveniently start coming across excuses to use it. You get it, and then realize how useful it would have been earlier in the game. So you're immediately aware of the usefulness of the gadget and really excited about all the new possibilities that this gadget will open up.
Getting some pussy!
I can't really leave this review without talking about the other big feature of this game: the inclusion of Catwoman as a playable character.
She's not really a big deal though. She plays almost exactly like Batman, except that she uses a whip instead of a grapple gun, can climb walls, and can stick to certain ceilings, and is considerably less durable. You don't get to play as her for very long though. Her missions are pretty short, and except for one critical point in the game, she isn't really involved much in the game's main narrative. So like many of the villains in the game, Catwoman ends up feeling a lot like filler content that didn't really need to be there.
Catwoman is - shall we say - "more fun" to watch in action, but she plays very similarly to Batman and doesn't really do all that much in the game's story.
But hey, at least she's got a much nicer ass than Batman, so she's got that going for her.
Rocksteady crammed a lot of content into this game. But none of it really improves the core gameplay experience all that much, and some if it actually serves to detract from the enjoyment that I had with the previous game. Beyond the game's honestly shocking finale, it just didn't seem like this game was as inspired as its predecessor. Like it was just necessary sequel to cash in on the success of the first game rather than being the labor of love that Arkham Asylum clearly was. It's production value is still through the roof, the gameplay is still just as tight and compelling as it was (even more so), and the story is well-enough written to entertain the player throughout most of the game.
The developers just tried to fill the game with too much stuff. Some of it is appropriate, but most of it ends up feeling either unnecessary or outright silly.
Don't get me wrong. It's still a fantastic game. If Arkham Asylum is the best comic book game ever made (it is), then Arkham City is a close second.