Batman: Arkham City perpetually straddles a thin line between consistency and complacency. On one side of that line—particularly to those who are looking to don the grey suit a for a second time—Rocksteady’s sequel might feel all-too-familiar. On the other, however, lies a game that retains the magic of its prior, whilst injecting just enough as to keep things fresh and, more importantly, fun.
Set after the events at the now-ruined Arkham Asylum, the powers that be have enlisted Hugo Strange to mutate a chunk of Gotham City into a glorified prison city. Arkham City, as you then might imagine, is laden with many of the world’s greatest super-villains. A balance between continuity and novelty, Arkham’s premise manages to create a believable yet fantastical scenario without ever feeling overly contrived.
With Hugo Strange’s mysterious ‘Protocol 10’ counting down to launch, Batman is kept constantly on the go. Later on, a plot device ensures that we see a desperate, darker iteration of Bruce Wayne in video game form—perhaps the darkest yet.
To describe Arkham City as a direct continuation, then, is both an apt and flattering description. Rocksteady’s sense of consistency permeates every facet of Arkham: from the retention of Batman’s gadgets from the beginning to constant references to the events of Asylum, this is a tale that’s very aware of its place in Gotham.
To this extent, Rocksteady’s latest feels almost episodic in nature—it hasn’t tried to radically reinvent itself. Here, its developers are seemingly content with letting us live the caped crusades of a Gotham resident, in contrast to adding a host of overwhelming elements.
Among a few standout elements exclusive to Arkham City, though, its world—the ‘city’ aspect—truly distinguishes the game from its predecessor. Littered with side quests, trophies and riddles, the game’s playground expertly blends the ‘Help me, Batman!’ and ‘Man On Fire’ experiences. It manages to feel both open and focused simultaneously, as Batman glides and hooks himself from building to building.
And it’s one step closer to being the entire Batman experience.
Hide and freeze.
Throughout the length of its campaign, Batman: Arkham City seems reluctant—almost afraid—to ramp up its scenarios past ‘ten’. Its bosses feel incredibly terrestrial, whilst its eventual enactment of the narrative’s pulling point is mundane almost to the point of predictability.
It’s only in a fight with Mr. Freeze, for example, that the diversity of options available to Batman are fully revealed. In fact, from a designer’s perspective, the encounter would’ve been better placed as an earlier inclusion—newcomers would’ve been forced to explore many of its combative options.
Arkham City‘s combat, though ostensibly simplistic, carries forward—and is perhaps the embodiment of—Asylum‘s greatest strength. Even when Bats is surrounded by dozens of foes, you never doubt your—or his—ability to conquer the situation. It’s that sense of power, of indeed being a super hero, that it excels at.
Or if the scenario at hand isn’t destined to end in a fist fight, like many of its arena-like areas so often do, stealth is always preferable. Batman doesn’t need a foliage-thick jungle or a shoulder-mounted shooter to be unseen by his prey. He is truly a predator.
Inverted take downs, whereby Bats grabs enemies from above, vent crawling, smoke pellets—which act as emergency invisibility—are among a host of tactical options. It’s this sense of empowerment that makes this game, this series, truly compelling.
But not only is this conservative approach a testament to the integrity of Batman’s mechanics, it further delivers the message that the Dark Knight is very much human. For all the supernatural elements Batman invokes, Rocksteady hasn’t mauled the character for the sake of new abilities and gadgets. This is a man defined very much by human limitations.
Catwoman’s inclusion (if you bought a brand new copy of the game), too, makes it evident that Rocksteady’s ability to handle Batman wasn’t a fluke, a stroke of luck or the toss of a coin. Here, the female thief is so surprisingly well-developed that it seems almost inevitable that she will, indeed, inhabit her own game. And whilst this is merely a statement intended to express the quality and relative depth of her role, it wouldn’t be such a far fetched thought, either.
Steady has collared that same predatory prowess in a very different, much more agile and much more acrobatic way. Her segments of story instill a much-needed contrast to Bats’ style of play.
Catwoman: Secondary but substantial.
Absolutely, Arkham City is already akin to an old friend: it’s instantly familiar and dependable. And like an old friend, you can always guarantee that you’re in good company. Yet Arkham clings so dearly to the blueprint of its predecessor that its difficult to escape the feeling that you’ve done this all before. Dark Knight déjà vu, you could say.
As such, the Dark Knight’s latest adventure is a difficult one to judge. It sticks so tightly to the fundamentals of its predecessor that it’s often deprived of any sense of exploration and experimentation; the ‘wow’ isn’t quite as potent, if present at all. But these fundamentals are largely so compelling, so well-executed that it’s just as difficult to lambaste Rocksteady for abiding by such an enjoyable formula.
Batman: Arkham City was reviewed on the Xbox 360. Its campaign and several of its side quests were completed, along with time spent exploring in free play mode. Batman: Arkham City also features a New Game Plus mode, which allows Batman to replay the campaign with abilities and upgrades intact and fight against tougher enemies and configurations. Due to personal time constraints, this was not played. Batman: Arkham City released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on October 18, 2011 in North America and on October 21, 2011 in Europe.