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Dueling Reviews: Batman: Arkham City, Take 1

Review; Nov. 19, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Robert F. Ludwick
Batman returns in an adventure even better than Arkham Asylum

In 2009, Rocksteady delivered a masterpiece known as Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was, at the time, the finest game to hit the market with the Batman license in tow. With the huge, surprise success of Arkham Asylum, would the gaming masses be supplied with a disappointing sequel? That can be answered succinctly by a two-word phrase: F@&k no.

Editor's Note: We're running dueling reviews on Batman: Arkham City to get two viewpoints on the game. This is Take 1, Robert's take. Maybe Jenner, who is doing Take 2, agrees with Robert? Go read his opinion to find out. Link coming soon.

Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City is a game worth carrying on the Arkham line. Rocksteady did not rest on its laurels after the success Arkham City's predecessor earned. The premise of Arkham City is relatively simple at first: Warden Sharp of Arkham Asylum has ascended to mayor of Gotham City. Upon becoming mayor, he works with a man named Hugo Strange to wall off an entire section of Gotham and turn it into Arkham City, a massive prison to house the countless criminals that call Gotham home.

The story starts innocently enough with Bruce Wayne partaking in a bit of political activism himself, something he is not known to do. It's short-lived as he is swiftly thrown in prison with no charges brought against him. Soon afterward, he dons his familiar cape and cowl, and you find yourself trying to figure out what the hell is happening in Arkham.

Fans of Arkham Asylum will find Arkham City plays very similarly, and this is a good thing. While many developers feel they must drastically alter a game in order to provide a new experience, sometimes just iterating on a winning formula and tweaking things can provide that sought-after "new experience." Arkham City picks up where Arkham Asylum leaves off.

Batman: Arkham City Screenshots
Click the image to view game screenshots

Arkham City is a mix of stealth, beat-em-up, and puzzle solving. Batman can approach many battles throughout Arkham City by stealth. There may be overhead vantage points he can grapple in order to get a birds-eye view of the situation. From these vantage points, he can drop down, lift a baddie, and then dangle him. One down, thousands more to go. Or perhaps there is a metal grate nearby that Batman can utilize to explode out of and take down a nearby enemy, catching him unaware. Two down. There are many other ways to pick off attackers using stealth, such as luring one of them away from the others and dispatching him quickly or sneaking up behind someone and silently taking him out. Three, four down.

Sometimes you can't use stealth to take out enemies and you need to defeat them in good, old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. Have fun pressing a couple of buttons over and over again because that tends to be what happens in these mob-style battles. You'll use one button as a primary attack and another for counters. Over time you will gain access to more and more ways to lay traps and temporarily (or permanently) knock some of the enemies out of the battle, allowing you to deal with a smaller number of foes. By repeatedly hitting enemies without taking hits yourself, you can build up a pretty kickass multiplier that gives you a nice big score. Doing so will earn experience faster. Experience is good for leveling up, where you'll be able to select an upgrade --  be it armor, a new gadget, a new battle technique, etc.

Arkham City has numerous puzzles to figure out. Many of these puzzles aren't campaign-critical, but nonetheless you will still need to exercise the most important piece of software in your body -- your brain. Sometimes you may need to find a way to clear a path to continue moving, which will likely involve using multiple gadgets in some combination or order. Alternatively, you may need to be able to figure out a good route through treacherous territory.

Batman: Arkham City Screenshots
Cirque du Soleil? Nope, just Batman.

There are hundreds of puzzles in this game. The Riddler is back in Arkham City, as he was in Arkham Asylum. The diabolical genius has strewn these hundreds of puzzles throughout Arkham. Some offer simple trophies that Batman merely needs to pick up. Many of these trophies have extremely tricky requirements to get them, such as flying an electrified batarang through a narrow passageway. Some are riddles which describe a scene Batman must find. Others are destructible objects. And all the while, The Riddler is setting up Riddler Rooms across Arkham City. These rooms have people that may be killed if Batman doesn't solve yet another puzzle. Better get your brain some exercise before taking on some of these challenges.

The game's campaign doesn't have anything directly to do with The Riddler, however. The main campaign is centered around Batman's attempt to get to the bottom of what is going on. This campaign will stretch across a great many of enemies in Batman's catalog, from the always-excellent Joker to even Ra's al Ghul. While other entertainment properties have had issues with loading up too many villains (notably the Spiderman 3 movie), Arkham City pulls it off well. The game is very expansive, and the villains don't all crowd any particular scene too much. Additionally, Rocksteady came up with a great excuse to load up so many villains at once -- a great big swath of Gotham is a massive prison where they can all get up to no good.

The campaign is satisfying with a wonderful twist at the end that will leave gamers excitedly awaiting the next entry in the Arkham series. But the campaign is only the beginning for Arkham City. In addition to The Riddler's puzzles and presence in the game, there are a great number of side quests waiting for you. In fact, it is their addition that leaves Arkham City feeling more like an open-world game than Arkham Asylum ever felt.

Batman: Arkham City Screenshots
Yeah yeah, obligatory screenshot of a demented hot chick... Check.

At first I wasn't sure if I liked this change over Arkham Asylum. It meant that Arkham City would have more nonlinear gameplay than its predecessor, and that was one of the things I loved about Arkham Asylum. But Rocksteady again did a great job here. The side missions cannot all be completed in one fell swoop. Some of them open up slowly as you progress in the main campaign, while others have to wait until later because you may not have earned the necessary gadgets to continue them. And the best thing about all of these side quests is they sync with the main campaign in that they reference the antagonists and tie into the story well.

Some of the side missions are more difficult than others. One set of missions involve Batman performing a series of difficult flights using his cape. These "augmented reality" missions are some of the hardest feats you will attempt in the game, and I was quite satisfied with myself when I finally completed them all. They're not easy. Just like The Riddler's puzzles, these are all optional, but you'll still want to take them on.

And if all of this awesome isn't enough for you, Arkham City brings back the challenge maps that appeared in Arkham Asylum. You can compete on arcade-style maps that score you for your speed and feats. There are two map styles you can play, and naturally, they are the two ways you can approach any group of thugs: beat-em-up or stealth. On beat-em-up challenge maps, you take on waves of attackers. The better you perform in terms of taking hits or not missing punches will better your score and give you bragging rights over your friends. As far as stealth goes, speed is of the essence here -- dispatch your enemies as swiftly as possible. But to complicate matters, you will be presented with three challenges to perform during the stealth battle. These challenges are optional, but again, they will give you bragging rights. They range from shooting an enemy with an electric charge to make him shoot his gun by accident or taking down an enemy by dropping through a windowed ceiling.

Batman: Arkham City Screenshots
This looks ominous.

But wait, there's more! Finally, once you complete the campaign, you can start it all over again in Plus mode. More and more games have been incorporating features like this, when upon completion of the game's single-player mode, you can play it again with some differences. In Arkham City's case, playing in Plus mode will allow you to begin with all of Batman's already-acquired upgrades with enemy difficulty increased from the get-go -- stronger enemies, better-armed enemies, and more difficult configurations. In addition, the indicator that appears over an enemy's head telling Batman to counter... Well... It won't be there anymore.

Visually, Arkham City is even better than Arkham Asylum. The environment feels gritty and real. Buildings are in various states of disrepair, and you get the feeling you're locked up in a place worse than anything you could find in New York or Los Angeles. What makes it even better is that Batman will pick up on the conversations of thugs as he moves throughout Arkham City. These conversations are always contextual to what is going on at that time, and some can be humorous too. The sound quality of Arkham City is also pretty top-notch.

By now you're probably wondering why I haven't mentioned Catwoman yet. This was the big reveal for Arkham City -- a second playable character. When the announcement was made, many people weren't sure whether the addition would be a good thing. In general, Catwoman seems to be received pretty well across the board. But not for me. Thankfully, the unlock code included with my copy of Arkham City worked, so I was able to play as Catwoman without dicking around with WB Games to get a working DLC code. (That whole debacle is a discussion for another day.)

Batman: Arkham City Screenshots
"I'm sorry Catwoman, you just don't belong here!"

However, I just didn't care for the Catwoman content at all. Obviously Arkham City has an immense amount of content and things to do, given all that you can do as Batman. So I don't think the game was lacking in that respect. But the changeup to Catwoman just didn't resonate. Her style is very different from Batman's, which is a nice change. But it felt too disjointed and disconnected from the rest of the game. Batman's side missions integrated very well, but Catwoman's part in the story just didn't mesh well at all.

It's the presence of Catwoman that caused me to rate this game lower. If Catwoman hadn't been involved, I would have rated Arkham City a 9.9 -- at worst. As it is, with so much content, it feels like it's bursting at the seams, and I have to downgrade just a tenth of a point for the Catwoman content.

Batman: Arkham City is a game that will be in the running for Game of the Year at many websites. It is most deserving of it. Rocksteady took Arkham Asylum and absolutely blew it away with this fantastic followup. Just make sure to use Detective mode often enough, right?


Review Score


Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

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