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Batman: Arkham City

Gotham City is synonymous with Batman.  I believe more so than any other comic book hero, the PLACE Bruce Wayne makes his home, fights his enemies, and protects his friends is just as important as the hero himself.  Developer Rocksteady took the amazing character work that made Batman: Arkham Asylum such a great game, and took it off an island and into Gotham.  That this gameplay not only works but excels in an open world environment is remarkable.  It’s the small touches that make the game.  The courthouse where Harvey Dent aka Two Face had the acid thrown on him that resulted in his insanity.  The Iceberg Lounge where the Penguin makes his home.  I’m not a Batman lore junkie, but even I had a “woah that’s cool” moment just about every time I entered a new area.  Even without the influences of the source material, the game would still be an excellent action/stealth hybrid.  Throw in some of the most memorable characters in comic book history and you have  game that truly shines.

For those not caught up on the story the game begins months after the events of Arkham Asylum.  Since Arkham asylum was basically destroyed in the events of the first game, Gotham needed someplace to put its criminals.  Enter Mayor Quincy Sharp, warden from Arkham Asylum in the first game, now leading the city.  He designates a run down area of the city as the new Arkham (hence the title of the game) and appoints one Dr. Hugo Strange as the new head of the prison…..yes THE Hugo Strange, brilliant scientist and doctor, who also has an unhealthy obsession with Batman and ruining him.  After a brilliant introduction that I won’t ruin here, Batman finds himself inside Arkham City, gangs of criminals run by Two-Face, Joker, and Penguin running amok, Strange’s own security team after him, and oh yeah, the Riddler has once again come up with a series of trophies and challenges for Batman to solve or he’ll start executing hostages.  It’s against this backdrop that Batman (again voiced by Batman animated series alum Kevin Conroy) must figure out just what the hell is going on.

Dr. Hugo Strange clearly has plans far beyond just being the head of Arkham City. Batman will earn his Greatest Detective on Earth title in spades this time around.

The open world elements truly shine.  I stated in my review of Infamous way back when that no other game made me FEEL like a super hero in its traversal methods of the city.  Until now.  The grapple gun makes a triumphant return and is borderline silly as to how many places it can get you.  It’s not a realistic way to traverse your way up entire skyscrapers in seconds, but damn it it’s cool.  Batman can glide as well, so getting to the closest tall object and leaping off becomes the preferred method of travel.  Firing the grappling gun in mid-air, latching on to a distant point, then speeding to it and off it in one smooth motion means getting from one end of Arkham City to the other doesn’t take very long.  This is not an open world in the style of something like Grand Theft Auto or the upcoming Skyrim.  Quite frankly, it’s nowhere near as large as either of those games.  This enables almost every corner of the game world to have SOMETHING in it though, from Riddler challenges, hidden side quests, or even Joker balloons you can pop for bonus experience (yes, I’m serious).

Traveling is fun and all, but hey this is BATMAN.  He doesn’t kill people, but he most definitely beats the shit out of them.  The fundamental combat system hasn’t changed from the previous game.  Most of the fights are against large numbers of opponents (sometimes comically so, such as 9 or 10) and if done properly, you can chain one combo through the entire group and never take a hit.  An upgrade comes in the form of an expanded move set and animations.  Quickfiring gadgets has been made easier, resulting in some brutal animations, such as countering one thugs punch into breaking his arm, then quickfiring a bat claw to pull another toward you and clothes line them.  It’s fast, it’s brutal, and it encourages you to NOT button mash and actually plan a few moves ahead.  The bigger your combo the more bonus experience you get at the end of any given fight.  Experience is used to buy upgrades for gadgets and new combat moves.  By the end of the game Batman is a an absolute wrecking crew unto himself.  I applaud the game for starting Batman with most of his gadgets from the last time and having a logical justification as to why he’s missing a few.  The boss fights in particular are much improved from the last game.  Very few of Batman’s opponents have any chance against him in a straight up fight but the game does an excellent job of presenting challenging situations apart from a fist fight.  Mr. Freeze in particular for me was the highlight.

Poor poor joker thugs. I like that the Joker yells at his henchman for being terrible when you kick their ass. "Was that the sound of one of your faces hitting something hard?......I hope so!"

Speaking of Mr. Freeze, there are a TON of characters from Batman’s universe in this game, way beyond my ability to list them here.  Some are more fully developed than others, many basically have to what amounts as cameos.  While in general I approve of how RockSteady handled this, I feel like it they went just a little overboard.  There are too many characters and cameos that some of them just got lost in the shuffle, and more than once I was left with a feeling of “Who is that?  Oh they’re gone and I’ll never see them again”.  The characters the game does focus on, Batman and Joker in particular, are extremely well done.  Much like the first game, the best part of the entire experience is Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker.  Heath Ledger won an Oscar, deservedly so, for his performance of the same character, but at this point when I think of the clown prince of crime it’s truly Hamill that comes to mind first.  That Rocksteady crafted a story that lets Hamill really let loose with the insanity in a way he never could while doing the Batman animated series is a joy to listen too.  Conroy’s quite confidence as Batman is a close second.  A few times in the game you truly get the sense that the stoic Batman is raging at the events going on around him, but isn’t letting himself lose control so he can more effectively deal with the situation.  It’s an awesome feeling and Conroy deserves much credit for bringing the character to life.

The Joker, a little worse for the wear after the events of the last game, but just as scheming and cray as ever. Harley Quinn seems even MORE nuts this time around.

Challenge maps make their return in this game well.  They come in the form of combat maps, which are all about getting a high score against increasingly large groups of enemies, or predator maps, which task Batman with clearing a room of armed thugs and performing specific take downs to earn medals.  Both are engaging, addicting, and DIFFICULT to earn three stars on.  It’s a mode that pushes the replay value much higher than the 8-10 hour main game would indicate.  If you buy the game new you also get Catwoman as a playable character in these maps.  Catwoman also becomes featured in a few short scenarios in the main game as well, and her story parallels the Dark Knights.  It isn’t necessary to enjoy the game, but it definitely adds something.  Plus, Catwoman has some spectacularly bad cat puns, truly worth the cost of buying new vs. used alone.

Anne Hathaway eat your heart out.

I’ll end this review by saying it’s the attention to detail that makes Arkham City great.  My favorite part of the game wasn’t an epic boss fight.  It wasn’t traversing the city or using the multitude of gadgets.  It was coming across a single street light that was still functioning in a dark area, illuminating a chalk outline of two bodies, who clearly collapsed on top of one another.  It was the prompt to “Pay your respects” that popped up when Batman approached it.  As Bruce Wayne knelt down in silence in memory of his fallen parents and the incredible soundtrack swelled, the game had hooked me.  It shows that RockSteady not only understands how Batman’s world should look, but also how it should FEEL.  An absolute must play.

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