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Arkham Asylum’s island setting served as a wisely restricted location to ease players into Rocksteady’s brilliantly successful Metroidvania inspired interpretation of the Dark Knight. Yet the lack of any urban expanse compromised that great fantasy of anyone who daydreams in pointyeared black caped spandex: Gliding between the rooftops of a moonlit Gotham, eavesdropping on oblivious criminals, before swooping down and dispensing fear induced justice throughout its streets. Almost from the outset Arkham City grants you access to the full extent of its open world, lavishing in that fantasy whilst retaining the core facets of free flowing combat, predatory stealth and detective led exploration that Rocksteady so elegantly blended together in constructing the character of Batman within its more constrained predecessor.
The Brain child of sinister madman Dr (Beardface)Hugo Strange, who has mysteriously risen to power and learnt of Batman’s true identity, Arkham City is an amputated district of Gotham, sectioned off to house the scum of its underworld. A bubbling cauldron of wintery gothic metropolitan decay, populated and ruled by Batmans famous gallery of egotistical rogues. As you would expect, all manner of turf wars, corrupt allegiances and backstabbings breakout, with Strange acting the overseer, periodically announcing a countdown toward his esoterically impending “protocol 10”.
A dreadful place for Bruce Wayne to spend the night then, but a wonderful playground for Batman. Sumptuously detailed, riddled with trophies and brain teasers courtesy of Mr E. Nigma and peppered with famous Gotham locations: Gotham City Police Department, the Iceberg lounge, Old Gotham and Ace Chemicals, birthplace of the clown prince of crime himself have been caught in the amputation. Like the Asylum before it, Arkham City is clearly a labour of passionate creation for Rocksteady.
Somewhere inbetween the size of Arkham Asylum’s island and GTA4’s expansive Liberty City, Arkham City feels a sizeable enough district, with copious amounts of verticality woven throughout the outdoor environment, rooftops being just as detailed, if not more so, than the grime laden streets. Still it remains small enough that travel never becomes a chore, facilitated through two upgradable abilities: To grapple onto pretty much any ledge and accelerate Batman up into the air rather than cling to a surface, combined with the ability to gain momentum and speed through diving and gliding. Casting your shadow upon Arkham City is an exhilaratingly tactile and breezy affair.
This open world serves as a hub with interior locations distributed evenly throughout the map. Initially these are smaller than those of its predecessor, only blossoming later into larger Zelda/Okami dungeon like structures. Each is extensively repurposed throughout the core plot progression as villians and factions repopulate vacated ones. Leading to situations where backtracking to an already explored interior may present a different experience. Particular highlights include the Penguin’s Museum residence in which display cabinets exhibit his victims with some obnoxiously malevolent narration from Mr Cobblepot himself and Victor Fries’s frosty ice encrusted Gotham Police Department.
Stealth portions of the gameplay remain relatively unchanged, only slightly refined, retaining Batmans fear inducing predatory presence. The addition of a few new gadgets and enemy types mix things up; with a remote electrical charge gun used to power distant machinery, enemies with scanners able to detect your presence on gargoyles and radar jammers blocking Batmans otherwise omniscient detective vision: A visual filter that strips environments naked and lays bare every interactive secret; breakable walls, vents and grates, grapple-able gargoyles and even enemies heart rate and mental status become visible through any wall.
This may remove the skill of stealthily navigating an environment, but it proves essential in creating the feel of playing Batman. Instead the skill comes not from figuring out how to do it, but in executing it with flawless perfection: Dispatching a multilayered room full of henchmen without a single one of them catching a glimpse still takes scrupulous planning and timing.
Catwoman plays similarly, but is more than a simple clone of Batman, equipped with feline inspired skills and agility. She can crawl on walls and the ceiling, whiplash to distant objects and speedily pounce around environments with a well timed button tap. It is a shame that her role in the story and game time is so minor in comparison to that of Batmans, as she provides welcome interludes. As a character however she is a little hard to take seriously, as Rocksteady have painted her with such overtly sexualized brush strokes: There really is no need for so many rear tracking shots and the level of unzipped cleavage on show is a little ridiculous. Although the same could be said of Batman’s belligerently bulging budgie smugglers.
As with stealth gameplay, little has been tampered with the free flowing melee combat system either. Only judicious refinements and incremental additions have been applied. Hot keys now allow you to easily employ each of Batmans tools during fistfights and upgrades provide a variety of modifiers, earned through successful consecutive strings of punches and counters. As you progress differing enemy types are introduced in a variety of group combinations, demanding a more tactical approach to what could so easily have become a simple button masher. Fighting is still as fluid and powerful as that of its predecessor and retains its title as one of the best combat systems throughout the entire industry.
If additions to stealth and combat are subtle, then Rocksteady’s additions to the roster of villians are bombastically all encompassing. With many famous adversaries not implicated within the main storyline making an appearance in the wealth of side missions throughout the city and far beyond the conclusion of the core plot.
Additional content here is incredibly deep, with Victor Zasz’s phone calls tasking you to race across the city within a time limit before he increases his body count and Deadshot challenging your abilities as a detective, sniping down political prisoners throughout the night. The Riddler once again provides the bulk of these extras, with 400 trophies scattered throughout environments in mini puzzles, hostages to rescue from Saw like death traps and Riddler challenges outside of the main campaign constituting of stealth and combat challenges under increasingly difficult conditions.
Boss battles are an improvement upon the Asylums, but Rocksteady still stumbles to effectively translate each individual adversary’s abilities into interesting and uniquely challenging battles. Many fall into the disappointment of Asylum’s dull and repetitive pattern learning encounters with ridiculously steroidal hulks, interspersed with smaller normal combat henchmen. An attempt to continue the surrealism of the Psycho Mantis inspired Scarecrow battle from the originals falls flat aswell. It is an encounter with Mr Fries provides the highlight, encouraging creative use of Batman’s toolset.
The sheer glut of incorporated Villians is a little overwhelming and consequently many are left underdeveloped: Two face is relegated to the introductory plot chapter and the supposed primary antagonist Hugo Strange lacks much of a presence, only playing a truly significant role during the introduction and conclusion of the story. A concentration on one main antagonist could have delved deeper and provided a more interesting look at a villians relationship with Batman, as Arkham Asylum did with Joker. Still though plot thickening twists are implemented well and tension is effectively built throughout the climactic crescendo toward a very intriguing conclusion.
Adding to an already flawless presentation, the voice acting is once again superb. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprise their roles as Joker and Batman, alongside Hugo Strange’s (Cory Burton) creepily sinister bass tones, the Penguin’s (Nolan North) peculiarly amusing cockney twang and Victor Fries’s (Maurice LaMarche) chilly staccato monotone. This is all wrapped up in a wonderful and unmistakably batman flavoured score, with hints of the 90’s Batman: the animated series theme and Hans Zimmer’s more recent Dark Knight theme throughout.
Following the campaign, a new game plus mode offers some refreshing incentives for a second playthrough. With tougher enemy combinations present from the get go, balanced with the retention of every upgraded skill and ability acquired during the first playthrough. The icing on an already delicious cake.
The world and tale crafted by Rocksteady here is done so with such blissfully evident love and passion for the franchise. Every gameplay element that worked in the Asylum has received judicious improvements and the new found freedom granted by the open city environment gives this adventure the breathing room that the cramped corridors of its predecessor never could. As such Rocksteady has improved upon what it is that they got so right in the first place; perfecting the feel of playing batman. There may be one to many villainous egos thrown in vying for to little screen time, but this is fan service of the highest and most intellectuality constructed order. Granting players the space to spread their wings and live the Batman fantasy they always dreamed of, being able to say, “I’m batman”.