Expanded Content #1: Batman: Arkham City [Review]

  • Platform: PS3  (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
  • Published by:  Warner Bros. Interactive / Eidos Interactive
  • Developed by: Rocksteady Studios
  • Genre: Action
  • ESRB Rating: T for Teen
  • Number of Players: 1
  • Release Date: United States: October 18th, 2011

VIRTUALLY PERFECT

For only the second time throughout 2011, I can’t say a single significant bad thing about a game. It’s even more rare that I ever pick up a game that exceeds the standards of a predecessor that was itself the best-regarded in a genre’s history.

Hype can kill a game when it reaches critical mass, but it seemingly fueled Rocksteady developers to challenge themselves as they developed the sequel to 2010’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. They didn’t look to completely change Asylum’s signature look, feel and experience; they kept the same motifs, aesthetics and styles and added a light coat of polish.

They apparently heard some fans loud and clear. “We want multiplayer!” Yeah, they heard you. Game Director Sefton Hill even said during E3 2011 that the developer seriously considered it, and honestly, why not? This is one game where a multiplayer experience could’ve been pretty intriguing, with the plethora of ranked challenge maps, well-developed characters and thrilling, and intuitive combat that’s simple in execution but somehow always feels fresh. Team up as Batman and Robin? Fight alongside the Caped Crusader and Catwoman? Perhaps form an uneasy accord between Two-Face and The Joker? Those are a few of the endless competitive or cooperative dream-match possibilities that would’ve put Mortal Kombat vs. DC to shame.

But Rocksteady took their chances, and embraced the exact opposite approach: developing a multiplayer function eats resources. It eats into both the finite digital ones that limit just how much game can be written onto a single Blu-ray disc (and while significantly bigger than DVD limits, there are still limitations of the blank media) and the human ones that only have 24 hours in any given day to plan and program but also to rest and sustain themselves. If they abandoned multiplayer, Hill explained, they could make a bigger, better single-player game than probably anybody ever dreamed could be done.

The story itself is of a more massive scope with a greater ensemble cast of active players than in Asylum – and even more impressively, this one isn’t even based as strongly upon an existing work from the “Batman” archives (such as its predecessor being based loosely on “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth”) though it does borrow from the “No Man’s Land” stories. Once more, “Batman” – or more particularly in this case, Bruce Wayne – has once been isolated inside what this time can truly be described as the inmates’ asylum: Arkham City, the massive section of Gotham slums that newly-elected Mayor (and ex-Arkham Asylum warden) Quincy Sharp surrounded with a fortified fence, stocked with hardened criminals watched over by Dr. Hugo Strange and his Tyger Security soldiers, and allowed to go all Lord Of The Flies.

As the story begins, it’s clear Strange has hit the mother lode: he’s addressing a captive Bruce Wayne as he’s being led into Arkham City as Strange’s prisoner, and breaking it to him that he knows he’s Batman. Something’s clearly up, and Wayne knows stopping it demands his alter ego.

Oh, but that’s just the foundation atop of which the main story just builds floor, after floor, after floor.

It’s too easy a trap in any story to load it down with too many characters. Particularly when it comes to adaptations, that’s how someone’s favorite familiar face gets shortchanged (or as is more annoyingly common the case, several people’s) and the result is a legion of butt-hurt fanboys who can’t be appeased. As with Asylum, Arkham City doesn’t even approach that line. Not only is it stocked with fan-service cameos galore, such as the likes of Calendar Man just dropping in for a quick “Hello” and Black Mask catching a Tyger Security ass-whipping on his way in the city’s front door, but so very many rogues play a part in advancing a deep, twisting story.

Sorry, but regardless of which randomized “hand breaching the water’s surface to grab the box of Titan” ending you received post-Arkham Asylum, Killer Croc and Scarecrow are two of the precious few villains who didn’t land in this game in any significant role and the only ones absent following Asylum. Bane’s here as an uneasy ally in a mission that calls back to Asylum’s main story and is referenced in passing in incidental prisoner dialogue, but that’s it for him. Killer Croc makes a brief cameo that can only be activated at once specific point, then never again. Scarecrow leaves a few forget-me-nots, and it’s possible groundwork is being laid for his return to round out the trilogy.

What we do get is Batman and the debuting Catwoman cast into the midst of a three-way gang war between crews led by Penguin, Two-Face and Joker. And along the way, Batman and Catwoman will tangle with all three.

As seen in the E3 trailer and game-play footage, Batman deals with Two-Face only briefly in the game’s earliest mission/tutorial and only in a crossover with Catwoman’s interlocking story. But he’ll be dealing with Penguin and Joker extensively throughout the main story. Also, Two-Face is the central figure of Catwoman’s arc, which at a mere four episodes that function much like Ada Wong’s “Separate Ways” missions in Resident Evil 4 is woefully short, considering what a refreshingly different experience the stealthy and witty Selina Kyle is from the hard-nosed, harder hitting Caped Crusader.

But rest easy, Cat fans. She’s playable in the numerous “Riddler’s Revenge” challenge maps and has another four-mission DLC pack coming later this fall, as well as additional missions available after finishing the main story as Batman.

But even Two-Face, Joker, Penguin and Strange only starts scratching the surface. There’s a critical part to play also by Mr. Freeze along the way. Batman also eventually encounters Ra’s and Talia Al Ghul in a critical moment, and Catwoman at one point must pay Poison Ivy a visit. That’s to say nothing of the side missions matching wits with Victor Zsaz (whose patient interviews and disfigured victims provided some of Asylum’s most satisfyingly dark, unsettling moments), experiencing what appears to be Batman’s first encounter on opposite sides of the law with Dr. Tommy “Hush” Elliot and the 400-plus(!) Riddler trophies and secrets to unlock.

Oh, and yes, this one includes an actual before-your-very-eyes appearance by Mr. Edward Nygma himself, not mere voice-over.

The story unfolds essentially on three levels: there’s the main story, the numerous side missions (of which, believe me, I’ve only described a few…) and then there’s the “Arkham City Stories” unlocked by solving Riddler’s riddles. The stories flesh out the events that precede what happens in the main Arkham City stories of Batman and Catwoman. They’re a blast to read, filling in some interesting details that sometimes put events from the game into a different light. They make for an interesting compromise between truly maxing out the story’s potential within the game’s 40-plus hours of total playtime, while using these interpolated tidbits to flesh out interesting little details that just couldn’t fit comfortably within the sprawling story already being told.

That’s fine – except it leads to one of my few petty gripes.

The unlockable tales are where the three-way gang war is really fleshed out, not within the game. That disappoints me, because there would be such an interesting “Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?” dynamic that could’ve been explored and made for an even richer-still plot. Instead, it’s told in a few short text vignettes. This strikes me as a missed opportunity for some really worthwhile DLC that could’ve rivaled Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare for spawning what’s practically a stand-alone spin-off within the game.

But even then, not fleshing out that story in-game isn’t really hurting anything here. Call it a “Wish List” item.

The characters within the story are fantastically developed. Only Two-Face really gets the short end of the stick. He’s the first super-villain encountered. His gang makes up about one-third of the common enemies. His courthouse scene has some of the game’s most memorable dialogue. But he feels quickly relegated to a side character until getting around to the Catwoman episodes. Such a shame, considering the dialogue suggests some serious scores to settle with Penguin and Joker, who play major parts in the overall story.

Penguin is a surprising highlight as a character. For a change, someone eschews the camp of Burgess Meredith and the silly-looking “Batman: The Animated Series” model, stops well short of Danny DeVito’s deformed “Batman Returns” Oswald Cobblepot, but delivers every inch the latter’s cruelty. Here, he’s an arms dealer with a voice like Bob Hoskins and a penchant for displaying the skeletal remains of the people who cross him in display cases inside his abandoned-museum hideout.

Yeesh.

It’s a down-to-Earth but still more grim characterization that flies in the face of director Christopher Nolan saying he’d never considering writing a “Batman” script employing Penguin because he didn’t feel the character could be portrayed seriously.

Without spoiling too much, the story with Mr. Freeze is an interesting one of an uneasy alliance between foes. Freeze is a man apart from the more important, overarching events unfolding, but he’s played here as a ruthless man who isn’t out to necessarily conquer a city or even the world. He just wants to cure his wife, Nora, and rescue her from suspended animation. He may be the game’s only true sympathetic villain.

That brings me to Joker, and the elephant in the room. Though I’m not completely sure I believe him – especially since he’s tweeted that if someone ever animates the classic story “The Killing Joke,” he’d voice the Clown Prince of Crime again – Mark Hamil has publicly said that this will be his last bow as Joker, ending just short of two full decades voicing the character since the debut of “Batman: The Animated Series.” That’s fitting, since Kevin Conroy has also said this will be the last time he voices Bruce Wayne/Batman.

And if these two are going out, they’re going out on their shields. There’s not much more that I could say about Joker here, except that as in Asylum, he shows that he’s still the only criminal that really knows Batman psychologically and knows how to manipulate him, sometimes into choices Batman would rather not make. Joker emerges from what seemingly begins as a supporting role outside what Dr. Strange has planned. But he becomes something much more dangerous by the end. The closing moments of the game truly are a farewell tribute to Hamil, it seems, something that really puts a capstone on a franchise’s era that’s spanned almost 20 years of TV, movies and video games.

Oh, and might I add, pay careful attention during the credits. Depending on certain things you do during the game, you’ll either get a moment suggesting Harley Quinn has blown a crucial gasket or an odd but awesome tribute to the end of a Gotham era.

The story unfolds across an environment that had to be more than doubled in size over Asylum just to accommodate the whole experience. That’s not just counting the city exterior, either. You have to include the city streets, numerous spaces inside buildings, tremendous subterranean labyrinthine tunnels, the all-accessible Gotham rooftops and even a climactic area scaling a tower rising above the entire city and overlooking it as it burns below. You can never realize just how massive a “confined” play area can be until you’ve played this. The underground, streets and rooftops make up something like a triple-layer cake.

To put it in better perspective: sure, the world of Assassin’s Creed is huge within any of the three games thus far. But those games take place almost entirely outdoors, spanning several cities and the countryside in between. Mass Effect is similarly expansive, but I honestly think the area one can explore across Arkham City may equal two Mass Effect areas. Fallout usually encompasses a major city and the settlements surrounding it. This is a city within a city, and it feels like there’s at least that much space. Grand Theft Auto games often are often similar, but again, they take place mostly outdoors, on the streets.

This is just an exercise in cramming 50 pounds of shit into a five-pound bag and somehow not spilling a drop.

But it’s all really anchored by improved but still balanced game-play. I made the mistake of listening to Noah Antwiler’s review of Asylum on Spoonyexperiment.com before I played it and his complaints about how short the story was and how he seemed bored by the simplicity of the free-flow combat. I say it was a “mistake” because it prejudiced me against the game before I played it, and it took a second time through before I really appreciated what the game had done.

First off, if the story is “short” to you in either game, it’s because you really didn’t explore enough. There were tons of Riddler challenges throughout the first game in addition to a decent-length story for an action-oriented brawler, and there’s about double the Riddler challenges here. There’s much, much more to do than I’ve probably done justice here. And in doing it all, there is no one set skill that can carry the day. While I agree that the free-flow combat can easily devolve into button mashing, even then, that keeps it so intuitive, that it simplifies the gameplay to the point that one can really devote more to really enjoying watching the outstanding story unfold. Also, Arkham City will absolutely let you stick to hammering the “Square” and “Triangle” buttons if you want. Go right ahead. But you’re also rewarded with accumulating XP faster and even gaining a few Riddler achievements if you mix things up.

In numerous instances, it’s evident that Rocksteady ramped up enemy AI so that wearing out the “Square” button alone for 40 hours won’t be an option, though. Certain enemies require use of specific but easily executed combos to get past body armor, shields and certain weapons. In “predator” areas, wherein Batman must stealthily take down a room of henchmen packing heat, not only are the guards smarter and more aggressive, but they’ve learned Batman’s game; here, they employ night-vision goggles to see him in the shadows and will more quickly shoot down the gargoyles from which he can take down enemies from above.

Finally, there’s the glide mechanic. With so much more ground to cover, Batman needs a faster way around. Not only can he initially be better controlled through the air, but earning the “grapnel boost” upgrade lets players soar quite literally from one end of Arkham City to the next without touching ground or rooftop once (also . . . yep, there’s a Riddler achievement for that.)

But there’s another mild complaint to attach to that: the importance of glide is really not adequately taught through the tutorial. The intention, I think, was for the grapnel-boost upgrade to be enough of a carrot on a stick to entice players into carrying out the Augmented Reality training mid-game to get it.

Well, that’s a nice theory. But it’s a flawed one. You’re never really told how important that upgrade will become later, particularly at points in the game when the rooftops are littered with snipers or during the “Cold Call Killer” side missions when you have to make it across Arkham City in, at most, three minutes to answer a phone.

The AR training is an effective way of teaching the intricacies of the glide mechanics – even if it is scarily close to Superman 64 in presentation. But it shouldn’t have been left “optional.” To me, optional means “unnecessary” or “potentially expendable.” It’s important enough that it should’ve been a mandatory part of the tutorial section.

An example why: midway into the game, Batman has to endure a . . . um . . . well, just weird section where he basically trips out a little and enters some mystical realm. Guided by Ra’s Al Ghul, he has to glide across a massive area without touching anything.

Yep. Arkham City briefly goes Silver Surfer on your ass.

(With the exception of LordKat, I don’t anybody could’ve possibly said it better than The Man, The Myth, The Nerd.)

If you haven’t done the AR training, as I hadn’t, you’ll end up as frustrated as I did. Fortunately, I’m somewhat quick on the uptake and really getting the hang instinctively of what the game never bothered teaching me only took me about 15-20 wasted minutes. But imagine someone who isn’t that intuitive.

If it’s crucial, say so. Don’t make me learn midway into the game when I’m stuck at a crucial point that your side mission is actually pretty damn important. We don’t all use walkthroughs.

Overall, there’s so much to do and so many skills that must be combined, that I can’t imagine ever finding this game’s mechanics to be lackluster. True, you will button-mash. And often, that will be enough. But rather than actively dissuade you, Rocksteady just decided to catch more flies with honey than vinegar and say “Yeah, you could do that, but look at all this other cool stuff you can do . . .” while still throwing in some sections where you won’t have a choice but to get outside your comfort zone.

If absolutely nothing else, I suggest embracing the challenge maps. If you’re really into this game and want to get better at it, there are enough variations to test one’s mettle as either the Bat or the Cat, and opportunities to get better acquainted with Nightwing and Robin along the way, as well.

It’s a game so good, that it’s quality almost works against it. I’m not sure what could top this. I can’t fathom where a third game goes from here, but it’s been said that Rocksteady developers envision a trilogy. There are hints throughout the game, as well. I won’t give too much away, but do some Easter-egg hunting. The “Watcher In The Wings” side mission concludes with an ominous prophecy hinting at tragedy for Batman. The “Identity Thief” mission concludes with a debuting killer pretty much guaranteeing retribution against Bruce Wayne. There are also hints at a significant twist involving Harley – and I’ll just say that the way it’s laid out for you, the present is paying tribute to the past and hinting at a shocking future. Details have also emerged about hidden radio frequencies that deliver coded messages such as “I will return Batman” and “You will pay for what you’ve done to me.” There are also scattered hints that the Scarecrow may be alive after all.

Rocksteady is batting 1.000 right now between these two games. Fortunately, there’s absolutely precedent for following up two phenomenal games with a third that’s equally as good if not a best for a trilogy. But doing that would put this “Batman” trilogy into highly exclusive company. We’re talking Silent Hill, Halo and God of War, off the top of my head.

By all means, Rocksteady, don’t rush anything. You’ve shown by eschewing multiplayer, that you do more sometimes when you do less in some ways. I have no doubt that putting quality over speed will be the order of the day and in hopefully more than a year, I’ll be writing another review calling the third and final act the best non-comic “Batman” story this side of Christopher Nolan and David Goyer.

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10


_____________________________________________________________________________

(NOTE: Welcome to what I hope will become a new way of doing business here at GamerXchange. This part can certainly be skipped, if you want to get straight into the review.

I ran into a small problem recently that had me confronting a much easier-to-solve problem once I found my solution. This being the Internet, and Internet media being inherently visual media, video content just keeps becoming more and more popular to the point it almost overtakes the written word. I’ll admit, it could also be a more concise way to convey information, since videos can sometimes be quicker to churn out and likewise quicker for audiences to consume.

So I tried something new recently: a video review of Batman: Arkham City. It was of a bit of a rough quality, since I shot it in about the most low-budget manner I could’ve without employing a Third-World child to peddle a bike off to the side that runs the generator feeding my laptop while I shoot. And don’t think I didn’t try that, either. Third-World adoption red tape – what can I say? It’s a time swamp.

But it mostly got across my point: that Rocksteady made one virtually perfect action-style brawler that takes everything gamers loved about Batman: Arkham Aslyum and kicks the volume up.

Still, I faced a problem: making it long enough that I really broke the game down would’ve resulted in a video that ironically would’ve taken even longer to read than the written ones I usually do. So I gave myself a reasonable time limit to talk to the camera and kept my thoughts general but clear. It would work if someone just wondered, should I buy this game or not? But it lacked detail. It lacked analysis.

So from here on out, reviews will come in twos.

Just want to know whether or not you should rent or buy a game? Keep watching the videos. The quality will only improve and I’m working on including actual gameplay footage with future releases. I’ll tell you if I thought a game was good or not and, as clearly as I possibly can, why. I’ll even try and keep the length below 16 minutes where I can.

Want more detail? Then read my written reviews – from here forward, called “Expanded Content” – that will break down games in the detail I more commonly break them down. That way, you have a choice based upon your taste.

But enough rambling. Make sure you’ve earned the grapnel boost and warm up with a little AR training. We’re spreading our cape diving, leaping off a ledge and dive-bombing right back into Batman: Arkham City.)

Advertisements

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Batman: Arkham City [Video Review] | GamerXChange - November 5, 2011

    […] tuned later tonight for a more in-depth written review that dives a little deeper into the game. But I feel this sums up the very best possible reasons […]

Sound Off!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: