As far as superhero video games go, Batman: Arkham Asylum is considered one of the best. Sure the Caped Crusader has seen no shortage of good games - unlike a certain other mega-popular DC hero, but a lot of the time they weren't really designed with him in mind. Even though his strengths lie in his usage of interesting bat-gadgets and stealth, he tends to find himself in games where those aspects are considered peripheral and all he's supposed to do to win is punch or shoot everything until it explodes. Arkham Asylum set the stage for what would be the ultimate Batman game with its combination of stealth, exploration, and a very well-done brawling system. As good as the game was, though, I still found it lacking in some ways. It is in these ways that Batman: Arkham City surpasses the original, but . . . I shouldn't spoil it should I?
The boss battles in Batman: Arkham City are much more developed and epic.
The story of Arkham City is for the most part an excuse to cram as much of Batman's rogues' gallery in as possible. In the first five minutes you'll run into Hugo Strange, the Penguin, Catwoman, and Two-Face. Four major characters in such a short time aren't surprising in this game. Everyone has to make his presence known or else he may as well not even exist. Arkham City is decrepit, almost like a graveyard for Gotham's criminal element; the corpses are just left lying in the streets in lieu of a proper burial. Instead of seeing cells cluttered with your favorite villain's paraphernalia, you'll pass by buildings decked out according to the whims of the supervillain that controls them. I figure if these violent psychopaths are left alone for a long enough period of time they will kill each other down to the last man. This is the last place anyone in Gotham City wants to end up.
To make matters worse, there are people who get tossed into that dreadful place because they ran a stoplight or accidentally left a grocery store without paying for a candy bar. It is also rumored that others are being locked away solely because they spoke out against those in charge. Sure, the idea of a police state might allow Bats a decent night's sleep, but it goes against his brand of justice. So Bruce Wayne devises a plan to get inside so he can save everyone. Problem is he didn't plan on Hugo Strange discovering his secret identity, nor did he prepare very well for the deluge of other mishaps and possibly catastrophic events that will make up his one night in Arkham City. What exactly did he expect? He's entering the new home of Gotham's worst.
Taking the role of Batman, you'll gather clues and follow trails until you find whatever it is you need to progress. With any sequel there is a natural progression, and in most cases Arkham City is no different. You deal with adversity in one of two ways: via massive brawls with multiple thugs or through stealthily taking out an entire squad of armed men. Both systems have seen some refinement and there are a handful of new maneuvers, abilities, and equipment to make proper use of. Just as in its predecessor, there are also a multitude of puzzles, cut scenes, and even a few boss fights. I'm particularly fond of the boss battles in this game, they're much more developed and epic, and don't usually boil down to fighting an oversized thug.
What's different now is, well . . . Batman is in a city instead of an asylum. The hallways turning into streets are all that has changed. Grappling and gliding is a lot more prevalent, at least (but don't expect the Batmobile to make an appearance so you can do some late-night cruising). Also the game still railroads you when it has to, whether it's towards a new piece of equipment or a clue that'll progress the story. For the most part, however, you're free to explore the city at your own leisure until you're ready to take on the next "dungeon." The change in progression feels sort of like going from Metroid to Zelda. Now I feel like I have to be constantly reminded I'm playing a Batman game. This is an interesting development, almost like everything has gone full-circle. Maybe I should have paid more attention when I played through Arkham Asylum, or maybe I just didn't notice because I was drawn in so well by its compelling design.
Where Batman: Arkham City falters is in the city itself. It's just not as compelling a place to explore as the asylum. The environs aren't quite as rich and the locations feel more like they were decorated for effect rather than being integral to the experience. Also, while the Riddler certainly had a presence in the first game, now he's just overbearing, since there are over four hundred of his secrets to discover and you can't walk three steps without tripping over one. Most of these can found through solving minor puzzles, and collecting those can lead to unlockables such as new stages for the challenge mode, short stories, and other assorted goodies. Most of the time, though, you'll be looking for trophies, which are denoted by neon-green question marks, and their very presence can turn the foreboding into the gaudy. Still, don't be surprised if you find yourself spending lots of time trying to gather them all; I'm certainly guilty of that much.
One of the other additions to the game is the ability to play as Catwoman. Not only does she have some significant moments in the plot, but she also has opportunities to freely explore Arkham City. Unsurprisingly, developer Rocksteady has done a fantastic job in terms of animation, as her every move is flawlessly modeled. She's also pretty entertaining to play, due to the slightly different manner in which she gets around the city and her speed in combat. Her utility belt is unfortunately pretty lacking, which can make the stealth missions a real pain. She has some of her own tricks like sticking to ceilings, but it's not something she can make good use of in every stage. Also unfortunate is that she isn't playable at all unless you purchase a new copy or an online pass.
At least Catwoman's entirely optional and you're not going to be denied your platinum trophy or full 1,000 achievement points if you choose to ignore her. If you're going for a new copy of this game you may as well go for one that includes Robin as well. He has some handy gadgets like a bullet-deflecting shield. Unfortunately his presence in the storyline barely rates as a cameo, so you'll get most of your mileage out of him through the challenge mode.
Simply beating the game is never enough these days, so Arkham City features a wealth of additional content. Riddler's Revenge is the challenge mode, where you're free to choose any character and any unlocked map. The goal, of course, is to attain the highest score in the brawl stages or the best time in the predator stages. Medals are awarded for successfully reaching goals or performing specific actions. This mode focuses on two of the strongest elements Arkham City has to offer and it's very rewarding stringing together those long flawless combos or picking off numerous well-armed guards in less than a minute. Expect Riddler's Revenge to last quite awhile given the three playable characters, twenty-four maps, and twelve campaign levels. The campaigns are unique in that they're a gauntlet of multiple stages and various modifiers are applied to make things more difficult for the heroes. For example, Bats may find himself without his precious detective mode or the combat icons that indicate when an enemy is about to attack.
There is also the new game+ mode, where you can start over again but with all of your equipment and abilities. It's a shame things aren't in your favor, though, as you'll not only be facing new combinations of enemies, but you'll lose your combat icons and just about everything does a lot more damage. On the bright, side you'll have more opportunities to test out all of the gadgets you never spent enough time with due to focusing on the story and the relative ease of your prior game. Further rounding out the additional content is a handful of side quests, though most of them lead to disappointing outcomes.
All things considered, Batman's latest adventure is a strong yet ultimately lacking affair. This sequel excels in the aspects of combat, and for some that's reason enough. But for me at least, once I got over seeing my favorite characters make an appearance the rest of the game felt a bit empty. Batman: Arkham City finds itself in an odd place: it lacks the claustrophobia that helped Arkham Asylum work as an experience, and its open-world qualities aren't nearly as involved as some other superhero games. Given the choice, I hope the next game leans towards what Asylum started in terms of atmosphere and story but also retains the advanced combat maneuvers and more compelling boss battles that City brought to the table.