“Gotham City. Clean shafts of concrete and snowy rooftops. The work of men who died generations ago. From here, it looks like an achievement. From here, you can’t see the enemy.”
The inevitable byproduct of a cast and crew too talented not to make a sequel, Batman: Arkham City is the follow up of 2009‘s femur-snapping, psychological Game of the Year, Arkham Asylum. City was also developed by Rocksteady Studios and released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 systems (and Microsoft Windows, but nobody cares), and it sees the return of legends Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and writer Paul Dini. If you loved Asylum, you’ll probably at least “like” Arkham City. Though it may at times feel a little too bloated by ambition for its own good, it’s a worthy sequel with plenty of definitive Batman moments and an incredible storyline.
After the cataclysmic events in the previous story, the Asylum has been deemed inefficient (finally) and the top brass of Gotham have at last decided to do something about their city’s criminal insanity. Gotham city Mayor Quincy Sharp, formerly the warden of Arkham Asylum in the first game, has taken credit for stopping the Joker’s plans in the asylum, which catapulted him into the office of mayor. His solution to Gotham’s crime is to convert the slums into a giant, maximum security super-prison, walled off from the rest of the populace, presided over by the authoritarian psychiatrist Dr. Hugo Strange, and patrolled day and night by his militaristic force of highly trained soldiers called TYGER. The new prison is dubbed Arkham City, a modern improvement upon the aged asylum. There, the prisoners are free to do anything minus escaping. It’s essentially a no man’s land in the vein of Escape from New York but with frickin’ Batman in it.
Sounds alright, don’t it? I mean, they’re just criminals. But it turns out that six months after completion, several political enemies of the mayor and outspoken opponents of Arkham City have begun disappearing. When Bruce Wayne is the next humanitarian to voice his complaints against Arkham City, he is taken into custody and thrown into the super-prison himself. There he meets the resident psychiatrist, Huge Strange, who has surmised the true identity of the Batman as Bruce Wayne with, y’know, logic and stuff. Strange talks the usual bad-guy speech and mentions something called Protocol 10. Inside the prison, incarcerated dogs and animals are practically salivating for his blue blood. But they don’t know his dark secret.
I’m going to summarize the entire plot and attempt to indicate spoilers that come as suprises, but if you’d rather not know the entire story without playing the game, then please skip down the The 8-Bit Review below.
As the Batman, Bruce escapes into the prison and encounters rogue elements within Arkham City attempting to organize factions from the chaotic free-for-all and carve out their own territories, each with their own agenda. The Penguin is an arms dealer. Two-Face controls a large force under the false pretense of “justice”. Poison Ivy is holed up in the northern region. The Mad Hatter is reliving his fantasies. Bane has set up a fighting ring and is collecting the Titan super-steroid. Even Catwoman, who has been prowling about, makes an appearance. Actually, she’s a playable character.
Her apartment happens to be inside the new super-prison. Did they even evacuate anyone? Or were they just like “You’re poor so we’re turning your neighborhood into Sing, Sing”?
Batman rescues Catwoman from Two-Face and asks her about Protocol 10. Kitty has no idea. He then saves her again from being assassinated by the Joker.
It’s Batman’s confrontation with the Joker that is truly unnerving. Of course. Taking the industrial zone as his domain, rumors circulate that the Joker is sick and dying. Indeed he is. Turns out the massive overdose of Titan formula that transformed him into a hulking monstrosity in the first game? Not so good for his health.
Yes, the Joker has signed his own death sentence, and Batman’s too once he injects the Dark Knight with a sample of his own blood. It gets worse. With the Joker it always does. The madman has sent other tainted blood samples to hospitals across Gotham, guaranteeing that an endemic would sweep the city with the same ailment the Joker and now Batman currently suffer from. The Caped Crusader may have been content to let the Joker, or even himself perish, but he cannot allow innumerable innocents to suffer such a fate. And thus the Joker has forced Batman to find a cure.
So finding the cure involves hunting down someone the Joker blackmailed into developing it: Victor Fries (that’s Mister Freeze, to you), a cryoscientist supervillain who is also looking to cure his wife’s terminal illness while she’s in stasis. Unfortunately for Batman, Mr. Freeze has been villain-napped by the Penguin. Sighing with the exhaustion of an errand-boy, Batman breaks into Penguin’s iceberg lounge, rescues some captured cops, fights through the usual thugs and hopped up Titan monsters, battles Solomon Grundy in the basement, and rescues Freeze from a fate worse than hearing the Penguin’s ridiculous cockney accent any longer.
However, Freeze’s cure is incomplete and requires a restorative chemical before it can be finished. Batman recognizes the missing chemical as identical to a natural enzyme someone has been exposing himself to for generations: Ra’s al Ghul. Batman tracks down the League of Assassins and is confronted by on-again off-again girlfriend, Talia al Ghul. Nothing like seeing an old flame again when you’re slowly dying. The Joker’s tainted blood is quickly having a physical effect on Batman, slowing him down.
Ra’s demands that Batman become his successor as leader of the League but Batman tells him “nuh uh, girl” and takes a sample of Ra’s blood for use in Freeze’s cure. On his way back to the lab, Batman encounters thugs surrounding Mayor Sharp. Turns out Sharp had acquiesced to Strange because the psychiatrist had powerful friends who helped Sharp win the election if only he would turn a blind eye to Stange’s plans.
Unfortunately (there are a lot of unfortunately’s), Mister Freeze has had enough of playing second fiddle. He locks away the antidote in an attempt to force Batman into rescuing his wife, now wife-napped by the Joker. Fully armored in his cryosuit, he attacks Batman and the two duke it out for the cure. Best boss fight in the game. Just saying.
Too bad that when the testosterone subsides Batman discovers that the antidote has been stolen by Harley Quinn. Rushing to the Joker’s hideout, Batman rescues reporter Vicki Vale and Oracle informs him that Protocol 10 is about to begin in 30 minutes. What is Protocol 10? (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Strange’s plan to launch missiles into Arkham City to stop the inmates from using firearms to stage a revolt, firearms which he provided them.
When he finally catches up with the Joker, Batman finds that he has been cured. The Dark Knight delivers some brutal justice but Talia interrupts and offers to give Joker the position of successor to Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Assassins, and the secret of immortality. Joker might be crazy but he’s not an idiot. Talia plants one of Batman’s trackers on herself, knowing her “beloved” will follow her.
Now he’s left with a dilemma: rescue Talia from the Joker or stop Protocol 10. Alfred wisely insists that one life cannot outweigh thousands (and besides Talia is a hussie). So Batman rushes off to Wonder Tower in the center of Arkham City. Inside the Tower, Strange taunts Batman with the thought that Gotham’s criminal element is all the fault of the Dark Knight, that his presence has created a city where crime has spiraled out of control, and that the only way to solve the problem is by blowing crap up. When Batman confronts Strange and shuts down Protocol 10, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Ra’s al Ghul appears and runs Strange through with a sword. Ra’s is revealed to be Strange’s “powerful friend”, orchestrating the election of Mayor Sharp and the construction of Arkham City for Protocol 10 in order to wipe out crime in Gotham and bring harmony back into the world. Now that Strange has failed him as his possible successor, Ra’s doesn’t need him anymore.
Strange executes Protocol 11, detonating the top of Wonder Tower.
The night isn’t over yet. The Joker contacts Batman and says he has taken Talia hostage at the Monarch Theatre (which is the theatre Bruce visited with his parents as a child shortly before they were gunned down, because thematics). At the theatre, the Joker demands that Batman fork over the cure. Bats is confused since the Joker seems to be healthy and Harley had already stolen the cure. Talia then breaks free and kills the Joker with her sword. She tells Batman that she stole the cure back from Harley Quinn.
Now the detective begins to put it all together: (spoiler: highlight to reveal) he remembers seeing a seemingly dead Joker in a wheelchair, the two Joker playing cards left in place of the stolen cure, and the image of a healthy Joker staring into a mirror that reflected a sickly Joker. There are two Jokers. Talia is then shot by the true Joker, who is still sick, and the seemingly dead clone writhes back to life: Clayface, seeking “the role of a lifetime”. Batman battles Clayface in the theatre and then falls into the basement below where a Lazarus Pit has been set up with its restorative chemical bath. However, Batman throws Talia’s sword in the main generator and knocks Clayface’s body into the Pit to contaminate its chemicals. All the is left is the cure.
Batman drinks almost all of the antidote and recovers from his illness. The Joker demands that Batman give him the cure, knowing that Batman will save him. The Dark Knight pauses… remembering all the death and misery his adversary has caused, all the lives he has destroyed and all the horror he has brought into his life. Maybe he does deserve to die. Desperate, the Joker stabs Batman in the arm and Batman drops the vial of the remaining antidote. It shatters on the floor. Screaming, the Joker tries to lap up what’s left of the chemicals. Batman looks on in pity and says these words: “Do you want to know something funny. Even after everything you’ve done, I would have saved you.” The Joker gasps, “That actually is… pretty funny…” and then he lies down and dies.
Carrying the body of his nemesis past the shocked faces of gangs and Harley Quinn, past a wide-eyed Commissioner Gordon, Batman lays the Joker’s body on the hood of a police car and walks away without a word.
Drop the jaws. Roll credits. Play “Only You” sung by Mark Hamill.
The 8-Bit Review:
City’s graphics are a clear step up from Asylum’s. Better costumes, more detailed backgrounds and characters, more variations of thugs, more articulate animations, and
thankfully less of that “glisten” on everything. I just don’t know what it is about Batman’s face that is weird. Maybe the brow is too high?
Cowl complaints aside, there is very little to complain about in the visual department. Once again, Rocksteady nailed the appearances of the villains, like Mister Freeze. Not a fan of Penguin and Two-Face. But Gotham itself has never been more vividly grimy, immersive and revolting. Weather effects are astounding. Detective mode got a visual upgrade too.
The real winner is the cutscenes. The mouths are much more articulate when the characters are speaking and the level of detail they put into the game is simply masterful. Oh and there are just as many visual easter eggs to find as in the first game.
If you’ve played both Asylum and City, than you’ll have recognized by now the main musical theme for the series. It sounds more like Zimmer’s score for the Dark Knight trilogy. The quick strings, blaring brass and oohing and ahhing choir is all distinctly Batman. Great soundtrack that could easily pass for a Hollywood score.
There are also some stellar performances by the voice actors. Again, I’m not ecstatic about Two-Face’s and Penguin’s voices. The former sounds like he’s attempting to channel the gravel of his animated series counterpart, only it just doesn’t quite make the distance, and the latter, while consistent, is really off putting to me. Whenever Penguin talks I just hear “Oy!” This might not mean much to everyone but I also thought there was simply too much language in City, as compared to Asylum, and there are several moments where it took me out of the experience.
Kevin Conroy still does what he does best. There are a few moments when it feels like he’s audibly phoning it in. But his baritone is irreplaceable. Of course, Mark Hamill still out-performs as the Joker, adding his layer of gurgling raspiness and coughs to portray the clown’s sickness. The rest of the voice cast has a lot of charm: special shout out to Catwoman, the Mad Hatter, the Calendar Man, Dr. Strange, Alfred, Oracle and Ra’s al Ghul, particularly. Arleen Sorkin retired from voicing Harley and is replaced by a shaky and squeaky Tara Strong who is a great actress but fails to capture the energy of the original. There are a few other voices that sound a little hokey, as if they’re aware they’re in a video game, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) like Clayface.
A featurette on the cast can be peeped here. Below is the song “Only You” from the credits sequence.
Batman is now more capable of a crime fighter than ever before. Arkham City accepts everything that was great about the predator and combat modes in Asylum and builds on them by adding new gadgets, such as the freeze grenade, the remote electrical charge, and the line launching, and adding new takedowns: one of my favorites is the disarming takedown where Batman picks out an enemy with a weapon and takes it from them and breaks it, snapping baseball bats over his knee, bending riot shields and disassembling firearms. The addition of these new tools and abilities are welcome and necessary in consideration of this being a sequel, but they add a new layer of difficulty to learn and retain more button inputs than you had to on the last outing. More on that later.
The boss fights were great inArkham Asylum. Here, they’re absolutely wonderful. Compare the final bosses of both games. There is no comparison, is there? More strategy and timing must be employed during boss fights, ramping up their complexity, and making them more enjoyable. To tout an old horn once again, the battle against Mister Freeze is so involved and innovative, allowing you to plan how you’ll take him down uniquely, that it may just be one of the best boss fights I’ve ever played through in any game.
One final note on gameplay, this entry is more open-world than its predecessor. There’s a much bigger space to explore. That means it’s a much bigger space to get sidetracked in. The storyline can feel disjointed because of this fact and because of all the errands Batman is running around completing for his villains. Too many things to do at once is a double-edged sword. It feels more realistic and puts you at the helm of steering Batman’s course, but it grinds the narrative to a halt, at times, because of the sheer amount of stuff they added to the gameplay.
Gameplay interruptions aside, the narrative itself for Arkham City excels. Of course it does. It is once again penned by the great Paul Dini. I’m talking about the central storyline here, experienced without getting sidelined by all the sidequests in City. Not that those aren’t terrific. They are. But if you spend too much time on them it will ruin the central storyline and make you forget what’s going on with Dr. Strange and Protocol 10.
Besides for the main narrative, numerous side-missions feature an assortment from Batman’s rogues gallery: the Mad Hatter, Deadshot, Zsasz, the Riddler, the Calendar Man, and Hush, as well as dozens of tiny references to many others. The references even extend to Bat-moments outside of the comics, like this scene that shows up in Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge:
Figuring out ways to include another batch of Batman baddies ranges from genius to ham-handed, at times. Mister Freeze is amazing in his high-tech cryosuit armor but Ra’s al Ghul being conveniently nearby is an example of the latter. But it’s awesome to see some of the more obscure villains getting their moments in the limelight. All of these bizarre and psychotic personalities come together to drive the narrative forward to a head, to its inevitable and tragic? conclusion.
There are enough plot twists in City to keep even the World’s Greatest Detective guessing.
Here we are then. In my opinion this is something which made for an inferior game to Asylum despite everything City has going for it in the references, narrative and visual departments: the fact that adding to Batman’s array of abilities cumulatively decreases accessibility. There seem to be just enough new skills and gadgets added to the game for use in combat, and new button inputs for special combos, that it was more than my brain could handle. Trying to remember all of them to keep your combos mixed is increasingly difficult as the game progresses. Batman can do so many things that it’s hard for a mere mortal to keep up with all of the new features of gliding, gadgeting, navigating, preying, and punching gangsters in the nuts. Where’s the ceiling where adding too many new features becomes unintelligible and unplayable? It is the fact that you have so many opportunities to do your best to memorize these new inputs that is the saving factor.
There is even more to do than in Asylum. That’s really the point isn’t it. There’s so much more to explore and find and do, and the numerous side-missions will keep you busy for quite some time. Then there’s still the extra predator and combat missions, now with multiple playable characters for all the separate missions and mission campaigns. You can play not only as Bats, but as “third time’s the charm” sidekick Robin, ex-sidekick “I’m moving out soon as I turn 18” Nightwing, and “I’ll call you when I’m bored” Catwoman.
Each character comes with their own set of skills, skins, takedowns, abilities and gadgets. This mix adds a lot of replay value in trying to figure out situations from a different perspective and approach than Batman’s. It also adds some real difficulty. I cannot to this day beat the final Catwoman campaign.
Now become a trademark of the series, there’s also the Riddler challenges. You didn’t think I forgot about them, did you? Actually, the predator and combat missions have been re-styled as Riddler challenges. But in Arkham City, the king of conundrums has laid out elaborate traps and puzzles to perplex the Caped Crusader, demanding that he use his high-tech tools to track down and unlock every last Riddler trophy. Some of these puzzles are as easy as hitting a switch with a well-aimed batarang. Others may leave even the Dark Knight scratching his head and calling for Alfred. The best thing is, you finally get to face the Riddler, mano a bat-mano, and hit him where it hurts: in his swollen ego. Trust me, you’ll really want to.
Considering that Batman: Arkham City borrows from its predecessor, a score of a seven is fairly generous. But here it’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It gets brownie points for the narrative it bears up and the supervillains it manages to include. And even if it doesn’t really bring too many new things to the series, feeling a little like you’ve been there and done that before, it’s still a stand out game in the third person, action adventure genre.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I didn’t enjoy Arkham City as much as I did Asylum. Whereas the previous installment felt focused and had an air of claustrophobic dread, City just feels dirty and busy. Nothing wrong with busyness, but it might have benefitted from allocating more of its side-missions to endgame content, rather than giving the player the choice to pursue this villain or that and ignore the storyline, which is so good when taken on its own. That’s just my opinion, but then if you’re reading this, you know what the heading for this score is all about. All in all, Arkham City is a worthy successor to the crown jewel that was Arkham Asylum, bringing some new things to the table like more playable characters, villains, gadgets and skills, and it may feel a little out of proportion for that. It’s not as good as the first one, but this is still a definitive take on Batman and the direct it takes the mythos with its shocking ending is sure to leave audiences desperate to know how the Dark Knight will be changed by what he has experienced. City ends with a sense that the worst is yet to come and that it can no longer be simply the status quo.
Aggregated Score: 8.2
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Categories: Game Review