Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Game Review: Batman - Arkham City

Format Played: X-Box 360

May as well lead with the obvious: this is not a very objective review. I am a big DC Comics fanboy, a moderate Batman fanboy and Batman: Arkham Asylum is my favourite console game of the current generation.

Well, not is. Was.

If you asked a generic crop of gamers prior to 2009 whether a superhero title (which wasn't even affiliated with a movie or other media release) would become one of the most popular critical picks of the decade, you would be laughed out of whatever filthy stinkhole you had managed to gather them together in. And yet here we are, poring over the follow-up to Rocksteady's acclaimed original and wondering how in the hell they got it all so right.

Arkham City follows more or less straight on from the events of Arkham Asylum - a considerable section of Gotham has been walled off following a series of convenient catastrophes that have left it badly damaged and partly-flooded, and former asylum governor and certifiable lunatic Quincy Sharp has become Mayor. These two events result in a perfect storm of most of the city's thugs and supervillain types being 'incarcerated' within the disaster zone - enter Batman, stage right.

It's a setting and story as masterfully crafted as the first installment, with the decaying Arkham City as best supporting actor. As an environment it is potentially unmatched - neon glowing over Gothic architecture, gargoyles leering alongside ever-vigilant security cameras and helicopters that are both monitored by the twisted prison overseer Hugo Strange. Graphically the console experience is almost peerless, particularly in terms of lighting and textures - though there is some pop-in on the latter at times. The smallest of details become the ones that pull you in - the way the Dark Knight's cowl slowly frosts over as the snow continues to fall, the waypoints set by the player that are marked by the Bat Signal shining over the location.

Compared to other open world games the total area is lacking, but it is the sheer quantity and quality of gameplay packed into this space that puts many other game designers to shame. As well as a meaty and thoroughly engrossing main campaign that pulls in characters from the expanded Batman universe of the comics (with a hefty nod to the '90s cartoon series, as one might expect considering series veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammill are back on board as Batman and Joker), Arkham City is littered with other activities. There are a series of four Catwoman missions threaded through Batman's story - entirely new tactics are needed as you whiplash and claw your way around as the faster but more vulnerable Selina Kyle.

Padding out the main missions are side quests are of varying length and depth, but mostly excellent. And varied, too. One minute you may be co-ordinating a sequence of enigmatic arcane sigils left on rooftops by a mysterious stranger, the next you will be analysing a crime scene to pinpoint the bullet trajectory left by a gun-for-hire who needs putting down. Said crime scene analysis manages to feel like a massive step-up from the limited detective sections present in Arkham Asylum, despite not offering anything fundamentally new. As with most elements in the game, it is all about implementation and the remarkably intuitive controls.

These side quests frequently involve one of a glut of Bat-villians who pop in for brief but frequently engaging cameos, leaving you wanting more. A genuinely unnerving Mad Hatter is a highlight, and is probably the closest Arkham City comes to the fourth-wall breaking Scarecrow sections of the first game.

As well as the new side quests, there is the return of Riddler trophies and puzzles for you to hunt down, this time spiced up with the chance to rescue hostages from a series of deathtraps along the way. The sheer range of options to pursue as you make your way into Arkham City for the first time can be somewhat intimidating, and indeed the opening hour or so of the game is a slight hiccup in terms of pacing. It never fails to excite, but for those gamers who have returned time and again to the far more linear original it may jar somewhat.

Throughout the writing and voice acting veers from respectable to exceptional, with Conroy and Hammill in particular providing the finest performances of their decades-long roles as the respective icons. Fan service is prevalent, with Rocksteady's love of the source material clearly shining through. As with the first installment, you will perhaps have a head start on elements such as Riddles and guessing the plot twists before they occur if you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Batman. That's not to say that you will enjoy it less if you don't, mind. It just adds extra spice for those individuals lucky/tragic enough to have such insight. The conclusion of the main campaign manages to be emotive, powerful and apt - three things that are lacking in most games, and unheard of in superhero games.

That's the content sorted, then. "But what of the control and gameplay itself, you vicious misanthrope?" I hear you scream in a thrashing fury.

Well, I am firmly of the opinion that one of the marks of good game design is the ability to make a game fun even when you are traversing the environment in order to get to the good bits. And so to the likes of Red Dead Redemption's horseplay and Assassin's Creed's turbo-parkour we can now add the Caped Crusader swooping and grappling around a wretched urban hellhole. Further gadgetry opened up later in the game enhances this, allowing you to slingshot yourself into the air at high speed and dive/updraft yourself for massively extended airtime. While exhilarating, this does suffer somewhat from a lack of fine control - which doesn't affect enjoyment of the main storyline or most side quests at all, but certainly makes obtaining some Riddler trophies and making it through Augmented Reality challenges as much luck as judgement.

Combat and stealth operate on much the same principles as the original - the former tightened and more fluid than ever, with Batman now able to counter multiple enemy attacks at once. The animation is both more varied and more brutal, and the first time you crack two thug's heads against each other while kicking another in the face you may well suffer a mild embolism while gurgling in inarticulate joy.  Gadgets have been worked into combat far more slickly as well, allowing you to set explosive traps and electrify bad guys flawlessly while spinning between them with fists and feet flying. A level of complexity has been added with armoured and shielded enemies, each of which must be dealt with by using specific takedowns.

Stealth is perhaps the least altered of all the game mechanics - which is probably for the best, since it was the undoubted high point of Arkham Asylum - and mainly consists of sneaking around picking off gun-toting victims one by one with a slowly creeping (and potentially disastrous) sense of omnipotence. Again, extra equipment has been parcelled out to both Batman and his nefarious foes to create a sense of slow escalation. Most of the technology, upgrades and combos for all gameplay elements are tied in to a levelling system that manages to throw access to sweet new devices at you just when they become very handy indeed.

When you are finished with the main package and side quests, a task which could certainly take 15 hours or more, there is a veritable smorgasbord of challenge maps and campaigns to take on. These are split into combat and stealth maps, with medals to obtain via high scores and specific takedowns per map. It certainly doesn't provide the depth of a prolonged multiplayer or co-op option, but is a potentially significant timesink if the rest of the game left you wanting more. Which it will.

Arkham City is undoubtedly my favourite game of this console generation, supplanting the first in almost every way that matters. It is a triumph of both style and substance, but perhaps the best thing one can say about Arkham City is that - even more than the original - it makes you feel like Batman. And if you have never wanted to be Batman, I'm not sure you even qualify as human.

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