Batman: Arkham City
14th Oct 2011 | 13:00
Batman: Arkham City has already been labelled "one of the greatest games ever" by our friends at Games Master in their review - a sizeable claim indeed.
Sure, our expectations sky-rocketed from the boggy marshes of licensed chopped liver and into the superhero stratosphere with Arkham Asylum in 2009, but this is only Rocksteady's third game. The notion of such a young studio competing with the top developers in the world so soon is surely unexpected.
But now we can answer the question that's been plaguing you for months. Is the Arkham City hype justified?
First of all, Bat fans, you've probably already guessed that you're going to go absolutely crazy for Arkham City. All gaming elements aside, it's simply one of the best Batman interpretations we've seen to date. That's including film, TV, even comics.
And it's for the same reasons that Arkham Asylum became such a fanboy favourite so quickly. Rocksteady completely understands the finest details of Batman and his rogue gallery. With the likes of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returning as well, plus Animated Series and DC Comics writer Paul Dini holding the pen, there's no denying that in terms of characterisation and plot, Arkham City is as authentic a Batman experience as any.
Then there are the design philosophies running throughout. When it comes to characters like Catwoman, Two-Face, The Joker or Batman himself, Rocksteady has adhered to classic, recognisable designs with a touch of modernisation and the benefit of incredible detail. The Batsuit changes with the light, for example, making for some truly iconic silhouettes at times.
We were admittedly concerned about the studio taking some liberties, however. Mr. Freeze's bulkier than usual 'trash can' suit, for example, or Penguin's glass bottle monocle and cockney accent left us edgy. But we're pleased to say that after every new introduction we were left at ease and more than satisfied with Rocksteady's unique take. Nods of approval all round.
And there are so many characters behind the walls of Arkham City for Rocksteady to play with and Bat fans to get excited about. While Asylum had countless winks and artefacts pointing to Bat characters that weren't included in the original, Arkham City spoils fans by slinging in just about every villain worth his salt.
You already know about the majority of characters featured in the sequel, Rocksteady hasn't been shy about revealing names even as obscure a Solomon Grundy, all the time assuring us that there are more to come. Let us second that promise right now. There are plenty more characters waiting in the wings to take you by surprise in the suped-up Asylum.
But that's the surface of the game, the ink on the comic-book panel. Rocksteady's 2009 take on Batman was special because of its incredible level of fan-service, no doubt, but what made it a smash hit was its mechanics. It made you feel as cerebral, dangerous and predatorial as The Dark Knight himself with a number of incredibly effective systems that were as simple to pick up as they were difficult to master.
Those core foundations haven't really changed much and why should they? Batman's free-flowing combat is still a game of timing as you leap from one target to the next countering and smashing your way through crowds to make your attacks harder and faster. New animations take things up a notch and new gadgets - like the freeze-blast - and enemy types add a bit more variation.
Indoor level structure too remains familiar with players either flailing through a room of thugs or using gadgets and a dab of brain juice every now and then to work their way from one objective to the next. You might be tempted to flash the repetition card ever so briefly here but, as with Asylum, the gameplay is so satisfying and the story so compelling, that we became too engrossed to notice.
OUT INTO THE KNIGHT
But it's Arkham City itself that provides the giant leap forward in Arkham Asylum. The effects of introducing an open world to the Arkham universe manifest themselves in a number of incredibly significant ways.
Try to remember the biggest gauntlet of goons you were faced with in Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was probably the corridor of Joker jumpsuits acting as a welcoming committee to the clown's make-shift fun house, or the penultimate boss battle pitting you against two Titan monsters and a horde of henchmen.
Now try to remember just how overwhelming it felt to face that many foes, how the intensity spiked, how it took just about every trick you'd learnt in the Asylum to survive the slog to the finish.
In Batman: Arkham City, Rocksteady doesn't wait until the final act to hit you with impossible odds. In Arkham City, you can be faced with the biggest fight of your life, only fractions into the campaign, simply for landing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In Arkham Asylum you'd find yourself having to play a cautious game and rethink tactics as soon as an assault rifle entered the equation. In Arkham City you might turn a corner to see two dozen enemies in one place all packing major heat.
When that happens, it's not a case of rethinking tactics, it's a case of avoiding the fight altogether. It makes for bursts of tension on the fly, it places massive hurdles in what should be a routine journey from point A to point B. Most importantly, it contributes to what makes Rocksteady's take on the character such an authentic and exciting one. It reaffirms the core principle of Batman - that he's not Superman.
Having gangs of Arkham inmates littered about the city in varying numbers and threat levels also means that the Predator sections that were a highlight in the first game make it outside where they're no longer quite so black and white.
Go into one of the buildings in Arkham City and you'll more than likely come across a familiar Predator set-up at some point - gargoyles, air vents and all. When it comes to the mean streets though, it's up to you to judge when you need to take a Predator approach.
As you'd expect, a lot of Batman's top rogues have a sizeable security team outside their base of operations so, more often than not, you'll arrive at the stronghold and quickly realise that knocking on the door isn't going to be an option.
What you have then is essentially a Predator map of colossal size. We arrived at Sionis Industries to take out The Joker, for example, only to find that he had about ten men covering the entrance on the ground and four or five more watching from above with sniper rifles.
We slammed on the brakes, took a knee on a near-by rooftop and assessed the situation before employing Predator techniques in an environment that allowed for more improvisation than anything in Arkham Asylum.
DEATH FROM ABOVE
Instead of gargoyles we were striking from rooftops, billboards, cranes and lampposts. Instead of navigating a room forty feet across, we were navigating an area covering a hundred metres or more in all directions. Swooping down from sixty story buildings and taking out our man before grappling up to another high point to escape.
Indoors, we found ourselves relying on the incredibly effective glide-kick too often. The sheer badass nature of Batman's other take-downs (the vertical takedown, stealth attacks from behind, yanking people over edges with the Batclaw) will encourage you to mix things up again. But it's the more natural Predator situations outside that force you to really think like the Bat.
We thought Rocksteady had done a good job of making us feel like The Dark Knight in its original title, but superhero satisfaction was taken to a whole new level when we were tasked with rescuing the feeble Quincy Sharp from a gang of terrorising thugs. Again, all armed.
Glaring down on the scene like only The Batman can - cape flapping, ears proud, face shadowed - we asked 'What Would Wayne Do?' (That's Bruce Wayne, not Wayne Rooney or Wayne Sleep).
The newly included smoke pellet provided the answer. Aiming upwards, we threw a capsule into the centre of the circular beat down. Sure it would choke Quincy a little bit, but it would also blind his attackers.
Once they were suitably confused we swooped down from our vantage point, hitting one armed goon with a solid glide kick, disarming another with our Batclaw and nailing another with a hard headbutt. It was an incredibly clinical ballet of pain and we were done in seconds. The smoke cleared to reveal Batman standing over Sharp and a few lifeless sacks of meat.
If we had to point to any scene in the history of Batman media to illustrate what The Dark Knight is all about it would be the one we had just created ourselves in Arkham City. We can't applaud Rocksteady enough for managing to achieve something as special as that.
LIKE A BOSS
A perfect game, then? Don't be silly. We'd still point out an over-reliance on the Titan tanking boss brutes (although Mr. Freeze is a welcome exception requiring smarts) and, as we said previously, indoor sections don't make many big leaps ahead of what we saw in the game's predecessor.
But the advances Rocksteady has made in the open world shift the focus significantly. It means that any points some may have found slightly grinding originally - be it the level design, boss battles of Predator sections - are part of a much bigger whole product that brings a new balance and mitigates any quibbles.
We still have a little bit of trepidation over the effect side-quests could have on the main story. Arkham Asylum's main campaign was perfectly paced and, as we embarked on our new adventure, we could feel the Arkham City plot slipping from our grasp slightly as we stopped to hammer every henchman and rescue every victim that shouted for help.
The Arkham City story is one where time is always running out, someone is always about to die or something is always about to explode. We chose to focus on the main plot thread pretty early on for that reason but, thankfully, Batman swoops back behind enemy lines post-credits to mop up the remaining dregs.
The side-quests that were thrown our way though were varied and the ones we embarked on were suitably exhilarating. Mr. Zsaz stood out particularly as he charged us with reaching a certain pay-phone before it stopped ringing to save a hostage.
We landed with 30 seconds to spare but happened to run into some loitering thugs before we could reach the phone itself. Once again a Hollywood style twist emerged as we had to finish off a good handful of henchmen in half a minute before diving for the receiver. The mission played out like a scene from the silver screen and once again we felt as heroic and dramatic as the Caped Crusader himself.
In that sense, Batman: Arkham City scores a striking victory for the same reasons that Arkham Asylum smashed prejudices two years ago. But this is very much Rocksteady's Dark Knight to its Batman Begins. Everything about Arkham City is bigger, bolder and prettier than before.
Players are more empowered to create their own epic mini-moments, whether it's dive-bombing deep into a narrow ally to avoid machine-gun fire, zip-lining across the city skyline or sweating buckets in marathon battles that dwarf anything thrown your way in Asylum.
The same goes for the story, which opens proceedings with an intro that will have fans frothing at the mouth, and finishes on a revelation that would be considered a ballsy move in the comics let alone some spin-off video game.
But that's the point: Rocksteady elevated the status of the superhero game with Asylum to a place that commands respect from notoriously hard to please comic book fans. With Arkham City, the studio clearly overcame any added pressure quickly and waded into the sequel with confidence.
It's a belief in the character and, most importantly, a belief in itself that has seen the studio deliver one of the greatest Batman interpretations of all time. And you know what? Maybe even one of the best games ever.