Batman: Arkham City's secret weapon deserves more praise
28th Oct 2011 | 11:56
"It's 3am. Lord, it's 3am. My eyes feel scratchy, my mouth is dry and my back and legs ache from how I've been sat cross-legged and hunched over my control pad for what seems like a small age.
"I should go to bed. This is madness. I have work in the morning, deadlines to meet and my other half is getting sick of me burrowing back under the duvet when the morning alarm sounds off.
"But Gotham needs its protector. Its citizens cry out for justice. The bat signal glowers down at me above the broken spires and cracked rooftops of Arkham City. I can't turn in yet. There is still work to be done."
Batman: Arkham City is currently sitting with a 95 per cent rating on Metacritic. Out of the 65 critics who have reviewed it, 20 have given it a perfect score and over half of the rest of the reviewers score it above a 9/10.
It's been showered with praise from every quarter with critics waxing lyrical on everything from the new game mechanics, to the fantastic plot, to the addictive side-quests, to the incredible combat - which is awesomely deep when you consider it's mapped to just two buttons.
But it hasn't received enough praise, in my humble opinion, for one aspect that, funnily enough, hasn't appeared in one appraisal I've read about the game. This is a game that swallows the player to the extent that hours are reduced to time periods numbering mere minutes.
If you sit down to play this game clean-shaven, and then play it for what feels like ten minutes, you'll notice five days worth of stubble will have appeared on your face in the interim.
You see, Batman: Arkham City has the ability to bend time.
This is a fact as depressing as it is impressive. Earlier this year I signed up to a service called Raptr.com, which from what I can tell, is some sort of social network for gamers. I don't use it much, but it does send me notifications about what games I've been playing and the time I've spent playing them.
This week Raptr.com told me I'd spent 82 hours playing Batman: Arkham City. This should've shocked me. This should have prompted me to eject the game from my console and go for a walk in a park. Instead I shrugged and wondered how long it would be before I would have the chance to clock in 100 hours plus.
"The streets of Arkham City are swarming with brutal thugs, organised into gangs and terrorising the weak. Two-Face and The Penguin are warring for control of the streets. Joker's carved out a piece of turf for himself in the industrial sector. A gang war could get ugly, but that's not the whole of what I'm facing here."
"A hitman is at large in Arkham City and he's targeting innocent civilians. I know his M.O. and I know his weaknesses, but first, I have to find him. Phones ring out through the city, the killer on the other end of them mocking me, daring me to find him. There's the rest of Arkham's inmates. They're all here and they know I'm in their stamping grounds. It's a matter of time before one of them takes a shot at me."
"There's a serial killer is on the loose, leaving horribly disfigured bodies dumped in alleys. And then there's the strange, shadowy figure I've seen watching me from nearby rooftops. I don't have time to find out what his agenda is. I just know I can't let him get in my way."
"Time's running out. I've been poisoned by the Joker and I need to find an antidote before we both die.
The funny thing is, the colossal amount of time I've already thrown into this game doesn't feel like much.
This may have something to do with the fact Arkham City is fit to bursting with content. Every street contains some puzzle, some challenge or some motley collection of steroid-amped goons to kick the living excrement out of.
The game's main campaign may take around 12 hours to get through if you ignore everything at the periphery, but it's so well paced and so engaging, you feel like you're being dragged behind a speedboat rather than grinding through an urban hellhole.
The less players know about the campaign going into Batman: Arkham City, the more they'll enjoy it, so I'm not going to risk the ire of our readers by posting spoilers up here. The fact is that I've played through the campaign twice now and, on my third play-through, I'm still finding new items and information - some of which doesn't even unlock any achievements.
Did you know, for example, that one of Arkham Ayslum's inmates has a walk-on part in the sewers, where it's revealed he's turned cannibal? Did you know there's evidence to suggest a certain doctor may be hiding out somewhere in the city? Did you know one of the characters is pregnant?
You do now. But do you know who and where they are?
"And then there is the Riddler. Always the Riddler. The skyline of Arkham City is pock-marked with his work. Every other building is marked up with a neon-green question mark, challenging me to crack the puzzle connected to it.
"Nigma has taken several innocent people hostage. Their lives are on the line, but that's a secondary concern for Riddler. All he wants is to prove he's my intellectual superior. He wants me beaten, broken and humiliated. It's all about his ego.
"That's why he'll lose."
Alongside side the volume of activities in Arkham City, there's the handy fact that its plays so well. Yes, it's possible to sink two or three hours at stretch soaring from rooftop to rooftop as you pursue the story missions. It's also possible to spend that exact amount of time trying to successfully pilot a remote-controlled batarang through an electrical current and then down an air-vent to hit a control panel allowing you to pick up a Riddler trophy.
The glowing green collectibles dotted around Arkham City comprise one of the finest parts of the game. Rather than having to pull down walls or simply scan your environment, players need to exercise their grey matter to snag a lot of the Riddler trophies nestling around Arkham City.
Given that picking up enough of them unlocks more of the Riddler side-quests, even those gamers who aren't exacting or completionist in the way they play games will want to collect them all. The puzzles that guard the trophies can be laughably easy, but some of them are fiendishly hard, and cracking the more challenging trophy puzzles instills a warm glow in the player.
In terms of an ego-boost, I know of nothing comparable to it that's been released all year besides Valve's excellent puzzle-shooter, Portal 2.
But the genius of Batman: Arkham City is that while the gameplay and plot are driven by the cowl-wearing vigilante, the main mechanics would be just as compelling in any game which didn't feature him. You could strip out Bats, the Joker and the whole collection of Arkham's nutjobs and you'd still have enough puzzles, fistfights, trials and challenges to keep you glued to the game until the wee hours of the morning. Believe me, I'm speaking from experience.
"It's 4am. Nearly dawn now. There's still so much to do. Gotham will have to wait for another day while I regroup and the villains hide away to lick their wounds. Come nightfall they'd do well to stay out of my way."
"This is my city. These are my streets. And anyone who breaks the law will face my wrath. Gotham needs my protection. I will answer her call and, so help me, I will never be found wanting. "