Batman: Arkham Asylum is to Batman what GoldenEye is to James Bond. Like Rare’s classic 007 shooter, Rocksteady Studios’ 2009 Batman game understands the abilities and conventions of the character. Rather than recreating the experience of watching a Batman or Bond movie, both games simulate being Batman or Bond.
The impact of both titles was also relatively unexpected – especially true for Bat-fans, jaded after years of mediocre movie tie-ins, and given Rocksteady’s limited gaming pedigree (only one previous game to its name, the forgettable first-person shooter Urban Chaos: Riot Response).
With an overwhelmingly positive response to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady Studios only had one challenge – how to build a better sequel after setting the bar so high. Expanding the game beyond Arkham Asylum was the logical next step, and the open world Batman: Arkham City followed in 2011.
“I seek the means to fight injustice.”
Arkham City asks the player – what would Batman do? Everything is grounded in the Dark Knight’s abilities and equipment. From the moment Bruce Wayne pulls on the cape and cowl it’s clear that Rocksteady have delivered on their promise to create a “Batman in Gotham” feeling.
All of Batman’s moves return from Arkham Asylum, but the city environment fundamentally changes the way they can be used. Arkham Asylum’s layout was relatively compact, a perfectly formed arena in which to utilize Batman’s grapnel gun and cape glide. In the expanse of Arkham City, these two moves can be combined, enabling the player to grapple onto buildings while in flight. And Rocksteady have added the ability to send Batman into a headfirst dive, picking up speed that can be used to climb and glide further over the city:
The glide-and-grapple gameplay is completely flawless. Scrambling over the rooftops of Gotham is so much fun that it’s easy to forget the mission you were attempting.
He may look and feel heavy, but in action Rocksteady’s Batman is the most agile video game character since Nintendo first sent a portly plumber running, diving, and climbing in Super Mario 64. The superb controls give the player full mastery over the environment – the mark of a truly great video game.
As with Arkham Asylum, the missions range from light puzzle-solving to stealth-based combat to out-and-out punch-ups. Once again Batman’s “wonderful toys” are key. Explosive gel can be used to demolish walls, opening up new areas or secrets. Batarangs can knock out henchman from range. The Batsuit’s built-in Detective Vision highlights bad guys and other points of interest. New gadgets include a remote disruptor that can jam an enemy’s gun, smoke pellets that provide cover when spotted, and “Freeze Blast” grenades that solidify bad guys in ice. Your arsenal of gadgets are both fun and functional. In stealth sections particularly, judicious use of your weaponry is required.
The Batsuit may be tough enough to withstand a few stray bullets, but taking on a gang of armed thugs is suicide. In true Dark Knight fashion, missions demand smart positioning using elevated positions, silent takedowns, and “theatricality and deception” through gadgetry to stealthily pick off bad guys one by one. Every element of Batman: Arkham City – the movement, weaponry, and combat – combines brilliantly in these missions.
“Gotham isn’t beyond saving.”
Gliding around Gotham is good fun, but it’s the level design that focuses the game. This last generation has been a golden age of open world gaming, but Batman: Arkham City is no Grand Theft Auto clone. Rather than attempt to create a massive urban environment, Arkham City is instead an enclosed prison, a downtown area cordoned off from the rest of Gotham and overseen by Professor Hugo Strange’s private security force. Arkham City is ultimately a police state, populated by Gotham’s most violent criminals, including Batman’s rogues’ gallery of supervillains.
This setting frees Rocksteady from the limitations of open world gaming. There is no need for civilian bystanders (apart from a few unlucky political prisoners). Wide open spaces designed for driving are not required either, since Batman himself is the perfect vehicle for navigating Gotham. The inability to access buildings – long a source of frustration for Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed players – is a non-issue in Batman: Arkham City, since most of the buildings here are abandoned. Batman: Arkham City has more in common with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid series, with the cityscape functioning as an overworld containing “dungeons” (in the form of a few accessible buildings comprising the game’s main mission) and a range of side quests. Batman: Arkham City is big enough to be interesting, yet small enough to be manageable.
Following the game’s main story takes the player into strongholds held by a variety of villains. Each area functions like a mini-open world in itself, requiring a mix of combat and stealth to save hostages and take down bad guys. As in Arkham Asylum, the real challenge is to “mind your surroundings” and use the environment – and Batman’s gadgets – to silently clear rooms of armed gangsters. With the exception of a few new abilities (bad guys are smarter, and now destroy key vantage points to prevent Batman from grappling onto them) the gameplay is unchanged from Arkham Asylum, which is a good thing.
Unlike other open world games, Batman: Arkham City gets the balance right. Secrets, side quests, and collectibles feel like they can be achieved. And Rocksteady rewards the player for achievements by unlocking new weapons and skills. Beating side missions also reveal character stories. In the Victor Zsasz side quest the player tracks down the serial killer’s location via payphones. This mission is a descent into Zsasz’s mind as he taunts the player and recounts how his life of privilege gave way to madness – and is worth playing the full way through to appreciate the chilling voice acting.
Batman: Arkham City avoids falling into the “collect-’em-up” trap – for the most part. The Riddler trophies (all 440 of them!) are overkill, and finding them turns into a grind. I’ll happily submit Edward Nashton’s intellect is superior to mine if it means I can move on to another game.
Rocksteady understands that “talent borrows, genius steals”. Batman: Arkham City should be a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from other games – the overworld structure of a Zelda or Metroid; a Grand Theft Auto-type open world; the x-ray visor and scanning function from the Metroid Prime series; the combat and stealth from Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed.
It shouldn’t really work. But Rocksteady fuses these elements to create a game that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. Even more impressive, the studio manages to improve the way these pieces function – the Arkham City overworld is much more navigable than Grand Theft Auto’s unwieldy cityscape; environmental scanning is limited to a few key detective sequences here, unlike Metroid Prime’s overused scan visor; and the movement and combat controls are more fluid when compared with the often clunky Assassin’s Creed. Taken together, Rocksteady have created a seamless Batman gaming experience.
“I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it!“
That experience is bolstered by high production values. Rocksteady’s artistic vision is a striking blend of the classic comic book look, gritty realism from the Christopher Nolan era, Joel Schumacher neon garishness, and Tim Burton gothic fantasy (they even throw in the snowstorm setting of Batman Returns). In keeping with the Victorian buildings from the previous game, Batman: Arkham City also has the player exploring an atmospheric underground city. These sections contain an abandoned 19th century subway station leading to Wonder City, a world’s fair-style exhibit complete with steampunk robots.
The stylistic mix is reflected in the intense score. Composers Nick Arundel and Ron Fish combine the electronic thrumming and drumbeats of Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard’s recent Dark Knight trilogy, with the fantastical, choral elements that defined Danny Elfman’s music from the original Tim Burton Batman movies:
The story, by longtime writer Paul Dini, with Paul Crocker and Sefton Hill, has Batman on the trail of warden Hugo Strange and his secret plans for Arkham City. Tracking down the supervillains trapped in Arkham City is simply great fun for Batman fans. From start to finish the performances are superb. Veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and the Joker respectively. Danny Jacobs as Victor Zsasz is especially terrifying, while a special mention should go to Maurice LaMarche as Mr. Freeze.
Victor Fries’ devotion to his ill wife makes him a sympathetic character. Separated from Nora, captured by the Penguin, and stripped of his armored suit, he is a tragic figure in Arkham City. A tense boss battle with Mr. Freeze leads to a fragile alliance, with Batman helping the scientist save his kidnapped wife. Mr. Freeze is one of the most complete characters in the game, and Maurice LaMarche covers a lot of ground to portray the character’s humanity as well as his cold menace.
Rocksteady even made Robin cool, thanks to sardonic voice work by Troy Baker and a neat costume redesign that incorporates a hood and cape.
The Batman game we deserve
Batman: Arkham Asylum surprised gamers with its blend of tight controls, excellent level design, and authenticity to the character. Rocksteady Studios have managed to expand the setting in Batman: Arkham City, enabling fans to glide around Gotham as the Caped Crusader, without losing focus on the stealth and combat-based missions that defined the original game. Coupled with high production values and care and attention to detail of the Batman universe, Arkham City is a truly great action adventure. Recent news that Batman: Arkham Knight has been pushed back to 2015 is actually encouraging – hopefully we will see another design leap by Rocksteady to successfully build the Batmobile into the sequel. In the meantime, there is still some work to do in Arkham City – including those final Riddler challenges…