As snow begins to softly drift from the sky around him, Batman surveys a run-down building from atop a gargoyle. His goal is to confront Penguin regarding the whereabouts of Mr. Freeze. The only thing stopping him are the eight men with machine guns watching the entrance to the Iceberg Lounge. He patiently waits for a guard to pass underneath him, which will allow him the chance to silently swoop in and incapacitate him without the other goons noticing. While watching the guard’s patrol patterns and waiting for an opportunity to strike, a nearby payphone rings. “Don’t answer it,” one of the thugs says. “You know what happens to people who answer those phones.” In fact, Batman has been tracing those payphones himself. Zsazz is somewhere in the city, inevitably murdering anyone who answers his calls. As if his plate wasn’t full enough already, Oracle buzzes in to let Batman know that he has a new voicemail. It begins to play automatically.
“Ring ring! Heya, Bats! You didn‘t forget about me, did you? I’m just dying to talk to you.”
Obviously, there’s a lot going on in Arkham City.
In 2009, Rocksteady Studios came out of nowhere and dropped a bombshell on the gaming world. Up to that point, the best video game starring the Dark Knight was probably the SNES incarnation of Batman Returns. Not exactly high praise for the Caped Crusader. That all changed with Batman: Arkham Asylum. When everything was said and done, AA racked up dozens of nominations for Game of the Year. It was even awarded the top honor by a few publications. This is even more impressive considering the competition that year was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Assassin’s Creed II, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Notice that each of those other games, which were all absolutely amazing, are sequels. Arkham Asylum was a brand new IP that managed to stand out as one of the best games of 2009 against the competition of blockbuster sequels to massively popular AAA titles.
Two years later, Batman: Arkham City is now the blockbuster sequel to its own smash hit debut. Facing its old rivals once again in 2011 with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Modern Warfare 3, as well as other superb titles like Gears of War 3, L.A. Noire, and Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City once again stands out as a top contender for Game of the Year.
The mechanics of the game are largely unchanged from Arkham Asylum. Unreal Engine 3 powers the same outstanding free flow combat encounters and platforming sequences that you remember. There are a handful of new gadgets, which are mostly only useful for finding Riddler trophies. Also, the grappling hook has an upgrade to speed up traveling around the city.
This brings me to the only real gripe I have with the game. There are far too many gadgets this time around. By endgame, your tech tree is absurdly cluttered. While multiple presses of the D-Pad can eventually get you what you want, you can also “quick fire” each gadget in combat with an ever-growing combination of holding triggers and tapping (or double-tapping) buttons. You have so many options for dispatching your enemies that while you try to remember the difference between throwing a freeze grenade or a sonic batarang, you’re suddenly getting smashed in the face with a sledgehammer. As mentioned before, the new gear you unlock seems to be more for Metroid-style backtracking/exploration than functional combat application.
That being said, when you remember all the combinations correctly, there’s nothing more satisfying than racking up a 50-hit combo full of cape-stuns, tazer shots, batarangs, and bone-shattering takedowns. When the free flow combo is working, Batman is the untouchable pinnacle of martial arts that you always knew he should be.
The real star of the game is the story. Paul Dini returns with another amazing tale in the Batman universe. I was going to give a plot summary here, but it was quickly becoming long enough to be its own article. Here’s the long and short of it. Quincy Sharp, former warden at Arkham Asylum, parlays the fiasco from the previous game into a successful bid for the mayor’s office. He closes Blackgate Penitentiary and Arkham Asylum, declaring them both unfit to hold their respective criminal elements. He opens Arkham City, a mega prison which is nothing more than a huge, fenced-in portion of Gotham’s slums. He places psychotherapist Dr. Hugo Strange in charge of the operation. Batman thinks this prison is a bad idea. He decides the best way to shut it down is to have Bruce Wayne publicly protest the facility at a televised press conference. Hugo Strange has Wayne, along with Vicki Vale and Jack Ryder (yes, that Jack Ryder) arrested and transferred to Arkham City as some sort of enemy combatants. Before Bruce Wayne escapes from the processing center, he learns that Strange is about 12 hours away from enacting “Protocol 10”. Not being entirely sure what that is, but understanding that it probably isn’t good when Hugo Strange says it will make him as famous as Batman, the Caped Crusader heads into the heart of Arkham City to gather information from a few old…acquaintances.
That’s about as bare-bones and spoiler-free as I can make the summary. Believe me, there are plenty of twists and turns. Before the final credits roll, the Dark Knight will live out his darkest hour, and as the endgame reveals itself, Batman‘s entire world falls apart.
It would be remiss to not mention that what winds up being one of the most bleak and depressing Batman stories ever told is, once again, expertly told through Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. It’s amazing that after nearly 20 years, these two refuse to phone in their performances. There was a news story stating Hamill was reluctant to reprise the role of Joker, feeling that he wouldn’t be able to top his performance in Arkham Asylum. After being told that Kevin Conroy would again be voicing Batman, and that Paul Dini was handling the script, he agreed to portray the Clown Prince of Crime one final time. With all due respect to Heath Ledger, in Arkham City, Mark Hamill gives the definitive Joker performance.
There are a bevy of extras to keep up the replay value once the campaign is completed. There’s a New Game Plus feature, allowing you to start over with all your collected experience, Riddler trophies, and gadget upgrades. Conversely, you’re also free to roam Arkham City in your current, completed game and scrounge up and stray Riddler trophies you may have missed. Collecting trophies will also unlock challenge maps. These are mostly the same sort of fare from the last game, and range from simple to throwing-your-controller difficult. There are also separate challenge maps for Batman, Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing (the game’s first DLC release).
The bottom line is that Batman: Arkham City is about as close to a perfect game as you can get. The graphics are sharp. The art direction is gorgeous. The world of Arkham City is perfectly executed. The controls are extremely responsive (if something bad happens, it’s because you messed up). The plot is fantastic, as is the pacing of the story. The voice acting is top notch. When everything is said and done, you even have a reason to keep on playing. New Game Plus and the Riddler challenge maps will keep diehard gamers and achievement/trophy hounds busy for several dozen hours.
Rocksteady Games have solidified themselves as a major force in the gaming industry. Their second high-profile release is also their second serious contender for game of the year. It’s not just a great comic book game, or a great action game. It’s beyond that. It’s truly, transcendently a great game. I can’t recommend it highly enough. You owe it to yourself to experience Batman: Arkham City.