“Batman: Arkham City” arrived in stores this fall with considerably more hype than its predecessor, “Arkham Asylum,” received back in 2009.
Two years ago, Rocksteady Studios and Warner Bros. seemed content to quietly release an excellent game, divorced from any of the recent Batman movies, and let positive reviews and word of mouth create their megahit for them. The game, in which Batman battles it out with the Joker after a prison break at an island asylum, featured great gadgets, fun puzzles, terrific voice acting and, most important, a deep yet uncomplicated hand-to-hand combat system that unleashed Batman’s badassedness on the game’s countless villains.
All that stuff is back, and in greater quantity, for “Arkham City,” but more stuff to do doesn’t necessarily result in a better game. The shift in setting from an island sanatorium to a walled-off city within a city introduces a few problems and makes a couple of the “Arkham Asylum’s” flaws more noticeable. The end result is a terrific game that’s as good as “Arkham Asylum” but not really an improvement. Rocksteady didn’t screw anything up, but playing “Arkham City,” it’s hard not to feel like they missed a few opportunities to make things better.
As superheroes go, Batman/Bruce Wayne is a boring dude. He doesn’t talk much. He’s fabulously wealthy, childless and spouseless. He doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, and his actions speak louder than his words. He dispatches villains with the cold precision of a dentist performing a root canal.
Because of Wayne’s vanilla personality, the Batman universe has always featured colorful, creative, larger-than-life villains. “Arkham City” is stuffed to the gills with these guys. Penguin, Bane, the Riddler, Victor Zsasz and Poison Ivy, among others, return from the first game. Also making appearances are Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Deadshot, Calendar Man and at least a dozen more. It’s cool fan service for comic-book nuts, but to a casual fan it feels like what’s best described as “villain bloat.” Principle antagonist Hugo Strange almost gets lost in the shuffle.
The new game’s narrative is equally muddled. The titular Arkham City is a section of Gotham that has been walled off by Strange and turned into a giant prison, straining even the most credulous player’s imagination. The idea that Gotham residents would just abandon a huge section of their city filled with skyscrapers, churches and amazing gothic architecture for the sake of harboring a bunch of criminals is patently absurd, even by video game standards. It feels like Rocksteady wanted to make an open-world game along the lines of “Assassin’s Creed” or “Grand Theft Auto” but didn’t want to bother filling it with civilians and came up with a ridiculous story to justify their decision.
Instead of a vibrant city teeming with people to help, like what you get in Sucker Punch’s “Infamous” games, you get a cut-off Vatican of vice with little interaction with the larger world you’re supposed to be saving.
That said, as long as you ignore a goofy plot line involving a deadly plague that’s spread apparently only through blood transfusions, there’s a ton of fun to be had. The Freeflow combat system, which allows Batman to take on more than a dozen enemies at a time and string together combos of punches, kicks, counters and evasive moves, is still intuitive and easy to use. Dispensing justice never felt so good. Various trophies hidden around the city by The Riddler encourage Batman to explore as he acquires new gadgets to help him access previously walled-off nooks and crannies. The ability to play special missions as Catwoman, provided you buy the game new and enter a special code, doesn’t add much to the story but is a good deal of fun from a gameplay perspective nonetheless.
Some of the side missions, such as trying to track down Zsasz via tracing his calls to payphones, are as enjoyable as the main campaign, but narratively, they make no sense. Batman spends the better part of the story infected with the deadly plague he is trying to cure. (Thousands of people in Gotham hospitals are also supposedly at risk.) The idea of deviating from this mission to partake in some augmented-reality training or stop the beating of a lone political prisoner conflicts with the story Rocksteady is trying to tell.
Outside of the main game are separate challenge modes, in which you take on scores of enemies and try to string together combos to place high on leaderboards.
Essentially, what you get with “Arkham City” is a great game with fantastic visuals and voice acting that’s bogged down by a terrible, often ridiculous, story. If you squint and don’t examine the details too closely, it’s a heck of a ride.
“Batman: Arkham City,” rated T, is available for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For this review, I played an Xbox 360 copy of the game provided by the publisher.