By: Noah Baxter
2011 is a year in gaming I don’t plan to forget. It would take a conscious effort to forget the year that saw Bastion, Skyrim and Portal 2 release, let alone the myriad of underground and freeware hits that have kept me entertained the year round. It’s been one of those rare years where I’m constantly in anticipation of at least one game. There is a particular game I’ve been anticipating more than the rest, though. A game that I struggled to calm myself for, especially after its multiple delays. An action/adventure that could have no rival, that would carry on the legacy of what I perceive to be one of the greatest titles of all time. A game where you can beat seven shades of snot out of countless criminals and supervillains in the name of righteousness. Without a doubt, Batman: Arkham City is my most anticipated title of the year. But all that anticipation made me ask the question: what is the likelihood of it living up to, let alone exceeding expectations? To put it simply, I had nothing to fear.
Probably the main reason I anticipated this game so highly was due to the way Rocksteady handles the characters of the Batman universe. With any adaptation there’s a fine line between staying true to the source material and exploring your own creative vision, and this is a line that is tread perfectly.
From the beginning of Arkham City we are introduced to four characters that Batman fans will know and love. The very opening scene takes part in Two-Face’s office, putting you in control of Selina Kyle (that’s Catwoman, to you uninitiates) to take down some of the thugs guarding Dent’s safe. It’s immediately apparent that Catwoman has taken on a particularly sexy demeanor, her model taking inspiration from the vision of Adam Hughes (something I was giddy about). We’re also introduced to Harvey Dent, Two-Face himself, and although he’s mostly off-screen, it’s the symbolism seen in his personal space that tells us what sort of man we’re about to encounter. For me that’s absolutely fantastic; Two-Face has always taken on a particularly symbolic edge to me, so in any Batman works I absolutely adore this service being applied to the character. From the get-go, his personality is done justice. Even the safe that Selina is trying to rob is hidden by a painting of Cain and Abel, labelled “The Duality of man”. Needless to say, this is another detail that left a grin on my face.
After the brief introduction of Kyle and Dent, we meet Bruce Wayne, yet another thing I was overjoyed with. He was the only character I felt missing from Arkham Asylum, an integral part of any Batman tale that should never be absent. He’s being antagonised by Hugo Strange, taken into the mysterious Arkham City against his will as a political prisoner. Within this introduction we get a brief glimpse into how Arkham City runs, learning that the Penguin is in charge of one of the factions of the city. There is a rivalry within the city that plays on the differences between the leaders, Penguin, Two-Face and later the Joker.
Wayne’s appearance didn’t just excite me because it actually existed, but because the flow of the whole scene was magnificent. It was a cinematic experience as I followed him through his first minutes in Arkham, wondering what wretched hive of scum and villainy I’d been plunged into. Right up until I donned the batsuit I thought “This is Wayne, and this is what he does”. When you’re introduced to the Penguin, you can already feel the clear difference between Wayne’s personalities. The reception he gets from the villains is that of hatred, but for a completely different reason than that of Batman. The contrast between how enemies treat you before you don the cape and cowl, and how they cower in fear when you startle them as the Bat is a staggering narrative that is thoroughly enjoyable.
The Penguin himself is instantly more interesting than he’s ever been. A rough cockney mob lord, his monocle has been transformed into a broken bottle, a permanent attachment left over from a past fight. Even this has its own back story, barely touched on but intriguing enough to back up the idea. This is maybe one of my favourite things about Rocksteady, how they balance the subtleties of their characters with the more glaring issues. Batman, of course, juggles his role as Gotham’s protector with dry and sardonic comments that are very amusing, and there are a ridiculous amount of easter eggs that help further illustrate characters in the game, cameoing in the game, and sometimes even absent from the game. One of these is Calendar Man’s stories, which are both gruesome and poetic, yet unnecessary and entirely missable. If you play this game, keep your own detective’s eye on the lookout for extras you could otherwise miss, and you’ll be rewarded.
There are moments where these subtleties are ignored though. One of my pet peeves with the game was the amount of blatant exposition in the dialogue. In moderation, it’s okay to have two characters discussing things they already know and have no need to discuss. This is a classic writing technique used extensively in comics and television, to share continuity with the audience without delving into too much detail. It’s a great way to introduce work to new readers, but with the sheer scale of Arkham City and the amount of characters within it, it wears quite thin. There are enough moments where the dialogue is natural enough to mask the exposition, but often it’s staring you in the face and slowly mouthing itself to you. Again, this will be useful for those who aren’t already dedicated fans, but for those who are it’s very offputting.
Another would-be gripe is how oversexualised the female characters in the game are. I say would-be because I actually sit on the fence as to how I feel. I’m still ambivalent, with my first thought being that I’m against it but my second actually encouraging it. It sort of promotes the idea of intellectually devoid gamer stereotypes, that all we want from the fairer sex is cleavage and round bottoms. At the same time, it’s okay in my books for the characters to be overtly sexualised, because the ones that are were made to be sexy.
For instance, reporter Vicki Vale is dressed respectably, as are the doctors and nurses that found themselves trapped within Arkham City. It’s just the foxy villainesses who take on sexual overtones, most of them already having them. When you play as Catwoman you’ll bear witness to a half-open shirt and her callipygous physique. When you meet Poison Ivy you’ll be greeted with a lot of exposed skin, and when you’re introduced to Talia Al Ghul you’re actually forced to follow behind her and watch her swagger. At the same time as being a little gratuitous, it does add something to the characters that’s true to them, and in that sense I could let it slide. Catwoman in particular, I’m happy to see flaunting raw sex appeal, as it adds emphasis to her finesse and grace, even if it does go over the top.
I suppose I could admit that my third mind on the matter is one that re-enforces aforementioned masculine stereotypes, so while I’d love to say I think it’s just accurate portrayal, a part of me must admit that being raised in the era of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman (and no, that was not a double entendre) lends me to being fine with it for other reasons. For the sake of maturity, I’ll check those reasons at the door and remain at the top of the fence as to whether or not I’m okay with it. It’s a shame that something so simple can mar otherwise perfect adaptations – in a way it’s completely irrelevant to the game, but at the same time it’s an annoyance to have this niggling feeling that you’re viewing nothing more than a sex object every time you meet a female character.
I’m loath to mention many other characters, because some of them are genuinely brilliant surprises. It was almost a detriment though; I was a little perturbed earlier in the game by the amount of familiar faces that inhabited the city. It felt like Rocksteady was grasping at straws to include some of the villains we all know and love, but they all fit into the plot nicely as the story unfolds. And what a story it is! In some ways it’s almost standard fare for a Batman trial, but in so many more ways it’s one of the most thrilling tales of the Dark Knight I’ve ever experienced.
From early in the game we learn that Hugo Strange controls Arkham City, but we’re not really sure what Arkham City is. Using Batman’s skills as a detective, you gradually uncover the true purpose of the city, and Strange’s ideals behind it. Batman, of course, learns that he needs to overcome his enemies and survive long enough to save the citizens of Gotham from the nasty fate that awaits many of them. The Bat has to fight his way through the factions of Arkham City and their respective leaders in a way that would make Snake Plissken applaud.
Again, Rocksteady’s grasp of subtlety often helps to make the story even more immersive. Listening to the dialogue between henchmen as you explore the city fills you in as to many of the difficulties of life in Arkham, as well as letting you relive current events and get an insight as to what effects they’re having. For example, you’re hearing third-party perspectives on the feud between Catwoman and Two-Face from the start of your first mission. You can also monitor the radio waves to tune in on the police, security and news channels, each sharing different points of view and witnessing different happenings in the scenario. Unfortunately, a lot of these subtleties are easily missed, and even on replaying the game on an unlockable mode I forgot to check into them more frequently. Another minor problem with this amount of extra dialogue is that it increases the chance of exposing weak character writing. Thankfully it’s very rare, so rare that I can’t recall what the particular instances that irked me were, so it’s not really a bother.
The other thing worth mentioning story-wise is the integration of the Catwoman DLC. The PC version of Arkham City automatically assimilates her sub-plot into the game, something that’s gives an extra side to the story we follow as Bruce/Batman. It’s fairly seamless, but feels tacked on at times. One part was especially frustrating for me, after a difficult moral decision you have to make as Selina made me think I had failed the whole game, only to have it rewind and force me to choose the “right” path. It was fairly obvious which path the game wanted me to choose, sure, but the annoyance I felt at being presented with a decision and then having it revoked really got under my skin. If it weren’t for that planar-turned-linear moment, I would have gladly praised the Catwoman extras fully rather than remember the time I spent swearing directly at my monitor.
The good thing is that this sort of forced decision-making isn’t a recurring element in Arkham City’s gameplay. Almost everything else within it is smooth and cleverly executed, much like in Arkham Asylum before it. Most of it carries over directly from the asylum: you use a host of bat-gadgets in order to complete puzzles and take out your enemies in new and innovative ways. Using your remote batarang for mindbending electricity puzzles and using detective mode to uncover clues and scout the city are two of the many enjoyable things in the game. The only thing missing in my mind was Bat-Shark Repellent.
The fighting is still eternally satisfying, reviving the freeflow system so you can smoothly jumpkick and uppercut inmates like there’s no tomorrow. Both Batman and Catwoman make each fight incredible to watch, skillfully showing off their acrobatics and power as you take down foe by foe. Just like in Arkham Asylum, it can be quite a struggle to get into the flow, but once you have mastered the style of fighting you’ll find it simple enough. I had to relearn a lot to reach that point myself, but I thought the tutorials were integrated seamlessly into play so never felt hard-done by. The only issue I had was that it was sometimes too smooth, so I’d forget that I’m nearing death mid-fight. Still, it’s always worth it to see that ridiculously high combo you’ve strung together from the limp bodies of your foes.
Aside from the main puzzles and combat, there are many other things to do around Arkham City. The side missions vary drastically, from solving the Riddler’s familiar conundrums to scouring the city for acts of violence to “resolve” (read: beating the living crap out of the perpetrators). Some of them feel a little easy this time around, but overall they’re just as fun as the side-missions of Arkham Asylum. What I would consider the greatest upgrade from Arkham Asylum is that you can explore the city and start fights at any given time. You gain much needed practice and experience from each fight, and they get even more fantastic as you become more familiar with the combat. Unfortunately this doesn’t transfer over to every fight in the game – some of the bosses lie on the side of useless, which can be pretty anticlimactic.
Another plus of having such an open-ended world is that it means you can become immersed in the game and spend hours in it. After my first four hours of gameplay, I’d only completed one percent of the entire game. It took me a whole day’s worth of play to complete the main story, and even then I had only finished about half of all there was to do. Another day’s play later and I’ve got another fifteen percent to go, and it’s only at this point that I take a break to write this review. As if Rocksteady hadn’t made their game addictive enough, they’re still tempting me to go back to fully complete the game by beating thugs black-and-blue in a series of challenge maps.
Accompanying everything else that makes the game amazing is one of the most enjoyable uses of sound I’ve ever heard in a game. The score, primarily penned by the game’s audio director, Nick Arundel, was so powerful that I couldn’t help but sink into it, spending 20 minutes improvising to the opening menu before I even started the game. It’s low, dark tone perfectly orchestrated the universe I had come to expect, and the atmosphere it created sounded nothing short of overwhelming through a 5.1 setup. Other than Amnesia, there’s no game that comes to mind that utilises surround sound better than Arkham City does. Sometimes I felt I could hear inmates behind me in my room, or phone calls coming from my own apartment (which doesn’t even have a phone).
The other aspect of the sound that gets a glowing recommendation is, as many would expect, the voice acting. Mark Hamill outdoes his last performance as the Joker, sending chills up the spine and boiling your blood as Kevin Conroy, arguably the best Bat-voice to ever exist, plays a perfect Dark Knight. Every sentence this man speaks turns to gold, playing off the likes of Nolan North’s smarmy Penguin and Troy Baker’s psychotic Two-Face to create some thoroughly enjoyable character dynamics. The effort that has gone into the audio production of Arkham City is nothing short of awe-inspiring, with every sound effect and voice fitting perfectly into the game. I can almost say the same thing about the rest of Arkham City’s technical aspects as well, but I’m sad to report that there are a few let-downs. In general, the graphics are excellent, but there are moments where they are less than impressive. Certain textures appear blocky and full of artifacts, and there are a few map-based glitches like invisible walls and floors that lower the quality of an otherwise great aesthetic.
The positive aspects far outweigh the negatives though; you can tweak your graphics from the pre-launch screen, as well as set your brightness to the level you’d like it to be (which is pretty important for a game as dark as Arkham City). There’s even a CPU performance test from the game’s main menu, which lets you check how your rig will hold up before you start playing. It was because of this that I knew to switch off the DirectX11 features I’d initially set up, which wreaked havoc on the game when I first started playing. Thanks to a recent patch (which was only added shortly before I finished the game) this issue has been fixed, and I can happily say now that the DX11 features look fantastic.
Conclusion: Is it Worth Your Money?
It is impossible not to recommend this game in all its glory. I’ve even gone so far as to recommend it to my friends here at retail price, something that does not happen very often. At $50, each hour I’ve spent playing the game has only equated to $1. Keeping in mind that none of this time was spent on any form of grinding, I can endorse Arkham City as the single most worthy game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. Along with the technical support we’ve received so far, owners of Arkham City on PC are finally seeing some of the DLC we’ve been promised. I, for one, am keen to get my hands on the Robin DLC in particular, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for what more is to come.
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