Review: Batman: Arkham City (PS3)

Title: Batman Arkham City
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (7.7 GB)
Release Date: October 18, 2011
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Original MSRP: $59.99
Extras: 3D Compatible
Batman: Arkham City is also available on Xbox 360, Wii U, PC and Mac OS X.
The PlayStation 3 Blu-ray disc version was used for this review.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 239 of the podcast.

Contrary to popular belief there are ways to kill Batman. Joel “Eyelids” Schumacher did his damnedest to bury the The Caped Crusader back in the 90’s with his two films. Frank Miller – whose four Dark Knight Returns novels originally brought Batman to the high end of pop culture esteem – returned later to confound most of his fans with the unnecessary, and sloppy, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

But since these few flubs Batman’s been given the Cadillac treatment by filmmakers like the talented Chris Nolan and game designers like the talented guys at Rocksteady. Batman’s just beginning to hit his salad years. With his latest game, Batman: Arkham City, he’s so on top of the world he’d need a set of high-powered Bat-goggles just to see Superman’s flailing corpse so far, far below him.

There are no guards inside the prison. Only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple. Once you go in, you don’t come out. Yeah, that’s from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. The 1981 film is such a great precursor to the events of Arkham City that I’m surprised the full title for this new Batman game doesn’t read: John Carpenter’s Escape From Arkham City.

Bruce Wayne, like Kurt Russell before him, has been locked inside forty square blocks of cordoned off slums and decayed urban landscape. Unlike Snake Plissken however, this is exactly where Mr. Wayne belongs. Arkham City isn’t just any other prison, it’s the devil’s playground. It’s the waters off of Amity Island. It’s the Playboy Mansion. It’s Camp Crystal Lake. It’s a strip club called “The Titty Twister” in the vacant wastelands South of the US/Mexico border. It’s a place to kick up your boots and raise a little hell. And playing as Batman in this vibrant, dangerous terrain…?

It’s gaming Valhalla – beatings and snow included.

If you’ve played Batman: Arkham Asylum you’re mostly prepared for what Rocksteady has in store for you with Arkham City. Of course you should expect the game to be beautiful and well-written – and it is. The real differences between these two games are mostly in the freedom Arkham City affords the player, and the volume of content it offers as well. You may have felt like Batman as you traversed the hallways, libraries, and lock down wings of Arkham Asylum.

In Arkham City, you are Batman.

You hide in the shadows. You strike from the sky. You pull criminals from scaffolding and city streets into the dark recesses of Gotham. You hunt for clues, interrogate whimpering snitches, investigate crime scenes, glide from rooftop to rooftop, and fight anything and anyone – usually in numbers double the size and strength of anything Arkham Asylum tossed at you – who dare take a stand against you.

Go ahead and hiss “I’m Batman…” at the TV screen every time you hear one of The Penguin’s goons ask “Who’s there?!” to an otherwise empty section of the Gotham Museum of Natural History – you are Batman. This is how you should greet your enemies from this point on, even if it is from your couch.

The combat system from Arkham Asylum hasn’t been overhauled completely. It’s been refined. It’s certainly been re-tuned. For those that thought the combat options were a tad standard issue (four different buttons for four different enemy types) back in Arkham Asylum expect to get completely overwhelmed with the options in this new game.

Just using the knife wielding thug as an example – in Arkham Asylum the only way to open up any offense against a typical knife thug was to stun him with a flash of your cape and then follow up with a series of punches. To pull off the Knife Evade move in Arkham City you need to hold away from the attack on your left thumb-stick while holding down the triangle button to duck, dodge, and avoid getting slashed by his knife.

Add Batman’s new Knife Evade/Disarm to this equation and now you’re timing your triangle button presses between knife slashes to ultimately shut this thug down cold in a series of well-timed moves. It’s a tricky move to pull off – it’s a risky tactic to even attempt. Pull it off and the guy and his knife are out of the fight for good. Scratch the ball here and you’re likely to take every slash of the blade to your torso. In a room full of other, better-armed opponents, this isn’t a loss even Bruce Wayne can write off.

And this is just one decision you’re forced into making involving a single enemy type during a fracas. In Arkham City the shanks and knives are the absolute least of your worries. Inmates pack guns here. They’ll come at you three at a time. They swing sledgehammers. They use swords and smoke pellets. They throw chairs and explosives. Some of them use car doors as shields. Sometimes their crime bosses even step into the fray to take a bite out of Batman for themselves. In Arkham City a street fight isn’t anything as ordinary as a brawl – it’s a ballet of attack, retreat, risk, skill, and virility.

Rocksteady has added enough combat and suit enhancements to try and level the playing field for the player – but most of these require some level of balance and practice.  In the final hours of the game expect the difficulty in combat situations to compound exponentially.

Hugo Strange literally throws everything in his army at Batman. Numbers might be easy for the Caped Crusader to handle – but the variety and expertise of his opponents can make staying alive a chore. Expect to walk into a room in this prison colony, take a look at the magnitude and medley of the competition waiting for you in there, calculate the odds of surviving such a force, and feel the immediate need to turn around and leave through the door you came in from.

This isn’t an easy game by any means, even on the “normal” setting.

If I have one gripe about Arkham City it has to do with the button mapping of some of Batman’s better finishing moves. Arkham Asylum put these moves – a throw and an immediate incapacitation – to the triangle/circle and square/x button combinations respectively. Arkham City adds two new combinations to Batman’s roster – a multiple take-down maneuver and a disarm and destroy tactic.

Considering the enormity and complexity of the foes this game throws on you these two moves (one hurls Batarangs into fallen, but not yet unconscious opponents lying on the ground, effectively taking them out of action permanently – the other grabs weapons out of the hands of opponents and breaks them, effectively removing them from being used against you by anyone else) are invaluable to anyone hoping to survive some of the more extreme battles of this game.

The problem is that they’re mapped to square/triangle and x/circle – which most gamers are going to struggle pulling off with a single thumb press.

I have skinny thumbs. It’s the main reason I don’t hitch-hike. This digital curse might make me the Lance Armstrong of proctology – but it will never help me pin down the square button and the triangle button in unison on a Sony DualShock 3 controller with any level of consistency. If Rocksteady had allowed me to map these moves to buttons easier for someone with my handicap to reach – I would have done so. In hindsight I would also have sent them dozens of red roses for the assist. Instead I sent them obscenities and hexes. If their children are born with swizzle sticks for opposable digits… then my dark prayers will be answered.

The great thing about Arkham City is that it illuminates every facet of what makes Batman… well ummm… Batman. Yeah, he can fight – but he’s a detective and a strategist as well. He’s also a clever gadgeteer. There are so many tools and gadgets in this game it’s easy to forget the extent of the arsenal you haul around with you.

Unlike Arkham Asylum you can actually grind – RPG style – and max-out your armor, gadgets, and combat bonuses in Arkham City. This is a public pool you’re swimming in – there are literally hundreds of bums and reprobates all over the place just waiting for you to farm some much-needed skill points off of. Which is a good thing too, because the roster of super-villains in this game has been ramped-up to maximum capacity.

Arkham City penitentiary is a pretty expansive property. However, I don’t think Hugo Strange could have stuffed another super-villain into the dictatorial constraints of his system. You might know about The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, and maybe Mr. Freeze – there are other villains here on that kind of scale.

Villains you might just catch glimpses of, and ultimately forget about as the events of this story rail forward – only to turn up later to catch you in a trap you should have seen coming. There are villains here you might find yourself surprised that you feel empathy toward – and others you wish you could hunt down and locate just to shut them up for ten minutes. And then there are villains that… I won’t spoil for you. Find them for yourselves.

The Riddler dominates the landscape of this game. He’s much more cunning here – and much more lethal – then he ever was back in the Asylum. Anytime you’re messing with one of his Riddler challenges – you might just be messing with your life. So prepare yourself. As they say on planet LV-426 – stay frosty.

I – and this is in all honesty – don’t think anyone has ever blessed Bob Kane’s creation with this level of art design. We’ve seen different versions of Gotham over several generations. We’ve seen it in comic books, in prestige graphic novels, on TV, in movies, in other video games – Rocksteady’s Arkham games are the absolute pinnacle of art direction for this property. Every character – hero, villain, something in between the two – looks at their absolute best.

The first time you hear The Penguin snarl something at Batman in Cockney English you’re going to wonder why nobody thought of that before this. The first time you see Robin in this game you’re going to wonder why nobody’s made the kid look this cool before. (and then you’re going to want to play as him Rocksteady – shame on you for not including him as playable in the events of Arkham City) The first time you play this game as Catwoman you’ll wonder why nobody’s ever thought of giving Selina Kyle her own game before…

Oh wait… they did. But that was during Halle Berry’s relentless assault on the comic book film industry, so I’m thinking that we don’t have to count it.

Put simply – Catwoman rocks. She’s an inseparable component of this narrative. She forces the player to make choices I don’t think any game before this one has asked us to make before. She has her own story, her own means of transportation, (let’s see Batman crawl across a ceiling) her own way of fighting, (I’m starting to prefer Cat-style over Bat-style when it comes to Arkham Kung Fu) her own in-game leveling system.

She’s not an afterthought – or even worse – she’s not an avenue for Rocksteady to run a cash-grab on used game sales. We can complain about content control over used game purchases all we want to – this is the price of doing business in 2011. Anyone who’s played this game will tell you – sixty dollars is already a bargain for Batman: Arkham City. This is a premium game experience – shame on anyone who wants to experience it as retail salvage.

All that detail that went into every crawl space and vaulted ceiling of Arkham Asylum is now found in every rooftop and alleyway, every sewer system and factory floor, every snow flake falling through the light of every streetlamp, and in the faces and costumes of every character – background or forefront – of this title. Arkham City is simply gorgeous. Someday all games will look as good as this one does. Today these beauties are few and far between – enjoy them for the masterpieces they are. The art design in this game is an outstanding achievement in this industry and the many surrounding it.

Take note Hollywood – this is how you create icons that live and breathe a little longer than an opening weekend.

Gotham City is a much more full, much more rich, environment because of the sound-scape Rocksteady designed for this campaign. The music behind Batman has always been an important part of the franchise – Rocksteady knows this, much like they know almost everything relevant that makes Batman something all his own.

This is a blockbuster-class film score. Decorating the world of Arkham City is one of the most lush sound designs in any modern game. It’s easy to get caught up in the conversations of the criminals collected in groups on the streets below Batman. They’re talking about life inside Arkham City – the lack of food, how cold it is, the latest gossip on which super-villain ran which super-villain out of the area.

But most importantly – they’re talking about YOU. You’re an urban legend to most of these guys. You’re the boogeyman who took The Penguin’s crew down. You’re the reason they pack around baseball bats and almost never stray off anywhere alone. Batman: Arkham City is urban voyeurism at its most satisfying extremes.

This is one game where you will stop and – thanks to the visuals – look around, and – thanks to the audio – listen in on what’s happening in the world around you. This is an environment to drink in and get drunk on.

Nothing really. Because of the scale of the playing field in Arkham City I have no doubt Rocksteady will be steadily (wanted to write Rocksteadily) releasing DLC packages for this title in the foreseeable future.

If we could get some Robin missions, some more Catwoman stuff, and – dare I dream? – some Adam West material (The Gray Ghost would send most of us Bat-fans to the moon – a circa 1967 Batman Challenge Room complete with “Kerrr-WHANG!” splashed across the scene would assure that most of us might never return to Earth again) they could really give this game the legs it deserves. As of this review this is all just speculation.

Batman: Arkham City is a grand over-achievement. It topples its predecessor in almost every area: environment, story, characters, combat, puzzles, sound design, graphics, freedom… this is a world to lose yourself inside of. Rocksteady Studios has set the bar so high for what a video game can and should be it’ll be hard for most of us to return to ordinary, average video game releases in its wake. This is absolutely one of the best – if not the best – Batman productions in any medium.

I’m kind of a penny-pincher when it comes to handing out perfect grades for video games. It’s a point of pride with me. I give out 10’s like Rosie Huntington-Whitely gives out her used underwear. That being said… Arkham City earns a grade that you’ll want to stuff up against your schnoz and snort in every sweet, musky molecule from its filthy bouquet till it has been vacuumed stenchless.

Batman: Arkham City is a pair of Whitely’s off-whitey-tighties. It is unequivocally a…


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