Monday, 7 November 2011

Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City

A year after the events at Arkham Asylum, a large section of Gotham City has been converted into a maximum security ghetto, under the control of Doctor Hugo Strange and the Tyger mercenaries. Imprisoned inside Arkham City are the myriad criminals of Gotham, from the pettiest of thieves to the Joker himself. Batman has long suspected that all is not what it seems, and tonight he launches his investigation. Can he uncover the secret of Protocol Ten before it is too late?

‘Arkham Asylum’ came out of nowhere, and blew us away. It wasn’t the first licensed game to actually be good, or even the first superhero game to be good, but the sheer love and quality of gameplay and design left a game that triumphed on pretty much every level. Some of the boss fights were a little underwhelming, perhaps, but developers Rocksteady barely put a foot wrong for the entire game.

‘Arkham City’ is much, much better.

It must be said, a lot of the work was already done; much of the basic framework of the game remains the same, with a few tweaks to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of it. The Predator rooms? Still there, playing much the same as they did last time around. There are a few new gadgets to play with, although the real additions in these scenarios are the gadgets you have to avoid; the goons will learn from what you do, laying mines to stop you sneaking around, scanning gargoyles with thermal goggles, and occasionally just blowing them up entirely. It’s much smarter, and therefore trickier – but that just ramps up the satisfaction you’ll feel when you’re left with a room full of vanquished foes.

Combat is, again, fundamentally the same. One button to attack, one to counter, one to stun, and various combinations thereof to play with. This time though, you can work your gadgets in to help out; certain button combos allow you to yank enemies across the arena to you, hit them in the face with a batarang, drop plastic explosives, or shoot them with a makeshift stun gun. And that’s just some of the options. And you’re going to need them. Batman is, of course, an utter badass already, and what’s more he has the vast majority of the gadgets and skills he acquired over the course of ‘Arkham Asylum’. Because of this, Rocksteady have felt perfectly confident in sending you up against hordes of bad guys. It can be tough stuff, especially later in the game, when they introduce elite troops, but it is never less than exhilarating.

The third part of the game, the Detective sections, are essentially the same, but satisfyingly tweaked. They still boil down to following a path around the game world, but it rarely feels quite as hand led as ‘Asylum’ could, and the amount of time you have to spend in the (admittedly rather cool) detective vision is reduced. In turn, this means you get to see more of the rather stunning graphics as you play through, not just the useful sonar mode. Arkham City is beautifully designed, feeling incredibly organic and nicely combining some of the best elements from different versions of Batman’s world.

So, what’s changed? Well, the obvious one is the style of game. ‘Asylum’ was really a horror game in superhero clothing, whereas ‘City’ more closely resembles ‘Grand Theft Auto’, or the Elder Scrolls series. You are perfectly at liberty to ignore the plot altogether and run around solving crimes and kicking arse. It’s not quite the same level of sandbox gaming as something like ‘Oblivion’ – you can get across the city in a few minutes with the right upgrades – but the depth of it all is incredible, particularly if you’re a Batman fan anyway. With the exception of Wayne Manor and the Batcave (and, of course, Arkham Asylum itself), pretty much every iconic location from Gotham City can be found within the game zone, often with a riddle or story attached to it. Furthermore, you’re never far away from an interesting side mission, whether being tasked with blowing up crates of dangerous chemicals, or tracking down a serial killer before he kills again. It’s all too easy to lose yourself in the extras, rather than concentrate on the plot.

Apart from that…well, Batman can now fly. Ok, glide. An early upgrade allows you to boost yourself over entire buildings when grappling around, and it’s fantastic for getting yourself around, bringing in a few new tricks such as divebombing to give you an extra edge. It’s not necessary, but it really increases the feeling that you are Batman. Playing as Catwoman is just as fun, and a nice challenge to mix things up.

And then there’s the plot. Fair enough, it’s not bad, and there are a whole host of big twists, set pieces, and fan-pleasing moments. In fact, there are too many, I would argue. The nominal villain of the piece is barely on screen, leaving the Joker and Penguin vying for the position of Big Bad. Both do splendid jobs, but there’s a definite lack of focus, especially compared to the delicious portrayal of the Batman/Joker relationship in ‘Asylum’. Each character is well done, there’s no denying that, but seriously. Almost every character from ‘Asylum’ returns for at least a cameo role, while introducing a whole raft of new cast members. Essentially, if you’ve been a villain in any of the major adaptations of Batman thus far, then you’re in the game. True, the most outrageous plot strand is quite nicely tied in for the endgame, but this is a pudding that has definitely been overegged. In addition, the final reveal of Protocol Ten was, for me, slightly underwhelming – the idea behind it is shocking, but the actual method seems a little blasé for a Batman storyline. Your mileage may vary for that, of course.

My comments about the numerous villains notwithstanding, it does lead to some incredible boss fights. Some of them do rely on the tried and tested technique of the super-villain dancing around in the background while his henchmen try (and fail) to beat the living daylights out of you, but there are some definite brains on display here. The battle with Mr Freeze is a much trumpeted example, forcing you to utilise every single trick in your arsenal to defeat him, rather than just beating him up, while the final boss defines awesome perfectly.

The game doesn’t end once you’ve watched the credits though; you can carry on the same game, looking for any secrets you didn’t find, or finishing off any side missions – if you have the Catwoman DLC, then you get a playable epilogue to have fun with as well. In addition, there’s the New Game Plus mode, which ramps up the difficulty while giving you all the abilities you had at the end of the game. If you’re looking for something a little more short term, there’s the Challenge Mode – various maps from the main game, with the aim being either to beat up a set number of people without dying, or fulfil several Predator objectives. More interestingly, you can now design your own challenges from a set of objectives, creating a theoretically never-ending challenge mode.

So. Top notch, thrilling gameplay. Beautiful graphics and design. A fan’s wet dream. A huge lifespan and replay value. A slightly unfocused plot. There really is little else to criticise; the sheer size of Arkham City can occasionally transform the riddles into a matter of simply scanning every pixel you can, rather than genuinely working them out, but that’s such a small problem that I feel genuinely bad mentioning it. ‘Arkham City’ is an absolutely incredible game, and I don’t just say that as a Batman fan. It will inevitably be better if you are a fan, but it is such a well designed game that any gamer owes it to themselves to play it. A real triumph.

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I’m separating this from the main body of the review, because it’s a slightly separate issue, but I was very disappointed with the decision to make Catwoman’s sections of the game download only. Now, the issue of DLC is a separate debate, but I do disagree with how this was handled. Rocksteady made a huge deal of how awesome her sections of the game were going to be, how integral to the plot…and then a week from release announced that actually, you could only play it if you had an internet connection.

I accept that you got it free with every new copy of the game, or for a token fee if bought second hand, but that’s not the point. I know at least one person who would play ‘Arkham City’ – not necessarily new, but a definite player. He works for a university, and has a flat on the campus. The university authorities have, in their infinite wisdom, blocked Xbox Live on campus. Whether he buys new or second-hand, whether he would be willing to pay to play those sections or not, he doesn’t really have the option. He won’t be the only one; gamers without access to Xbox Live (or similar, on other platforms) may well be few and far between, but they are there.

Are the Catwoman sections vital parts of the game? Debatable, but I would say not. They are very good, but while I would say ‘Arkham City’ is a better game for their inclusion, I’m not sure it would be a worse game without them, if you see what I mean. Irrespective of the effect on the game though, having pushed her sections of the game so heavily, to suddenly pull this move shows a real lack of class on Rocksteady’s part.

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