Batman: Arkham Asylum was something special. It came out during a fall of many, many more anticipated releases (Uncharted 2) and blew everyone away by proving that licensed games don’t have to be terrible. It had unique combat, exciting stealth, a great setting, and terrific voice acting (thanks to Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy). So now that these mechanics are a known quantity, does the new sequel, Arkham City, still hold up? Yep.
After the events of the first game, Akham Aslyum has closed down and a section of Gotham City has been walled off to form a sort of super prison. Dubbed Arkham City, the new prison is controlled by warden Hugo Strange. After an outstanding introduction sequence, Batman finds himself in Arkham City for several hours until what Strange calls “Protocol 10” happens. Finding out what Protocol 10 is about is the focal point of the story, while the climax is centered on Protocol 10 actually going into effect.
Like the previous game, Arkham City offers a kaleidoscope of Batman characters. Every single villain from the first game (except for one) has at least some sort of brief cameo, many of which have much more than a cameo, notably the Joker. In addition to the returning cast, the game adds Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, the Penguin, and many more.
Unlike the previous game, the story is darker this time around. Batman seems more serious and impatient (which makes sense, due to early events in the game). The stakes are higher than before, with all of Gotham in danger for more than one reason. The villains are all at odds with each other, staking out their territories within Arkham City. The story becomes especially dark near the climax and stays that way through the entirety of the ending credits. Actually, this game may have one of the most chilling credits sequences I’ve seen.
The darker atmosphere of the story is mirrored in the world of Arkham City itself. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game with more attention to detail in every little environment. Atmosphere is oozing out of every crack in the pavement of the city. The entire game takes place over one night, which is great because the lighting around the city is amazing. There are light sources everywhere: neon signs, billboards, searchlights, burning buildings, and more. The light bounces around the city off of reflective surfaces and it’s all very moody. A lot of times while walking at ground level, the city has that “rain slicked streets” look to it like some sort of noir or Scorsese film. I know it’s a small detail, but the neon signs reflecting on the wet streets consistently impressed me.
Walking around at street level isn’t your primary way of getting around Arkham City, though. The map is a little larger than the Asylum island this time around, but it’s no massive map like you might see in Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto. It’s actually just right; Batman can’t really get the batmobile past the private military-guarded walls, so he’s left to his gadgets when it comes to getting around. Thankfully, he’s a lot more mobile now.
The most impactful new gadget is the grapnel boost. It’s essentially the grapple gun we know and love, only it boosts Batman up into the air where he uses that momentum and his cape to glide with ease. If he starts to slow down and drop, you can do a flash dive bomb move and then open your cape to get swept back up into another long glide. This traversal system is really intuitive and easy to learn; before too long you’ll be gliding around the city like there’s nothing to it.
If traversal is one of Arkham City’s pillars of gameplay mechanics, combat is the next big one. However, combat hasn’t changed a whole lot from the first game. It’s still based on timing strikes, counters, dodges, and blocks while opening special moves as you earn upgrades. Like the previous game, it can take quite a while before you feel like you’ve really decoded the combat and become good at it, but when you do it’s really something to see. Similar to Assassin’s Creed, pulling off a flawless fight against 20 guys in Arkham City can be one of the most cinematic, well-animated things in gaming. It actually looks even more authentic than in Assassin’s Creed; you’ll have multiple guys attacking you at once, rather than each guy just waiting his turn.
Thankfully, the changes to combat that the developers, Rocksteady, made are very welcome. While multiple enemies can swing at you at once, there are now multiple-person counters that have some really cool animations. The biggest change to combat, though, is enemies. Previously there were just normal guys and weapon guys, but now there are also armor or shield guys. Each of the four major enemy types have a certain attack that’s best for defeating them, so you’ll have to be on your toes to keep your combo flowing.
Stealth is back in as well and it’s just as strong as it was in Arkham Asylum. You can still freak out the enemies as you take them out one at a time but the difficulty of doing so has been ramped up. Some enemies now have thermal goggles and will check hiding perches like gargoyles for you. Others will straight-up shoot perches down, forcing you to use alternative strategies. Thankfully, there are new gadgets to help you make do, the most impactful of which is a sort of EMP device that will remotely jam enemies’ guns without them knowing. You have to be careful, though, as you only can use it twice in an encounter.
Boss fights are back as well. But before you groan, you should know that this time around they’re really good. One specific boss fight has you using every ability you have to do damage. Each time you use an ability or gadget, it pretty much gets locked out for the rest of the fight. It forces you to be creative and reminds me somewhat of the original Metal Gear Solid.
Also back from the first game are challenge rooms, both combat and stealth. These function the same as before, though the tweaks to combat and enemies (in addition to the ability to use almost all of your gadgets in combos) make them deeper and more interesting than before. You can also build your own challenges out of scenarios and modifiers like half health, etc.
You may be realizing by now that that Arkham City doesn’t reinvent the wheel and you’re definitely right. Stealth and combat still feel and work largely the same, despite minor changes. You still go around to whatever the building the story points you to so that you can progress the plot. Really, the only real “new” thing is the traversal system that you use to get around the city.
But does that really matter? Arkham City is simply an amazing game and an even better “Batman simulator” than the first one. The developers seem to have struck that sweet spot between a familiar experience and a new, tweaked one. This game didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, just keep it fun to use. At the end of the day, Arkham City is a Batman game for Batman fans. The large cast, exploration elements, combat, traversal, and everything else just mix into a perfectly balanced and robust experience with enough content to keep you happy for a long time.