Two years ago, Arkham Asylum didn’t just deliver the best comic book-inspired game ever, but one of the best experiences of the year. Much of that was due to the perfect combination of Paul Dini’s script crafting a compelling story and both an exceptional cast and Rocksteady Studios doing justice to it. Dini knows the Batman universe better than anyone, and has crafted some of its greatest comic and animated stories, and AA’s story was on par with the series’ best. It was a compelling game, and a rewarding experience because it gave you the first chance to play as a fully-realized version of Batman.
It allowed you to make use of his skills as the world’s greatest detective to solve crimes and even solve the Riddler’s riddles. And instead of just beating up thugs, you could now do that, use stealth, or mix things up between the two. The combat system had a great deal of depth to it and relied heavily on precise timing to counter enemy attacks and use the detective mode to seek out enemies from a distance, and use it to discover clues when not in combat.
Arkham City continues the gameplay style and overall dark tone of the first game, but instead of taking place in a cramped asylum, gives you a more open world to explore. It takes place after the events of the first game - the one-time warden of the asylum is now mayor, and has created Arkham City to throw all of Gotham’s super-criminals in one area under the guise of protecting the citizens, but is really working with Hugo Strange to use this facility to finally kill Batman by throwing Bruce Wayne into it and let the one-time inmates tear him to pieces.
The best thing about AC is that it doesn’t sacrifice the sense of terror that surrounded the asylum. There, every corner seemed to have some kind of new nut job that wanted you dead. I feared with AC that the more open world would lead to that claustrophobic feeling being lost, but it isn’t. The world still feels cramped on foot, especially when you’re walking and see just how torn apart it really is. When you’re soaring above it, the smattering of enemies and buildings are but a blur, but when you’re among them, you see that the crooks have some personality to them - some want out of the life they’re in, others are torn between working for one criminal mastermind or another, and yet others want nothing more than to destroy Batman. AC may lack the Scarecrow’s toxins, but still provides plenty of holy shark repellent moments because of its dark tone.
One example of this comes relatively early on, when you’re exploring the Penguin’s museum hideout and you can explore every exhibit there - only instead of things like skeletons and mummies, you’ve got the Penguin’s sickening shrines to things in the Batman universe, including Batman himself, complete with his narration. Go up a floor, and he’ll do the same for a weapons cache, and explain in grizzly detail what he plans to do with every item you come across. It’s unsettling, creepy, and at times scary, and that’s something AC does really well no matter where you are. There’s never a moment of true rest. Even if you’re soaring above the city, you’ll have to deal with security shining spotlights on you, and when you hit land, you’ll have to deal with criminals who hate one thing more than cops - the Batman (and if you’ve got the DLC - Catwoman).
Her story is pretty engrossing as well, even if it is much shorter than Batman’s. It takes place at the same time as Batman’s, so events in Catwoman’s story will affect Batman’s at times, and you’ll see the effect as you play through each adventure. She’s a lot faster than Batman, and swinging around the city with her whip is a much smoother experience than soaring above it with Batman. She also fights a bit differently, using much faster attacks and relying on sticking and moving and less on brute force. However, while it’s tempting to just beat up rivals, especially with the new stun-punch combo making fun to do so quickly, it is still better to use stealth whenever possible since enemies are smarter and will not only gang up on you, but also destroy your perches. You need to be quick, try and avoid being seen, and move from one foe to the other.
Arkham City delivers more of the same kind of gameplay as before, but with some refinements. The battle system has been tweaked slightly with more responsive controls, and more moves at your disposal. Gadget-wise, Batman’s got some old and new toys to use against both living and inanimate objects, like a fancy taser that not only acts as a weapon, but also allows you to provide juice to areas that need it so you can progress. You can also now use quick attack versions of the tools at your disposal to stun an enemy, so if you’re surrounded and need to zap someone quickly to regain your bearings, you can.
There’s more mission variety here, not only due to the massive increase in villains, but also due to the addition of side-missions, which allow a handful of enemies to take center stage at your leisure while the A story involving Strange plays out. These missions are all pretty much different from each other, minus the “save political prisoner from a beating” ones, which are easy XP. Zsasz has a creepy one where he calls you on a phone, forces you to find a specific phone amid dozens in the city within a time limit or else he’ll kill one of his hostages. It’s a gripping story, and one that actually gets more intense when you fail, see how Zsasz has scarred himself with carvings noting each murder he’s committed, which drives home that you MUST complete this task as soon as possible.
Detective mode is back and has been expanded a bit to now allow you to listen in on enemies from afar while they plan their strategy, so you can better plan yours. Detective mode was great before, but did usually wind up being something you used to see where enemies were and to figure out which one to go after first. It’s still a useful battle tool, just more of one. Basically, everything that made Arkham Asylum such a great game to play is back and has been both improved and expanded upon. It’s exactly what one would expect from a sequel.
Visually, AC looks tremendous. The city itself is remarkable in both size and scope. You can get on one high point and see far off into the distance into either an area you’ve been before or an area you’ll have to go to in the future. I love that the city has character as well. Much like the asylum before it, you see the flaws in every structure, and it makes the world you’re in seem very lived in. As a result, everything that goes on seems just a bit more realistic, and that helps tell the gritty story better. It wouldn’t seem right for it to unfold in a pristine world. Despite being such a flawed world, it really is a beautiful one. It’s easy to finish up a mission and then just go perch yourself on something, spin the camera around for a while, and admire the view. Since the developers didn’t fill the screen with tons of on-screen graphics, it really makes the game seem more cinematic than most, and that’s another little thing that makes the virtual world seem a bit more real.
The characters that inhibit the world are some of the most detailed you’ll see. For at least a few months, I’ve been thinking that this gen is about maxed out graphically…and then I saw this and was blown away. Like AA, Batman’s outfit shows wear and tear during the adventure (another thing that adds to the reality of the game), and the models themselves are just incredibly detailed. You’ll be able to make out every tear in his costume, every curve in Catwoman’s, every scar on Joker‘s face, be repulsed by the visible muscle tissue of Two-Face, and so on. It’s quite remarkable, and will probably allow AC to look good for years to come.
Like its predecessor, Arkham City’s voice work is tremendous. I feared that the recasting would hurt the game, but it didn’t - Tara Strong fills in wonderfully for Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, and Mark Hammill made his final performance as the Joker a memorable one to go out on. And of course, Kevin Conroy remains the definitive Batman voice actor, and has just the right blend of seriousness and dry wit to explain why Batman isn’t driven insane by his adventures. As expected, the orchestral soundtrack delivers the goods once again. The music is stirring when it needs to be, scary when it needs to be, and plays with your emotions perfectly. The sound effects are also exactly what they need to be - realistic for the real-world weapons, and plausibly realistic for the fantasy ones.
Batman: Arkham City is an absolute must for anyone who loved Arkham Asylum. If you didn’t play that, then do that first because the storylines tie into each other. Although AC’s works as a stand-alone storyline, it’s a lot better if you’ve played through the first game since there are a lot of things in this one that only make sense if you played AA. AC as a whole is a tremendous offering that actually manages to top the original, which isn’t an easy feat. That game succeeded in every way one could’ve hoped for, and this takes that same design and expands upon it perfectly. AC’s replay value is also surprisingly high. Beyond a New Game+ mode, you’ve also got dozens of challenges for Batman and Catwoman now, and more coming in the form of DLC for Robin and Nightwing. Plus, like AA, the game is fun to go through again just to absorb the atmosphere of the world and find all the Easter eggs.