When Batman: Arkham Asylum hit consoles in the second half of 2009, it was a welcome change from the typical licensed fare. Much like Christopher's Nolan's excellent reboot of the film franchise, Arkham Asylum served as a successful reboot of the Batman video game franchise. Well paced, tightly plotted and highly polished, the game basically set the bar on what players should expect from a licensed title. With Batman: Arkham City, developer Rocksteady returns to the well in an attempt to do everything bigger and better. While the sophomore outing is an excellent game in its own right, it doesn't quite step out of the shadow of the original adventure.
It's obvious that the designers of Arkham City decided to aim big from the start. Everything about it is an exercise in largesse. From the sprawling nature of the cityscape, to all of the high-profile villains who appear to the nearly overwhelming number of Riddler trophies to collect, Arkham City is virtually screaming, "Look at me! I'm epic!" Therein lies its biggest failing: The game simply tries too hard.
Arkham Asylum drew in players because it was a tightly paced adventure that slowly unraveled as you moved forward. Bits were carefully teased out, boss battles felt like a challenge and the mid-game sequence with the Scarecrow easily rates as one of the most memorable video game encounters. Sure, the concept had been done before, but the execution of that section in Arkham Asylum was flawless.
Comparatively speaking, Arkham City has the flair but lacks in finesse. In making the environment larger, Rocksteady has given players more area to explore, but the team hasn't packed it to the brim with content like they did with Arkham Asylum. When traversing the city in Arkham City, you quickly become aware that much of the city is filler. The only real difference is that the buildings you can enter in Arkham City are farther apart than the buildings you can explore in Arkham Asylum. Because of the distance, the artificial leash becomes crystal clear.
Arkham City may offer the illusion of freedom, but when it comes to gameplay, it can be just as confining as its namesake prison. Having a game funnel players down a given path isn't always a bad thing, but the games that do it best are the ones that hide it from the player. Arkham City doesn't even try to hide the leash. In fact, in one early section of the game if you try to spend any time exploring, Batman repeatedly tells you that he really should be moving on.
Another example of the artificial funneling comes along in the latter half of the game, when Batman is trying to enter the villain's base. There are multiple paths into the area, but all of them are conveniently closed off whenever the plot dictates it. No matter what you do, there is only one way through an area.
Thankfully, the issues with Arkham City are limited to the conceptual, as the actual gameplay is plenty of fun. When you're running around as Batman, plot holes and character motivation isn't really your concern. You're there to beat the crap out of bad guys, and in that respect, Arkham City delivers.
FreeFlow combat was the fighting system used in Arkham Asylum, and it makes a return here. Basically button-mashing with rhythm, FreeFlow combat offers an accessible combo system that does a good job of making you feel like an utter badass. Keeping an extended combo going is a small challenge, but there's a good sense of satisfaction when you take out a large mob.
There's more to killing enemies than just satisfaction, though. More importantly, there are experience points, which build up automatically. Every time you reach a new level, an upgrade unlocks. One upgrade can be purchased at each level, giving you new weapon techniques or improved fighting moves. In a nice touch, upgrades earned during the regular game carry over to the start of New Game+.
Much like the rest of the game, boss fights in Arkham City are fun while they last. With the sole exception of Mr. Freeze, none of them are memorable. Facing off against Freeze, you're forced to use different detective skills to win the match. Everyone else is a matter of brute force. Sometimes, the boss fights feel like any character could be battling.
Outside of the exploration and combat, Arkham City also sees the return of the Riddler puzzles. Finding the trophies is a nice diversion at first, but in the end, completing the Riddle puzzles becomes more work than play. Just like Rare discovered back in the day with the insane banana fetch quests in Donkey Kong 64, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Finally, there's the Catwoman DLC. A bonus for anyone who purchases Arkham City new and an 800 MSP ($10 USD) option for anyone else, Catwoman offers up four additional story missions, even more Riddler trophies and the ability to wander around Arkham City as Catwoman. It's the latter option that makes the DLC worthwhile, as Catwoman plays quite differently from Batman. Her story missions are largely filler, but the alternate ending presented at the end of her third mission is almost a return to the brilliance of Arkham Asylum. Almost.
When all is said and done, Batman: Arkham City is an enjoyable game with plenty of content to explore. Just know that despite a fresh coat of paint, there's nothing really new here. If you enjoyed Arkham Asylum and simply want more of the same, you're going to love Arkham City. Those who were hoping for an evolution in play, however, are going to be left wanting.
More articles about Batman: Arkham City