Batman: Arkham Asylum was to superhero video games what Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was to Batman movies; just as Nolan’s film proved that it was possible to create a gritty, intelligent crime drama starring The Caped Crusader (who’s film appearances up until that point had been limited to campy garbage,) Arkham Asylum likewise proved that, after years of appearing in shovelware and quick movie cash-ins, it was indeed possible to create a good game starring Batman. So does that make Arkham Asylum’s sequel, Arkham City, the gaming equivalent of The Dark Knight? Well, not quite, but it’s still an amazing game in it’s own right.
Now, don’t get me wrong– Like The Dark Knight, Arkham City does everything its predecessor did only better and on a more epic scale, but it still manages to retain some of the flaws of the original while adding some new, minor, niggling issues of its own.
Let me get the game’s biggest weakness out of the way first: the hand-to-hand combat in Arkham City, like the fights in Arkham Asylum, still remain the weakest part of the game. While the game’s simple, easy to learn fighting mechanics allow for brawls that look suitably brutal and intense, they don’t actually require much skill; simple button mashing is all you need to get through most of the game’s fights. The game tries to add some variety by making you fight thugs that can only be damaged by certain attacks or combos, but these enemies only add frustration rather than depth; since Batman’s attacks often send him leaping across the screen, sometimes it can be overly difficult to target a specific enemy with a specific attack (the constantly spinning camera during fights doesn’t help, either). You get used to the semi-automated nature of Batman’s attacks eventually, and while there is indeed a deep satisfaction to be gained from the “crunch” that comes when Batman delivers a knock-out blow, the fights in Arkham City, while never truly bad and mostly fair, generally lack the creativity and polish that define the rest of the experience.
Thankfully Arkham City’s stealth sections alone more than make up for the shallow fighting sequences. As in Asylum, Batman can’t solve every situation by simply charging in swinging; he’s not bullet-proof, and he still has to take down armed thugs using stealth rather than brute force. Silent, stealthy take-downs are how you’ll deal with most of the enemies you come across in Arkham City, and the game’s tense, carefully designed encounters with gun (or rocket launcher) toting guards have more than enough depth to compensate for the game’s brain-dead combat.
Unlike Arkham Asylum, you simply can’t spend the entire time perched on a gargoyle while you pick off enemies one-by-one when they walk by. While Arkham City is still filled with conveniently placed gargoyles, enemy tactics have improved, and you’ll no longer be able to rely solely on inverted take-downs (the primary method for dispatching enemies in the first game’s stealth sections) or dive attacks to clear out squads of thugs; if you take out one enemy with an inverted take-down, the rest of them start watching out for attacks from above. Likewise, if you knock out an enemy by popping out behind him from a floor grate, the rest of the surviving enemies will be more cautious around vents and grates. The more intelligent enemies force players to mix up the strategies, and you’ll likely spend more time on the ground, actively stalking each enemy and putting more effort into avoiding being seen, rather than using the old Arkham Asylum strategy of just waiting for an enemy to walk beneath you so you can attack him from above. Moreover, the game’s locales are designed in a way that encourage you to make use of your environment and offer you a variety of ways to incapacitate criminals; whether simply sneak up behind them and get them in a sleeper hold, toss them off a ledge, or even use a high powered magnet to shock them, Arkham City rewards players who think creatively. These stealth sections are tense, challenging, and deep, and most importantly of all, they genuinely make you feel like you’re Batman.
Another major improvement in Arkham City are the boss fights; taking on Arkham’s menagerie of super criminals is actually the high point of the game now, as opposed to Asylum, which turned encounters with Poison Ivy and Joker into bad copies of the worst Zelda boss fights (i.e. use one of Batman’s gadgets to expose their weak point, hit it with your main attack, rinse and repeat.) While most boss fights still use that standard formula, they’re all universally much, much better designed than the original game’s boss encounters. The best boss fight in the game even incorporates the game’s excellent stealth mechanics, as you have to try and take out one of Batman’s more formidable opponents via stealth rather than direct combat; it’s easily the best part of the game, and while I wish more of the game’s boss encounters were like it, the regular styled boss fights are still pretty fun in their own right, and there’s a lot of them too, with pretty much every major Batman villain making an appearance.
It makes sense too that pretty much almost every Batman villain would make an appearance in this game: Arkham City is the world’s largest prison, and while its still smaller than the open cities you’d find in games like Assassin’s Creed or GTA, it is many times larger than the original game’s Arkham Asylum. This works both for and against the game; grappling and gliding from rooftop to rooftop, patrolling the city streets for crime adds a lot towards making players actually feel like Batman, but the new found freedom also comes at the cost of Asylum’s more focused design.
While Arkham City is substantially larger in terms of scale, the actual main story feels a fair bit shorter than Arkham Asylum’s. The game tries to compensate for this by filling Arkham City with loads of sidequests to do and lots more Riddler trophies and challenges to complete, and while there’s nothing wrong with this approach, some of the side material simply isn’t as polished as it should be. While most of the optional material is fun, like tracking down super-sniper Deadshot by tracing the trajectory of his gunshots, a lot of the sidequests simply involve randomly, blindly wandering around, looking for the random trigger points that will allow you to complete these missions. None of these missions are bad per se, but they’re simply boring and feel like forced busy-work. Similarly, the Riddler challenges in this one simply aren’t as clever as the ones from Asylum, and the open-world nature of this game means you’ll spend more time looking for the proper object to scan rather than deducing the answer to the riddle itself; I immediately knew the answer to one riddle for instance, but spent half an hour randomly walking around Arkham City’s streets until I found the right object to scan in as the answer.
To get back to my Dark Knight comparison, when I finished watching that movie, I was left breathless; I came at it with high expectations and it more than surpassed all of them, and it improved on the already excellent Batman Begins in every possible way. Arkham City likewise improves on almost every aspect of Arkham Asylum, but it’s not quite the massive leap forward that I was hoping for. Arkham City fixes Asylum’s boss fights and makes the stealth sections even better, but for all it’s improvements, it doesn’t do much to improve the first game’s unspectacular but competent combat system and the shift to an open world structure causes a few new issues to arise as well. Still, despite my issues with certain aspects of the game, the high points of Batman: Arkham City more than make up for any nit-picky, minor quibbles I had. There’s nothing genuinely bad about Arkham City, there’s just simply parts that aren’t as good as they should be.
While it doesn’t quite make Arkham Asylum obsolete, it does manage to deliver a mostly improved, thoroughly satisfying adventure that anyone who’s a fan of quality video games shouldn’t miss. Plus, unlike The Dark Knight, you can actually understand what Batman is saying!
Final Score: 9.5/10