Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Review - Batman: Arkham City

Superman? Coward – afraid to take the punches (it helps that he's almost invulnerable). Iron Man? Wimp – hiding behind technology and armour. The X-Men? Bunch of nutters – relying on their powers and no true ability.

For me, there's only one superhero who really fits the bill – the Dark Knight himself, Batman. Sure, he has no 'powers' as such – aside from a genius-level intellect and brilliant detective skills... and a high-tech suit, and cool gadgets, and a badass voice... but he's still the best of the bunch.

Good thing, then, that Rocksteady – the team behind the excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum - are back with Arkham City. And it kicks ass. Set shortly after the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City sees the titular hero infiltrating what was once a prosperous area of Gotham City – but which has now become a walled-off nightmare of a place, where supercriminals and lowlifes alike are loose and causing havoc – all overseen by Hugo Strange, a brilliant psychotherapist (and utter nutter). And it doesn't help that he knows Batman's true identity. Sound like a fun place to spend 15+ hours? You'd be right.

Anyone who played Arkham Asylum will feel instantly at home in Arkham City (this is a good thing, as the game drops you right in the action!) and fairly soon gliding between Gotham's huge, imposing architecture on wings shaped like the crime-fighter's namesake will become second nature. And what a city it is. As with the movies, Gotham City itself is the co-star of the action, with huge buildings, underground, scum-filled (figuratively and literally) sewers and soaring vistas aplenty, as well as the mean streets themselves. These are populated by the scum of the city and - as one would expect, with all the series' supervillains in one place – a war has begun. Joker, Penguin and Two-Face are all fighting it out, with each of the trio after one thing or another – and the Dark Knight is in the middle, facing his demons and holding out hope to restore order. Yeah, good luck with that.

And all the while, Batman's irritating, mystery-obsessed foe 'The Riddler' is back on form, and has seeded Arkham City with numerous riddles, puzzles and clues for the Dark Knight to follow and solve, offering just one of any number of side-missions to keep you busy. These can range from answering a phone to a convicted serial killer, using your high-tech gear to solve a murder or simply taking our some video cameras with a perfectly timed batarang, and serve as a nice pace-breaker from the mainstream action.

As one would expect of a crime-fighting legend, Batman comes tooled up with all the best in gadgets, from batclaw to batarangs to smoke pellets to escape wily bad guys - and even more gadgets are up for grabs as the game goes on through a robust experience and upgrade system. The combat's also been ramped up this time around, with each gadget having a spot in 'quickfire' controls for the melee. While it's easy to mess up the combination you were looking for, using these becomes second nature pretty quickly, and Batman's astounding agility will take your breath away as he easily disarms and downs his foes in true showboating style. I still feel, however, that the combat is still a bit too simple in the long-run, but that's only a minor quibble, as taking out 15 thugs without breaking a sweat is still an awesome experience.

The other part of Batman's modus operandi – stalking from the shadows – is also back in style, and Arkham City offers a huge variety of intimidation moves for the wily gamer, allowing Batman to stalk from high above, offing thugs one by one as the panic sets in among them.It's an amazingly cool feeling, and one you'll want to repeat again and again. Handily, there's more than one way to do so, as besides the lengthy and engrossing campaign mode, Arkham City also features the game's signature 'challenge' modes – combat or stealth based challenge rooms which task the Dark Knight with taking down thugs fast or silently, and offers online leaderboards to compare scores. Plus if you buy the special edition of the game (or purchase an activation code if you buy second-hand) you can also play through these challenge modes as Batman's sidekick, Robin, or the sultry Catwoman – a master thief, both of which have their own distinctive movement and combat sets, weapons and gadgets. Catwoman also has her own story missions, which tie into the main campaign and serve as a nice break from the elbow-bashing style of Batman's way. Riddler has also filled Arkham City with trophies and challenges for her to find, which extends the experience still further.

As for the graphics - Arkham City is simply glorious. The huge space the game occupies is beautifully modelled, from moody skies to black waters in the docklands, and looks stunning as you glide through it on wings of fabric and fear. The animation is also excellent, from combat to movement, and there are practically no graphical bugs to be seen. Then there's the sound, which is engrossing in both sound effects and score, featuring crunching beats for combat and eerie moans for Batman's signature brooding atop a gargoyle (of which there are, once again, far too many for one city...).

And don't get me started on the voice acting. Batman (Kevin Conroy) is spot on once again, and the insanity of Mark Hamill (real or just acting, I wonder..?) as the Joker was amazing to listen to - the two of them playing off against each other beautifully. And right beside them was a huge variety of talent, lending a credence to Arkham City's characters, good and bad, that bought it to life.

All in all, Arkham City improves on Arkham Asylum in every way. Everything's bigger and brighter, there's more to see and do, a huge campaign mode, challenges and riddles to solve, two other playable characters - and so much fan service the game's practically a love letter to Batman fans. Buy it now, you won't regret it. "I'm Batman" – and you can be too.