Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Batman: Arkham City

Post-Launch Review
Batman: Arkham City (PC)
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Released: October 18 2011 (console), November 22 2011 (PC)


Batman: Arkham City is a third-person action-adventure game and sequel to Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum. Following the opening of a massive city-scale prison called Arkham City, Batman hurls himself into the wretched hive of scum and villainy, determined to discover the true goals of newly-appointed prison director Hugo Strange, a psychologist who has deduced Batman's true identity.
Previous PLR Arkham City coverage:

At Launch

Arkham City was at one point Metacritic's highest-rated game of 2011, beating Skyrim by decimals at 96%. The game was a massive critical success. Reviewers loved the art direction, huge cast of characters, open world and gadgets, and plethora of side objectives, challenges, and replayability. Some criticized the dialogue as cliché, and some felt that the plot lacked the unpredictability of the original's, but there were very few negatives overall.
A number of users reported disappearing save games. The save file was still there, but for some reason the game would stop accessing it. Not everyone had this problem, but it was pretty severe for those who did.

Post Launch

There have been a couple of patches, mainly addressing performance problems with DirectX 11 rendering. After four months the save game glitch was finally addressed, allowing players to finally access their save files again.
There are currently five DLC packs. The Robin and Nightwing bundles add, obviously enough, Robin and Nightwing as playable characters for the game's challenge modes. The Challenge Map Pack adds a few extra challenge maps, some with unique rule sets. The Arkham City Skins Pack adds seven alternate costumes for Batman, which had previously been exclusive bonuses for various things: 70's blue Batsuit, Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Earth One, Batman Beyond, Sinestro Corps, and the Animated Series.
Finally, Harley Quinn's Revenge is a short addition to the story, taking place shortly after the events of the main game. See my review here.

The Good

Voice Acting
Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker never disappoint and are always amazing. There's not much else to say in regards to them. Hugo Strange is well done, and some of the supporting characters are also excellent. Some of the generic thugs' lines are a little weird and dumb, but I guess that's just because they're dumb thugs? (for example, to Catwoman: “You'll bleed like a dead cat!” Well, dead cats don't bleed, their circulatory system isn't working anymore)
Also, as a side note, the Mad Hatter is voiced by Peter MacNicol, who also voiced X the Eliminator in the cartoon Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law.
Art Direction
It's winter in Gotham, and it's snowing most of the time. It's nice to see snow falling as you glide through the city.
The character designs are awesome, incorporating a surprising amount of realism and practicality for comic book characters — for the most part. I have problems with Catwoman, but that'll be explored farther down. Batman's costume is pretty cool, incorporating armour plates and heavy fabrics, so that it looks like something someone might really wear. His shoulders seem just a bit too wide for my liking, but that's my only complaint with the Batsuit. Mr. Freeze also looks pretty cool, with a fairly chunky suit that doesn't look too much like science fiction power armour. Hugo Strange is also great — the reflections in his glasses and the hairs of his beard are particularly notable. The Penguin's monocle is reimagined as the bottom of a beer bottle that's been ground into his face and can't be safely removed.
Also, the optional Mad Hatter segment is pretty ridiculous.
Arkham Asylum made me believe that Batman really could fight twenty guys at once and win. Arkham City adds more animations and abilities, making things even cooler. The basic system is the same — almost rhythm-based, where you build more combo for timing your attacks well, and responding with counterattacks or leaps at the right moment. Batman now has twelve gadgets at his disposal, eleven of which have combat application — and most of those can be quick-fired, which means you can throw down some explosive gel or blast an armoured guy back with a shock without interrupting your combo. Some of Batman's attack animations are absolutely brutal — for example, I've had him wrap a thug's leg the wrong way around a metal pipe, or punch through a riot shield's bulletproof glass.
Challenge Modes
There are 24 challenge maps, half combat, half predator (sneakily taking out guys one by one), plus a few extra in the DLC. Each map has three specific objectives to complete for a medal each — in the combat maps they're point totals, and in predator maps they're specific actions Batman needs to accomplish. Then there are extreme versions of each of those maps with more difficult objectives. There are also campaigns, which are three challenge maps which must be completed in sequence, with special modifiers to help or hinder you. Across all characters, there are hundreds of medals to unlock, so there's definitely a lot to do.
The Riddler
Holy crap, the Riddler stuff is ridiculous! There are four hundred Riddler challenges to complete as Batman in story mode, and another 40 as Catwoman. That's absurd! Some of them are trophies accessed by solving a puzzle, often requiring a certain gadget upgrade. Some are riddles which must be solved by finding the answer in detective mode. Some are rewarded for destroying specific objects, and some are awarded for completing physical and combat objectives. When you find enough objectives, you unlock the ability to find and rescue one of the Riddler's hostages. The challenge modes also fall under the Riddler's supervision. And to make things easier on you, Batman can tag trophies on his map that he can't access yet, and later on you can also find and interrogate Riddler thugs to reveal other locations. Needless to say, there's a lot of stuff to do after you've finished story mode. I had plenty of fun and played for hours just wandering around the city unlocking the Riddler's secrets.
Side Quests
There's a small but excellent selection of side quests during the campaign mode. A few specific characters operate with their own agenda, and Batman has to deal with them in parallel with the main plot. There's the return of an old serial killer, a bizarre new serial killer, a professional assassin, chemical weapons, hostages, a mysterious observer, and random street crime to deal with. It goes a long way to show the player that Batman is really being pushed hard by everything going on in Arkham City.
Boss Battles
Arkham City has surprisingly engaging boss battles. The standout is Mr. Freeze. He's a really smart scientist, so every time you pull a move off, he takes damage, but he then adapts his tactics so you can't catch him that way again. It really forces you to think about your attack plan. There's a battle with the Joker and a whole legion of thugs, which strongly reminded me of the 1960's show with Adam West, where the villain would stand in the background and watch the fight — only here, the Joker brawls with the rest of them. You also get a couple of really trippy sequences where Batman's mind is being messed with to crazy effect.
New Game +
As if there wasn't enough for you to do already, there's also a NG+ where you start out with every gadget and upgrade you've unlocked, the ability to choose your Batsuit in campaign mode, and with no counter indicators above enemies' heads. 
Each character has multiple available skins. Many are only available through DLC, but they're fantastic tributes to many different Batman stories over the years. My personal favourite is The Dark Knight Returns costume above.

The Neutral

I found the plot quite good. There were a few clever surprises in there, especially dealing with the Joker. Some side characters make appearances not as villains, but as temporary allies, and those appearances work quite well. Another nice touch are the “Arkham City Stories” unlocked by finding certain Riddler trophies, which give you extra backstory on events before Arkham City opened, or short tales about Batman villains who didn't make it into the game.
But the reason this is under neutral is because of one particular plot point that's incredibly obvious if you're a fan of Batman comic books.
Spoilers ahead!
The very second Hugo Strange mentions that he's not the one at the top of the game, and that there's someone above him, I knew it was Ra's Al Ghul. Because really, how could it be anyone else? This was supposed to be one of the game's big revelations leading up to the final boss battle, and it won't be even remotely surprising to readers of the comics.

The Bad

I have serious problems with just about everything relating to Catwoman. First of all: that costume. I actually really like the profile shape of the ears and collar from behind, but dat zipper. Every other character in the game is dressed so practically and realistically, and yet the master thief doesn't do up her top in the middle of winter? A black costume is for camouflage at night, but she's showing all that pale skin like a great big beacon. Plus she wears heels! For climbing and running and fighting! In the snow! I know that's supposed to be “part of her character” with the sex appeal and all — which is actually my second problem. This depiction of Catwoman uses her sexuality as a weapon. That would be fine, except it's way overboard. She tries to seduce Poison Ivy and even uses her sexy voice when she's alone. Who are you trying to seduce — yourself? And even worse, she's way weaker than Batman in combat, past the realm of understanding and into the realm of frustration. Batman is the best, and I'm okay with that — but Catwoman has less HP, has three gadgets to Batman's twelve, and can't destroy enemy weapons in combat.
Fortunately I can solve one of these three problems by changing her costume, but that only works in challenge maps, and not the campaign. Sigh.

Harley Quinn's Revenge
It's just... not very good.

The Verdict
Recommendation: Play it.
As if I, a huge nerd, could have concluded anything else. Arkham City is an incredible game. It manages to merge dozens of bits into a single coherent plotline with plenty of twists and turns. It plays fantastically, with smooth animations and plenty of options. Characters are well defined and designed and feel unique (except for Catwoman, grrrr). Throw in the mountains of content and you'll get plenty of return on your investment. It's not only the best superhero game ever made — in my opinion it's also one of the best games in general. If I'd played it a month ago it would've been on my top 10, but I guess I'll have to save it for 2012's article.

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