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Hall of Fame: Batman: Arkham City Review

by on October 25, 2013

Developer: Rocksteady Games   Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: October 18, 2011   Rated: T for Teen   Platform: Action/Stealth

A revitalizing tale in a troubled genre

By Terry Randolph

For many years, the superhero genre was in a stagnant state of mediocrity. Granted, there were several exceptions out there like the X-Men and Spiderman movies, but they were surrounded by swarms of duds that tarnished the genre. Videogames oftentimes ranged in the middling to downright abysmal (Superman 64 anyone?). Over, it seemed as if our caped crusaders would have to hang up their suits in these mediums and be relegated back to only being in comic books or children cartoons. Something needed to be done fast to bring them back to relevancy.

Some people may argue that the Spiderman trilogy helped bring superheroes into the mainstream, I believe it served as a taste of what was yet to come.  2005, the year Batman Begins, I would argue was the renaissance of the superhero movie genre; Christopher Nolan was able to give us a familiar, refreshing look at Bruce Wayne’s transformation into becoming the famous cowl-bearing vigilante Batman. The two movies to follow suit, The Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises bring Bruce’s arc full circle masterfully. The trilogy proved that you could blend in elements of realism and comics book together to create a viable, successful superhero movie. Since Batman Begins, there has been a consistent surge in both the popularity and quality of superhero movies; most notably, Marvel’s The Avengers.

Yet, the same could not be said about superhero video games; too many mediocre or abysmal titles kept quality titles from making the jump to relevance. The routine was well hammered into everyone; find excitement at a cool looking new superhero game coming out, only to be disappointed in the final product. Or see the commercial and look the other way. It was not until 2009 when Rocksteady Games, only then known for Urban Chaos: Riot Response, had created Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game was everything fans had clamored for in a Batman game; the gadgets, the engaging/smartly written story, smart villains and a mature, darker storytelling approach. Though it had its flaws, most notably the clunky combat system, it brought a feeling that superhero games were also a viable genre to revitalize.  Arkham City, the sequel, was able to take Arkham Asylum as its blueprint to build upon, creating a game that feels like the penultimate Batman experience. This is the game that any gamer should play.

The story feels like a genuine Batman storyline and this is due to having longtime writer Paul Dini helming the ship. While not giving away too much Arkham City takes place one year after the events of Arkham Asylum. Quincy Sharp is now the mayor of Gotham city, and has decided to take half of the city to create a bigger prison for the most criminally insane to run in. Bruce Wayne is a staunch advocator against this idea creating media buzz about it. Eventually, he is kidnapped while in the middle of a conference by Hugo Strange, who tells him he knows his role as both Bruce and Batman. Bruce is thrown into Arkham City, and must unravel the mysteries of the city and what Hugo calls “Protocol 10”. Batman will have to face some of his most notorious foes; Mr. Cobblepot, Mr. Freeze and the Riddler. Oh, and of course the Joker has something up his sleeve too. The game’s plot goes in a frenzied but great pace to an ending that is haunting but truly memorable. For those looking to jump into the video game series, this is NOT the game to do so. Anyone is doing themselves a disservice by starting here.

What accentuates the superbly written story are the details placed into making the world a living, breathing character. Various random events are triggered throughout the game, leading to other smaller mysterious to unravel over time. These mysterious are each uniquely tied to some of Batman’s other recognizable, equally grandiose villains like the Riddler or Zsazz. Or, you can save political prisoners from being beaten to death by one of your main enemies minions.  As you make your way throughout the huge world, Batman can pick up conversations from inmates that discuss how they feel about the situation they are, their mood, and so on. The clothing of the minions is detailed; the color scheme/outfit tells you who they work for. Even Batman’s suit gets tattered over the game, giving an indication of how much he has had to get through in order to do what needs to be done. It is details like these that create a world that feels organic and gives the player a truly immersive experience of being Batman.

The other aspect of the writing I really admire that Paul Dini and company have done is to be able to find the fine line between being dark when they need to and knowing when to pull back. The violence inflicted in this game is ugly, and the villains cold and cunning. There are cutscenes that show someone being killed or tortured right in front of Batman. However, much like the animated series, it pulls away at the necessary moments to further accentuate the dread from these encounters. It further heightens the tension and brevity of the situation at hand.

Hugo Strange trying his hardest to pull off a Gendo Ikari expression

However, if it were not for the game’s stellar artwork matching the tone of the story this could have actually been a problem. Arkham City is ugly, gritty and dirty like I would expect it to be. People are living in hastily built shacks and using metal barrels to create fires. Buildings are either in ruin or run down. Each character, from Cobblepot to Zsazz look terrifying already on their own, and the realistic approach gives them a new feeling of horrifying.

Most importantly, it is the stellar voice acting that bring the characters to life. Kevin Conroy, longtime voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman, feels and sounds every bit like what we would expect. . However, the one person who really shines in this game is Mark Hamill, my personal favorite of all the Jokers anyone has ever seen. From the cackle, the menace dripping from his words and his demeanor, Joker is downright every bit creepy.  Anyone can tell that Hamill is trying to give Joker his last hurrah, as this game would be his swan song for him. The banter between Conroy and Hamill as their respective characters carries both a sense of reverence and a back and forth between adversaries. The rest of the cast is well placed too, bringing life to their characters that feel every bit as real. One of my other favorite performances in the game comes from Wally Wingert, the ever enigmatic “Riddler”.

It’s Showtime Batsy Boy! You gotta be awake as our main attraction!

Most importantly, the stellar voice acting brings everything together in how energetic the cast is. This is a stellar swan song for Mark Hamill to end his run as the Joker; while his cackle, laugh, the menace that drips from his voice and energy will be missed. Anyone can tell H amill is definitely giving his best to send Joker off on a high-note (which, I am a bit weary of Joker’s appearance in Arkham Origins).  Kevin Conroy does a great job matching Hamill’s energy; their back-and-forth diatribe carries both a reverence for one-another as well as their usual competitive escalation.  The rest of the cast is well placed too, never trying to take too much of the focus away from the game but doing just enough to stand out. One of my favorite performances from the game has to come from Wally Wingert’s performance as the ever enigmatic “Riddler”. His vocal inflections, tone and personality shine vibrantly in his riddles throughout the game.

Gameplay feels identical to Arkham Asylum, but a bit more refined and fluid. Batman responds a little better to button commands and feels a little more light on his feet. Gadgets are fun to use in fights, offering up a variety of ways to change the fight up. Want to scare your enemies a bit? You can use a Remote Electrical Charge gun to shoot one and have them fire their gun in the air. Want to take them out without being seen? Use the Mine detonator to knock them out. The combat is fun and addicting because of how varied combat scenarios are. Enemies vary in their strengths/weaknesses, and it is up to you as Batman to adapt to that.  Players can use the gadgets to give themselves that split second of reprieve you need.  In the upper left hand corner is a combo meter telling you how well you are stringing the hits together. The better the combo, the more special moves you can do to improve your odds.

I don’t think he ever woke up expecting to be grappled by the Bat-claw

The other cool, immersive aspect of gameplay is how seamless the transition can be into mini-boss battles. Titans, the one-arm men or other bosses can sometimes jump into the fight at the mid-way point, adding extra tension to the situation.  Boss fights are fun, challenging and riveting. Overall, combat has so much it that adds a high level of replayability; players are going to want to see what else they can do in the same situations.

Sometimes the best approach is to hide in the shadows.

The other aspect of gameplay that works really well is the superb level design and variation. Areas oftentimes provide a challenging approach to get from point A to B and oftentimes have multiple ways to get through; sneak through vents, perch from rooftops or go in guns blazing. The game tends to reward the more thoughtful, careful approach but is forgiving enough to let you go in running.  Levels are often puzzles, most likely having you utilize the gadgets at your disposal. This is a great thing, because all of the gadgets are fun to use and to be familiar with.

The careful guardian watching over his city

However, the biggest praise I can give this game is this; I feel like Batman as I play through this game. I felt like I was solving complex problems with the tacit approach he would. While some games create a dissonance and have you realizing that you are playing a game and controlling a character, this game makes you feel like you are an extension of Batman. That is how much love and attention was put into the game, and makes it an exception experience at that.

Not all of it is perfect though, which is something expected considering the ambition seen in Arkham City. The biggest problem, while also being a cool thing as well, is that there are too many villains being pushed into this game. For me personally, I would rather have less villains to face that have more time to develop as the game progresses. Instead, it felt as if some were put in for the sake of a plot device. Some sidequests feel like they are building up to something big, but oftentimes flatten out with an ending that is a bit anticlimactic. Combat can still feel a bit clunky and slow, leading to missed button prompts that will have some gamers furious in spades. However, these are so minor in gripes that I feel trying to expand on them does a disservice to the overall experience.

If there is any series out there right now to redefine its genre and revitalize it, bothArkham Aslyum and City are quintessential.  Asylum laid out the flawed blueprint thatArkham City has vastly improved. The pseudo-open world approach feels immersive and rarely gives off the impression this is a game. The extreme attention to detail breathes life into this cold, violent, harsh world that Batman has to get through to figure out the mysteries ahead of him. Characters feel authentic and alive thanks to longtime Batman writer Paul Dini and company. Ultimately, it is the love and care put into every ounce of this game that makes it so special. This is the best send off for Mark Hamill’s run as the Joker, and should be an experience any gamer should face. Arkham City is a crowning achievement in how to improve a great experience, and carries more than enough merit to be “Hall of Fame” game.

+ Stellar attention to detail; from the presentation of the world to the dialogue, everything screams BATMAN!

+ Level variation and design is top-notch, the gameplay improved to feel much more fluid

+ Aside from the stellar story, gadgets, the combo meter and enemy variation create plenty of replayability

+ Sets the bar high on a mature approach to a superhero video game.

-While the combat is more fluid, it can still feel clunky and a little unresponsive

– With how big the game is some side stories feel unfinished

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