It’s a great game, taking Arkham Asylum and adding some sandbox space. It is more of everything I liked about the first game with some improvements. It is not unmitigatedly perfect, as every positive has a small “but,” but the buts are small. You can lose yourself in Arkham City, as I did to the tune of 30 hours over the holiday weekend. It’s a good sign for a game when you just keep going until you beat it.
And since we usually discuss online multiplayer games here, I’ll hide the rest below the break.
If you have not played Arkham Asylum: it’s good. When the Steam New Year sales come, pick it up, and there will probably be some sort of Arkham double-pack.
The basic gameplay is a mix of stealth and action. This works well for Batman, who can skulk from the shadows, punch guys in the face, or use his utility belt full of toys. You can focus on any of these, although sometimes one will be better for a given situation. As Yahtzee said of the first game, unlike many stealth-based games, you never feel like the combat is a punishment for failing at stealth.
The combat feels better here than in Arkham Asylum. Maybe it never “clicked,” maybe I just needed the light blue “hit block” indicator. It all flows, and the game uses a variety of great moves and animations off a few keys. You get to feel like a tremendous badass as you smash groups of thugs.
The downside is that you do not get the “dart through a cloud of bullets” Batman that sometimes appears in the comic. You can take some shots, but you do not get to walk up to a half-dozen guys with guns, dodge the bullets, and take them all out. You can take out a half-dozen guys with guns, but multiple guns or knives are threats. You will fight groups of enemies that all require special handling, all at once. You are a tremendous badass, but stealth and care are required at times. This is positive in terms of gameplay quality, but it may violate some expectations based on your character interpretation.
The setting is just what you wanted. Batman in Arkham Asylum was good, but Batman in Gotham is great. You can zip and glide around the city. You can pounce on thugs, include gang members shaking down political prisoners. If you played Arkham Asylum and wanted more chances to be Batman, this is it.
The core story is pretty good. It’s not exceptional, and it depends on insane comic book plausibility, but it suffices to drive events, move you around, introduce characters and locales, and produce some awesomeness. That “plausibility” involves electing an unsuccessful asylum warden as mayor and having him wall off a huge chunk of the city as a giant prison with a lower-tier villain in charge of it. There is some justification later, but you still look at what they walled off and wonder, “Seriously?”
That insanity gives you a good scope and diversity within Gotham. You have a courthouse, police station, church, museum, docks, carnival, steel mill, subway, waterfront… why did you pick this area to wall off, again? It looks like the bit of Gotham closest to Arkham Asylum, but it might have been a bad idea to give the prisoners access to escapes paths on the water or underground, and those huge shipping cranes can demonstrably break through walls. You kind of look past this and just play the game.
The mix of a core story with a sandbox city, side missions, and random puzzles is great. There is lots to do, or you can ignore it and focus on what entertains you. The structure encourages you to dabble in all the many options.
The side missions are a positive aspect. You have timed races around the city, trick flying courses, tracking things down, and beating things up. Just like the insane diversity of the setting, the side missions bring in insane diversity of supervillains. It gets to the point that a few people are ostentatiously absent.
Some of the side missions are poor, an abuse of the sandbox. “There is another X somewhere in the city. Good luck!” With Zsasz or the political prisoners, you happen upon them, no problem. With Deadshot and the Mad Hatter, they highlight the spots, go to. With Azrael and Hush, there is one square yard of the city with the next step, maybe you’ll come upon it, might as well Google now.
As in Psychonauts, there are bonuses for random exploration items, in this case The Riddler. You get experience, which buys you upgrades. You get unlocks for visuals and stories. Plus, there are glowing question marks all over, so who wouldn’t be tempted to stop and grab a few? Solve puzzles of wit and dexterity! Recognize that something may be suitable for photographing!
The Riddler is obviously way ahead of Batman. He has penetrated every villain’s lair and hidden question mark trophies, painted question marks, identified items to photograph, etc. From the front door to the peak of Wonder Tower, he had anticipated you, Batman.
Some, of course, are absurd. As with any adventure game using many options, some will require perverse or idiosyncratic uses of your toys and abilities. Let’s hide a question mark in a spot that looks off the map, but you can reach it with a wire and/or a mini-iceberg. I accidentally found the one that involves jumping off the map, being forced to flip back, turning on your detective vision, and snapping a picture in the right spot. Granted, it was a great spot for that question mark, but why? Others involve “I didn’t know you could do that” options with your toys that you may never need again, or something random and inobvious. Sometimes the puzzle itself is just noticing something inobvious, which is more fair.
Those are easier to find if they are marked on your map. Instead of finding maps, you beat up Riddler’s informants. That is thematically much better, and it makes some fights rather interesting as you try to catch the right guy last.
One downside is never knowing whether a puzzle involves something you haven’t found yet or a use you haven’t seen yet. If you need a freeze grenade to get past that pipe, there is nothing you can do, although only a small set of puzzles will explicitly tell you that you cannot solve them yet. Web sites will have full spoilers, so it is nice to have a friend around who can tell you if you can find that one.
Oh, and there are 440 Riddler items to check off. That is either really great or potentially really painful, depending on your interest and how you approach the task.
Story-wise, it is odd that Batman is MacGyvering some of these. There is one point where you need to pilot a remote-controlled batarang around a closed grate, when a closed grate is exactly the sort of thing a remote-controlled batarang is for. Slip it through, turn it on, and if this thing can reverse direction and brake/accelerate, it should be able to start without being thrown. Similarly, I kept expecting an upgrade to by remote electrical charge device to deal with fuse boxes that needed to be overloaded in odd places, but no, you are supposed to throw that remote-controlled batarang through an electrical field and pilot it into the fuse box. He can’t afford taser wires? Or how about wire cutters to simplify a lot of these Riddler puzzles? (Pro-tip: you can push buttons with explosive gel.)
The movement scheme is also a little too helpful at times. It is great that the game anticipates when you want to grab things, jump up, jump down, etc. Finally an RPG character who knows how to leap over waist-high boxes, fences, and shrubs! Precision operations sometimes suffer, such as when Batman compulsively leaps on railings or accidentally smashes the guy you were planning to interrogate.
Other help pop-ups are either really nice or really annoying depending on the moment. I was happy to complete one of Riddler’s physical challenges about doing X with a large group of enemies, except that the “congratulations” message listing that challenge covered a third of the screen while I was fighting that large group of enemies. The game will remind you of how to do the right move in this situation, which is sometimes helpful, sometimes patronzining, and sometimes just a block of text in the way. When you find a Riddler trophy, the same button is used to bring up the map (to look for the next one) and to bring up whatever you just unlocked. You wait for that sometimes-helpful contextual item to go away so you can use the button for its base function.
That help on which of your dozens of options applies can be nice. There is a great help menu for fighting Mr. Freeze. A little ways into the fight, it brings up the computer’s scan of his suit and its weaknesses, so here are a dozen different ways you can use your moves, your gadgets, and the room’s features to hurt him. That’s a good sort of showing off, although it makes you wonder why some other things seem to have just the one possible solution.
There are a few Catwoman segments. Those are okay but not great. Catwoman’s controls are close enough to Batman’s to be playable with enough differences to hamstring you. She mostly plays like a version of Batman that is somewhat worse on every axis, from armor to animation speed to mobility to gadgets. In the post-game wandering, I got enough continuous time with her to adapt and enjoy it, but her story segments were short. There was also such a long disappearance after visiting Ivy that I thought the early Catwoman segments were a teaser for a DLC.
Catwoman’s arc includes an actual choice. You can literally say, “screw him,” take the money, and leave. The ending that follows is not entirely believable in the DC Universe, given that Oracle is connected to the JLA, so if Batman somehow loses, Superman or the Flash can be there in less than a minute. Come to think of it, Martian Manhunter is part of the JLA too, so if Batman is knocked unconscious, someone knows and presumably has an approximate location. Maybe something blocks both Oracle’s technology and Martian Manhunter’s telepathy, just like that antenna backpack blocks both Batman’s detective vision and Catwoman’s thief vision … somehow.
On a similar note, how exactly does Catwoman crawl across the ceiling? The claws I get, but her knees and feet cling just as well. And it only works on some kinds of ceiling, not all.
I mentioned Catwoman’s animations. She felt the need for an open bodice, and her moves involve a lot more thigh and languid movements than Batman’s. This is particularly noticeable on her slide (Batman: baseball player; Catwoman: cross between spread eagle and on her knees) and her knockout moves, which involve straddling the thugs and remaining vulnerable for about twice as long as Batman.
The Catwoman segments get most of my criticism because they are weak next to Batman. They are enjoyable in and of themselves, once you adapt to her movements and re-norm your expectations, but she is very noticeably less than Batman.
I missed the Scarecrow segments from the first game. There are a few with a similar feel, and the Mad Hatter was going for a bit of that, but no. Maybe Dr. Death could have been pulled in to take his place.
Finally, the voice work is great. It probably helps that the same people have been Batman and the Joker for most of my life, but I just love the voices they’re using. I could have stood a bit more Harley Quinn, but that’s normal for me. The thug chatter is rather amusing, although it gets repetitive unless you are moving the story along.
The summation is a strong “buy it.” Good game.
Bonus note: Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints are found at a murder scene. Oracle has the perfectly reasonable question of, “Are you sure it wasn’t you? I mean, you’re locked up with several psychopaths with mind control powers.”