Monday, October 24, 2011

Batman: Arkham City - The Best Superhero Anything Ever

Cropped PC box art, because the internet rejected the NTSC PS3 box art for some strange reason.

After playing the masterpiece known as Batman: Arkham Asylum, I wasn't really sure what to expect from Arkham City. I mean, I had a vague idea of what would happen based on tidbits provided of the story and characters to appear, but I didn't know what direction the game would go in or how it would play out. Until last week, that was all a mystery that I spent a long time solving. The finished product has turned out to be so good by its own merits and as a sequel that I really don't know where to begin.

Perhaps I should begin with the combat. While the overall system retains familiarity from Arkham Asylum, it feels much more like a rhythmic dance where you learn more steps as you go. The general flow is fantastic, and combined with the ability to quick-fire more of the Dark Knight's gadgets made it feel more natural as well. Bruce Wayne gets to show off his full strength, but you also get the opportunity to fight strategically. Not only are there more enemy types to contend with that have a specific weakness, such as stunning a shield-bearing enemy with the cape and then dropping on them from behind, but there are instances where you have to keep an enemy conscious in order to interrogate them for the locations of Riddler secrets.

Not only is combat brilliantly done, but the enemies are also a bit smarter this time around. Not only will they now check around an unconscious body for Batman's hiding spot, they will even adapt to a certain extent, eliminating gargoyles gradually should you let them. It's also fun to listen to their dialogue, as with Arkham Asylum, since they not only have their own stories to tell but they can also fill you in on minor events in the story and give a unique insight on what goes down within the walls of the city-turned-asylum. In the times where Batman is a predator in the night, the dev team really made it satisfying to outsmart a room full of armored thugs.

And on the subject of the gadgets, much of them are carried over from the last game along with some new additions. These are mapped well onto the d-pad, allowing one to switch between them as they see fit. Weapons such as a freeze bomb or a remote disarming tool find practical use in not only combat, but also completing Riddler challenges and finding his trophies around the entirety of the city.

Since I've mentioned Riddler challenges a couple of times already, it's about time I clarified by stating that there is a lot you can do in this game, and I mean a lot. Not only are there a staggering 440 Riddler challenges to complete in the more open world of Arkham City, but plenty of side missions where the player gets to interact with more of Batman's lengthy rogues gallery, including the lesser known Mad Hatter, Deadshot, and Calendar Man (I am not intimately familiar with Batman's history or his fanbase, so I don't know how obscure some of these enemies are to them). Those who play a game to get 100% completion may like the fact that they'll be inside the city for a long time; I must have played the game for tens of hours and I've only completed about 43% of the game so far. This was what I liked about the game, since I really felt like I was getting my money's worth, but I was a little disappointed that the stat screen didn't tell me how long I was playing (otherwise I'd be able to give a more exact time estimate).

I realize that I've gone this far without talking about the story, penned by none other than Paul Dini. I can't exactly say too much about it, as it's very twist-laden, but I can tell you this much: The game hits, or maybe even punches you, right off the bat with a killer twist. Hugo Strange already knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. He will stop at nothing to be able to tell the world about it, to the point of capturing him in an attempt to break him psychologically. However, Bruce manages to fight his way out into the open and suit up, beginning a string of events that all build tension towards the big mystery of the game, with layers of intrigue, alliances, and rivalries, as Batman also tries to find out just what Protocol 10 is. Sadly, I can only go this far without spoiling the plot, at least on his side of the story.

It may not be a surprise to some of you, but Catwoman is now a playable character as well. Rather than give her her own story mode, the brilliant decision was made to have her part in the events be interwoven near flawlessly into the story. While it's great to see how her sections help explain minor events in the overall plot, it's even more fun to control her. Compared to Batman's powerful approach to fighting, Catwoman makes him seem slow by comparison. This is probably helped by putting less emphasis on gadgetry, since she has all the tools a cat burglar would need or be able to fit into her tight suit, and instead diverting focus to her speed in combat that more than makes up for her lack of strength. In another stark contrast to the Dark Knight's style, Catwoman's preferred method of clearing a room seems to have more of a stealth approach in mind, which made pretty good sense considering she can climb across ceilings with specific surfaces.

While I do praise the Catwoman segments, I must bring up that accessing her can only be done through an online pass. As I acknowledge that this is rather unfortunate for those who wish to purchase the game used, I would recommend those people to either try and pick up a new copy to avoid paying for her separately, or purchase a used copy at GameStop where everyone will get a Catwoman code regardless of condition. In any case, you should definitely download her to have the complete experience.

The one thing the game manages to do very well overall, besides looking absolutely gorgeous, is building and keeping a suspenseful atmosphere, with a good score to compliment the tension. When there is a lot going on at once, it's easy to get the feeling that you never know who will need saving next or where a villain will strike. It helps that the ever-twisting plot thread successfully kept me on the edge of my seat. Aside from this, there are very smartly placed symbolic imagery. It's moments like when Catwoman manages to steal from Hugo Strange only to be torn between the loot and saving Batman, with her decision symbolized by the red and green directional arrows on the ground suddenly representing her karma or finding the exact location where Bruce's parents died so he can pay his respects that really help to establish the city itself as a character in its own right.

Now, after looking back on all that went on in the game, I can say that Batman: Arkham City is not only the absolute best licensed video game on the market, but perhaps even the best video game I have ever played in my entire life. With a near perfect arrangement of elements, excellent voice acting and characters, and an ending that hits you effectively with the emotional impact of a meteor, Arkham City is a game that elevates Batman to a new high that will be hard to top for quite a good while. It is, quite simply, a game that absolutely no one with the technology in their possession with the capability to play a video game should even think about missing out on.

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