Thursday, September 4, 2014

GOT 'IM - Batman: Arkham City

Another weekend, another blog post.  Going to try to get back into the habit of writing these shortly after I beat video games.  This video game was finished almost two months ago, yeesh.  Batman: Arkham City review upcoming. 


I fuckin' love me some Batman.  A few years ago on this blog I wrote a lengthy article on Batman: The Animated Series (which you can read right here), and my old Sequential Art comics reviews have a LOT of Batman comics present.  Batman is my favorite superhero and the biggest reason why I still enjoy superhero comics and animation to this day.  But Batman's video games... haven't been as successful.  I played a few (terrible) Batman games for the NES and SNES, but for the most part Batman was a character in movies and cartoons that I enjoyed, and not in games.

Then Arkham Asylum happened.  That game, which I finished in early 2011, took place in the open environment of Arkham Asylum, and had Batman navigate through the fortress-like facility and foil the plans of several classic villains in his rogues' gallery.  Arkham Asylum is a hell of a game.  Anyhow, Arkham Asylum had a sequel a few years later in Arkham City, which I bought in 2013 and finally played in July.  Yeah, this review is a little late.  Deal with it. 

Story and Characters

Arkham City has two major, uh, premises.  First, a section of Gotham City has been cordoned off and put in a state of emptiness and lawlessness.  The manipulative psychologist Hugo Strange has emptied the entire criminal populations of Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison into this section of Gotham, where a few supervillains rise to power by organizing the criminals into competing gangs.  Coincidentally (heh) this section contains several iconic locations in the Batman mythos, including the spot where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered.

The second point of plot setup is that Strange, through his own powers of deduction, is certain that Bruce Wayne is Batman's secret identity.  Strange personally arranges for Wayne to be arrested and deposited into this new area, dubbed Arkham City.  Wayne has Alfred deliver some of his Batman gear via airdrop and right away Batman is prowling Arkham City, intending to stop the dark machinations of Dr. Strange, Two-Face, Penguin, and Joker.

Throughout Arkham City, the player encounters several classic Batman allies and villains, including extended sections of the game devoted to controlling Catwoman.  I won't get into the full list of characters, but almost all of them use the exact same voice actors as Batman: The Animated Series (!), including Mark Hamill's brilliant portrayal of Joker (!!!).  There's a lot to love here, as Batman has the best collection of nemeses in any comic book character in history.

The plot is... a little less cool.  The major segments (between traversing the city itself) take place in classic villain lairs; a factory, a museum, a giant tower, and underground ruins in particular, heh.  But the events sending Batman from one point to another seem awfully... arbitrary.  Arkham City's basic concept has a few too many similarities to the Hamsterdam storyline from The Wire, and the plot seems like a way to get Batman moving from checkpoint to checkpoint and less like a cohesive story arc.  Arkham City's story is basically a collection of cool cut-scenes and plot twists.  Don't go looking for brilliant storytelling here.

But man, some of the story MOMENTS?  Awesome.  The banter between Batman and other characters (sometimes via radio, sometimes via found files) is excellent.  The big set-pieces are usually really cool.  There is a metric fuckton of fanservice for fans of Batman comics and cartoons alike, and a few obscure characters like Azrael, Calendar Man, and Victor Szasz play significant roles.  All of that is awesome.  I just wish it flowed a little more organically. 

Playing the Game

The basics of gameplay should be comfortable to anyone who played Arkham Asylum, which I recommend to any and all Batman fans.  Batman prowls around an open play area, using his grappling hooks, gliding cape, and other tools to travel quickly.  He engages in fast-moving combat with groups of thugs with combination moves, counter-attacks, quick takedowns, and tools for incapacitation.  When Batman has the jump on enemies - usually in "predator" situations where there are several armed grunts on patrol - he can use stealth and trickery to eliminate foes one by one.  When Batman needs to follow a trail of clues, he can enter "detective mode" to analyze crime scenes and locate points of interest. 

Batman's arsenal of moves and gadgets is a little expanded from that of Arkham Asylum, and it's still fun.  By the endgame, Batman has six gadgets for use in combat, and everything from his armor to his combos to his tools can be upgraded in his headquarters menu, using EXP earned in combat and in quest rewards.  Catwoman's skills can be upgraded from Batman's screen, even though you only use her in four short chapters and she doesn't unlock as "fully" playable until you've beaten Arkham City's main story.  I played the Game of the Year version of the game, which has all of the regular DLC missions and characters (Robin, Nightwing, and some more Batman costumes) included within.  Not a bad value for $20. 

Arkham City's basic gameplay loop, all imported directly from 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum, is still pretty cool.  Predator sequences are fantastic, and the basics of crowd combat are serviceable.  The quarantined open-world is usually easy and fun to traverse, with Batman having very quick vertical and aerial movement.  The world is densely-packed with Riddler secrets (over 400 of them.  Really.) and other optional sidequests, which are usually pretty interesting, but also just create more blips to locate on your mini-map.  Yeah, you'll be using that mini-map a lot. 

Perhaps even moreso than Assassin's Creed 2 (which I played six months ago), Arkham City is a giant checklist.  You finish a story sequence, you go a new blip on your map, and decide whether or not to ignore the sixty sidequest blips you find along the way.  With a dozen sidequests and over 400 Riddler riddles (which range from hidden trophies to landmarks to puzzles involving rigged explosives), you could probably lose your mind trying to find everything without a guide.  I got less than 50% of the Riddler stuff, which is a little too bad because the Riddler encounters that are unlocked by those riddles are really entertaining puzzle rooms.

One thing that Arkham City does better than Arkham Asylum are its boss battles.  A little more thought went into these, and they have fewer QTEs and more variety than before.  My favorite is the 1v1 fight that takes place in the police station (avoiding spoilers), because it's a really cool implementation of Predator tactics and was probably the scariest, most dangerous-feeling fight in the game.  The final boss, which is a bit of a surprise cameo, is a little disappointing.  Nothing new or different from other bosses throughout the game.  Sometimes extended brawl sequences, and sometimes big dudes with specific weak points and projectiles to dodge.  Meh.  Wish there were more boss battles like the one at the police station. 

Visuals and Audio

Arkham City looks gorgeous, and I didn't notice much in the way of glitching or slowdown as I played, even though the screen can get quite busy with dudes (and some lady ninjas) punching, slashing, or shooting you.  The city area scales visually in an impressive manner, but the crowds down below are almost entirely enemies; Arkham City lacks the interesting crowd manipulation or dense NPC population of Assassin's Creed 2.  The overall visual of the game is dark and Gothic, but you can eventually check out some pretty weird and interesting scenery that broadens Arkham City's color palette.

The basic designs of the major Batman characters... are all really good!  Slightly more twisted than Burton's Batman films, a little less ridiculous than Shumacher's Batman films, and a little less urban and gritty than the Nolan's Batman films.  That's a hell of a good balance.  Riddler has never looked better, and Talia al Ghul's butt was magnificently sculpted.  Sorry if that's crude.  I felt it had to be said. 

The audio in Arkham City is excellent.  The voice work for all of the characters is excellent, with the game's dialog and voice performances very strong indeed.  The background music is very cool, very atmospheric.  Many parts of the game rely on alternating silence and noisemaking (i.e. distractions, explosions, footsteps), and even those bits are implemented in cool ways that seem to serve the player and play fair.  The sound designers and audio engineers for Arkham City all deserve raises. 

The Final Word

Look, Arkham City is a good value if you're looking for more Batman action to follow Arkham Asylum.  Arkham City is content-rich with the same good brawl+predator combat as before and it's an entertaining exhibition of Batman's characters and lore.  My major problem is it's... listlessness.  Sort of ironic, considering the game's a huge checklist.  Arkham Asylum had less openness, but more focus.  Fewer villains and secrets, but a more memorable overall experience.   Arkham City is a good game, but it's less than the sum of its parts and doesn't quite live up to its excellent predecessor. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition

1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
11. Sonny
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default

Targets: 8/14


Will this signify a permanent change to a shorter wordcount for my blog posts?  Nah, probably not.  Just didn't have a ton to say about Arkham City.  Anyhow, next up is a Zelda review, and while I'm working on that it'll probably be a LOT of XenoBlade Chronicles.  I live a hard life. 

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