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Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Game Reviews

Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)

Despite an overpacked story and backtracking issues, Rocksteady’s super-sequel is an an exciting adventure that’s packed with gameplay and genuine thrills. One of the year’s best.

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DC’s Caped Crusader returns in Batman: Arkham City, the sequel to 2009’s near-masterpiece by Rocksteady Studios, and is appropriately bigger, badder, and battier than ever. In many ways, the Arkham series is the true spiritual successor to the classic 90s Animated Series, as the two share significant creative DNA, including series writer Paul Dini and longtime voice actors Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and others. Practically every friend and foe in the Batman Universe is present this time around, though this over-packing of characters feels more like a fan’s wet dream of fantasy match-ups than a strong narrative, and having to traverse an entire city is enough to cause a little Bat-fatigue. But even these issues can’t dampen the sheer visceral and emotional thrill of becoming the most popular comic book hero in the world, and how exciting it is to be The Bat in one of the year’s most gameplay-packed, exciting adventures.

With a plot that borrows heavily from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Arkham City explores a Gotham in which the criminal element has grown too dangerous for both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Penitentiary, and huge areas of Gotham have been designated open-area ‘prison zones’ by Quincy Sharp, former warden of Arkham Asylum. These zones fall under the name Arkham City, a place under the control of Professor Hugo Strange, where he’s preparing to initiate his mysterious ‘Protocol 10’ operation.

Of course, not all of Gotham’s citizens are happy about the plans to turn their city into a giant outdoor prison, including its most eligible billionaire bachelor, Bruce Wayne. Confronted by armed mercenaries while protesting at an event, he’s kidnapped and shipped directly into the heart of Arkham City to face several of its most crazed citizens, many he was personally responsible for helping check in. Strange reveals the diabolical details to his Protocol 10, which would elevate him to being the supreme ruler of all Gotham City, then hands over a handcuffed Wayne to Oswald Cobblepot (Penguin) and his goons for ‘processing’.

After escaping certain death by Cobblepot’s flippered-fingers, the newly-costumed Batman seeks out the only one who might be able to help him figure out what Protocol 10 is all about – Joker. Rumor has it that the Clown Prince is dying, having been poisoned by a disease that can only be cured by Dr. Freeze. Batman’s choice on whether to help his most insane nemesis is made easy when he discovers that Joker had given him a blood transfusion while unconscious, therefore hedging both their fates on Batman not only finding Freeze, but his cure.

Arkham City retains its predecessor’s core gameplay features, meaning you’ll guide Batman through various levels of intricate design that can be explored using any of his ever-growing list of abilities, skills, and weapons that can be used on both villains and environmental elements. Few games can boast giving as much control as this, and it’s rare for any game to give such great flexibility and control to players and respects them  enough to let them figure out and discover how to use Batman’s wonderful toys to solve problems, take out baddies, and look positively cool doing it.

Batman’s core combat system remains largely unchanged, though his arsenal of bone-crunching moves has been expanded, as have the available multi-button combinations that make handling the swarms of enemies less frustrating. Correctly-timed presses will result in some truly impressive acrobatic attacks, all more fluidly than ever before. Boss battles are just that – actual boss battles – each featuring unique and fun patterns that’ll keep you on your costumed toes throughout.

Fans will love that Batman slows things down occasionally and puts his detective skills to good use here, as when solving smaller puzzles and collecting forensic evidence to track down bullets, blood trails, and the like. And best of all, thanks to a de-emphasis on using Batman’s infrared sensor, you’ll actually get to see the game as it was intended this time around.

While Batman packs a killer suite of weapons and attacks, many from the original game, most have been upgraded and advanced here. The remote Batarang can now boost and brake, the digital sequencer now tracks specific signals (useful when you’ve got a whole city to explore), and perhaps the most enjoyable new enhancement comes with the grappling hook, which can be used while gliding. Some of the new toys include the Remote Electrical Charge, which fires electrical charges to stun enemies and power devices (like generators, doors, etc.), ice grenades to freeze enemies and navigate over water, and a new bat-rope for tying up enemies quickly. And we finally get to use those legendary smoke pellets to confuse enemies and escape when things don’t go as planned.

The most fundamental difference is that that the amount of coverable space has shifted from a single location, Arkham Asylum, to the vastness of Arkham City, an area that’s five times larger. But don’t start thinking it’s a true sandbox game, because it’s not, with the only inhabitants the various gang members or wrongly incarcerated political prisoners, with nary a prostitute in sight. Your mode of transportation will be dashing through the darkened streets or zipping from structure to structure via grappling hook. Of course, the extra space means there’s more backtracking here – a lot more – and it’s seldom handled as eloquently as the single locations of Arkham Asylum. Expect to see all of Arkham City before you’re finished, maybe too much of it.

Thanks to an evocative style and profound respect for the character, whether its zipping perch to perch using the grappling gun, gliding through the shadows, or just striking a silhouetted pose in the moonlight, Arkham City truly gets the essence of what being Batman must be like. Early in the game has Batman guiding you, via an inner monologue (by Kevin Conroy) on the basics of taking down enemies, and why it’s not always a good idea to charge right in. Having access to such power, yet being given the choice to use restraint opposed to guns-blazing aggression, sets the experience apart from just about every other action-adventure out there. Batman even punches a shark, just like the 1960s Movie. You are Batman, and it’s truly awesome.

Rocksteady continues to be the only third-party developer capable of making the Unreal Engine actually look beautiful and stylish, as Arkham City expands the claustrophobic gothic template of its predecessor ten-fold, with a host of new characters and architectural structures that look positively fantastic, even if I’m not entirely fond of some of the newer character design choices (i.e. Freeze for example). The City is a dazzling array of light and atmosphere, with hyper-detailed locations filled with incidental items, most you’ll never use, yet add so much. Batman’s ever-degrading cape looks positively amazing as it ripples, enemy takedowns look smashing. In a world of plastic graphics running on rented engines, Arkham City is a game worth admiring.

As great as the game looks, it’s the sound design that’s really dazzles, especially with a cast like this. My heart always skips a beat whenever I hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Joker, and I think I speak for many fans when I say these two are probably the best actors who’ve ever played the roles. The interplay between the two, even if pre-recorded separately and in different studios, has always been among the most sensational in all of cartoon history, and if this really is to be their last performances as the two than at least they went out with a bang.

New to the franchise are Uncharted’s Nolan North as Penguin (as well as Killer Croc and Black Mask), Maurice LaMarche (Animaniacs and Futurama) as both Mr. Freeze and Calendar Man, Troy Baker as Two-Face, Grey DeLisle (also Powerpuff Girls) as the duplicitous Catwoman, and Corey Burton (Dale from Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, incredibly) as the omnipresent Dr. Hugo Strange. The rest of the cast is equally great, with many reprising their roles from Arkham Asylum, including Wally Wingert as Riddler, Danny Jacobs as Victor Zsasz, and Tasia Valenza as Poison Ivy, among others.

Sadly, longtime fans will be disappointed to hear that Harley Quinn’s longtime voice actor, Arleen Sorkin (who originated the character in the Animated Series) is replaced by the extremely capable Tara Strong (Powerpuff Girls, Phineas and Ferb). Incidental voice work is exceptional, too, as baddies will have complete conversations while you listen in, detailing their bosses’ dastardly plans and expressing angst that ‘The Bat’ is near. Then there’s the game’s incredibly beautiful score by Nick Arundel and Ron Fish, which has the audacity to include a memorable score (take that, Nolan films) that’s worth remembering, and pays great respect to Danny Elfman’s significant work. I love this soundtrack.

Batman: Arkham City takes everything that was so impressive about Arkham Asylum and bumps things up considerably, giving fans more flexibility and control than most games could even dream of. While having nearly every famous face in the Batman universe present sounds great, Paul Dini’s story feels more assembled and less inspired this time, struggling to make sense why Gotham’s criminally inclined persons would all connect together so easily. But Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill help make it work, and we hope this isn’t Hamill’s swansong as the Joker, as he likes to remind us, there’s plenty wrong with him (and we want to see it). Backtracking is significantly worse this time around thanks to having an entire City to glide and grapple through, and you’ll have seen it all – several times – before the credits roll. But these small issues can’t dampen the thrills and sheer excitement when everything clicks, the cowl flaps, and that hauntingly beautiful score plays through.

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10/18/2011

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Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

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About the Author: Trent McGee