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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: Batman: Arkham City

Developer: Rocksteady
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive

Arkham Asylum was the best superhero game ever. The only other one that came close is the original Spider-Man game for the PS1. I'm pretty confident in this assessment, and a lot of other people agree with me.
What made Arkham Asylum so great was that you felt like Batman. You could take anyone on in a fight. Stealth was challenging, but if you screwed it up it was easy to escape or retreat. The story was fantastic. It had a tremendous sense of place, as Arkham Asylum felt like a fully-realized location. The Scarecrow's insanity sequences were amazing.

That's not to say there weren't a few flaws. The Killer Croc sequence was stupid. Most of the boss fights were repetitive. Still, it was a much better Batman game than we could have hoped for beyond our wildest dreams.

Now we have Arkham City, detailing another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in the life of the Caped Crusader. Rocksteady's taken the ideas behind Arkham Asylum and cranked them up to 11. We know the underlying game mechanics should be good because they're lifted from Arkham Asylum, but is Arkham City as a whole worth playing or just more of the same?

Arkham City is definitely not as tight as the original Arkham Asylum. While the first game was a propulsive "get from point A to point B" affair, Arkham City can be completed at your own pace. The shift to an open world means that you'll find yourself skipping along the rooftops, get distracted by a ringing telephone, blow up a canister of Titan formula, rescue a political prisoner, then remember that you have to get back to the main storyline. If you like open worlds, this is a dream come true. If you prefer a tightly-wound storyline over a large world, like myself, it's merely OK.

Arkham City is also a bit more gruesome than the first game. There's murder, double-crossings and more than a few opponents impaled on swords, though, of course, not by Batman. If that's not your thing, consider yourself warned. I liked the darkness of this game, as it felt like the stakes were much higher that the original.

Rocksteady also deserves extra credit for throwing in so many different villains and not making the game feel overstuffed or stupid. All of the characters have their place, not just being there for the sake of being there. There's even a surprise encounter that I won't spoil that's one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in a game.

With all that said, Arkham City struggles a bit in comparison to the original, precisely because of expectations. We didn't expect Asylum to be great, and it was. Therefore, City has big shoes to fill, and it mostly does. It excises some questionable moments that were in the first game and replaces them with better ones. It manages to mostly meet its lofty expectations.

You'll note that I say "mostly." Those who've played Asylum remember that the Scarecrow sequences were absolute standouts, reminding everyone about Batman's tragic past while deepening the character and putting some real narrative heft into the proceedings. There's nothing quite so amazing in this title. Sure, there are some sequences that are pretty cool, but nothing as emotionally affecting as the original.

The sense of place that was so firmly fixed in the original also isn't quite as present in Arkham City. While I can vividly tell you about the grounds of Arkham Asylum, I can't give you specifics about City. There was a steel mill? I think I saw a Ferris wheel at one point. A big tower, which was cool. Don't get me wrong, the city is impressive, but not quite as detailed as Arkham Asylum's world.

It also begs the question, "Where do they go from here?" We've done Arkham Asylum, now Arkham City. Arkham State? Arkham Country? The mind boggles.

Either way, if you liked Arkham Asylum and want more hot, hot Batman action, Arkham City is great. It combines the best of Asylum and the best of open-world gaming, and despite a few minor missteps, is well worth your time.

Final Grade: B+