Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Publisher: Warner Brothers
Review Date: 2/24/17
"Arkham City" is an extension of the superb "Arkham Asylum" (2009) that takes place in Gotham City rather than Arkham Island. Through a strange and suspicious series of events, the previous warden of Arkham Asylum became mayor of Gotham City and teamed up with Hugo Strange to convert part of the city into a massive penal colony referred to as Arkham City. It's basically like "Escape From New York," where criminals from Blackgate Prison and inmates from Arkham Asylum roam free in the lawless streets and fight to survive. Curiously, almost all of Batman's enemies reside in Arkham City for one reason or another, and a turf war breaks out between Two-Face, Penguin, and Joker. While Joker managed to survive his ordeal with Titan in the previous game, his condition is rapidly deteriorating and he's desperately looking for a cure. Batman shows up in Arkham City to find the cure and figure out what Hugo Strange is really up to. Along the way he has to deal with Two-Face, Penguin, Harley Quinn, Riddler, Mad Hatter, Bane, Killer Croc, Deadshot, Victor Zsasz, Ra's al Ghul, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, Mr. Freeze, Solomon Grundy, Clayface, and an endless parade of prison thugs.
Much like "Arkham Asylum," the game is gorgeous and the atmosphere is dark and oppressive. The game world also seems much larger, and has a more open sandbox feel to it. Part of the waterfront suffered severe damage from an earthquake, so a major portion of the city is destroyed and underwater, which creates an impressively dangerous looking and foreboding environment. Riddler is up to his old tricks again and has scattered over 400 trophies around town for Batman and Catwoman to collect. Just like the previous game, it's very easy to get sidetracked by these, even though you don't have all of the necessary skills and equipment until the end of the game. It makes much more sense to complete the main story arc before engaging in the various side missions, but it can be really, really hard to stay focused on the primary objective when there are so many interesting distractions. Rest assured, all of the side missions remain available after you finish the story. I figured that would be the case, but I would have liked some reassurance on the matter.
The game controls are responsive and intuitive, and playing as Batman is a thrilling experience. The game uses the same combat mechanics as "Arkham Asylum," which consist of simple strikes and counters that can be chained into special combo attacks. The character movement is fluid and watching Batman beat up bad guys never gets old. The only problems I ran into involved solving riddles and using pressure pads, which wasn't intuitive at all. I had to go online several times and research how certain puzzles were supposed to work. Soaring through Arkham City is pure joy, but the flight mechanics are counter-intuitive and defy conventional physics. Diving and pulling up actually allows you to gain altitude, whereas simple gliding results in a steady loss of altitude. It takes a while to wrap your head around that one. And similar to "Arkham Asylum," the game utilizes an auto-save checkpoint system that doesn't really work. I actually expected this going into the game and was very mindful about choosing when it was safe to quit. The basic rule of thumb is that your progress is saved every time you enter or leave a building, so when you're ready to quit, head back to your favorite resting spot first (I chose the GCPD building, which worked out really well for me).
The music is ominous and once again favors Hans Zimmer's dark and moody style. The voice acting is excellent and features a lot of A-list talent and fan favorites including Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker), Tara Strong (Harley Quinn), Troy Baker (Robin), Grey DeLisle (Catwoman), Corey Burton (Hugo Strange), Tom Kane (Mayor Sharp), Stana Katic (Talia al Ghul), Peter MacNicol (Mad Hatter), Nolan North (Penguin), and Wally Wingert (Riddler). This game marked Mark Hamill's final performance as Joker, as he claimed the strain was too much on his vocal chords (although he did return several years later for the animated version of "The Killing Joke."). His performance is amazing and he definitely goes out with a bang. Tara Strong does an excellent job emulating Arleen Sorkin's definitive interpretation of Harley Quinn, and even adds a bit of a rough edge to it. As a side note, the voice actors are listed last name first in the credits, whereas everyone else is listed the other way around. Very odd.
For the most part, the presentation is wonderful, but I didn't like how the female characters were overly sexualized. Catwoman is the worst offender, with a scandalously low cut outfit, embarrassingly exaggerated hip-swaying, and a forcefully seductive inflection in her voice. Her entire persona comes across as a cheap and tasteless porn star parody, which seriously undermines her character. Talia also moves with the grace and poise of a stripper, but thankfully her outfit is more conservative and her vocal performance is more subdued. Harley Quinn actually fares pretty well, and is playfully sexy without overstepping the boundaries of her character. Her outfit is a definite improvement over her "Arkham Asylum" costume and gives her a much more menacing physical presence. Her mourning outfit is even better.
WARNING: Story spoilers ahead!
While the game is super fun to play, the story feels overly contrived and falls apart under scrutiny. It's consistent with the events in the previous game, but is also a standalone retelling of the Batman tale that exists outside of any established continuity. The fact that so many of Batman's foes are all in the same place at the same time comes across as forced and overly convenient, and the fact that Ra's al Ghul and the League of Assassins happen to have a hidden base beneath the streets of Gotham City is quite a stretch of literary license. It also comes as a surprise that at least four major characters die, which certainly won't sit well with fans and purists. The game is extremely chatty and the generic criminals are always making crude and pedestrian comments, which becomes tiresome very quickly. As far as character dialog goes, it's really hard to understand the villains' motivations and justify their behaviors. I guess that's why they were all locked away in the asylum. One notable example is Mr. Freeze, who spends a considerable amount of time and energy working with Batman to synthesize a cure for Joker, only to destroy it in a childish tantrum when he's finished. Riddler is also off his rocker and just loves to hear himself talk, even though most of what he says makes no sense (much like our current president). At one point he tells Batman "I've designed this puzzle to be impossible to solve! A rat could solve it with only a piece of cheese as motivation." Huh? So, what is he saying exactly? He also accuses Batman of cheating and not playing fair, even though he's clearly cheating as well. Overall, I felt the story was weak and unsatisfying, but as long as you don't invest a lot of mental energy and critical thinking in it, it doesn't drag the game down.
The game has several DLC add-ons including a collection of challenges called "Riddler's Revenge," a short Catwoman story, and a side story called "Harley Quinn's Revenge." I was super excited to play Harley's Revenge until I discovered it was actually about Robin trying to rescue Batman from a trap that Harley set. I was really hoping to play as Harley, so that was a major disappointment. Also, Robin isn't as robust as either Batman or Catwoman, and is much more susceptible to damage. As a result, I didn't get very far into that adventure before he died, and I didn't have enough motivation or emotional investment to continue the story. Just the main story arc clocks in around 30-40 hours, and by then I had all of the closure that I desired and was ready to put it away. Overall, a fantastic game all around as long as you manage your expectations and don't let yourself get obsessed and frustrated by all of the game's distractions.