The gaming sequel is a tricky concept to balance. On the one hand, people want more of the same; on the other, they want fresh and exciting ideas. Give too much of the former and people will complain that it’s no different to the first game. Give too much of the latter, and people will moan that things haven’t progressed enough. Consequently, game developers find themselves in something of a bind; trying to find the perfect balance between the two demands. Batman Arkham Asylum was in many respects unique. It finally gave players a superhero game that actually drew upon the strengths of its source material and allowed them to indulge in a beautifully realised Batman scenario. This time out, Batman has moved from the confines of Arkham Asylum into Gotham itself in a game that attempts to take all the good points of the original and develop them into a larger and grander experience.
The game begins with Batman plunged into the depths of Arkham City: a closed-off area of Gotham that has been appropriated to house the overflow of all the criminals from Arkham Asylum. In true ‘Escape From New York’ style, this part of the city has been walled-off from the outside world and only criminals are now allowed to enter. Once inside they are left to fend for themselves. The inmates of this new prison have been sent there by the malevolent and mysterious Dr Strange who has discovered Batman’s secret identity. He subsequently captures Bruce Wayne and sends him into the city as a criminal.
Batman Arkham Asylum adhered to the standard Metroid style. Batman had almost no gadgets at his disposal in the beginning and these had to be discovered and upgraded as the game progressed. Each new weapon would be drip fed to the player the further they journeyed into the asylum and would subsequently allow access to previously unreachable areas. Progression through the game rewarded the player with upgrades and new abilities and there were the usual prerequisite number of boss battles along the way. The whole experience was tightly focused and although linear, it never felt that restrictive.
Batman Arkham City is something quite different. From the start, Batman has access to many of his weapons and gadgets and players are free to go wherever they choose within the city landscape. And this is no superficially augmented landscape either; there truly is an entire section of Gotham City to explore at your leisure. At first, this can be a little overwhelming. Those used to the close-knit environments of Arkham Asylum may find the change more than a little jarring and it does take a little time to adapt. Once the initial feelings of displacement have subsided, the game begins to flow and the new mechanics of gameplay begin to become second nature.
The grapnel boost returns from the first game and whilst there it was used primarily as an augmented tool to reach walkways, air vents and Riddler trophies, now it has become your primary means of transport. It has a boost button that turbo-charges your ascent to provide faster travel across the roof tops. It now also has a far greater reach and the tops of many buildings can be grappled from street level. This provides ample opportunity to swoop your way through the air to your heart’s content and also serves as the quickest way to escape from an ambush or a losing situation in a brawl. It also gives you the chance to look for vantage points and begin a devastating dive-bomb attack on unsuspecting henchmen below. Spending time gliding from rooftop to rooftop is incredibly well implemented and is perhaps the game’s greatest pleasure. As joyful as that is, the meat of the game is down at street level where there is a mystery to solve. Just who is Dr Strange and why has he taken control of Arkham City?
As usual, the Joker is heavily involved from the outset. But this time he is apparently dying from a mystery illness that has subsequently affected Batman. He must race against time to not only solve the mystery but also save his own life. As Batman follows the trail, he is led to different buildings where our villains are hiding out; each one essentially serving as a ‘dungeon’ with a boss waiting at the core. To reach them, Batman must first make his way through a succession of henchman along the way. As with Arkham Asylum, each new area reached needs to be scanned using Detective Mode; essentially a ‘Predator’ style cross between infrared and night vision. This allows Batman to assess the danger in each area before beginning his assault. Once again there are gargoyles scattered around every area (however incongruous that may appear to be) that allow Batman to grapnel to begin his attack and also to provide a point to retreat to when discovered. Batman also now has access to a smoke bomb which he can utilise when cornered and provide him with a few precious seconds to retreat and rethink your attack strategy. The henchman are now a little more savvy than in the first game and are not so easily lured into isolation for easy pickings.
The hand to hand combat has also undergone an upgrade and the brawls of the first game have become far more strategic affairs. It is no longer possible to simply button mash your way through each fight, with successful timing only utilised to increase your XP. You must now learn to try and time your blows to synchronise with the enemy attacks and to see a few seconds ahead of your next move. It is very easy to get surrounded and overwhelmed if you are not constantly paying attention to what is happening around you. Fortunately, Batman now has access to a far greater range of attacks and counter attacks to balance things out, although these new moves do require split-second timing to be successful. Bad guys now boast body armour, shields and the ability to pick up dropped weapons from other assailants. This all adds up to some intense battles that can be epic in length and occasionally leave you feeling as though you have developed an RSI. But when these fights are in full-flow with Batman seamlessly moving from one takedown to the next without missing a beat, it’s hard not to be awestruck by how slick the combat is.
Once they have been successfully defeated, it’s on to the boss battles which are frequently a highlight. Batman has the luxury of being one of the few superheroes with villains equally interesting, if not superior, to him in many respects. The Joker; the Penguin, Catwoman, Mr Freeze, The Riddler, and Ras Al Ghul (to name but a few), all make an appearance in one guise or another to attempt to thwart our hero. Each of the fights is different and each one feels well thought out and uniquely styled to suit our antagonists where lateral thinking often plays as big a part as fighting skills in achieving victory. Batman is usually rewarded for success against these foes with a particular gadget or upgrade or piece of information that allows progress to a new area.
Away from the main story, there are dozens of side quests to discover. Some of them are straightforward training or rescue missions but others involve tracking down some of the ‘B’ roster of Batman villains by using his detective skills. The Mr Szaz side quest is particularly enjoyable as he leads you a merry dance around the city as you try to tack his location by tracking his phone signal. The fact that these ancillary missions can be every bit as enjoyable as the main ones goes to show just how much effort has been put in to this sequel. As in the first game, there are also Riddler trophies to collect along the way, which are no longer straight forward pick-ups but now require a good deal of lateral thinking to acquire. On top of this, there is also a substantial amount of time to play as Catwoman, with her own unique Riddler trophies to collect and also the challenge maps as part of the game’s bonus section.
It would have been very easy for Rocksteady to simply revisit Arkham Asylum and have a new roster of villains on the loose. Instead they have taken the gutsy decision to completely open up the game playing experience and take it to a whole new level. At its core, we are given more of the same, but we also get much more than that. Every facet of the gameplay has been tweaked and improved upon and it has developed from a Metroid style affair into something more akin to Zelda with an open world to explore and side quests to pick and choose as you see fit. It really is quite a special experience and the only problem Rocksteady have now is how to improve on it.