Game Review: Batman: Arkham City (PS3)

Rated Mature, Reviewed on PS3, Batman: Arkham City at Amazon.com

“Batman: Arkham Asylum” was a revelation.  It single-handedly redeemed the entire gaming industry for the multiple generations of terrible, hackneyed, money-grubbing excuses for Batman games that littered the landscape before.  Never before had the depth of the character and its history been explored so completely.  Fans truly couldn’t have asked for a better game.

The problem with making something nearly perfect is that you really can only go down from there.  Arkham City doesn’t fall far, but fall it does.  The absolute largest problem (hell, really the only one worth mentioning) is the setting.  How shall I put this delicately?  Well… It’s really fucking stupid.

The main idea is that much of downtown Gotham has been ravaged by an earthquake.  Instead of rebuilding this prime real-estate the powers-that-be simply walled it off and tossed all the criminals in – creating the titular “Arkham City”.   So while you’re now able to traverse a huge, diverse city with great landmarks from Batman’s history it’s a prison.

The game begins with Bruce Wayne, one of the most outspoken opponents of the plan, being framed and thrown into the half-assed prison and deciding to stay (as Batman).  The main story is a direct sequel to the first game and quickly constructs another scenario where the Batman has to solve a major mystery in a single night or thousands (including himself) could die.

Once you choke down the premise, things do get better – much better.  With some slight changes and additions to the menu of gadgets and special moves nearly all the gameplay from the first game returns.  The same “as-complex-as-you-want-it-to-be” free-flow combat system returns allowing players to advance with simple button mashing but rewarding dedication with some truly breathtaking sequences.  In deference to the scope of the setting the major new additions all focus on faster travel.  The gliding of the first game has been enhanced with batclaw-assisted launches, power-dives and greater maneuverability.

Riddler puzzles return in force with 400 new trophies to collect in one of the many optional, but well constructed side-missions.  Most of these missions deal with classic secondary characters like Zsasz, Azrael, Deadshot and others.  The infectious love these developers have for the source material is evident in the lavish attention to detail in these characters and their personalities.  Unfortunately with abundance depth does suffer.  The sheer number of characters introduced means that almost none of them get more than a cursory treatment.

Buying the game new (or paying $10) also nets you the parallel “Catwoman Episodes” which can be played separately but also merge with the main story.  Much has been made about the gender issues and sexism involved and the criticisms you may have heard are valid but also shouldn’t surprise anybody familiar with the comics or previous incarnations.  While comics have an awful track record dealing with women in general Catwoman has always been played as overtly and overtly sexual (in direct contrast to Batman’s stoicism) and that doesn’t change here.

Like many sandbox games you will hit points where you become bored with wandering or unsure of how to proceed with the story, but these moments are fairly rare.  The almost overwhelming number of Riddler trophies and challenges mean there’s almost always something close at hand to pass the time and the main story is engaging and interesting throughout.  At the same time the feeling of “been there, done that” will also be omnipresent if you’ve played the first game.

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