Monday, November 7, 2011

Arkham City: Being Batman

When October 18th rolled around, I faced an internal struggle: to buy, or not to buy. My birthday had just passed only a week and a half prior, so I had a little extra cash on hand, but I wasn't sure if I was ready to take the plunge. After all, with so many incredible titles to come this holiday season (Zelda: Skyward Sword, MW3, Super Mario 3D Land to name a few), one must be careful on which titles he chooses to splurge. I had all but decided to pass on Batman's latest adventure for now, when I saw the game sitting on the shelf in the local Walmart. At that precise moment, something just clicked in my mind, and I realized there was no way I could wait months or even weeks to have this game. Something about the way Batman looked on that cover, perched on the edge of attack gripped me. In the back of my mind I could hear the opening notes from the Batman: Animated Series musical theme; I had fallen victim to the call, my own proverbial bat symbol lit up the sky. I grabbed my copy, holding it aloft, and declared to all within earshot, "I am vengeance. I am the night. I. Am. BATMAN!"

Once my initial LARP/mental breakdown wore off, I swiftly purchased my copy of Rocksteady'sBatman: Arkham City and headed straight home. I couldn't wait to pop the disc into my PS3 and embark on this journey. I only had about an hour of time to blow, but I figured I could squeeze in a little game time, right? Little did I know, there is some kind of static or mystic energy connection that is formed immediately after picking up the controller and starting this game. After witnessing arguably the most compelling and intense opening sequence of any game I've ever played, I found myself wishing I had a literal bat-suit to put on while I soared around the new Arkham city penitentiary in the virtual world. The beautiful graphics, heart stopping action, and mind gripping storyline soon had me a few hours into the game without a second thought for the things I was supposed to be doing that night.

When I played the first installment in Rocksteady's Bat-universe (Batman: Arkham Asylum), I was blown away by the incredible graphics, fluid melee, and sheer Batman-ish-ness of it. I had never felt more like I was the Bat. I was unsure that they would manage to create that same feeling in this new installment, but little did I know, Batman: Arkham City would instantly become a classic game that I will be replaying again and again over the years. So as to make all of my comments more comprehensible, I will split my review into four main sections: the Story, the Gameplay, the Essentials, and Everything Else.

The Story

When I began to hear about all of the massive content that had been brought in to this new adventure, I'll admit I was a bit concerned that it would be slowed down by its vastness. With so many villains (Two-Face, Penguin, Solomon Grundy, Mr. Freeze, Ra's Al Ghul, Joker, Zsasz, and even more that I don't want to spoil), how could the game feel fluid and natural? Let me put it

this way: where Arkham Asylum was comparable to a story arc in a Batman comic series, Arkham City is more like an entire series or mini, in the vein of the greater Bat-stories available, such as The Long Halloween or Batman: Hush. These villains are not thrown in together in a jumble of mini-stories or the like, but rather each new component to the main story brings us closer and closer to unveiling an underlying mystery that the Great Detective is struggling to discover throughout the game. Not long into this game, I realized that this story (written by Paul Dini) is not only a fantastic game plot, but it is one of the best Batman stories I have enjoyed throughout my years as a Bat-fan. I'm not going to even try to summarize the plot, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, as well as the fact that anyone remotely interested in this game should experience the tale unfolding first hand, and not through a few expository paragraphs summing up what I believe to be a true comics-worthy narrative.

The Gameplay

Oh my, this game is easily the best Superhero game I've ever played, and definitely the best licensed game I've ever played. There have been some truly great and revolutionary comics titles over the years, but this is absolutely the most enthralling and satisfying

superhero game ever made. When you play AC, you're not playing as Batman, you are Batman. Rarely have I had a more satisfying gaming experience, much less as the Bat himself! You're not just tossing batarangs and punching up henchmen (although there is a gratifying amount of both), you're putting all of the immeasurable combat and detective expertise of Bruce Wayne into effect. The difficulty level (in my case, on normal) was the perfect balance of manageable and incredibly challenging tasks. As Batman, while you never kill, you employ all of his characteristic charisma and style, from slinking around and silently incapacitating henchmen, to grabbing them and hanging them helplessly from vantage points.

Of course, the same silent takedown and fluid melee was present in the first installment. If I had to pinpoint what makes the common gameplay more challenging and unique, it would have to be

the challenge of putting each of your bat gadgets and fighting skills to use in ways you never imagined before. Where many games give you some neat equipment here and there without ever putting many of them to good use, ACgives us challenges and puzzles that require us to use each of our respective tools (and our sometimes inadequate wits) to the task at hand, often in ways you couldn't have expected. In many ways, it is the awesome melee and inquisitive use of tools that makes the gamer become Batman. We step into the shoes of the Dark Knight, and we feel the responsibility of Arkham on our shoulders, while using superior ability and intellect to overcome vast obstacles.

The Essentials

The story and gameplay alone make this game a must-play for any Bat-fan. However, all of the contributing aspects of the design and conceptualization make this a must-play for everyone else. The staff at Rocksteady have truly discovered what is true about Batman at his core, and they have shown this through their conceptualization of Arkham City. From the beautifully dreary

landscape of the city prison, to the individual design of each classic character, they have proven that their eye for the details are unmatched in the gaming industry. The smooth, dark visuals create not only a beautiful scene, but the setting also contributes to the the heart-thumping mood created by the combining elements. This is a serious game, and the player will find himself in positions where life and death hangs in the balance, and often not his own. I have yet to play a game based on a superhero, or any fan based material rather, that has taken such a care with the material and details, so as to create a world that is not only perfect for the fan but that has gone on to become a true work of art. From the gameplay visuals and cut scenes to the concept art and character trophies won throughout the campaign, the creators at Rocksteady have proven themselves once again.

Beyond the visual aspect, as important as it is, there is also voice and music to consider. With the work of such icons as Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, there is no doubtthat the characters in this game are held to a very high standard. Each respective persona takes on a life of their own, leaving little room for complaint. Even the occasional overhearing of a henchman babbling about this or that is handled amazingly, never sounding monotonous or unnecessary. As for the musical score, composers Ron Fish and Nick Arundel set the perfect mood and tone for this world. At times I am reminded of Batman: the Animated Series, at others it feels completely its own. There are no annoying repetitive numbers in the background as we sometimes encounter in these type of open-world games, but rather a befitting tonal support to a perfectly crafted masterpiece.

Everything Else

Now, this wouldn't be a very comprehensive review if I didn't take some time to mention the extras. The fact is, I've had the game since release day, and I've not even come close to reaching 100%. This game truly is massive, giving the gamer a world that is much larger and more explorable than in the previous installment. The most prominent extra is actually included in the game as a free DLC: Catwoman as a playable character. As you finish the main storyline, you will occasionally have the opportunity to play as Catwoman on her own mission. Her storyline even coincides with Batman's once you reach a certain point. Playing as Catwoman was disconcerting for me at first, since it is quite different from helming Bruce. She is much quicker and quirkier in her controls, and she has her own small arsenal of gadgetry. I'll admit, at first I wasn't sure about her, but before long I found myself thoroughly enjoying the use of her whip in taking down baddies. Adding Catwoman was a great way of keeping the gameplay fresh.
Of course, Selina Kyle isn't the only addition to this already extensive game. There are some awesome Bat-suits out there for use in challenge maps as well as the actual game (after beating the main story, of course), such as a Sinestro Corp Bat-suit, The Dark Knight Returns Batman, the Animated Series bat-suit, and even more to come. By the end of the year, we are promised Robin and Nightwing as playable characters in challenge maps.

Beyond all the incredible DLC's, the most impressive extras for me have been the easter eggs and side missions. We've all seen the usual rundown in these type of open world games: a distress signal here, a random citizen being mugged there. When I started into AC, I expected much of the same. Instead, what I got was a wealth of side missions that feel like they could be their own game, even without the main story. I am Batman, evaluating crime scenes left by Deadshot, so that I can trace him and finally put a stop to his assassinating ways. Or maybe I'm flying around the city, listening for ringing pay phones, where Zsasz is making me run around and find the next one or else he'll murder someone. These missions are more compelling and gratifying than in any other game I've played with a similar setup. And for the true Bat-fan, exploration can be equally satisfying, as you never know when you'll run into some abandoned room that is apparently where Croc hides out in his free time, or perhaps you'll bump into Calendar Man, ranting on and on about holidays and dates and such. The precise attention to detail put into this game is nothing short of masterful, and the extras are not just some ploy to take money from fans: they are real gems.

The Verdict

To quote a good friend of mine, "A Bat-fan who misses this game is like a person without blood: life just sucks for them." It is very rare that a game comes along and truly takes me on an unforgettable journey; this level of awesomeness is typically reserved for Zelda games. However,Batman: Arkham City has become an instant classic that I will undoubtedly play again and again. Whether it's a new book, t.v. show, or movie, we as comic/superhero fans may often find ourselves short changed of our expectations. I've sat through midnight showings only to find that the studios cared more for their dollar than they did the source material. However, I can gladly say to anyone who may be concerned about this not meeting their expectations, or that it can't be as good as its' predecessor, rest at ease; This game will easy capture your affection for days on end. As the reviewer stated over at Newsarama, "there is simply not enough time in the day when you're also working or going to school or generally trying to live your life to also be playing this game as much as you'll want to." Well said, sir. Well said indeed.

Score: 10/10

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