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Batman: Arkham City Review

I’ve traversed many a city during my escapades in videogames. Rapture told the story of a destroyed utopia. The Citadel charmed me. I conquered the streets of City 17. I have strong memories of each of these locations, but no location more so than Arkham City. It’s not a series of streets in Liberty City that I’ve driven down countless times, it’s something more. Something that’s been etched into the back of my head. I know where The Iceberg Lounge is, where the Cathedral is, where the docks are. I know what they look like, what they sound like. I know the quietest way in and the quickest exit. That’s because when you’re gliding over Arkham City its beauty works itself under your skin, so deep that it is as much a part of the game as the protagonist. And no matter how many times you leap off a roof to soar over the ghetto, it never loses its impact.

After the events of Arkham Asylum, warden Quincy Sharp has been elected Major of Gotham. Rather than introducing cheaper travel or more bicycle lanes, Sharp’s reforms include sectioning off part of Gotham to create Arkham City, a ghetto where the criminal masterminds of the world are imprisoned together in relative freedom. Perhaps not the best start to his political career. Bruce Wayne’s objections to Arkham City results in his kidnapping by Hugo Strange (a mysterious figure with fingers in a lot of unsavoury pies), and Wayne’s incarceration into the detention camp.

It’s Strange who’s in charge of this criminal playground, and before Bruce’s inevitable escape, he reveals that something called Protocol Ten is near completion. And so begins your journey through the underworld. A cast of villains plucked from the comics harass Batman at every turn: after Strange you’ll bump into Penguin, or rather he’ll bump you. The Joker, Bane and the Riddler all return to the cast, along with popular characters Two Face and Mr Freeze (unfortunately not played by Arnie this time around), and a host of lesser known baddies. It’s Batman’s mission to discover the truth about Strange’s plans.

But you’re not on your own in your struggle. Alfred supplies you with your load out from the first game. The batarang, explosive gel and batclaw are at your disposal from the outset. Developer’s Rocksteady Studios’ bravery in supplying you with your gear from the last game is an admirable one. An easy decision may have been to copy the likes of the Assassins Creed series and force Batman to accumulate and relearn how to use all of his equipment over the first few hours. Thankfully they don’t, and what a great decision. There’s no patronising the player or slowing them down, Rocksteady put you in Batman’s boot and let you run. Although I was given a reality slap in my first fight, reminding me that Batman isn’t invincible: just because I can use a batarang, doesn’t mean I can take down fifteen goons without a scratch.

Changes have been made to your starting gear, enabling you to use all your gadgets during combat to rack up some devastating combos. The ability to lay down explosive gel and closeline a batclawed opponent is a pleasure that enriches the already brilliant combat. Batman’s move-set has been increased, and the new moves are very welcome, as the combat scenarios in Arkham City are much more diverse and demanding than the first instalment. Thank God Batman has a huge belt as an inventive selection of new gadgets is introduced. At first they may seem like novelties, but their uses in combat are a joy to behold, with experimentation delivering fantastic results.

Gadgets are essential outside of combat, in solving the many riddles hidden amongst the nooks of Arkham City by the green-suited Riddler. His puzzles are a huge improvement, demanding wit and inventiveness to solve. Often presented in melodramatic fashion, each riddle has you working the grey stuff, with a sense of achievement much more satisfying than ’10G’ when you complete each one. It’s a game mechanic that other developers should learn from, as opposed to picking up meaningless collectables.

Your brain will also get exercised in the room set-ups, pitching Batman against armed opponents in confined spaces. Jump in fists flying and you’re Bat-toast. Instead the Dark Knight needs to use the environment and stick to the shadows to take down adversaries one by one. The odds are stacked against your favour, with thugs possessing some advanced technology to search and destroy, including the ability to take out the gargoyles: hiding spots used to great effect in the first game to avoiding detection. The added challenge is welcome, testing your abilities in new ways, forcing you to use the environment and all your skills, rather than relying on the same tactics again and again. Slowly the tables turn as eight become seven… six… five, until one remains, and what a pleasure it is to see the panic spread until the lone survivor calls out into the shadows begging to be spared.

The story twists and turns in dark tones, and although Rocksteady are unable to emulate the disorientation that Scarecrow offered, they do try, with certain actions being truly questionable even for the menaces involved. There were moments when I worried whether Batman would survive the hardships he faced, an achievement when such a commanding hero is at your control.

However you also take possession of Catwoman at intervals during the story. Included with new versions of the game in an effort to counter the pre-owned market, her story is a significant addition that features Two Face and Ivy. Her abilities offer a contrasting combat mechanic to Batman’s strength. Fast paced attacks with her claws and acrobatic kicks means she can dish out damage faster than the Dark Knight. She’s also able to scale building, climbing more akin to a squirrel than a cat, but I don’t think squirrelwoman was ever a viable option.

What she doesn’t offer is what makes Batman so special: his ability to glide above the city. It’s an empowering moment when you first leap from the roof of the Ace Chemical’s building. And mastering the ability to fly for long distances is simply breath-taking. Rocksteady have managed to create a true sense of traversing the night sky, making it feel easy yet so satisfying. It never gets dull. In the first game players were only offered a couple of select opportunities to utilize Batman’s wings, now it’s as big a part of the gameplay as the combat. One noteworthy side mission tasks you with getting across the map in a matter of seconds. You’re only choice is to grapple to the rooftops and launch into the air, which once you’re comfortable all the techniques available means you can accumulate serious speed.

However there are times when you’ll just stop on top of a gargoyle. Just stop in admiration. A world so familiar through comics and films is laid before you in amazing detail. Neon lights flash in the distance above a crumbling apartment block. The streets tell a tale of past prosperity, now grimy and grey. Shops closed, as thugs lean outside discussing the finer points of Ivy. Each area is carefully crafted in distinct design. Load the game at any level and you’ll know if you’re in Joker’s, Mr Freezes or the Penguin’s lair in an instance. Each shares its own atmosphere, its own sense of self. An impressive music score further immerses you into the world as you fight to survive.

Rocksteady know what they like and run with it. They haven’t held back from offering an array of new characters and features, despite having a winnable formula before. Had they simply offered a new map with a fresh story it would have sold. Instead they’ve mined as much out from their existing features as possible and then tripled them. Games so often have aspects that need to be ignored or accepted for being ‘just not as good as the rest of the game’. Not the case here, every aspect adds to making you feel like Batman himself. You solve Riddler’s puzzles, you stalk the shadows and you watch over Arkham City. A game that empowers players, presents such a vibrant world and creates a vivid story, which all works together in harmony, is an example of the gaming industry at its best.

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