After a summer of Marvel, I’ve recently descended into the depths of DC. And it would be hard not to, with all the new material they’ve been putting out lately. As part of the New 52 initiative, every single DC comic has been relaunched in the past month or so, which, you’ve got to admit, is a bold move. There was the Batman: Year One animated film starring Bryan Cranston – I thought it was OK. DC Universe Online, an MMO that launched earlier this year, just went free to play. And at the center of it all, for gamers like me, that is, there’s Arkham City, the sequel to the surprisingly great 2009 release Arkham Asylum. So needless to say I’ve started watching the Justice League cartoon that I never really paid attention to and spending a lot of time thinking about the DC Universe. Was Arkham City a worthy lightning rod for my DC fascination, or is it a disappointing sequel to the game that proved super hero games need not be disappointing?
To start with Arkham City‘s story is to start with it’s weakest part, but let’s do that anyway. Frankly, the setup of this game is hard to buy. That’s compounded by the decision to leave much of the story outside of the actual game, relying on gamers to buy a comic book to fill in the massive gap between the last game and this one. Basically, it seems, the people of Gotham decided to wall of part of the town and stick all of the city’s criminals and crazies in it. Moreover, they’ve elected the inept Warden Quincy Sharp as the mayor and he’s put Hugo Strange in charge of the new “Arkham City.” Bruce Wayne, being of sound mind, is totally opposed to this, which gets him kidnapped by Strange’s goons and thrown in the city. So Wayne escapes and suits up and decides it’s time for Batman to figure out what’s up with Arkham City. It’s a dumb justification for the game’s most prominent new feature: an open world.
While Arkham Asylum felt more like a Metroid game, giving you a clearly set world dripping with atmosphere for you to explore and re-explore, Arkham City gives you this crime filled city section to dominate. Pretty quickly I picked up an upgrade that let me use Batman’s ability cape glide with his grappling hook, allowing me to essentially fly all over the city, dropping in on random criminals whenever they took my fancy. Beyond territorial packs of goons, the game is littered with Riddler trophies to collect, hundreds more than the last game. And there are side missions too, which are the only way to interact with some of the rogue’s gallery, such as Bane and Zsasz. The open world is fun enough, but where the game really shines is indoors, during the story missions.
Batman spends the bulk of the story chasing down important villains such as the Penguin and Mr. Freeze. These guys are all holding out inside of buildings, don’t expect to chase them down on the street. Once you’re inside a location, the game feels a lot more like Arkham Asylum. You are the predator, trapped in a room full of thugs waiting to be taken out. The stealth gameplay is a fun as ever, with plenty of gadgets to help you take down bad guys just like The Bat would. But, of course, sometimes you get spotted and have to actually fight a group of dudes. Fortunately, the last game’s terrific melee combat system is back and more fun than ever. The simple, counter-based combo combat is a lot of fun and makes taking on groups of enemies a blast.
When you’re done with the story, you can choose to keep working in the city or start a New Game Plus, which significantly amps up the difficulty. Upgrades and collectibles are consistent between both campaigns, which is appreciated. Challenge maps make a return as well, with plenty of the predator and combat variety to keep you entertained as long as you care.
It’s worth mentioning that the game comes with a code to download additional Catwoman content. The DLC adds four Catwoman missions that give some context to her appearances in the story, as well as adding some new challenge maps and filling the world with additional, Catwoman-only Riddler trophies to collect. Playing as Catwoman is fairly different from Batman, she even has her own upgrades to unlock, but honestly I’m not convinced it’s necessary. Batman is much more fun to play as and it just sucks that if you don’t have the code, you’d have to pay money to unlock part of the game’s story. With the absolute mess that was Arkham City‘s preorder bonuses, it’s worth noting that all the other DLC skin packs can only be used in New Game Plus and the challenge modes.
Arkham City is not the revelation that the last game was. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill lead a great voice cast, but the story is just OK, really only picking up at the end. Giving up the first game’s great condensed setting for an open world was a risky move, but it ultimately paid off, as flying around town is immensely satisfying. What worked last time around works here and that’s basically what I’m looking for in a sequel.