Saturday, October 29, 2011

Batman: Arkham City

They never saw it coming.  Just moments ago they were chatting idly about Catwoman’s sultry qualities. Then they shouted, “It’s the Bat!” as I descended upon one of them, like a meteor from above; he didn’t get back up, and neither did the fellow standing next to him.  Out came the Batclaw, reeling in my first prey as I proceed to slam him into the pavement.  Three guys down, and only now has the rest of the group regained their senses.  Three of them run up, thinking to gain the upper hand with strength in numbers.  I counter all of them effortlessly in a whirlwind of kicks, before unleashing a flurry of batarangs.  In the midst of the chaos, I single out one man still standing.  In an instant I’m in front in him.  He has body armor, so I stun him and then punch him.  He probably expected that.  What he didn’t expect were the next fifteen punches, followed by a fierce uppercut.  Only one left standing, and another getting back up.  I fling a freeze grenade at the one dusting himself off; sit tight for a bit.  Then I focus on the last goon.  First I wrench the bat from his hands, and smack him with it.  Then I trip him, and snap one of his arms.  I end the battle by delivering a flying kick of justice to the thug encased in ice.

This game is nuts.

After his stellar work as the warden of Arkham Asylum, now-Mayor Quincy Sharp has decided that a single facility will not be sufficient to contain the criminal scum of Gotham.  So he sections off a part of the city and establishes the entire district as an open air, maximum-security prison.  Furthermore, he places a scientist named Hugo Strange in charge.  As you soon realize, there is no law in Arkham City other than a simple one imposed by Strange: “Do not try to escape”.

If you think that letting every single Gotham villain run amok in their own little community seems like a bad idea, you’re not alone.  In fact, you’re thinking along the same lines as Batman himself.  And so it is that you find yourself in Arkham City, with the express intention of find out how such a thing could have possibly come into being.

The story told here in Arkham City is ambitious, and far larger in scope than it was in Arkham Asylum.  Indeed, Joker’s quest for the TITAN chemical in 2009’s hit seems almost small time compared to some of the things you see and experience in Arkham City; hammered home by the fact that TITAN is again present, though it’s been relegated to a mere sidequest.

There’s an incredible cast of villains in Arkham City.  Joker and Harley, Bane and Riddler are back in various capacities, but Batman also gets to deal with Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Two Face and of course Hugo Strange (among others) in the main storyline alone.  Through cameos and side missions, the roster is further expanded to include the likes of Poison Ivy, Dead Shot, Mad Hatter, and even, finally, Calendar Man.  As a fan of the comics, many of the appearances were, in a word, awesome.

However, Arkham City’s plot unfortunately falls just a tad short of the mark it tries so enthusiastically to reach.  Many villains meet disappointing ends, with the biggest offense being that of the supposed primary antagonist, Hugo Strange.  I won’t spoil how you finally get to inflict sweet justice on him, but it’s pretty underwhelming.

One of the chief complaints of Arkham Asylum—of which there were few, I might add—was that the boss battles were very simple and mundane.  Arkham City improves this by orders of magnitude.  There are a couple boss battles that are essentially beefed up predator challenges, for example.  In your showdown with Mr. Freeze, you’re prevented from using the same move twice, as every time you pull one over on him he takes measures to prevent you doing it again.  But coming away from the game, I still feel like many of the villains could have put up a better fight.  For each of the more exhilarating encounters, there’s one that’s only decent.

Virtually everything has been expanded and improved in Arkham City, beginning with the setting itself.  Not only is Arkham City a bigger and more varied locale than Arkham Asylum, it is a far denser one. It won’t win points for being the biggest, but Rocksteady made ample use of essentially every square foot of the world they crafted.  Where there isn’t a Riddler puzzle to solve or a group of thugs roaming around, there’s a locale to explore, an Easter egg to discover, or a sidequest to complete.  It feels like everything you do and can do in this game has purpose.

One of Rocksteady’s biggest talking points was how you get around this bigger, better setting: gliding.  You could glide in Arkham Asylum…but not like this.  Now, mid-flight you can go into a dive, than pull up to gain speed and altitude.  Once you get the Grapnel Boost, you can latch onto faraway ledges and objects to vault yourself further and keep altitude high.  This new method of locomotion is extremely awkward at first, and I found it difficult to use.  But once you get the hang of it, it’s surprisingly addicting (and challenging) to see how far you can go without touching the ground.  Then, when you spot a group of thugs below, you can swoop down on them, and that’s when the fun begins.

Combat in Arkham City is, to my surprise, a very different beast than it was in Arkham Asylum, and not just because some of the controls have been moved around.  By the end of the game, your bag of tricks is bulging with so many gadgets, moves and abilities that it can be overwhelming at times.  Not only do you have new moves like the Glide Boost, which lets you quite literally tackle thugs from the air with the force of a thousand suns, you can also stomp on them, Mario-style.  Even old moves and techniques have gained new tricks.  After cape-stunning a target, you can proceed into a Beatdown (yes, that’s exactly what it’s called).  My favorite move in the game, Batman quite simply punches the guy over and over again at super speed, ending with one final, powerful attack that instantly KO’s the poor fellow.  Also, the counter move has been expanded, allowing you to counter not one, not two, but up to three thugs at a time simultaneously.  Now you can also catch and throw back projectiles lobbed at you.  It’s awesome.

But that’s not all.  The number of Quickfire gadgets—those that you can use mid-combat—has been almost tripled.  In addition to Batarangs and the Batclaw, now you can use the Explosive Gel in combat, as well as a variety of other gadgets you’ll acquire as you progress, such as a stun gun and freeze grenade.  Special moves like the Instant KO are back, alongside new moves like the Weapon Destroyer, which has  Bats not only disarming a foe, but smashing said weapon to pieces to stop it from being used again.

Not interested in all these fancy moves and gadgets?  Rocksteady’s got your back with a new ability called FreeFlow Focus.  At the expense of being able to perform special combos like the Instant Finisher (and ultimately gadgets), upon landing your 12th hit in a combo you enter FreeFlow Focus, which enables a subtle slow motion affect, allowing you to wreak havoc on groups and maintain multipliers with heightened ease.  This, combined with the returning Critical Strikes ability—which rewards well-timed attacks with extra power and double points and multiplier gain—makes sure those that favor combos over variation get their due.

There’s even new ways to start a battle.  Before, it was either you ran up and started throwing punches, or you flew in with a Glide Kick.  Now, apart from the previously mentioned Glide Boost, you can also perform a sliding kick, or dive bomb a group before proceeding to send them all flying with a kinetic blast.  Every encounter is also bigger in scale than they ever were in Arkham Asylum.  There’s an incredible amount of contextual moves and takedowns in this game.  Walking up to two thugs standing side by side allows you to take them both down simultaneously.  Doing a Grapnel Boost right under a patrolling thug will prompt Batman to grab the guy on his way up, only to pile-drive him back into the ground.  And then there are the returning classics, like the corner and ledge takedowns.

There are also some new thug types in Arkham City.  Gone are those god-forsaken lunatics—I think anyone whose had their crack at one of the challenge rooms in Arkham Asylum will share my anger—replaced with thugs toting riot shields who can’t be attacked through normal means.  Most are still same old, same old; goons with stun batons have to be hit from behind or from range, those with firearms have to taken down with care (and individually, usually), and unarmed enemies are still fodder, but insanely fun to fight against all the same.  Knife-wielders are back, but they’ve been changed.  Now you can attack them head on like any regular thug, and their attacks are less dangerous; by holding the counter button, you can dance away from their swipes.  With an upgrade, you can even perform a reversal on them; it’s not easy to pull off mid-combat, but it’s one of the most satisfying things you can do in this game.  There are also some other special enemies, like assassins, who attack like knife-wielders but can dodge your regular attacks and are overall much quicker and more dangerous.

The extent to which close quarters combat has been expanded in Arkham City is staggering, to be frank.  As a comfortable form of input, the controller is absolutely pushed to the limit.  There was a time when I wondered if the number of Quickfire gadgets was limited more to keep the controls reasonable than for any creative or design reasons.  Still, the possibilities granted by this insane collection are nothing less than exciting.  This is a combat system with endless depth.  There’s plenty of elegance and complexity for those that want it.  It places squarely in your hands the ability to orchestrate every enemy encounter from beginning to end, and it is more satisfying than words can describe when things go your way, as they did in my opening paragraph.  It is, in my opinion, the best close quarters combat system in existence.

Predator gameplay (read: stealth) is still just as good as it was in Arkham Asylum, though it did not see nearly as much of the overhaul treatment as most other aspects did.  Your giant bag of tricks, in combination with excellent level design allows for a wider variety of strategies than in Arkham Asylum, but it still boils down to methodically taking out armed thugs in any given area.  Of course, there’s also still fun to be had instilling fear in the hearts of professional gunmen and hapless criminals.

I found myself relying on Detective mode much more than I would have liked (just like Arkham Asylum), particularly in stealth situations.  But I think I’m beginning to realize that has more to do with the enemies’ somewhat more sophisticated AI than anything else.  Arkham City never ceases to impress me at least a little bit in how natural many of its inhabitants act.  Enemies will blow up vantage points or roll grenades into vents to try and smoke you out.  Or sometimes, they won’t.  Often they’ll stop for no apparent reason, and just look around.  Apprehension?  Or fear, perhaps.  Occasionally they gain the sense to look up or check under them.  When they see a body, they’ll call for help, with others showing varying degrees of response or concern.  Enemies frequently change or adapt their patrol routes as new developments—like you totally acing one of them—occur.  This is different from most stealth games, where enemies have a rigid and often inflexible set of actions, and specific patrol routes that they usually return to without fail, making them predictable.

Technically speaking, Arkham City doesn’t really look or run significantly better than Arkham Asylum.   However, that only speaks volumes for how good-looking its predecessor was back in 2009, because Arkham City is a gorgeous game.  There are all sorts of fancy visual tricks in effect here, from impressive depth of field and sharp texture work to a rather capable physics engine handling object and body behavior.  Playing the game on PS3, you will see quite a bit of in-game texture loading; try viewing a few character trophies, for example.  I imagine it’s a similar situation on Xbox 360.  But that’s what happens when you have such a small bit of video memory to work with.  There is a near-2GB mandatory install on PS3, but you will only see load times when entering and leaving major areas, and when first loading up the campaign and any challenge maps.

Even from a conceptual standpoint, Arkham City is stunning.  The prison is separated into a handful of different areas, each with a different feel, from the Bowery with its slightly higher class feel, to the industrial district with chimneys galore and a small bay and loading dock.  Underneath Arkham City lies an ancient and eerily quiet complex network of passageways and corridors; another world in itself.  Towering far, far above it all is the Wonder Tower, from which Strange operates.

Just like in Arkham Asylum however, the real star in the visual department is the animation.  And boy is it fancy.  The vast majority of Bats’ animations for his basic movements and abilities have been recycled from Arkham Asylum, but that’s not a terrible thing because there are plenty of new animations, and why would he revamp the way he moves?  The biggest improvement I’ve noticed in Arkham City on its predecessor—and indeed, on the medium in general—is how well the engine nails contextual actions.  There was some of it showing in Arkham Asylum—Bats would react to enemies depending on their location and status in relation to his—but it’s really been expanded here.

You counter one goon, and another runs up; Batman adapts what he is doing to one enemy to include the other.  What used to be a punch to the face is now two faces being bashed together.  Include another enemy and now the attack has instantly evolved to a spinning kick.  Attack an enemy right in front of you, and Bats might do an uppercut.  Attack one some distance away, and he might do this crazy flying somersault to cover the distance.  Attack an enemy up against a wall, and that head butt becomes a skull thrashed against said wall.  It’s all in realtime, and it’s completely natural.  From a technical standpoint, it feels like it should be completely impossible, the way the engine fluidly adapts how bodies and objects move and interact with each other on the fly.  But it happens constantly in Arkham City.  Because it happens all the time and feels so natural, it feels like a minor thing, but no other game does this so well; save for a precious few (Mortal Kombat and Uncharted come to mind), others do not even attempt it.  The animation in Arkham City is, quite frankly a technical achievement in my mind.

From start to finish, Arkham City is an aural delight.  As you boot the game up, you’re treated to vigorous woodwinds that might just send chills down your spine.  From there on, the BGMs don’t generally stand out, but that does not stop the music from doing a phenomenal job contributing to the atmosphere of the game.  Just like in Arkham Asylum, tracks can change to suit changing situations, such as being discovered in stealth mode, or entering combat.

Of course, the voice acting is no slouch either.  Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker, respectively, but there’s talent and enthusiasm behind seemingly every voice in Arkham City.  While the story dialogue in this game is typical, almost classical comic book fare—you won’t believe how many times Batman says some variation of “Today’s not a good day to mess with me”—much of the dialogue provided by auxiliary characters like the various thug factions is surprisingly interesting to listen to.  Flying around Arkham City, you’ll hear lowly grunts discussing their faction leaders (Joker, Two Face, etc.), cracking jokes, day dreaming about Catwoman and Poison Ivy, and even spouting a bit of lore; all in great varying degrees of earnest.  There’s something to be said for the sheer volume of dialogue provided by the thugs alone when, even while roaming around after beating the game I’m still stopping frequently to listen in on some conversations.

Arkham City is pretty much teeming with replay value.  There’s perhaps a little under a dozen side missions in the story mode; the biggest of which by far is Riddler’s 400-strong assortment of trophies, challenges, and puzzles.  It’s a mishmash of collectables and little in-game achievements, like using certain takedowns a number of times or gliding unassisted a certain distance, complemented by dozens of little nods, references and easter eggs to Bat-family lore that Riddler wants you to find and scan.  Finally capturing Riddler is a monumental task, to say the least, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t enjoyable.  The puzzles and riddles are clever, some of them being true head-scratchers, while the trophies will have you visiting every nook and cranny of Arkham City several times over.  As you solve challenges, you also unlock new background information (in the form of "Arkham City stories"), character biographies and audio tapes, 3D character models that you can view (think Super Smash Bros), and loads of concept art.

Challenge Mode is back as well, in a very big way.  Not only are there more challenge maps than there were in Arkham Asylum—about 60% more, by my rough estimate—there is a new feature called Riddler’s Revenge, which are essentially sets of three challenge maps strung together into a brief campaign.  There’s a twist, however.  When you begin a Riddler campaign, you are presented with certain modifiers that you have to use at some point before you finish the third level.  Some modifiers are negative, like restricting your moveset or beefing up enemy damage, while others, like regenerating health and batarangs that instantly KO thugs, are positive.  Choosing the best times to implement these modifiers gives these small campaigns a bit more of an identity.  You can also take these modifiers and apply them in regular challenge maps, if you want.

There are a lot of comparisons to the game’s predecessor—Arkham Asylum—in this review.  There’s a reason for that.  Over the course of Arkham City’s development, I was paying very close attention to essentially all coverage of it, and there was one element that I found very consistent.  Rocksteady wanted to top themselves.  Arkham Asylum was an excellent title, and they knew it.  And yet they challenged themselves to create a sequel, one that they could honestly say was better than its predecessor in every possible way.  They listened.  They tweaked.  They improved.  And quite frankly, they succeeded.  Arkham City is everything that a sequel should be.  And in my opinion, it is also one of the greatest games this generation yet has to offer.  A 10/10.

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