Revisiting Arkham City
Yesterday saw the release of Rocksteady Studios' Harley Quinn's Revenge, a new DLC chapter to last year's award-winning video game Batman: Arkham City. When I played Arkham City over half a year ago on its initial release, I had only scratched the surface of what the game had to offer. Sure, I had beaten the main campaign, but at the same time I had ignored much of the Riddler Trophies, Riddler Challenges, character trophies, concept art, and several side missions, not to mention the new game plus. My completion rate sat at a measly 62%, and on NORMAL mode at that.
In order to commemorate the release of Harley Quinn's Revenge, I decided to pick up my PS3 controller and beat Arkham City for realsies. No more messing around. HARD mode. 100% completion, or as close as humanly possible. What's more, I hadn't written a review for the game when I originally played it and thought that now might be a good opportunity to do so. Fair warning: as with all my reviews, there will be slight-to-major spoilers below. Proceed at your own discretion.
Now to be fair, one of the reasons I never bothered with a full completion of the game was because, after my initial playthrough, Arkham City left me somewhat disappointed. I'm a fan of narrative in video games, and was blown away by the storytelling in City's predecessor Arkham Asylum (minus the generic ending). Perhaps because of its much larger scope, City lacked much of the cohesion of the first game, and while there are some very interesting sequences, the game failed to deliver anything as mind-blowingly awesome as the Scarecrow boss fights from Asylum. City opens with some compelling mysteries (What is Protocol 10? Who is Hugo Strange's mysterious benefactor?), yet the answers to these mysteries are fairly unremarkable. Though it's true that the game ended on an intriguing note (the death of the Joker), this is more an interesting departure point for future games, as its potential isn't realized within the framework of City.
That being said, I was happy to discover that these grievances are drastically diminished upon a second playthrough. A compelling mystery is great for drawing an audience in, but it's the gameplay itself that can often decide the overall value of a video game. And in terms of gameplay, Arkham City shines.
In City you play as Batman (and occasionally Catwoman, assuming you bought a new copy of the game), thrust into a section of Gotham that has been turned into a criminal no-man's-land, renamed Arkham City. Your time is pretty much evenly divided between saving prisoners and thwarting criminals, occasionally leaving on tangents to collect the myriad Riddler Trophies hidden around the city. Whether you're soaring around the city, stealthily disarming sentries, scanning crime scenes for clues, or engaging in fisticuffs against wave after wave of thugs, the whole game is a blast to play. (Actually, I take that back. The AR missions are a pain the ass.)
The fighting system in Arkham City is perhaps the best I've ever had the pleasure of playing. There's a significant difficulty curve to the combat that takes a while to get the hang of (hence me playing NORMAL mode originally), as opposed to the usual button mashing you get from other offerings. Once you master the nuances of the fighting system, however, you feel fucking unstoppable. You feel like no amount of thugs armed with baseball bats, blades, and tasers could even hope to hurt you. In short, you feel like Batman.
The Predator segments of the game, where you stealthily take out a room full of armed goons without being seen, likewise make you feel like the Caped Crusader. I've played a fair amount of stealth games before (Metal Gear Solid, certain portions of Assassin's Creed) and while some have been quite excellent, none have felt quite so fluid or intuitive. There's something exhilarating about picking off the goons one by one as the musical score grows in intensity. To be sure, this is the same basic gameplay we've seen in Arkham Asylum. However, as with the combat system, minor tweaks and dynamic Predator maps have enhanced the overall experience (fair warning, though: playing Predator as Catwoman is much more challenging and, as a result, much more frustrating).
Arkham City's biggest departure from its predecessor is the structural shift to the sandbox genre. Whereas Asylum had you progress along a linear path from beginning to end, City lets you set the pace, allowing you to tackle side missions and hunt Riddler Trophies at your discretion (similar to Grand Theft Auto, Infamous, or Assassin's Creed, to name a few). As I mentioned before, this somewhat lessens the narrative impact of the game, but at the same time does wonders for replayability, as I discovered to my delight.
There's plenty of varied gameplay here to keep you occupied, much more so than there was with Asylum. Besides the main campaign and side missions, there are 400 collectable Riddler Trophies strewn about the city (compared with Asylum's 240), often requiring some clever puzzle-solving to obtain (others are obtained by fulfilling certain conditions, like gliding continuously for 200 meters). In my initial playthrough I obtained maybe...half of them?...before finishing the game. The idea of going for all 400 of them seemed like a very daunting task, but the game is designed well enough that it rarely feels tedious. The ability to add Trophy locations to the map is a great help, elevating the task above the typical “find all 100 Xs” expected in sandbox games. Before I knew it, I was looking at a cool 400 Trophies obtained, having barely broken a sweat.
In addition to the Riddler Trophies are the Riddler Challenges and Campaigns. These involve either achieving certain scores in combat scenarios, or being put in a Predator map and having to fulfill certain conditions, such as knocking a thug out with a Ledge Takedown. This is another area that I had mostly avoided my first time around, as the challenges proved way too difficult to complete. However, after finishing the game on HARD mode, I had become something of a master, and realized that the Challenges were no longer the insurmountable feats they once were. In fact, the Combat Challenges were a breeze, while the Predator Challenges were merely intense as opposed to impossible.
All in all, my return to Arkham City was a pleasant one. There were some real highlights (the Mr. Freeze boss fight, Mad Hatter), and some lowlights (those goddamned AR training missions), but overall I was left with the sense that Arkham City is a great game, much better than I had originally given it credit for.
Oh, and for the record? 100% on HARD mode. I'd technically have a Platinum Trophy if it weren't for the one Calendar Man Trophy I need to unlock. If I play my cards right, I should have it by April 1st, 2013. That being said, I still have plenty of DLC (Robin and Nightwing, as well as the aforementioned Harley Quinn's Revenge) to keep me busy.