Batman gets kind of a bum rap. His most popular incarnation, by far, is “Movie Batman.” Movie Batman is essentially James Bond in a funny outfit. He’s loaded to the teeth with gadgets, he zips around the town in fancy cars, and everywhere he goes there are beautiful women, big explosions, and insane super villains. But that’s not really who Batman is. It’s hard to say that this incarnation is “pop culture” Batman, since Batman’s a pop-culture icon even without the movies. But he is, in a way, dumbed down for the moviegoing audience.
The Rocksteady Batman of Arkham Asylum, and more recently Arkham City, more embodies the full spirit of Batman. Batman’s not just a thug-punching, gadget-slinging action hero; he’s also an intelligent detective capable of using forensics, technology and his superior mental acuity to outwit Gotham’s worst. He’s the most faithful and complete incarnation of Batman to make the leap to video game form. I think Rocksteady deserves an encore round of applause for managing to make a smart, engaging Batman game that is fun to play.
Don’t get me wrong with all this talk of intelligence and detective work, though – this game features a metric ton of ass kicking, and the game mechanics are super solid. Batman moves with power and agility, but he’s not invincible. Take one too many punches, and you’re down for the count. He’s especially weak against the weaponry – both improvised and stolen from the paramilitary organization that runs the prison – that is frequently used against him. I’ll admit, I am pretty bad at the combat in this game. I failed at least once during each of the larger fights in the game. The thing is though, it never really feels frustrating. I knew why I failed, and I felt like I was improving and doing a better job each time I faced a group of enemies.
Since EB is the last person on earth who still hasn’t played Arkham Asylum, I’ll do a quick run-down of the core mechanics. Batman zips around with a combination of his grapnel gadgets and his glide abilities. Occasionally, he’ll need to employ specific gadgets to overcome environmental obstacles. Frequently he engages enemies in a couple of different scenarios. In one type of thug-infestation situation, most (or all) of the enemies are unarmed, and he takes them on as a group. With his martial arts prowess and his arsenal of gadgets, Batman can take down groups of enemies in a flowing combat routine that is all about combos, counters, and timing.
In other rooms, the enemies are generally heavily armed and a direct confrontation leads almost instantly to his demise. In this mode, you’ve got to use stealth, speed, and gadgetry to isolate and eliminate enemies without drawing fire. “Predator mode” (as its called) manages to stay fast paced while incorporating stealth elements, which is no small feat.
It’s been a while since I played Arkham Asylum, so it’s kind of tricky to compare the two. Arkham City feels somewhat bigger, but not so big that traversing it is a chore. Some of the gadgets have been tweaked, and some new gadgets added, but Batman has such a diverse arsenal that sometimes it can get confusing. It’s usually pretty straightforward to understand how to use his gadgets to solve environmental puzzles, but I found that trying to use them in combat situations usually ended up with someone’s fist in my face, rather than the awesome and intimidating effect I was going for.
The main plot thread runs for probably 6-10 hours, depending on how sidetracked you get, and gives you several encounters with a pretty sizable cross section of Batman’s rogues gallery. Each major objective features a combination of various enemy-beating and puzzle solving elements, capped with a clever and usually over the top boss fight. The campaign feels meaty without really bogging down too much, which is saying something since there are only a half dozen or so “dungeons” to be had aside from the game’s city overworld.
Besides the storyline missions, there are a plethora of side missions. Riddler trophies and challenges dot the landscape, and while some are easy or just require the right tools, others are downright crazy in their complexity and difficulty. I find them to be fun and challenging, but if they’re not your speed you can pass on them without missing too terribly much. Besides chasing the Riddler, a number of Batman’s “second tier” foes make appearances in side missions around the city. One criticism I have is that many of these side missions are not tracked on your map, or are tracked relatively poorly. If you aren’t looking the right way, or aren’t checking the right rooftops/alleyways, you might miss important clues. There’s always GameFAQs or YouTube if you get lost or are going for 100% completion, but it’s still somewhat frustrating to have a very detailed map that is missing important side quest markers.
This game continues another “anti-used games” strategy that has been permeating the console industry of late – single use DLC that is only included with new copies of the game. As someone who frequently buys used, I’m a little scared of this trend. I don’t like the thought that part of the content is walled off from me if I didn’t buy the game in the manner that the publisher intended.
In this instance, there’s a card with a code for some Catwoman content in the package. Reviews I read before I picked it up said that this was worthwhile content, so I bought it new when I could get a good deal. I have to say, though, that I’m not that impressed. Catwoman is certainly different from Batman, both in the way she gets around the city and the way she approaches combat. She’s certainly fun, but there’s only about 3 or 4 vignettes in the main game where she makes an appearance, and I thought that perhaps I was missing something when she didn’t appear for the middle portion of the game at all. Once the game is finished, you can switch to her at will, but aside from completing her challenges I can’t see myself using her for much. Her mode of travel is far surpassed by Batman’s, and she doesn’t have nearly the number of gadgets (and level of survivability) that he does.
Overall, though, this is a solid package. The environmental puzzles and Riddler challenges are tricky and satisfying to solve without being frustrating. The combat is meaty, and the controls for combat are generally solid. The game delivers consistently on all fronts, and it’s a welcome relief to play a sequel to an excellent game that lives up to its predecessors.