In the middle of dishing out several fistfuls of punishment to a street thug’s increasingly battered face, Batman is snuck up on by two more overeager criminals. Without breaking his stride, he steps behind the pair, effortlessly grabbing their craniums and smashing them together. He leaps a few feet over the war-torn blacktop to dropkick a final foe, and the camera slows down and zooms in to capture the perfect Kodak moment of impact. Instantly, he throws his grappling hook, latches onto a nearby building and is off without a sound, gliding fast over the rooftops of Arkham City.
I’ll never get tired of doing this, I think.
Batman: Arkham City, to be released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on October 18, rewards you for playing it well. Not amazingly well, just regular well. If you mash on the attack button, Batman will just stand there punching criminals. But if you follow the rhythm of battle, timing your strikes and using counterattacks at the right moment, it’ll look like a graceful ballet of destruction as the legendary comic-book avenger seamlessly strings together a series of animated attacks.
Arkham City is what every lesser open-world videogame wishes it could be, a few important pieces of core gameplay that have been polished to perfection, set in a wide-open city filled to the brim with things to do. And it does all this with narrative panache, spinning a story worthy of one of the world’s most famous superheroes.
Spoiler alert: Some light Arkham City spoilers follow.
2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum single-handedly upended the notion that videogames based on comic books could hope to strive for mediocrity, at best. An original, creepy, surprise-filled adventure through the demented dens of the criminally insane Batman villains, it garnered universal critical acclaim that year. With anticipation for Arkham City at a fever pitch, the thing that the sequel was most in danger of doing wrong was sticking too close to the formula, casting a been-there-done-that pall over the whole thing.
In fact, it avoids the curse of sequelitis by making a major change to the formula — instead of a Metroid-esque series of interconnected rooms, it’s an open-world city that you can fly across, going from point to point in a matter of seconds. You can play only the missions that are required to advance the storyline, but you’re also constantly tempted with a wide variety of side missions, collectibles and challenges scattered everywhere. It doesn’t feel anything like Metroid anymore, but it sure feels a lot like Crackdown.
One of the first side missions you can undertake turns out to be key to flying freely throughout the city. Soon after the game begins you can try some “augmented reality” missions in which you’re challenged to glide through a challenging series of green rings overlaid on the city. Finish the first four of these and you get the Grapnel Boost add-on for Batman’s grappling hook. Alone, the hook lets you immediately zip up to the tops of buildings. With the boost, you can zip past the buildings. Using this effectively means that you can fly over Arkham at top speed, another example of the game rewarding skillful play with a feeling of power.
Arkham City isn’t a real city; it’s a section of Batman’s native Gotham that’s been corralled off as a giant makeshift prison for the inmates of the now-closed asylum. While you might think that taking a whole bunch of lunatics and giving them the run of an entire borough is a super-smart idea, as it turns out it does not go so well, and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne decides to get himself arrested so he can go in there and figure out what’s going on. As it turns out, his old pal Joker is up to something, although he’s looking pretty sickly following his failed dalliance with super-drugs in the previous game.
You won’t just be going up against Joker, though; a whole rogue’s gallery of Batman’s famous nemeses is on the loose in Arkham and trying to ensnare the Dark Knight in their various traps and schemes. These are the stories that drive the side quests — working through the Riddler’s ingenious puzzles, tracing the path of bullets fired by Deadshot, flying through the city at breakneck speed to chase after Zsasz, et cetera. They’re not just busywork. Everything has a setup, a story, a good reason for being there.
Everything you do nets you experience points, which allow you to intermittently upgrade Batman’s beltful of wonderful toys. These constantly flowing rewards coupled with the polished gameplay and fast-paced story make Arkham City one of those games, the kind where you are surprised to find that you have stayed up until 4 a.m. playing it, then go to bed and get up at the crack of noon to keep playing.
What drags Arkham City down a bit is feature bloat. Batman starts off the game with most of the gadgets that he spent the entirety of Asylum adding piecemeal to his arsenal, then adds even more at breakneck speed. The game requires you to use each of these gadgets and gewgaws at certain key moments, including during several boss fights. But it’s difficult to remember how to use them under pressure, since it seems like every button on the Xbox controller has about 11 different functions depending on the situation. Heck, it’s difficult to remember what you even have in your arsenal.
Arkham City’s thoughtful but ultimately inelegant solution is to display a strip of reminder text literally every time you have to do something out of the ordinary, constantly covering the screen in white text to let you know which buttons to push and when. A much better way to keep players from getting confused would have been to not have so many damn items in the first place.
Weighed down by bloat though it may be, Batman: Arkham City is still one of the year’s finest games, filled with the capacity to surprise even players who’ve skulked through every inch of its predecessor.
WIRED Free-flowing action feels great, open world packed with rich story-based missions, fantastic graphics and audio.
TIRED Feature creep.
$60, Warner Bros.