Thursday, July 04, 2013

Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition (Xbox 360) Review

Batman: Arkham Asylum remains one of the greatest super hero games that I have ever played.  Rocksteady Studios did such a fantastic job truly letting you feel like the capped crusader.  The fighting mechanics, the gadgets, and story telling and setting were all top notch and certainly one of the best gaming experiences to come out of 2009.

The sequel, Batman: Arkham City, released in the fall of 2011, and I regret that I made a huge mistake:  I picked up Gears of War 3 instead.  I wanted to finish that trilogy and its storyline, and I was sorely disappointed with the lackluster experience Epic Games had bungled up.  Thankfully between now and then, a "Game of the Year Edition" for Batman: Arkham City was released, and I just so happened to have snagged a copy.

Set a year after the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Quincy Sharp took the credit for stopping the Joker's rampage in the Asylum and used that fame to be elected mayor of Gotham City.  In order to keep the city safe, Sharp turns a section of the city into a fully contained prison, where he has the super villains from Arkham Asylym and general thugs from Blackgate Prison transferred.

Calling this city prison "Arkham City," Sharpe appoints Hugo Strange as its warden and declares it Gotham's ultimate solution to crime.  Within Arkham City, the criminals are free to roam and do as they please, however any attempt to escape will be met by lethal force courtesy of Strange's private security force called Tyger Security.

Batman is highly suspicious of this new prison, and as Bruce Wayne, begins a political campaign against it in an attempt to shut it down.  Strange, having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne, sends his Tyger Security forces to arrest Wayne and incarcerate him in Arkham City.

Unlike Arkham Asylum from the first game, Arkham City is a fully fleshed out section of Gotham that players can free-roam and navigate.  While you have specific missions and side missions to accomplish, tracked by your handy Bat Computer, players can simply patrol the city looking for random thugs and encounters to play against, and there's also other challenges to tackle.

The main story and core focus of the game, however, is extremely well fleshed out.  Almost every major villain Batman has ever fought is present in Batman: Arkham City, which is both surprising and a little concerning as one would expect things to get overly convoluted and bogged down with so many personalities, but this didn't turn out to be the case at all.

Rocksteady Studios did a superb job of balancing each villain's time in the game, setting them up nicely as major players or supporting villains, and the overall story flows exceptionally well and never feels too confusing.  This alone I see as a huge accomplishment for the developer, and the game's story is most definitely one of its highest points.

You see not only does Batman have to contend against Hugo Strange and his Tyger Security forces while trying to unravel the true purpose of Arkham City, but the Joker is also ill as a result of the Titan formula he injected himself with at the end of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Not only is the Joker intent on getting cured, but he's also looking to get a little payback against the Dark Knight and becomes a major player in the game.

Now the Freeflow combat from Batman: Arkham Asylum was excellent and very innovative for it's time, and Rocksteady Studios have taken things up another notch in the sequel.  Freeflow mainly works just like you remember only now it's even easier to move from opponent to opponent and to use Quickfire Gadgets during combos;  the whole process just feels smoother.  I think the best I was ever able to do in Batman: Arkham Asylum was a 30 hit combo, but in Batman: Arkham City, after only a little warm-up, I was doing 40 hit combos pretty consistently.

The majority of Batman's gadgets from the last game make an appearance again, and several new ones have been added.  Tapping Left Trigger still Quickfires a Batarang, and other key gadgets now have a dedicated Quickfire button used by holding Left Trigger.  Hold LT and press "Y" to Quickfire the Batclaw, pressing "X" quick drops Explosive Gel (great for crowd control), "B" uses his new Electrical Charge, and so on.  All extremely quick and intuitive, and the use of each gadget has been expanded as well.

As you beat the snot out of enemies and complete missions you earn Experience which let's you level up and apply an upgrade to your different fighting tactics.  You can increase your durability to regular attacks or bullets, improve your Freeflow combat, unlock new moves or expanded ways to use your gadgets, etc.  By game's end you'll likely have enough Experience to unlock everything, however this allows you to really customize Batman to your own personal style early on, making things a little simpler and more fun.

The challenges Batman faces in Arkham City aren't just combat related, though that is a huge part of the game.  There's now environmental challenges to tackle in the form of Gliding. Gliding is a larger part of the gameplay now, and Batman can Glide, Dive Boom, and Zip Line his way quickly across all of Arkham City.  There are various points where specific navigational challenges, called Augmented Reality Training, are set up, and properly Gliding and navigating through these challenges is part of one of your side missions.  I personally found the complex gliding mechanics clunky, however, and the Controller layout for it wasn't the best.  The challenges are doable, I completed all of them, but it took many attempts and lots of cursing to do so.

The Riddler Trophies are also back, and there's a whopping 440 of them to collect this time around.  Their inclusion and the Riddler's subplot in Batman: Arkham Asylum was a very cool part of that game, but here in the sequel the Riddler is more present and has a larger story role.  As one of your side missions, he's taken a bunch of police officers and doctors hostage and will kill them unless you solve his challenges, but in order to attempt a rescue, you'll need to collect X number of trophies for the Riddler to give you a clue as to a hostage's location.

This had the potential to be extremely cool and involving, however regrettably Rocksteady Studios took a devilish approach to this task.  Unlike the first game, finding the Riddler Trophies often isn't enough to collect them, as you'll usually need to complete an environmental challenge, use a specific gadget, or solve a puzzle to claim your prize.  The puzzle ones, such as hitting switches in a certain order or speed with Batrangs, or pressing a proper number of pressure pads in a certain order, etc., often felt very frustrating and given the shear volume of Trophies to collect, well, let's just say this part of the game, which took some time, was more tedious than fun.

Once you finally get enough Trophies to get a clue from the Riddler, you can try and rescue the hostage, which usually involves Batman needing to navigate through a deathtrap maze to free them.  In contrast to Trophy collection, these hostage rescues are extremely fun and I thought they were very clever and well done; it's just a shame you have to spend so much time hunting for annoying trophies to get to try them.

While you won't come across any maps in Batman: Arkham City pointing out the location for all the Riddler collectibles in an area, Batman can interrogate Riddler henchmen to learn additional Trophy locations.  Basically in any group of thugs, whether they're working for Joker, Two-Face, or whoever, if one of them is a hidden Riddler agent they'll appear with a green glow.  You'll then need to defeat the other thugs while leaving the Riddler agent for last to interrogate them; simply press "Y" when they're the last thug standing to lay the beat-down on them and they'll reveal a few more Riddler Trophy locations.

I generally found it best to simply interrogate as many Riddler agents as you can and then wait until you get all of Batman's gadgets before trying to get most of the Trophies, as many of the Gadgets prove essential to their collection, and I found it best to just sweep an area clear at a time once they were all revealed.  If you have the patience to collect all of them as I did and to find most of them without using a walkthrough, this will keep you busy for some hours, though as I mentioned I found it far more tedious than fun.

While I consider the story to be one of the main highlights for the game, it's interesting to note that you don't actually begin Batman: Arkham City as Batman, or even Bruce Wayne, but rather as Catwoman.  Originally included with new copies of the game (or purchasable as an add-on for used game buyers) and of course included in the "Game of the Year Edition," Catwoman is featured as a playable character and has her own story missions, challenges, and collectibles.

The game opens with players taking on the role of Catwoman as she takes down some of Two-Face's thugs in Dent's former campaign office to gain access to his safe.  She's then captured and Batman has to save her, however Catwoman becomes playable several more times in the story.  I believe the exact statistic is that Catwoman's missions make up 10% of the total game, and I personally wish it was a lot more as she's fantastic.

Her storyline is good, features Poison Ivy who's absent from the core game, and her story intersects with Batman's a few times, but it's her gameplay that I really love.  Simply put, I find Catwoman a more intuitive character than Batman.  While the general mechanics behind her Freeflow combat is the same as the Dark Knight's (and several of Batman's upgrades carry over to her, though she does have her own upgrade section) I find her faster and actually possessing a slightly more aggressive playstyle.

She also has her own unique gadgets, such as a bola, caltrops, and her signature whip, all of which are very handy for crowd control.  I found her so affective in combat that I was actually able to pull of a 40 hit combo before I was able to do so with Batman, and I can pull off a 50 hit combo with her without abusing any fight mechanics, something I can not do with Batman.  The only aspect of combat that I find her lacking is her general takedowns, which are slower than Batman's and generally safer to avoid performing.

Since she has a limited number of gadgets and can't glide, Catwoman navigates through Arkham City a little differently.  She can use her whip to swing, but that only takes her so far, and when she hits a wall she attaches to it with her claws.  You can then quickly leap up the wall to finish your ascent, gaining a bonus if you time the jumps just right, and then continue running or stop.  She can also use her claws to crawl along certain ceilings or railings upside down, providing her different stealth options that aren't available to Batman.

All in all she's a great character and addition to the game, and I've greatly enjoyed playing as her.  She even has her own Riddler Trophies to collect, 40 of the 440 I mentioned above are hers, and only she can collect these items, Batman is unable to get them.  Ironically however, Catwoman can collect Batman's Trophies, though they'll be properly added to Batman once you snag them.

The Challenge Maps featured in Batman: Arkham Asylum are back (though different maps of course), and have taken a Riddler spin this time out.  Called Riddler's Revenge, you unlock additional Challenge Maps or Challenge Campaign Maps by collecting specific Riddler Trophies.  You can play these Challenges as either Batman or Catwoman, whichever your preference, and the regular Maps function along the same lines as they did in the previous game.  The Challenge Campaigns are different and from what I understand are a collection of areas requiring both combat and specific tasks to complete, however I haven't tried them yet.  To be honest my core interest is with the Campaign and Story and I've only done a few Challenge Maps to refine my combat skills a bit.

Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition also comes with the Robin Bundle and Nightwing Bundle.  These previous DLC add-ons allow players to play the Riddler's Revenge challenges as either Robin or Nightwing, who both have their own unique set of moves and gadgets, and each bundle includes a few extra maps as well.  I briefly tinkered with Robin and he's alright, and I haven't touched Nightwing yet, but in truth I'd rather play as Catwoman anyway.

Considering the game was first released in the Fall of 2011, the graphics are gorgeous for a console title of that time.  The characters, particularly the heroes and super villains, are well detailed and fluid in their animations.  The environments, both interior locations and Arkham City itself, are gorgeous, teaming with detail, moody colour, and atmosphere.

The game's voice acting is top notch, once again featuring the talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker.  This is actually Mark Hamill's final performance as the Joker ever, and he did not disappoint.  Chilling and full of character, Hamill is and always will be the Joker for me.  The game's sound effects are as tight as ever, and the musical score is fantastic, both gothic, epic, and inspiring.  In terms of the visual and audio, the game's production values are top notch.

Also bundled with Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition is the final DLC released for the game, "Harley Quinn's Revenge."  Without ruining any major plot points from the core game, "Harley Quinn's Revenge" is set about two weeks after the main game, and Harley Quinn has once again taken up residence in the locked down city prison.  Batman has gone missing, and Robin embarks on a rescue quest.

"Harley Quinn's Revenge" isn't that long and its story isn't as strong as the core game, but it's still Batman: Arkham City and features the same core gameplay mechanics, save that this time you get to play as Robin for a lot of the story.  You get to use the Boy Wonder's own sets of gadgets and the like, and eventually you do get to play as Batman again who's fully upgraded.

Comprising the collectibles department of the DLC is fifty balloons from Harley Quinn scattered about, however thankfully that's it and there's no Riddler Trophies.  Sadly, Catwoman is not present in this add-on, and neither is Nightwing.

Finally, every single skin released for Batman, Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing are available in the "Game of the Year Edition."  The overall package is on two discs, the first being the core retail disc and the second containing all the DLC and extras, and this disc functions as an install disc only.  A download token for an animated film is also bundled in, however it's expired now and thus I didn't get to redeem it.

Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition is an exceptional experience.  It takes pretty much everything that was amazing about Batman: Arkham Asylum and refines it further, adding in more of everything.  The combat, the gadgets, the additional playable characters, the open world and excellent narrative are all part of this amazing package.  The gliding mechanics and Riddler collectibles were a bit much, but once you're done with the whole 50 to 60 hour experience, really, they're a minor complaint as to what's otherwise a stunning game.

At the going rate of $19.99 brand new, you simply can't go wrong here.  Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition is a must play game and one of the best titles from 2011.  I am sorry that I missed out on it then and regret getting Gears of War 3 that much more, but at least I've been able to experience this amazing game now, and I'm greatly looking forward to my subsequent playthroughs.

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