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Friday, November 4, 2011

Video Game Review: Arkham City; The Dark Knight Returns Triumphant

Considering Arkham City, Rocksteady’s and Warner Brothers Game’s smash hit follow up to the 2009 game of the year Arkham Asylum, came out a little under a month ago, it may seem strange to have taken so long for me to get around to writing a review for it.  Well, I have two very good excuses for my delayed response: the first is that I wanted to wait until I had gotten a chance to sample all of the aspects the game has to offer including the optional Nightwing DLC that was just released a few days ago.  The second reason, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s played the game so far, is that Arkham City is probably one of the greatest video games I have ever played and I just can’t put it down.
When Rocksteady and WB announced that a follow-up to Arkham Asylum was in the works I admit I was a bit skeptical as to how they were going to top the solid story, amazingly fun combat, and visceral feeling of getting to prowl around as the Dark Knight himself that made Asylum such a great game.  When the details of Arkham City were finally made public however, it was like Rocksteady and WB had taken my skepticism and beat the ever-living hell out of it. 
Featuring an even more robust and engaging storyline, a free-to-roam sandbox environment that is about three times the size of the entirety of Arkham Asylum, a whole host of returning and new villains, and an enhanced yet still easy to master combat system, Arkham City takes everything that was great about Arkham Asylum and makes it even better while adding in some fun new features as well.  The most notable of these features is that, unlike in Asylum, Batman isn’t the only one you’ll get to prowl around as.  Players can now also take a walk on the wild side by exploring Arkham City as Batman’s friend/enemy/lover Selina Kyle a.k.a Catwoman in several short “mini-episodes” that help to flesh out the game’s story while also showing off the different tactics and gadgets Catwoman employs.
Speaking of Arkham City’s story, I have to commend the game’s writers for managing to craft a tale that not only has the Dark Knight going up against some of his greatest adversaries, but also manages to interweave their different motivations and goals together so well.  One second you’ll be trying to save Catwoman from Two-Face’s thugs, the next you’ll be doing your best to survive all of the booby traps Penguin has set up in the local museum, and later on it’s off to the steel mill to find out what the heck is going on between Joker and Mr. Freeze.
 Arkham City manages to squeeze in so many iconic villains and yet it also manages to give each of them meaning and purpose.  Not once did I ever feel like a villain’s appearance was shoe-horned into the game as every single one of them left their own mark on Arkham City’s robust story.  Fans of The Riddler and his bevy of challenges from Arkham Asylum certainly won’t be disappointed either as he has escaped incarceration since the end of Asylum’s story and has spread out a staggering 440 various trophies, puzzles, riddles, and other challenges across Arkham City’s landscape for Batman to collect and solve.
Riddler challenges aren’t the only side-activities you can partake in either.  In addition to the game’s main campaign there’s also a large number of optional side-quests and missions that can be completed.  Some have you working against (or sometimes with) other iconic villains while others might task you with finding certain locations or objects hidden within the city.  None of these side-missions are particularly long or demanding so they serve as a nice change of pace if you want to take a break from the main campaign for a while.
Combat has gotten some interesting tweaks as well.  The same formula that made the “Free Flow” system from the first game so fun to use is still there; Batman can shift around the battlefield seamlessly, dispatching thugs with a variety of different strikes, counters, gadgets, and takedowns.  Additionally, he can now catch objects that are hurled at him like crates and fire-extinguishers and send them flying back at his attackers and an assortment of new area-of-effect and context-appropriate maneuvers can be unlocked and used, anything from summoning a swarm of bats to distract and stun foes to being able to dismantle enemy guns and melee weapons mid-combo.
The coolest feature however is the new multi-opponent counter moves.  Now Batman can counter up to three attacking foes at once, helping him even the odds and get a little breathing room during some of the game’s more crowded fights.  I recall one of my few criticisms of Arkham Asylum being that sometimes fighting a large mob of enemies felt a bit claustrophobic and cheap and it’s nice to see Rocksteady has gone to great lengths to rectify that problem.
 Outside of Arkham City’s story campaign, you can also venture into the game’s assortment of combat and predator challenge maps, now dubbed “Riddler’s Revenge”, designed to put your fighting and sneaking skills to the ultimate test.  In addition to playing as Batman and Catwoman in these challenges, optional DLC purchases can unlock two of Batman’s greatest allies: Nightwing and Robin, both of whom employ their own signature combat tactics and gadgets.  This brings the entire roster of playable characters up to an impressive four; a vast improvement considering Asylum only ever had you playing as Batman alone.
These optional DLC purchases however segway into the one wrinkle I noticed in this otherwise perfect fold.  While the Nightwing and Robin DLC are both well worth the purchase price (in addition to the character you also get a few alternate costumes for them as well as two new challenge maps with each one), it does mean you’ll have to be shelling out another seven to ten dollars for content that, honestly, should have been able to be unlocked via in-game means.  Even Catwoman is only available for free if you buy the game new as she is unlocked via a separate code that is included with the game similar to the Cerberus Network from Mass Effect 2 (she can also be purchased separately).
 Aside from this small nickel-and-diming issue, Arkham City still stands as one of the greatest games to come out this year and anyone who enjoyed Batman’s journey through the halls of Arkham Asylum would do well to pick up the sequel.  Never before has any game managed to capture for me the feeling of being a true hero while also exposing me to some of the darker elements that make Batman such a compelling character.  Rocksteady set a pretty high bar for themselves with Arkham Asylum, but the first time I leapt from one of Arkham City’s many staggeringly tall buildings, swooped down like a dark terror of the night, and took down my first thug with a blindingly fast aerial attack, I knew they had cleared that bar with flying colors.

General Gameplay Tips:
·         The new multi-opponent counters can be performed by quickly tapping the counter button once for each thug that is attacking Batman, up to three different opponents can be countered at once.
·         Keep an eye out for the special “green-tinted” Riddler thugs as interrogating them will reveal various Riddler secrets and locations on your map.
·         One of the game’s earlier side-missions, the WayneTech A.R. flight missions, should be completed as soon as possible since doing so earns you the grapple-boost upgrade which helps in traversing the city quickly.  Only the first five flight missions have to be completed to earn the upgrade.

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