I find it very rare that a game immediately grabs you. Quite often there will be a meandering introduction or a series of subtle tutorials that slowly ushers in the main event, allowing you time to find your feet as the excitement builds. Arkham City doesn’t fit this mould. Not wasting any time, it throws you – as Bruce Wayne – into a street fight and barely pauses for breath before letting you loose in the sprawling streets on the bleaker side of Gotham.
Having not previously dabbled with Batman: Arkham Asylum, quite why Mr Wayne (not Batman) was being dragged into a walled off portion of the city reserved for the criminal classes escaped me. It mattered little though as when the fists started flying I began to see why Rocksteady had made a stir and had brought the best out of the Dark Knight.
A goal of many developers has been to produce flowing and involving combat without requiring the user to have the dexterity of a contortionist octopus about the joypad. Fable and Bayonetta in some respect have managed this, reducing fighting down to a small number of buttons and their timing, but the fluidity and sheer elegance involved in Batman’s brawling puts all others to shame.
At the core there are but two buttons, attack and counter, and they can be used to devastating effect. Wait for a goon to swing at you, easily spotted by the warning icon, and a well timed counter will see him not only miss but find himself on the wrong end of one of your own attacks. With the momentum behind him, Batman can then wheel off a string of well timed kicks, strikes and elbows that sees a dozen-strong mob reduced to unconsciousness; it verges on rhythm-action, such is the timing.
The spectacle comes from not simply downing these hoodlums, but from the supreme smoothness in which the fight unfolds. Every attack, be it Batman’s or the crowd he takes on, blends seamlessly from one to the next. From a devastating uppercut in front, Batman will then lash out behind sending a pipe-wielding thug reeling, before countering two more, clothes-lining the pair before ramming their heads forcibly into the pavement. There are no animation glitches or pops as the players in our theatre of pain take their places, it is a veritable adaptive ballet of violence.
As our hero progresses through Arkham, the fights become harder as more nefarious opponents are found. Guns, riot shields and electric prods are all introduced to prevent brawls from becoming a simple exercise in button mashing. With Batman still only a mortal man underneath his suit, gunmen need to be sought out and taken down immediately, whereas those with shields and prods require attacking from their weaker rear. Mix in knife wielders and informants that need to be left unharmed and each melee proves to be as much about tactical smarts as it does brawn. It’s a clever technique, adapting difficulty by tweaking ingredients here and there.
Though street brawls do play their part in Arkham City, they are but one segment of the whole. The City itself provides a large playground for our hero to roam, full of collectibles, side missions and hidden extras for all good detectives to seek out. Grapple up to rooftops and that is where you’ll find most freedom, leaping off a parapet before spreading your cloak allows you to glide across large expanses before either grappling up mid-flight or descending on the unlucky scum below.
It’s a different degree of freedom than that found in Crackdown or Assassin’s Creed. Batman lacks the athleticism for parkour, but what he lacks in nimbleness he more than makes up for in gadgetry. Grapples, capes, line launchers, smoke pellets and more mean that he can as easily make a swift getaway over the roof as he can spy on a situation from a tightrope strung between two water towers.
Most of these gadgets are straight from Batman’s prior experience in the Asylum and are available from the off – another reason why the game starts with such momentum. Others are unlocked as the story progresses, opening up further options to the caped crusader, such as new ways to reach previously unreachable nooks or ever more elaborate ways to crush the wrong doers. Ice grenades seal up path-blocking steam pipes or freeze enemies to the spot, whilst an electric pulse weapon is handy to operate large electromagnets to clear objects out the way or attract irritating guns away from their owner’s grip. Very rarely are you forced to use a specific weapon on a specific target and so the offensive repertoire that soon builds up only ever adds to your options.
Given the open nature of the world, there are times when this gadget progression is irritating however. A trophy or similar bauble sits tantalisingly out of reach and yet you do not know whether it is because you have not found the right approach or simply do not have access to the correct tools. I found myself putting off full exploration until later on when my inventory was full, though that didn’t stop the odd deviation from the main story to save innocent “political prisoners”, take phone calls from the deranged inmates, or solve one of Riddler’s many puzzles. Though many are an excuse for a brief rooftop race or another round of fisticuffs, each sits well with Batman’s world and further flesh out the hive of villainy that is Arkham City.
The main tale takes in a solid story arc, but on occasion proves incredibly lacklustre in terms of execution, preferring instead to be an excuse to include as many of Batman’s nemeses as possible. Two-face, Penguin, Riddler, Joker, Mr Freeze… the list goes on to the point where it’s best to ignore the wafer thin reasoning to your movements and just enjoy the ride from lair to lair. Many conclude with satisfying boss battles as one-by-one the larger (quite literally) names in DC’s universe are dealt your own brand of justice, but of particular note the almost Splinter Cell-esque rooms that lead to each finale.
With no roof tops to flee to and certain death waiting should you drop down into a room full of armed men, your environment and wits are to be used well if Batman is to triumph in these arenas. Letting off a fire extinguisher here or using the sonic batarang there will distract guards enough to allow one or two to be picked off before disappearing into the rafters, but with the others spooked it’s all about patience and positioning. Grates can be hidden in, walls burst through and gargoyles descended from as you beat them down physically and psychologically.
The contrast in pace is what really distinguishes Rocksteady’s talents here, being able – with the same character – to produce rooms full of slow building tension and seconds later a street teeming with a gang getting their backsides handed to them by Gotham’s protector.
Batman: Arkham City maybe more than just a violent action game, with notable portions of exploration and detective work, but the rush I felt from beginning to end being smack bang in the middle of a group of masked thugs is what I will remember most. Whether it was stringing one up by their ankles to a gargoyle or pulling off a double-reversal when escaping a blow looked near impossible, I felt as though I was given the best chance I’m ever going to get to feel like a superhero.