Review: Batman: Arkham City Collector’s Edition (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Batman: Arkham City Collector’s Edition
Genre: Action
Developer: Rocksteady
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 10/18/2011

A little over two years ago, Rocksteady pulled off what was essentially a freaking miracle at that point: they released a Batman game that was not only a good licensed game, but an excellent game in general, in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game captured the basic essence of the character of Batman, showcased a large number of characters from the franchise, told a compelling story, and presented a game that was a lot of fun to play and incredibly deep to boot. Well, the past year has been somewhat lacking as far as super hero gaming is concerned; while Captain America: Super Soldier was perfectly fun in its own way, it was basically a hacked down version of, well, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and as such, not really innovative. Further, between Thor, X-Men Destiny, and Spider-Man: Edge of Time, many of the licensed superhero games released this year have been underwhelming at best and reprehensible at worst, with Marvel vs. Capcom 3 being the closest thing to good fans could latch onto. Well, Batman: Arkham City was, by all indications, expected to be a reversal of that trend; between the fact that the original game was, as noted, great, and the fact that this sequel was to offer a larger open-world sort of environment and an expansion of the game mechanics, even if the game didn’t deliver a much improved product, hell, it’d still be the best licensed superhero game released in the year if nothing else. However, if it could pay off the hype… well, Batman: Arkham City would easily be yet another excellent Game of the Year contender for Rocksteady and Warner Bros., as well as a great payoff for disappointed genre fans. Let’s see if it can pay off the hype.

Paul Dini is back once again, crafting for us the tale of Batman: Arkham City, and he delivers the goods a second time, as expected. The gist of the story is that long-time Batman foe Hugo Strange has managed to ingratiate himself in Gotham as some sort of peace-keeping visionary, to the extent that the city has built a closed-off section of the city, dubbed “Arkham City”, as an asylum for prisoners under his care. When we pick up the story, Strange has arrested Bruce Wayne in the middle of a press conference decrying Arkham City, and makes it a point to note to Wayne that he will be enacting “Protocol 10″ in mere hours, and taunts Wayne by noting he will work within Strange’s rules or be outed to the world as Batman. Wayne is then tossed into Arkham City, and after a quick change to Batman, he attempts to find out exactly what is going on within the prison, and just what Protocol 10 might be, while also attempting to deal with the criminal element crawling out of every corner, as many of them are no fans of the Bat. On a base level, the story of Batman: Arkham City is excellent; the writing and dialogue are fantastic and the characters are represented exactly as they would be expected by fans. The side missions you play through as Catwoman are also generally well written, and while they’re not directly connected into the main plot, they’re written well enough as a diversion from the main story. That said, the continuity of the plot is messy in its own way and obviously disconnected from that of the comics, as several characters quite obviously die in the plot in ways that will take some real effort to undo (because really, we all know they’re not capital D “Dead”), so comic fans may be a bit annoyed. Further, the plot borrows more than a little bit from the 1999 plot arc “No Man’s Land”, and while that’s fine in the sense that “No Man’s Land” was a phenomenal storyline, and obvious in that Paul Dini was involved in writing part of that storyline, well, it’s kind of a little lazy. Still, what’s here is good, of that there is no doubt, and if you can overlook the few issues or aren’t a fan of the comics in the first place you’ll have no problems.

Batman: Arkham City manages the incredible task of taking the visual engine of Arkham Asylum, attaching it to a full open world environment, and keeping the same high quality of the original with flying colors, as the game generally looks excellent at all times. Batman himself is exceptionally well animated, as are his friends and foes when you encounter them, and there’s a great amount of detail in the various thugs and civilians you’ll encounter as well. The Arkham City environment is also rather diverse, featuring lots of interesting locales and a fun environment to move through, and while it’s all rather dark in appearance, as this is a Batman game, that’s hardly surprising and keeps to the theme well. Aurally, the biggest draw to the game is the same draw from the previous game, in the excellent voice acting that brings the game world to life. Once again, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and The Joker (Mark Hammil) are brought back for the game, and as they’re the same voice actors that brought their respective characters to life in Batman: The Animated Series, they immediately bring a sense of legitimacy to the product. Other voice actors and actresses, such as Troy Baker (Two-Face), Grey DeLisle (Catwoman), and Tara Strong (Harley Quinn) hand in great performances that are reminiscent of the aforementioned animated series and do a great job on their own… though the accented voice provided by Nolan North for The Penguin is weird, which is admittedly a minor issue. The game music is composed once again of the same sort of Elfman-esque score that populated the original game, and it’s once again ambient and enjoyable in its own right, and the sound effects are once again made up of lots of appropriate ambient noise and the sounds of Batman breaking parts of his enemies, which all sound pretty fantastic.

If you’ve played Batman: Arkham Asylum, you likely have a pretty good idea of how this game works (and can skip the next four paragraphs), but if not, here’s the breakdown: the gameplay is a surprisingly strong mesh of stealth mechanics and hand-to-hand combat, with some interesting tools and concepts thrown in to really cement the Batman experience. You move around with the left stick and rotate the camera with the right stick, and Batman moves fluidly and responds well as you move. Moving around the environment can be done normally or stealthily, depending on your needs at the moment. You can hold down the A button to make Batman run if you want to clear ground in a hurry, and he’ll jump across any gaps he comes across while running and deploy his cape to glide if he jumps off of something. The right trigger can be used to crouch, and you can move around while crouched to hide behind low obstacles or move through small enclosures. Most areas can be grappled to by pointing the camera at the area to grapple and pressing the right bumper, allowing for quick transit from place to place, though Batman can also hang from ledges and shimmy around as needed if you’re hiding from a target. The indoor and outdoor areas offer numerous places for a stealthy character to hide, from grates in the floor to gargoyles on the walls, which affords Batman numerous places to stalk his foes from the shadows or to escape to when enemies have found him, and he can move around from these locales with ease to trick enemies or avoid detection.

Inevitably, of course, sometimes stealth won’t be able to get you past a location and a firm reprimand just won’t be enough to deal with the thugs you’ll encounter, so Batman will inevitably have to throw down. Fortunately, he’s incredibly well equipped to do so, and it’s easy enough to do. The X button allows you to attack enemies, and pressing it multiple times allows you to chain attacks together in combos. Pressing the left stick in a direction will direct Batman to attack whatever enemy is in that direction at the time, which allows you to basically aim from enemy to enemy, chaining attacks through a group, which is all about awesome. Of course, enemies can fight back, but Batman, being a superb martial artist, can easily deflect attacks with a press of the Y button. He’ll counter the incoming attack and, if an opponent is armed, disarm them, and then beat their face in before returning to a ready position for more punishment. Some armed enemies will block your attacks, of course, but you can press B to use your cape to stun them, which opens them up to attacks. At first, the combat seems more like it’d be conducive to simple button-mashing, but to really maximize your combinations you’ll want to really plot out your attacks, aim for enemies, and pay attention to what’s going on to keep your combo going and avoid damage. As you progress, Batman will also learn additional combat abilities, which are incredibly useful and help to keep the combat in-depth as you go. You can also tap in a direction and double-tap A to make him dodge out of the way of an attack, dive from high locations and use the element of surprise to kick an enemy in the chest, drop down from high locations and take enemies out in silence, sneak up on enemies and knock them out silently, and other fun things, depending on the objectives of the mission and your own preferences.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Batman game without all sorts of awesome gadgets, and you get some neat things to play with as you go. You’ll find that you carry over the equipment from Batman: Arkham Asylum into this game, so you’ll start with various varieties of Batarangs, explosive gel, and other fun tools right from the get-go. As you go on, however, you’ll find even more new toys, like Batarangs that can distract specific enemies, freeze grenades, electric shock projectiles, and other interesting gadgets that you can use to make your life dramatically easier. Some of these items can be obtained throughout the game, while others are unlocked by upgrading Batman, depending on their story necessity. As you accomplish tasks and defeat enemies, you’ll earn experience points, and when you raise a level, you’ll be able to invest that level in an upgrade. Upgrades can improve your gear, improve your defense, unlock new attacks, improve your current attacks, and do other useful things, which gives you an incentive to lump up every bad guy you find, as you’ll want to be prepared for all of the bosses you’ll face. As in the first game, Batman’s rogues gallery is out in full form to put down the Bat, so you’ll be facing down some of Batman’s classic foes, such as Two-Face, The Penguin, The Joker, Ra’s Al Ghul, and more, and as in the first game, some enemies will face you directly while others will require more pattern recognition and trickery to take down, depending on the situation.

Of course, Batman’s called the World’s Greatest Detective for a reason, and Batman: Arkham City once again allows you to experience that by shifting into Detective Mode as needed. Detective Mode is essentially a vision filter that allows you to spot interesting and useful things you’d otherwise miss. You’ll see interesting interactive elements stand out in orange, to indicate a place to go or a wall to blow up, and enemies pop up in different colors to indicate that they exist and how they’re armed, even through walls. The major lure of Detective Mode, however, pops up when you need to track someone or thing down. Batman will find a location he’ll need to analyze in order to find some sort of clue about where to go next, which puts you in a little forensics bit where you have to look around a zone for a specific object. Upon finding it, Batman will analyze its chemical composition, then begin tracking it through Detective Mode, allowing you to follow the trail of the thing you’re searching for to your next objective. The trails are easy enough to follow, but it’s an interesting enough gimmick that works and is in no way offensive.

For those who are more experienced in the prior game, welcome back. Let’s talk about what’s new.

The biggest change to Batman: Arkham City is the addition of the open world; Batman will now be racing across rooftops and gliding around the whole city to get from place to place, and as such, you’ll find that his movement options are improved a good bit. The game has a feel reminiscent of other such games in the genre, such as Prototype or, most obviously, Assassin’s Creed, as you can easily run and grapple your way along the cityscape, and with some upgrades, you can allow Batman to glide along massive distances by using his grappling hook to propel him upward when he drops too low, giving you the option to clear large amounts of space in short amounts of time. You’ll also find that there are a lot more objectives to clear in the game; while the Riddler has once again taken to spreading his challenges and tokens all across the city, several other characters, such as Zsasz, Bane, and Azreal pop up seeking assistance from or battle with the Dark Knight, which adds a substantial amount of side-missions to an already heavily content-packed game. As noted previously, you also carry over the equipment Batman possessed from Batman: Arkham Asylum and add to that, which increases the challenge of several of the side and main missions while increasing your options on how to take on situations. The game also doesn’t place nearly as much of a reliance on Detective Mode as its predecessor, thankfully, as the prior game spent a significant amount of time utilizing that mode to the point where it felt like you’d be better served playing the whole game that way; this time, there are several points where Detective Mode is useful and even mandatory, but it’s not nearly as big of a part of the whole experience. There are also four Catwoman missions that pop up throughout events in the game, allowing you to step into the boots of Miss Selina Kyle for some missions. While the missions offer less depth than those Batman faces, Catwoman has her own tricks to work with, and while her controls are mostly identical, she features some changes, such as new tools to work with and some different free movement mechanics. That make her sections interesting on their own.

The core campaign once again takes around ten or so hours to complete, but there are so many things to do with the game in addition to simply completing the story that you’ll have plenty of reason to come back to the game once you’re finished. As noted, the Riddler Challenges have returned, giving you plenty of Riddler Trophies to hunt down, images to capture, and now, puzzles to solve, as there are several locations with magnetic balls or pressure plates you’ll have to work out a solution for. Finding these items unlocks various pieces of promotional and concept artwork, as well as new challenge missions for you to take on outside of the main game. The Challenge Maps, as noted, also make a return, and as before, are essentially locations from the game with an overarching goal i.e. “silently take out everyone as fast as possible” or “beat everyone up without dying”, and you’ll be given a score based on how well you do. These scores are uploaded to the Leaderboards, so you can compete with friends and strangers for the best possible scores, and playing through the Challenge Maps is also a lot of fun, as it strips away all of the extra gameplay and simply lets you obliterate enemies, which still really never gets old. This time around you can play through the Challenge Maps as Batman or Catwoman, and you can play with whatever costumes you might have for them, either through DLC or preorder bonuses, and other characters (such as Robin and Nightwing) and maps are promised as DLC further down the line as well, giving players even more reason to come back to the game.

Also, while we’re here, let’s talk about the Collector’s Edition a bit.

Basically, the Collector’s Edition of the game on its own comes with the game itself, as well as several interesting novelty pieces. You get the DVD of Batman: Gotham Knight, which is basically The Animatrix with Batman, and as such, is generally pretty fine on its own. You get several download codes, including a code to download parts of the soundtrack, which is nice, as well as a code for the Iceberg Lounge Challenge Map and the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns skin. The Iceberg Lounge is a fine enough challenge map, and the Dark Knight Returns skin is appropriate, though if you’ve somehow missed the story the significance might be lost on you and you’ll wonder why your dad is dressed as Batman. You also get an Arkham City art book, which was less cool stylistically than the bound patient dossiers from the prior game’s collector’s edition, but still a nice touch regardless. The pack also comes with several Gotham City Imposters beta codes, which is looking to be an interesting franchise product. Perhaps most interesting, of course, is the Batman statue that comes with the pack, which is produced by Kotobukiya, one of the best model and statuette producers on the market today. Aside from the grave-like pallor on the Dark Knight, the piece is outstanding, and easily makes the set, as did the Batarang in the prior release. As collector’s editions of games go, the release for Batman: Arkham City is one of the best this year, easily, and it’s a great package if you can pick it up.

Having said all of that, one of the biggest issues with Batman: Arkham Asylum was that, from an originality standpoint, Detective Mode was the only “new” concept added to the game, and Batman: Arkham City basically continues that trend, as there’s nothing here you’ve not seen before. The game basically feels like it has taken the best parts of Assassin’s Creed, Infamous, and Just Cause 2/Bionic Commando/etc. and crammed them into a game, and while that is, admittedly, a pretty awesome concept, it’s not an original concept. The expansion into a free-world environment has only served to make the Assassin’s Creed comparison more obvious, and while that’s not bad, it isn’t original, either. The Catwoman missions, for all of the issues surrounding their DLC status and such, also aren’t particularly exciting; while the character is fun to play as, her missions are, frankly, disruptive and not as much fun as the Batman missions all in all. The game also simply doesn’t achieve the same “Holy Excellence Batman!” feel of the first game; Batman: Arkham Asylum was an amazing piece of work because there had been a torrent of terrible Batman games that preceded it, and Rocksteady was an unknown entity at that point, so the end result was amazing, while Batman: Arkham City is supposed to be awesome, and never manages to really “wow” the player to the same extent.

Basically, Batman: Arkham City is a fantastic game, of that there is no doubt, as everything that was great about the original is better here, but while Rocksteady has managed to improve the product, they didn’t quite manage to pull out the same magic twice. The story, while making it move obvious that it’s living heavily outside of normal DC Universe continuity, is written very well and makes good use of Batman’s cast of characters. The game is visually impressive on both a technical and artistic level, and the audio is as fantastic as ever thanks to some excellent production and a bunch of masterful voice performances. The game is mechanically similar to its predecessor, building on the excellent gameplay elements of that game while fine-tuning the parts that were less praised and adding new elements on top of everything, which makes, all in all, for a game that’s mostly improved from its predecessor in nearly every aspect. The game really lacks in originality, however, as it’s basically Arkham Asylum by way of Assassin’s Creed with some other elements that have been done before thrown in, the Catwoman missions feel tacked-on and disruptive, and the thrill from the first game has worn off a bit in the end, unfortunately. That’s not to say that Batman: Arkham City is in any way a bad game so much as it is to say that it’s not the same impressive spectacle as its predecessor, and in the end, it’s still a great experience for fans and newcomers alike, but it’s not the masterwork its predecessor was.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: UNPARALLELED
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: GOOD
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary:
Batman: Arkham City is a great game, like its predecessor, and it improves on that game in measurable ways, but it doesn’t quite manage to do so without some snags along the way that still leave it a great experience… just not the experience Batman: Arkham Asylum was. The story makes good use of the Batman franchise and tells a solid (if obviously out of continuity) tale, and the game looks and sounds as fantastic as its predecessor. The mechanics are easy to pick up for returning fans and newcomers alike, and Batman: Arkham City builds on the framework of the first game in noticeable and interesting ways, making for an experience that’s just as in-depth as the original but with some added content and obvious improvements. On the downside, however, you’ve likely seen everything the game does before, and while it’s certainly all great, it’s not at all original. Further, the Catwoman segments break the flow of the game a bit more than they should given the circumstances, and the game, as good as it is, doesn’t have the “wow” factor of the prior game in that it’s not a significant improvement over its predecessor. Batman: Arkham City is absolutely a great game and is absolutely well worth its asking price for fans of the genre or the character, and while it might not pack the punch of Batman: Arkham Asylum, it’s absolutely still worth every dollar.

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