I’ve spent one night and one morning in Arkham City and already Batman’s costume is starting to look like something you’d see the charlatans at Mann’s Chinese Theater wearing. My inability to keep Bruce’s duds clean and fresh looking was one of my biggest regrets about Arkham Asylum, but no one said taking down criminal scum would be clean work. Getting repeatedly smacked in the head doesn’t help either.
These are my initial impressions of the game as I keep myself focused on completing the main story in a timely fashion so as to not have Bill pull a Bane and snap me over his gimp knee. If I’m lucky he’ll be devoured by roving bands of exotic animals, thereby extending my deadline but I probably can’t rely on a rogue animal attack wipe away my responsibilities. I must press on, so press on I shall, into the dark, crumbling heart of Gotham. Into Arkham City…
From the outset, Arkham City gets to its story much more quickly than Arkham Asylum did. Arkham Asylum’s slow walk with the Joker did a fantastic job in setting up the characters and the environment but it was just a bit too long, a bit too lingering. It’s a hard line to toe, between building tension and overstaying your welcome and I think Arkham Asylum definitely strayed into the latter territory. Not so with Arkham City. I have the Catwoman DLC, so the game starts with her, oddly enough. I imagine that those without the content would start right with Bats, but as I was lucky enough to get a code in the box, Selina and started this adventure together. Catwoman plays just like Batman, although without as many gadgets and right from the start you’re forced into a fight against multiple opponents. I’m not sure how this qualifies as an episode as the whole thing is basically one giant brawl, but that’s how the game classifies it, as witnessed from the Catwoman episode listings in the main menu. In a genius move, Rocksteady allows you to access all of the extra bits from the main menu, independent from the main story. If you decide to wait on the DLC, or have to due to publishing screw-ups, all of your extra content will be waiting for you from the main menu once you get your bits and bytes in order. It’s a welcome move, but if the Catwoman parts are all as brief and interwoven as the first one was, playing them separately will be a relatively jarring affair.
Without getting into spoiler territory, it isn’t long before you’re prowling the rooftops of Arkham City, with Alfred’s voice in your ear. Speaking of voices, I have seen every film and TV version of Batman ever made, from Adam West to Christian Bale but Kevin Conroy will always be the voice of Batman. I don’t know why as Batman has been voiced by some incredible voice talent over the years, but Conroy’s portrayal stands out. I was in college when Batman: The Animated Series came out, so it’s not like I have a childhood connection to the show, but just as Peter Cullen will always be Optimus Prime and Frank Welker will always be Megatron, Kevin Conroy will always be Batman. That being said, if you ever get a chance, check out James Woods’ creepy as hell performance as Owlman from Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Dude is super, mega-creepy.
Despite being billed as an action game, make no mistake, this is an open world game. Your world is just much smaller than San Andreas or Liberty City or Mars. From the beginning you can go wherever you want, save for the central tower, which I’m sure will come into play during the end game. You can glide or use your grapnel to get from rooftop to rooftop, dispensing beatdowns to the criminals you find milling about, or ignoring them completely to listen in on radio chatter instead. The chatter is interesting as it helps flesh out the various conflicts within Arkham City while at the same time painting the inmates as a somewhat sympathetic lot. “When are they going to feed us” laments one, reminding us that the measure of a civilization is in how well we treat our prisoners. In that light, Gotham City is as depraved as ever, and the carving up of Arkham City into different, themed sections only serves to push home just how depraved things have gotten.
Combat is as fluid as ever however the addition of quick use gadgets does complicate matters and will likely result in some injuries as you learn how to incorporate them into your fighting style. Tap the left trigger to throw a batarang, then strike, counter, flip, maybe put some explosive gel down, flip over again, strike, counter, detonate, flip, counter, strike, electric charge, catch a hurled chair and throw it back, dive, cape stun, batclaw, finishing move, ground takedown, slow motion fist to a thug’s head to end the bout. As with Arkham Asylum, when it works, no game makes you feel as powerful, as superheroic as this one does. When it doesn’t though, oy, it hurts. A quick perusal of the menus shows that I still have a number of gadgets to unlock, presumably all with some sort of combat use, which makes me worry that most of the special moves and gadgets will go unused as I try and manage with what meager skills I have, but that’s what the challenge maps are for. It certainly helps that smoke pellets are a tap of the Y button away, allowing you to make a hasty exit if you find yourself outnumbered, or facing armed foes, but I still feel a small twinge of shame when I use them. Batman doesn’t back down. Batman doesn’t fail. If he does, people die. It is that simple.
I’ve been trying to focus on the main story but there’s so much to do that it makes focusing difficult. Side missions abound, signified by rescue flares, beckoning me to find out who needs my help. This time it’s Bane. He needs help destroying Titan canisters before they make it out of the city. Seeing Batman look up to a man three feet taller than him and tell Bane that tonight is not a good night to lie to him is both amusing and terrifyingly real at the same time. Amusing because, when is it a good night to lie to Batman? Terrifying because this man has no fear against this hulking brute of a monster. How do you live up to that?
You live up to it by putting distractions out of your mind and focusing on the task at hand. Joker. It’s always Joker. The side missions can wait, conveniently placed on your map until you’re ready to tackle them, same as any Riddler trophies you find and scan into your database. The waiting game extends to after the story, a good thing as some side quests require you to enter that walled off tower. The augmented reality missions that reward you extra gadgets don’t get the same brush off though, something I hope Batman can forgive me for. I simply can’t resist a new toy and the ability to effortlessly zip around my surroundings is well worth failing a few ring gliding exercises.
Entering the smelting plant and I see that the Joker’s goons have a doctor kidnapped. They’re armed, six of them, and they have control of the room. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost. One falls to an inverted takedown. One choked from behind. One is too paralyzed with fear at my gliding approach to react and he gets a face full of concrete for his cowardice. Another inverted takedown, another glide kick and finally a corner cover takedown and the room is mine, the doctor is safe. How did they ever think they stood a chance?
My time in Arkham City has been brief but not uneventful. I am convinced that this pace will continue as I hurtle towards the end game, but now is not the time to lament the lack of freedom a deadline imposes. This city, my city, needs me and I will not stop until I have purged the evil that put me on this path. Arkham City, your savior is at hand, gliding within you on ebony wings.