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Batman: Arkham City

Rocksteady's new Batman is streets ahead once again

The star of Batman: Arkham Asylum was Batman himself. Rocksteady managed to get the character right at a molecular level, and for fans of the rubber-clad multi-millionaire decades of fantasising about being the Dark Knight were satisfied. It was probably the best superhero game ever made.

In Arkham City, the star isn't Batman, it's Gotham. Bats is still as brilliant as ever - in fact, he's now more agile than before, capable of shinning up buildings and dive- bombing thugs. But it's the huge chunk of walled-off ghetto, and the gleaming cityscape beyond, that gives this game its character.

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What's most impressive is that even though the scale is bigger than the Asylum, the level of detail is, if anything, even higher. It feels like every corner of the titular city has enjoyed the delicate strokes of an artist's brush, and there are some absolutely stunning environments.

Whether it's an atmospheric museum or a dilapidated subway station you can't help but drink in the fantastical gothic architecture. It's almost a shame there's not more time to explore some of the locations - one spot in particular has shades of Rapture and we'd have loved to spend more time learning about its place in Gotham lore. Instead you spend ten minutes scanning things with detective vision before it's time to move on.

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The main storyline suffers a little from the larger environment, though - it feels flabby and less focused in comparison to Asylum's tight plotting. It's always engaging and a perfectly adequate way to drive you from one brilliant set-piece to the next, but the big twists and revelations are nowhere near as affecting as the game thinks they are.

It's perhaps partly to do with the fact that there are so many antagonists vying for top billing, none of the supervillains get the space to breathe that they all deserve. Still, it's clear your path through the main mission is hand-crafted rather than just a sequence of loosely organised sandbox systems, which is one of the reasons Arkham City feels unlike the vast majority of open-world games.

The pacing of the action and the variety of activities remain intact, and that's why you'll struggle to stop playing even as the clock ticks from 4:59am to 5:00. But the central storyline, which takes around ten hours to clock, is only really half of the experience.

Rocksteady has used the extra space afforded by an open world to flesh out the game with a heap of side-quests, collectibles and other ephemera that feature recognisable characters that didn't make the cut for the main storyline. If you're prepared to spend time poking around rather than charging headlong towards the credits, you'll uncover a ton of stuff to keep you occupied.

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One of the biggest triumphs is that Batman hasn't been kneecapped in the name of progression. You still have almost all of the skills and gadgets you had in Arkham Asylum right from the beginning, with Rocksteady adding new gear to an increasingly crowded directional pad. What's brilliant about this new kit is that it always has both a practical or navigational application and can be used mid-combat as well.

Take the much maligned stun-gun, for example. Its primary use is jumpstarting electrical machinery, but if you're deft enough during a punch-up it can be flowed into your combos as well. Every time you get a new item, it adds another layer of depth to the combat, which is already rich with specialised enemies that require specific takedowns.

In general there's more imagination in the boss fights too. One encounter in particular requires you to use several of Batman's specialised abilities with the added pressure of being stalked by a formidable enemy. It's moments like this, where Arkham City is happy to completely change gear and lob in new rules or mechanics for just a single section, that ensures this is still absolutely one of this year's must-play releases.

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