Ricky Church revisits Batman: Arkham City on its 10th anniversary…
In 2009 Rocksteady struck gold with Batman: Arkham Asylum, an open-world game which saw the Dark Knight trapped on the infamous asylum’s island after The Joker took control of it. Met with rave reviews for its gameplay and adherence to the source material, Arkham Asylum was called the best superhero game developed and one which would be hard to top. Two years later, Rocksteady outdid themselves with Batman: Arkham City, the sequel which amped things up with even better gameplay, a darker story, a bigger open-world and a deeper dive into Batman lore.
After the events of Arkham Asylum which saw much of the island in ruins thanks to The Joker, Batman: Arkham City sees a portion of Gotham City converted into Arkham City, a place where Gotham’s criminals are free to roam around and battle each other for control while Arkham City’s warden, Dr. Hugo Strange, is plotting something sinister. As Batman sneaks into Arkham City, he has to uncover Strange’s plan while fighting for his life against The Joker and other enemies.
Whereas Arkham Asylum was a relatively small open-world due its location on the island, Arkham City really opens it up with a world approximately five times larger than Asylum. Even though players aren’t in Gotham City proper, it still feels very much a part of Gotham with the atmosphere and scenery as they travel over the derelict buildings and streets of some of Gotham’s oldest neighbourhoods, providing a sense of history that even Arkham City can’t fully erase. Unlike Gotham, Arkham City is much less safer for Batman as everywhere is crawling with some of the city’s most dangerous criminals and thugs at every corner and rooftop, not to mention Strange’s helicopter patrols, making them almost impossible for players to avoid until they level up skills and gadgets.
The gameplay was much improved from an already impressive system. Arkham Asylum offered an experience that made you feel like Batman with its combat against multiple enemies and Predator encounters as players had to take down a number of enemies armed with various weaponry using a combination of stealth and gadget techniques. Arkham City not only made the combat more fluid against multiple foes, with groups sometimes as large as two dozen at once, but introduced new moves into the combat system. Batman could now disarm and destroy an enemy’s gun or taser and could counter/takedown several enemies at once while the use of gadgets during combat was made much easier to use. The game also introduced new ones like the freeze grenade, stun gun and explosive gel during combat.
Rocksteady even took to heart some of the criticism surrounding Asylum’s Detective Mode, a night vision/x-ray capability allowing players to easily track enemies and see which ones were armed. It is possible to play the whole game with Detective Mode, making it very easy even on the hardest difficulty to survive. Though Detective Mode still plays an important part in the sequel, Arkham City took away the reliance on the feature by having enemies wearing jammers that made Detective Mode incapable of use during these encounters, forcing players to rely on their actual line of sight to track and take down the foes. Unless they were completely destroyed too, enemies could repair the jammers to keep hindering your movements. Then there were special enemy types where normal attacks weren’t effective if they were wearing body armour, forcing you to adapt and use different moves, gadgets or takedowns against them. The big highlight is the fight with Mr. Freeze, one of gaming’s best boss battles as it makes players think outside the box. An attack can only work once before Freeze adapts and prevents you from doing it again, like making the air colder so you can’t Glide Kick or freezing grates and corners to stop special takedowns. A lot of work clearly went into making this a different and more difficult experience than Arkham Asylum.
The gameplay wasn’t the only thing changed though. Arkham City‘s story is much more involved and personal to Batman/Bruce Wayne as Hugo Strange has uncovered his identity and been planning to undo all the work he’s done as Gotham’s Dark Knight. To add insult to injury, he’s even planted messages across Arkham City to attack Batman psychologically, like leaving a pair of roses on the sight of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder with a recording mocking him and his trauma. Paul Dini, one of the minds behind Batman: The Animated Series and major aspects of the DC Animated Universe, really took things to the next level with the story he crafted and made Strange a formidable foe, one who saw himself as a necessary evil working toward a greater good. Strange was a strategic mastermind as he used Batman’s enemies as pawns, being both an ally and enemy to them with how he helped Joker and Two-Face even as he taunted them with their failures. Since he is not a hugely well-known villain compared to other Batman rogues, it’s safe to say Hugo Strange left quite a memorable mark for players unfamiliar with him.
Of course, though, the role of Arkham City‘s secondary antagonist belongs to the Clown Prince of Crime. Following the events of Asylum, The Joker is actually dying from the effects of the Titan formula still running through his blood. To that end, he’s infected Batman and hospitals around Gotham with his tainted blood to force Batman to find a cure. Anyone familiar with Dini’s previous work writing Batman and The Joker, whether it’s in the comics, The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm or Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker knows how masterful he is at shaping their dynamic. Again, he raises the bar as their fates are linked and Joker leaves tons of voicemail messages for Batman trying to gain insight into his mind and toy with him further. While Joker does play a more secondary villain role to Strange, he still plays a significant part in the story and it is apt the very final battle is focused entirely around him. It leads to one of the most shocking moments in the Arkham series as Joker actually succumbs to his infection and dies, but not before he and Batman share what some might call a tender moment as Batman tells him “Do you want to know what’s funny? Even after everything you’ve done I still would have saved you” and Joker laughing and admitting that is funny. It serves as a pretty interesting, satisfying and bittersweet finale to their long rivalry with longtime Batman and Joker voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill arguably giving their best performances of the characters in their entire tenure.
With players having a chance to explore a huge city as opposed to a small island, the scope of the story was greatly expanded through more than the main campaign. Arkham Asylum didn’t have any side missions save the collection of Riddler’s trophies, puzzles and riddles, but Arkham City is a whole different matter. There are plenty of side missions where Batman has to investigate various crimes around Arkham City or save innocent people Strange has illegally locked up, not to mention the missions with other Batman villains like Deadshot, Mad Hatter and Zsasz. Even the Riddler trophies are back to a larger (and sometimes annoying) degree as Riddler has created Saw-like death traps for people in Arkham City Batman has to rescue and other puzzles. Players can even play as Catwoman for a few missions and there is a wealth of alternate costumes from the likes of Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Inc. and even the 1966 Batman TV series for both Batman and Catwoman to wear.
Batman: Arkham City is more than a great sequel to Arkham Asylum. Everything that made the original game such a fun experience is surpassed as the gameplay evolved with new mechanics, the world greatly expanded and the story much more darker and personal to Batman. There is so much for Batman fans to love as Dini, game director Sefton Hill and lead narrative designer Paul Crocker dove even deeper into the Batman lore for a wilder and better Dark Knight adventure. 10 years later, Arkham City remains the best entry in the Arkham franchise.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.