When Rocksteady released the original Batman: Arkham Asylum they finally nailed something that game developers had been trying and failing to do for years – they produced a super hero game with high production values, a real respect for the source material and a blend of superb artwork and addictive gameplay. It was easily the best Batman game ever, the best super hero game ever and one of the best games ever. I was shocked, delighted and completely hooked. It was the first game in a long time that I completed and then immediately started playing again.
I was naturally excited when Batman: Arkham City came along. It sticks to the same formula, polishes up a couple of mechanics and presents the whole package on a grander stage. It is a must-have game for any gamer, but it’s not perfect. So what makes Batman’s Arkham adventures so good and what are the flaws? Let’s take a look.
I Am the Batman
Number one on the list is undeniably the fact that you play these games and feel like you are the Batman. The controls are superb. By mastering your timing you can have Batman dance around gracefully as he puts a room full of hoods to sleep. The combat is just an absolute joy. The range of moves based around relatively simple controls is genius and it makes you feel dangerous. A couple of additions in Arkham City just polish up the experience further, this is as good as it gets.
Stalking in the Shadows
The stealth aspect is another major factor in the convincing role play. You can swoop down from above, drag goons over ledges, pop out of grates and smash dramatically through windows. The stealth mechanics are accessible enough that a quick smoke pellet enables you to disappear again and so it rarely becomes frustrating. Clearing an environment without raising the alarm once is hugely satisfying but you can also take a few risks and get an intimidation bonus for really freaking out your foes.
Of course in terms of game mechanics the stealth aspect only works because of the Detective Mode which allows you to see through walls and check the position of each enemy. Like the rest of the game this is executed with real visual style and it is an important way of making you feel powerful.
Bringing the Batman Universe to Life
Good use of the source material is important for any game taking on a license and the universe of Batman provides so much depth to draw on. The Arkham games totally nail it. The art style, the voice-acting, the range of villains, and all of the details combine to create the most immersive Batman experience ever. The little back stories to uncover and the side missions tracking down the Riddler’s hostages and freeing them or locating Zsasz by tracing his calls are great fun. Batman’s work is never done and his list of enemies is ridiculously long.
I’ll be honest I’m not a fan of boss battles generally. I think they often represent lazy design, they tend to go against the mechanics you may have learned up to that point and they focus on a single weak spot that you have to identify and attack. Some of the boss battles in both Arkham games fall victim to these problems but others are impressively executed.
The visuals of the Scarecrow boss battles in Arkham Asylum were just amazing, dripping with creepy style and that feel was echoed in the Mad Hatter’s battle in Arkham City, even if the gameplay was pretty straightforward. The Mr Freeze boss battle is a little bit special. It breaks that tired formula by challenging you to combine different techniques instead of just finding the Achilles’ heel and targeting it. Some of the other boss battles in both games feel a bit tired and predictable by comparison.
What’s the Chronology?
My biggest gripe with Batman’s Arkham adventures is that both games are jam-packed with extra content but a lot of it is small scale side missions or collecting Riddler trophies and solving riddles. You look at that stat for percentage complete each time you fire up the game and think “Awesome I’m only around halfway through” and then you trigger the big finale.
I did it in Arkham Asylum and I did it again in Arkham City. The cues all encourage you to hurry up and finish the main story arc but that leaves you with a bunch of small side missions and Riddler stuff to clean up and there’s a definite taste of anti-climax to it. A simple hint or nudge that I might be about to complete the main game would have been good, that would have prompted me to finish up the other stuff first and set things up properly for a big finish.
It’s telling that my main problem with both games is that they were over too soon but it would be good if they sorted out the chronology, other RPG’s tend to give you an audio clue or something, just so you know that it would probably be best to clean up the small stuff before the final showdown kicks off.
Arkham Asylum vs Arkham City
There’s no way to replicate the impact of Batman: Arkham Asylum because it was a revelation when it came out and Rocksteady would have been stupid to mess with a winning formula. Arkham City is basically just bigger and slightly more polished. There are more villains, a larger environment to explore, and a host of tweaks and additions to your arsenal and combat skills. The Catwoman missions offer something entirely new and they help to expand the Gotham universe.
If you liked Arkham Asylum then there’s no doubt you will like Arkham City but if you’ve yet to try either it would be best to start with Asylum.
What’s not in doubt is that you should play both of them.
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