Note: ENDING OF THE GAME REVEALED IN THE PLOT SUMMARY AND IT PART OF THE GAME’S DISCUSSION. DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL YOU HAVE EITHER PLAYED THE GAME OR DON’T CARE ABOUT SPOILERS.
The dark crime infested city of Gotham has always been a major character in the back for most of the greatest stories written about the Caped Crusader. His relationship with it is not unlike that of him and the Joker. Neither is ever complete without the other. If it is not paid attention to after too long, it becomes sick and must demand the Batman’s attention. Thus it is incredibly poignant when The Joker falls sick to a terminal disease and Gotham inherits a tumor that threatens to destroy the delicate balance that has been set up by the frankly incompetent police force and the overwhelmed team of the dark avengers.
Welcome to Arkham City.
I wanted a sequel to Arkham Asylum. The groundwork had been laid for something glorious and something that could stand as a pillar of great gaming in the world. It is something that hasn’t really been explored in gaming. I was becoming annoyed with the delaying-of-the-inevitable story of Assassin’s Creed, the overhyped buildup of Gears of War, and the know-it’s-coming feeling that occurs every November for Call of Duty. The only game I continued to play in my library was Arkham Asylum. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the only conduit for me being Batman. I missed the opportunity for flying across Gotham, seeing more of the colorful villains, and the feeling of always being needed. The announcement of Arkham City, however, had me thrown back into a wait and see approach. I hadn’t expected a follow-up this quickly and I feared that Rocksteady was just trying to cash-in on their success. Plus, as noted by Zero Punctuation, I also felt that they were trying to expand just for the sake of trying to deliver something bigger. The overwhelming angle has worked in the past. Many a game have I played and loved because it was bigger. However, Rocksteady listened to the silent prayers of this new Bat-Fan and my fears became unfounded. Arkham City was not only hands-down the best comic book game ever; it was the best game I had remembered playing since Knights of the Old Republic II back in 2006.
Plot Summary: (Spoiler Warning) Professor Hugo Strange returns to Gotham and influences the Mayor to build Arkham City by sectioning off the worst part of the city. The sole purpose is to keep the criminals in one place. All that separates Gotham from total destruction are 5-foot thick, 200 foot high concrete walls with guns lining the outside of the walls permanently poised towards the cesspool. Batman knows that he must keep this situation in check and thus decides to get himself thrown into the city so as to keep order. He puts on a press conference as Bruce Wayne campaigning for the closing of the “city” and sure enough, Hugo Strange captures him. However, Strange reveals his trump card for keeping Wayne inside. He knows that Bruce Wayne and Batman are one and the same. He reveals that after he initiates Protocol 10, Strange will be heralded as a hero. Batman thus begins the search for any information on this security measure. The Joker finds Batman, lures him in, and poisons him. The Joker has been working with Mr. Freeze on a cure for his sickness, which is a remnant of his Titan transformation from the end of the last game. Thus, by insuring Batman’s fate as his own, Batman will now have to go search for Freeze, who has gone missing.
Turns out Penguin took Freeze. Batman rescues Freeze, who reveals that he has found a cure, but cannot keep it fresh enough to work on the Joker. It needs a certain enzyme, which then needs to adapted and bonded to human DNA, which could take decades. Batman recognizes the enzyme as a key component to the Lazarus Pit, and thus Ra’s Al Ghul is the answer to the puzzle. Ra’s has made camp in Arkham City, and Batman eventually finds him through Talia Al Ghul. After some trouble, Batman gets a sample of Ra’s blood and returns it to Freeze. Freeze makes the cure and makes Batman have to fight for it. During the fight, Harley Quinn takes the cure back to the Joker. Batman chases her back to the Joker and finds her tied up. He discovers the Joker, looking cured but showing a sick reflection in a mirror. The Joker fights Batman, traps him and has him at his mercy. At that moment, Talia walks in and offers the Joker the secret to immortality. Batman sees Talia put on a tracker but can’t get free. Catwoman, who Batman rescued earlier, returns that favor and Batman chases after Talia, only to come across Protocol 10.
The plan was to kill everyone in Arkham City once they had all been collected into one area. Batman reaches Strange and stops him. When this happens, Ra’s Al Ghul appears and reveals to Batman that this was his goal and that Strange was his puppet. Ra’s cannot abide Gotham and feels it must be destroyed. Strange is killed and so is Ra’s. Batman escapes and finds Talia at the mercy of the Joker. The Joker demands the cure from Batman, which confuses him. Suddenly, Talia turns the tables and kills the Joker. Batman is troubled by the inconsistencies between his encounters with the Joker. Out of nowhere, Batman figures it out and tries to save Talia from a gunshot, which he fails at. The real Joker appears, still succumbing to the disease. Clayface reveals himself to be the mask in front of the man and a battle ensues. Clayface is defeated, Batman gets stabbed by the Joker, and the only vial of the cure is dropped and broken. (Batman took some of the cure earlier.) With the Joker lying at his feet dying, Batman divulges that even after everything the Joker has ever done, Batman still would have saved him from death. The Joker dies laughing and Batman carries his dead body like a procession through Arkham City and outside the gates, where Gordon and the rest of the police force stand in disbelief. Gordon enquires about the events that lead up to this, but Batman walks silently back into Gotham.
Three things stood out to me. The amazing opening of the game, the extreme faithfulness to the world, and the jaw dropping ending to the game. Like I said before, I was getting emotionally stagnant to games at that point. Gears of War 3 didn’t quite hold up to its momentum, I couldn’t get excited about Modern Warfare 3 (despite absolutely eating up the other two), and I didn’t have high hopes for Assassin’s Creed Revelations. I had heard about the game’s ending almost a month before, and thus I knew what was coming. However, I still highly enjoyed the game and was stilled stunned that Rocksteady would do such a thing to not only one beloved character, but three. Kudos to you guys. You can now do no wrong in my book.
I mentioned in my Arkham Asylum review that I was surprised by the faithfulness of the characters. Like everything else in that game, Arkham City topped it. Every line, emotion, and action was now so true to the characters. Batman is a grim dark detective that is also a world-class expert in combat. The Joker revels in his long-standing relationship with Batman and is still random to the point of annoyance. Harley Quinn becomes lost without the dominant Joker. Mr. Freeze is a scientist who morns the tragic fate of his wife. The Penguin is a laughable, collecting, evil little monster (a phrase that I have heard ascribed to Woody Allen.) Ra’s Al Ghul is not afraid to kill in order to further his version of world peace. Catwoman, in her own way, is obsessed with Batman. Talia believes herself to be the soul mate and intellectual equal of Batman. I could go on for a while with all of the other characters in this game. Even the characters that don’t appear in this game (i.e. Scarecrow) have hints dropped about them that is absolutely in line with their personas. I know most of you may not care, but it made a huge deal to us Bat-fans and comic book nerds playing the game. You’ll still enjoy both Asylum and City without the fanatic devotion and love to the characters, but it does enhance the experience if you know about these characters.
With the end of the game, I was stunned. How could this be real? I had read and seen the Joker’s death through The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton’s Batman, and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, and other than TDKR I didn’t feel satisfied with his death. Arkham City plays it risky with these characters and delivers a scene of biblical proportions. In the very first shot of the game (that is, if you have Catwoman installed) you see a painting of Cain carrying Abel in his arms, thus foreshadowing the end of the game. It is a striking image, and although the situation of the first murder on earth doesn’t apply here, the Joker dying at the feet of Batman is equally epic. Batman would have saved Joker, even after the man killed Jason Todd (Robin #2), Sarah Essen (Gordon’s 2nd wife), and paralyzed Barbra Gordon, and killed countless others. Like Jason Todd tells Batman at the end of Under the Red Hood, if any of Batman’s enemies deserves death, it would be the Joker.
The Joker is the pure opposite of Batman. Batman is methodical, a force for good, and born out of righteous revenge. He is focused, team based, and grief-stricken. His dual-persona is a very famous man who strives for good and can never escape the limelight. The man denies all personal feeling, so when something strikes close to home; it hits him harder than it would for most people. The Joker is random, an agent of chaos, and born from a tragic accident. He is unfocused, solo at heart, and denying of grief. He has no dual-persona and he embraces the madness with a gleeful smile. The whole joke to him is that anything in the world can affect you without your allowance, so why let the world bother you? Do what you will, when you will, and how you will. Everything is permitted in his world. It has been beaten into comic-book nerds that the Joker is the mirror image to Batman. I respectfully say that he is like Syndrome to Mr. Incredible: so obsessed with this man that he becomes his worst enemy in order to laugh in his face. He needs to prove that everything the hero does is wrong and that he needs a nemesis to be his therapist.
The game play is very finely tuned. It already was pretty tight in Asylum, but City has a few new things to bring to the table. New gadgets, the dive-bomb mechanism for gliding, and additional side quests make for a very full game. 400 Riddler challenges with an additional 40 for Catwoman and 12 side quests featuring Mr. Freeze, Deadshot, Mad Hatter, Azreal, and many more characters keep you very busy after the main story is over. Catwoman, of course, has her own side missions that interweave through the mainstory. After that, there is the challenge maps featuring combat and stealth in which you can play as Batman, Catwoman, Nightwing, and Robin (the last two through downloads). I mention these only because one of my few tiny nitpicks about Asylum is that after you finish the main story, there only were the trophies and the challenge maps (you could only play as Batman). Here, there is way more to keep your plate full. I always liked the challenge missions in Asylum, but in Arkham City, there are more maps just for combat than there was for all of the challenge section of Asylum. Wow.
The voices in this game are wonderfully well-done. The standouts are the usual. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill could do these characters in their sleep, but they each deliver amazing performances through-out the game. The rest of the cast don’t shine as much as these two, but each voice is appropriate for the respective characters. I did miss Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, but Tara Strong delivers a nice tribute to Sorkin’s work. Two-Face’s voice changes between personas. The Penguin has a disgusting sophisticated voice (done by Nolan North of Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed fame). Mr. Freeze impressed me the most out of the entire cast. He is not my favorite villain, nor do I care about Michael Ansara’s performance of him in the animated series, but his (the game’s character) voice matched the man perfectly. Catwoman is dripping with a confident slightly hyper-sized sexuality tone. Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia’s voices weren’t my imagined versions of the characters, but I bought them shortly after I listened to them.
I didn’t really talk about the score in Asylum. It was a dark and brooding score that fit the world. Beyond fitting the narrative, I couldn’t say much else about it. This game’s main theme is an action based rhythmic string and horn piece, with choir overlaying it. It reminds me of the standout theme to The Dark Knight, and thus is right in line with how I imagine the character would sound like musically. The slightly disappointing thing is that the rest of the score mostly blends in with the background. I really fell in love with two songs that played during trailers of this game: “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy and “Get Some” by Lykke Li. Catchy and perfectly mirroring aspects of the universe.
Part of the marketing promotion for this game included a “Music inspired by” album featuring music by Coheed and Cambria, Panic at the Disco, and Serj Tankian (System of a Down). These aren’t featured in the game, but provide a soundtrack motivated by aspects of the Batman Universe. “Deranged” is a first-person poem on Batman’s dependency on Joker. “Mercenary” highlights the Batman’s brutality. “Drown in You” reminds me of Gotham’s constant degradation. It has a few fun things, but is a very so-so album. The chorus in “Deranged” rings out true for the respective relationship: “Who will be your pretty little enemy when I’m gone? Your world will prove empty; I promise you will always remember me. The joke’s on you…We’re one and the same: deranged”
I only have two nitpicks about the game. I wasn’t put off by most of the brief appearances of some of the villains, but I was expecting Two-Face to have a larger role. He is one of my favorite villains and the marketing hyped up his appearance in the game. He has a whole poster dedicated to him, and several trailers give him a semi-large role. He did get a little more to do in the Catwoman missions, but not enough. The other nitpick has to do with the Riddler challenges. The Riddler prides himself on being the smartest person alive, and yet the actual riddles he has in the game are child’s play. I figured all of these out very quickly. Even the trophy “traps” (for lack of a better word) weren’t exactly brain-stumpers. I had the same problem with Asylum; and maybe because if you make people think at these games they may be less-inclined to buy them. I don’t know how you could fix it without alienating most of your main audience, but it did rob me of some satisfaction when I solved this riddles.
Arkham City is the ultimate tribute to Batman for video games. If you haven’t played it or own it, drop whatever you’re doing at your house and get it now! It is worth every bit of those dollars. Think about it like this. I used to buy games solely for the single player because the multiplayer portions of video games required a steady internet connection and a subscription to its community. It’s only been within the last month that the multiplayer section of games has been opened up to me. Thus, games had to prove themselves through the single player section only. Thus, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, and a few others were the only games that made it into my collection. While Arkham City only has single-player, I felt more comfortable with spending $60 on it than I did Gears of War 3, where most of its value comes from the online gaming.
Simply put, you need to own this game.
RATING: 9.75 out of 10 – The near-perfect Batman experience and one of the best stories in years for the Caped Crusader. It doesn’t hurt that the game is packed and fun to play. One of my top 5 favorite games ever.
Special Addendum: Mark Hamill has left the Joker behind with the release of this game. He will not be playing the character again, unless he gets called for an adaptation of The Killing Joke. Way to go out on a high note indeed, Mark. You will be missed.