Batman: Arkham City Review — The Dark Knight Repeats
Game: Batman: Arkham City
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 (Reviewed), PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Released: October 18th, 2011
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Batman: Arkham City is a game of contradictions, capable of the highest highs and lowest lows. Though filled with an immense variety of things to do, it often feels repetitive. Though many publications were quick to award it perfect scores, the game is far from perfect.
When Arkham City gets things right, it is a joy to play. The game’s hand-to-hand combat system, refined and augmented since the series’ previous installment, Batman: Arkham Asylum, is one of the most impressive pieces of game design currently on the market. Rejecting the intricate combos and twitch-based counters that plague many action games, developers Rocksteady Studios ground the fighting in a contradiction: in the midst of rapidly flying fists and slashing knives, players must exhibit patience, grace, and careful timing.
This counter-intuitive emphasis works thanks to the masterful efforts of the studios’ animators, who have crafted an incredible range of fluid, context-sensitive animations. Though you’ll rely two buttons more than 90% of the time — one to attack and another to counter an enemy’s attack — the fisticuffs never seem to get stale. Players will guide the Caped Crusader through an impressive array of deft dodges and meaty kicks, linking one to another as they master the combat’s rhythmic flow. The improved game engine can now render nearly twice the number of adversaries as its Arkham Asylum equivalent, ensuring that the odds always seem heroically hopeless.
But while Batman’s devastating skills as a martial artist are fun to unleash, the game seems oddly content to let them speak for themselves. Encounters with enemy thugs almost always take place in vast, empty arenas, blank templates that showcase the ass-kicking on offer but soon provoke a creeping sense of deja vu — each set piece brawl is very much like the brawls that came before. This might result from technical limitations; complicated terrain could easily confuse the combat code. When the game does deign to vary the pattern, the results are exciting, but it doesn’t happen often.
There is a great deal of variety hanging from Batman’s belt. Gadgets have long been an integral part of the character, and Rocksteady incorporates them into Arkham City enthusiastically. So enthusiastically, in fact, that it soon becomes bewildering: do I incapacitate that thug with the Batclaw or the Batarang? What about a Sonic Batarang? Or a Remote-controlled Batarang? Or, better yet, a Freeze Grenade? Expert players will become adept at weaving these devices into their combat routines, and the game rewards you for doing so, but for normal players, too much choice can feel overwhelming.