When The First round of publicity for Arkhctm Asylum came out there was the impression of a certain lack of confidence. Taken to a room in Eidos, we were shown Batman accompanying Joker into the iconic madhouse, and not much else. While it was the best opening to a game since Freeman’s monorail ride, it didn’t give you much of a feel for the game.
The first look at Arklicmi City showed no such timidity. It’s accepted that Arkham Asylum was a defining moment for Batman in videogames, the first time he’d ever been done right. It was pitch perfect, sitting cheerfully alongside the beyond-black psychopathic graphic novel with which it shares its name, the commercial dark tint of the Christopher Nolan movies, and the approachable kid-friendly action of the ’90s classic The Animated Series. Batman may be a flexible franchise, but lie’s got rules, and Arkham Asylum played within them rules with love and art.
So, having delivered the comic book look, with the scriptwriter and voices of the ’90s cartoon, where do you go from there? Well, where else is there? Gotham City, stupid. In the first game, Quincy Sharpe was the corrupt governor of the Arkham Asylum and he made no secret of two things: his contempt for the human rights of lawbreakers, and his plans to become mayor of Gotham.
The events of Arkham City take place a year after those in Asylum, and Sharpe has been hard at work. Taking all the credit for Batman’s work in his failed facility, lie’s convinced the populace that what Gotham needs to be crime-free once and for all is a super-facility bigger than any one building. So lie’s bringing the madhouse onto the streets.
So a large area of Gotham has been slapped with compulsory purchase orders, the residents evicted, and a wall erected. The insane supervillains of Arkliam Asylum and the brawling thugs of Blackgate Penitentiary have all been transported into this walled area of Gotham. This is Arkham City, both an anarchic nightmare and a madman’s dream come true.
Presiding malevolently over Arklicim City, with a threatening poster campaign and Tannoy announcements, is a new character (to Rocksteady’s game at least) Hugo Strange. He’s not on Batman’s databases. Even Oracle, who once again shares your earpiece with Alfred’s grounded advice, doesn’t know who he is. But Strange’s rule in the City is absolute, and he enforces just one law, you try to escape, you die. Beyond that, there’s a laissez-faire attitude to gang violence and murder. After all, who’ll you be killing? Just another scrap of lowlife detritus.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The corrupt establishment of Gotham is also throwing political prisoners into Arkham City, and trusting the more seasoned inhabitants to deal with them. Take Jack Ryder – once a vigilante called The Creeper, now a shock-jock chat show host – his broadcasts got a little too close to Quincy and Hugo’s mysterious arrangement, and Batman finds him tasting the fist end of a thug’s arm.
That’s the world of Arkliam City. Watching Batman fly around, it’s obvious that this is the same figure that stalked the Asylum, substantial, powerful, yet still vulnerable. His combat relies on the same simple but satisfying combination of light and heavy attacks and combos. Detective mode still lets you investigate crime scenes and see enemies through walls. And Predator mode still lets you take out crowds of armed hoods stealthily, when a full frontal assault would prove fatal. They’ve all been improved, but more on that later. Because now, we’re going to look at the most exciting thing about this sequel.
Arkliam City is an open world game. You can explore. There’s a strong central mission that’ll take you through the story of who Hugo Strange is, Joker’s mysterious illness, Two-Face’s bid to establish himself in the anarchic regime, and the eternal question of whether Catwoman will turn out to be a friend or foe. But the sheer number of supervillains, legendary and obscure, gives Rocksteady a chance to hide away a massive amount of optional missions. If you rush Arkham City, you’ll miss a lot of stories.
For example, there’s Victor Zsasz. You can finish the game without picking up a telephone. And if you do, you’ll never know Zsasz was in the game. But that would mean you’ll miss out on the serial killer’s game of cat and mouse. Detective Mode has had an overhaul, too. Now, it’s not just a matter of following the stink of a cigar butt, you’re more a crime scene investigator. The example we’re given is pretty tame, but it shows there are possibilities.
After an assassin tries to snipe Catwoman, flipping into Detective mode lets you hunt for, and piece together, scraps of evidence. The site of the bullet’s impact and the hole in the window lets us extrapolate a line across Arkliam, that lets you deduce that the shot was fired from a church bell tower.
You can also investigate using your broadcast analyser, a new gadget that acts like an FBI snooping device, scouring the airwaves for keywords. More entertainingly, it also lets you manually scour frequencies for anything going on. You’ll find radio stations, GCPD despatch radio, and a host of hidden bonuses that’ll help you uncover a whole new set of Riddler’s secrets.
Fist Of Fun
The combat system now has twice as many moves squeezed into its three simple buttons. A beatdown attack can be used to whale on one guy in an extraordinarily heavy fashion. This is also the only way you’ll open up armoured enemies to damage. You can use the environment to pull off acrobatic evades, and the countering system has been extended to allow for multiple blocks. And if an enemy is stunned you can pounce off him. It’s the same simple system, in theory, and all these new powers mean enemies need to be a bit tougher.
The gadgetry has also been redesigned to fit the new, open world. The remote-controlled Batarang can be charged with electricity by navigating it near sparking electricity cables and can then be used to overload electrical circuits, if you manage to guide it into a control box. And the Grapple Boost transforms your humble hook into a launch pad, instead of lifting you to the ledge it sends you flying upwards, giving you an overview of the city. From this height you can soar around Arkliam City, or dive and pick off thugs. But you can also use your gadgetry to navigate the city. Firing a rope between buildings lets you create your own paths through the sky, and half-way through zipping to a building on a grappling hook, you can slow down, fire another, and change directions completely.
“Getting around Gotham City isn’t a problem for Batman,” says Sefton Hill, Rocksteady’s studio director. “So we’re not going to make it a problem for you.” Jamie Walker explains their attitude to skill resets, too. “We didn’t want to take away the abilities you earned in the first game. So we’ve said, what would the villains do, what measures would they take, knowing that they were fighting a man with those powers?” So instead of powering you down they’ve given the enemies the ability to deal with your powers. And opened up a whole new set of skills for you to learn. Won’t this
he daunting for newcomers? “You don’t have to have played the first game to get it. It’s still the same, accessible system. But you’ll be pulling off the stylish moves more quickly if you have,” explains Walker.
The intimacy of Arkliam Asylum could’ve been lost in its expansion to an effective township. But the chance to explore, coupled with a relatively small area and a high density of special events, gives you a chance to make that intimacy yours. You can get to know the streets and the gangs that are inhabiting them.
“Arkliam City is about five times bigger than Asylum, but it’s not about the size. It’s about the detail,” explains Walker. By keeping the area manageable, they can fill every corner with intrigue. A phone rings nearby. We’ve all played CTA and we all know telephones mean missions. But this phone is surrounded by gang members. They’re talking about a legend that’s grown in Arklicim City, if you answer a payphone, you die.
We answer the phone, and a vaguely familiar voice leers at us. It’s Victor Zsasz, the gore-fantasist serial killer whose appearance in Arklicim Asylum was a cameo. This time, he’s got his own story and chain of missions.
The dialogue with Zsasz – and in general – is more knowing and skillfully written than most other games. Compared to the endless taunts of the NPCs in Splinter Cell: Conviction, Arklicim City is a masterpiece of background dialogue. Scripted by Batman veteran Paul Dini and Rocksteady’s Paul Crocker, a scene with some of Harley Quinn’s thugs tests the player’s tolerance for meta-jokes. “What are you nervous for?” one asks. “It’s not like Batman’s famous for escaping situations like this.” This raises a knowing smile, as a visual prompt to ready your smoke pellets flashes up. We wait, and they continue talking.
“What do you think he’s going to do? Use a smoke bomb to cover his escape, then punch us all in the face?”
It’s half-joke, half-hint, and funny. But wait and they continue talking. “I’ve changed my mind. Shoot him.” After a brief argument about whether they should, and whether they’re going to shoot on three, or after three, we drop our smoke bomb and grapple into the rafters. And we’re into the new Predator mode.
This is the one thing that’s most similar to the first game, but Bats has a few more ways of taking people out with explosive gels, neck grips and the like. The most interesting thing is the way these moments are tied naturally into the action, instead of there being a room full of gargoyles effectively whooping, “Predator Room!” You can also use your Predator skills in the city, using your gadgets to create portable walkways, from which you can drop down and despatch the thugs any way you see fit.
Just be sure to use Detective mode first by checking thugs against your crime database, you might find that one of them holds information you need on one of the gangs. This really is a city with a lot going on.
Taking Arkham Asylum into the open world is a step as logical and exciting as it is audacious. Will the claustrophobia of the first game survive the Just Cause chaos and travel? Will the excellent scripts of the first game expand adequately to fill a sandbox world? On past performance, and the excellent snips of gameplay we’ve seen so far, we can give Rocksteady the benefit of the doubt.
Doing The Bad Thing
Apart from The Joker (who, incidentally, has a bit of a cough) who’ll Batman be up against this time?
When you meet Catwoman she’s suspended over a vat of acid. But she’s not screaming for her life. DC and Rocksteady’s Batman universe isn’t a world of weak women. They’re beautiful, of course, and the modern fondness for leather costumes leads to the inevitable suspicion that this isn’t a feminist kind of strength but more of a male domination fantasy. Try telling that to Catwoman, though, she’d shove her arse in the air and whip your face off. She’s constantly referring to her “nine lives”, which isn’t really that much to brag about In fact, for the Batman universe, she’s getting short-changed.
Hidden away in the basement of the courthouse, visible under the floor if you use Detective Vision, you’ll see a man locked away. What kind of maniac gets locked up in a prison inside a prison? It’s the lesser known villain, Calendar Man. In the comics, he was a petty crook, until The Long Halloween where he played a Hannibal Lecter role, tauntingly offering guidance into an investigation of a serial killer. In Arkham City, he can read your system’s date, and tells you relevant things about it Turn up at certain times, and you’ll learn his story…
Harvey Dent’s cell was all laid out in Arkham Asylum, but he wasn’t there. In Arkham City, he’s much keener to show his faces. Being the ex-district attorney he’s taken control of the courthouse and is using Catwoman’s alleged death to cement his position as one of the big players in the City’s anarchic regime. Like Sefton Hill says, “One of the fun things is working out how different characters would react to this situation”. It’s almost tailor-made for people like Dent, whose dual personality would thrive on the respect and chaos.
Serial killer and brutal fantasist Victor Zsasz had a tutorial cameo in the first game, teaching you to use your Detective view. If you race through the game, you might miss him completely this time, but if you’re dedicated to exploring the side missions that fill the newly sandboxed Gotham City, you’ll answer the telephone. There’s a rumour going around Arkham City that anyone who answers a ringing telephone gets killed. It’s up to you whether you answer the phone or not, but if you want to take Zsasz down, you’ll have to pick up.
In Arkham City, nothing is known of Hugo Strange, except that he’s working with The Joker. Even your information broker ally, Oracle (the original Batgirl, paralysed by The Joker in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke) doesn’t know who he is. However, he’s one of Batman’s oldest foes in the comics, dating back to 1940.
He began using fear powder before the Scarecrow thought of wearing a sack, as a charlatan psychiatrist to Gotham’s richest people he learnt many secrets, and he’s one of the few villains who discovered Batman’s real identity.