We built this City…

Regular readers will know my love for all things Batman but lately I have been spoiled rotten. As a kid I was blessed with some of the Dark Knight’s best comics, the utterly brilliant Tim Burton films and the equally fantastic animated series but in my teens up until my 20’s there has been a distinct lack of ‘Good’ Batman material. Things started getting better with Hush and then when Grant Morrison started RIP (which also contained the killer Neil Gaiman edition) but there was little else. Then there was Mr. Nolan’s dramatic reconstruction of the Batman films and the world went Caped Crusader Crazy. These days there is a wealth of Batman stuff available but unfortunately the quality varies wildly. However, earlier this year I purchased Arkham Asylum on the xBox 360 and loved it. Well written with a solid atmosphere, stunning look, great voice acting and perfectly balanced gameplay meant this was an absolute hit for me. Nothing makes you feel quite like Batman than gliding around and pounding thugs faces in. I then heard about a sequel and awaited with bated breath…

I bought the game on Wednesday and I can safely say nothing could have prepared me for what I got. Whatever my expectations were they were not high enough. Arkham City, by the time the credits rolled on the main story, had smashed in at my number one spot alongside Half-Life 2. Why? I can honestly only think of one quibble with this game. The Penguin’s accent. Ubiquitous, smug voiced, computer lead actor du jour Nolan North voices the Penguin with the worst faux cockernee accent since Dick Van Dyke. Which is a shame because the character is well written and looks flippin’ ACE. Instead of the snooty monocle he has the bottom of a glass bottle jammed painfully around his eye, so it’s a shame a lot of his visual menace is instantly dismissed by “Oi’ve gut a liddle sahproise for yuh dahn nare”. But that is it. I was honestly trying to think of other problems but all I could come up with the most petty gripes and are overshadowed by everything else ten fold.

Arkham City is set in a walled of section off Gotham that since the closure of Arkham Asylum in game one has become the prison, a la Escape From New York. Bruce Wayne is vocal in his dislike for the new Arkham run by the mysterious Hugo Strange and whilst at a press conference denouncing it is kidnapped and brought inside as a prisoner. Once inside Bruce suits up as the Dark Knight and goes  about beating things up till he can figure out what is going in there. I won’t go into the story anymore as this is its strongest point for me and revealing anymore than that will ruin the surprises. I will say that people’s complaints about there being too many villains in this one are unjustified. It deepens the crisis and keeps it fresh, the characterisation is also dealt with further in-game logs and voice recordings you pick up along the way. Batman has always had the best bad guys and this one really goes to town.

The gameplay itself is so intuitive anyone who’s played a computer game before could pick it up instantly. It does not deviate from the controls of the first game but does expand on them. Batman’s movements are also dramatic and fluid enough to be immensely satisfying. The combat borders on the sexually gratifying (for me anyway) the punch, kicks and counters all revolve around one button and perfect timing and are almost balletic in their bone-crunching, pant-tightening violence. I know that makes me sound like a psycho but if anyone (particularly a man) says they do not get a large amount of Schadenfreude pleasure out of punching a huge, muscled bound, thug’s teeth down their throat after they’ve been goading and insulting you is LYING. The stealth mechanics are also incredibly well-balanced and with new gadgets makes appearing-smashing through a wall-dangling a guy from a gargoyle-then disappearing a piece of cake and also hugely satisfying.

Catwoman makes a playable appearance in the main game too. Her story is bitesize yet essential but not quite as fun to play. She doesn’t have the same weight in combat but she is faster and more acrobatic in her stunts which are a pleasure to watch. She does add a nice touch of diversity to the game though which is welcome in such a long game.

The game world isn’t as big as say Grand Theft Auto but is expansive enough and sacrifices the size for the detail. Everywhere has the utmost care paid to it and looks, and most importantly, feels like a Gotham slum down to the rubbish in the streets. The graphics are superb, the lighting being a particular jaw dropper for me, I played this on a 42″ screen in HiDef and was so immersed in the whole thing it took a moment to adjust when I stopped playing. The sound is also note perfect, the score is operatic (literally) yet subtle and the sound FX are spot on. You can tell Batman’s boots are made of Kevlar by the sound they make. Nuff said.

The side quests add more than even the most psychotic OCD sufferer could want from additional thing to clean up. The story finished I was told I had barely completed 40% of the game. Yikes. The rest comes in the form of villain side quests (which I wont spoil) and riddler trophies. There are some four HUNDRED dotted around the game world and will keep you playing for days. Unlike Arkham Asylum there is a purpose to this in that The Riddler has kidnapped people and put them in Saw-type puzzle/torture rooms that you can only find once you have collected enough trophies. The methods by which you obtain them range from fiendishly clever to stupidly simple but are always satisfying once obtained. The villain quests are also incredibly cool and add the feeling of being a real detective to the mix.

This is all but the perfect trimming on a wonderful cake for me however. What I love most about this game is what it represents. As I said earlier the story is the strongest part about this game and that made me so happy. The opening cut scenes set up the atmosphere and raises the perfect amount of questions within minutes (namely “what am I doing here?”), it reminded me of The Raiders of the Lost Ark opening where you have an adventure on its own first and then get to the real nuts and bolts of the story. The stakes are high from minute one and the sense of urgency in the story almost makes you ignore the hundreds of side quests you need to take so you can level up to help with the next section. But what they do with the actual platform of gaming is so brilliant it made my jaw drop.

The first game used the Scarecrow and his magic fear powder to alter the reality of the game, making the rooms themselves change in front of your eyes, playing with layout by making you go back through the door you came in and end up in the same room, making truly scary set pieces and even changing your avatar in to the little boy Bruce Wayne. This was playing with not just the conventions of games but storytelling too. This had (to my knowledge) not been done to this extent before yet could have been done for years. Arkham City takes this idea and runs with it. Arkham City has a wealth of ideas contained in the story campaign alone; at any one time you could be beating up a shark, fighting man-pigs on giant pocket watch, duelling in a cinema, climbing a giant clock-tower, negotiating a lost city underground, removing robots memories for video feeds, battling female ninjas, tip toeing over ice floes or simply gliding over a gang ruled prison city yet it never feels schizophrenic or spread too thin. The cohesion of Paul Dini’s writing keeps everything together with a solid atmosphere encompassing every section. The developers and level designers also forge new territory too. They haven’t completely retooled the console or control layout but what they have done is taking very well established and simple ideas and run with them. There are bits of this game which, in no particular order, doff their cap to Mario Brothers, Zelda, Starfox, Sonic, Super Metroid, Pong, Doom, Streets of Rage and they even take the mickey out of Lost. All the greats in any field should be able to “show their working” by wearing their influences on their sleeve but making it inherently their own. This is what pushes things forward and Arkham City definitely does that.

When I reached the end trouser wettingly brilliant finale I literally smacked my gob in awe. Only a handful of books and films can not only involve me but move me to that extent and the level of immersion afforded by the game is simply a work of honest to goodness genius. The development team (Rocksteady are a British developer no less) should be given the laurels on every count for their re-imagining not just of a well established mythos but of the platform of gaming itself. A new bar has been set for quality in gaming and storytelling that will be hard to top for a while.

Admittedly, as I said at the beginning of this open sexual invitation to the developers, I love Batman so I am biased but honestly and truly this is the way games should be going and I hope other developers follow suit. It will get abuse because it is a super hero game and because it is a computer game full stop but the critics would do well to ignore their prejudices and give this game a try as you will not play anything else like it for a long time.

Batman Returns.

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