As a release, it is a contender for worst of the year: missing DLC codes, disappearing saves, a month-long PC delay without any tangible performance benefit. Yes, Games For Windows – LIVE was not even the most egregious of issues. Wait, what are we doing here?
Oh, right, yes. So, why exactly is Batman: Arkham City my game of the year? The clue is in the title: the goddamn Batman is why. OK. Allow me to elaborate…
As many reviews have already said: it feels very much like a Batman-Simulator. Everything works because of how it captures the essence of the character in a wholly interactive way. Now, fleshed out and better than ever, the game’s blend of dynamic combat, thrilling stealth and thoughtful navigation make for a gameplay experience quite unlike any other.
I’ve already heaped praise on the first game’s combat system, and here it is even better. Gadgets, new and old, have increased combat functionality, opening up wonderful possibilities. Using the Batclaw to disarm an opponent is all well and good but using it to pull them towards you in order to deliver a clothesline immediately followed by an elbow smash to the ground is sublime. The variation and increased number of enemies plus the ability to counter multiple opponents, along with other more subtle tweaks, ensure fights are even more frantic yet never frustratingly overwhelming.
I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of stealth games but Rocksteady’s own dark knight-flavoured twist has me hooked. Batman is never hiding or trying to run away. He is a predator and this is his domain. With all the tools, and numerous ways to dispatch foes, you are the one with the power. To quote something said by another masked vigilante detective during their own time in prison: “I’m not locked up in here with you: you’re locked up in here with me.” With the fling of a batarang, gameplay can switch from a careful trap-setting hunt into a hit-and-run affair; this change of pace offering a satisfying mix of suspense and excitement.
The combat and stealth are substantial enough to stand as their own respective modes, as they do in the Riddler’s Revenge challenges, and both provide the sensation of being a total badass without sacrificing vulnerability. Skill and planning, not sheer brute force, determine victory. And this even extends to the final part of Batman’s holy trinity: exploration.
With the more open-world approach, you now get to experience the joy of gliding around, over rooftops, and dive-bombing thugs mixed in with the usual running and climbing. It all flows together beautifully, since grappling and gliding eliminate any lengthy climbing or fear of falling, and seguing into combat or takedowns is as simple as dropping onto (or behind) enemies or running and sliding into them (and that never gets old). Of course, being a mega-prison means there are plenty of uncouth fellows around, but because you’re never confined to one area it actually allows a great deal of experimentation with how to ‘Batman’ the hell out of them. Without wanting to spoil too many mechanical aspects for those who have not played it (yet!), a situation such as three gun-wielding thugs atop a building has many ‘solutions’. Accidentally discovering there is such a thing as a ‘Grapnel Boost Takedown’ was certainly a highlight.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention one of my favourite elements: the collectibles. Perhaps most admirable is that Rocksteady transformed what is usually a pointless endeavour for everyone but achievement/trophy seekers into its own self-contained arc. I very much doubt I will ever find all the treasures in an Uncharted game or collect all the flags in an Assassin’s Creed but completing the Riddler content saw me coming back to the game numerous evenings.
Taking the form of ‘challenges’ that Batman must complete in order to locate hostages that Mr. Nigma has placed in death-traps, it brings its own sense of accomplishment regardless of the great bonus content you unlock. Many of these hundreds of Riddler trophies scattered around require some kind of puzzle-solving and/or reflexes; it is less about where they are, more about how to get to them. It’s also surprising and gratifying to discover occasions where even The Riddler is prone to ‘cheating‘. Essentially, Batman’s oft-touted title of ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ gets a look-in.
It’s this accomplished and seamless combination of action, stealth and puzzle-solving that made Batman: Arkham City such an addictive gameplay experience, and why I feel it deserves recognition. I haven’t even touched on the narrative or visual aspects because the gameplay, the real meat of the game, is so engrossing. Don’t get me wrong, both are, at the very least, serviceable, other times, downright impressive. It looks and feels like a Batman story, with only the occasional plothole or lapse in pacing letting it down. But that ending and last exchange…boy!
Do you want to know something funny? Even after experiencing some of the (more minor) problems I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I am championing the game. To be honest, I’d be perfectly happy to see Deus Ex: Human Revolution or The Witcher 2 take the GOTY honours; both have their own wonderful settings and far more involving, thought-provoking stories, along with being well-designed experiences (albeit not without their own unique flaws). Yet, ultimately, Batman: Arkham City has continued to provide me with the most entertainment this year. It truly is a game that makes you feel slightly less silly for saying, “I’m Batman!”. What more could you want?