So, I've beaten Batman: Arkham City. Completed the majority of the sidequests, beat the Catwoman DLC and I even tried out the Harley Quinn's Revenge DLC (haven't finished that). Supposedly, Batman: Arkham City is held as one of the greatest superhero-based video games ever made, as well as one of the best action-adventure games ever made. It's my job to take this game to task and see if it holds up to its illustrious reputation.
What I Like
I like that the combat in this game is both simple and complex at the same time. It's simple because you only have to use a few buttons for combat: punch, counter, stun and dodge, which makes the game easy to play, but it's complex because of stuff like the combo multiplier, free-flow, quick-use gadgets and so on.
There are also multiple types of enemies, ranging from unarmed prisoners to gigantic hulking beasts and the game provides you ample opportunity to beat them up, whether in the streets or in challenge rooms (more on that later).
When you're really good at this game, it's like watching clockwork in motion. You flow from enemy to enemy, countering, stunning, freezing and clotheslining (the most awesome attack in the game) them as you watch your combo multiplier go higher and higher. It's quite a satisfying experience - if I had to compare it to another videogame, it's like getting a cherry in PacMan: Championship Edition DX.
Also, if you get the DLC characters, they each handle differently. Catwoman uses her whip and is a lot faster than Batman, Nightwing uses more shock and stun-based attacks and is as fast as Catwoman, and almost as strong as Batman, and Robin uses his pole staff and has a charging shield attack.
The game also has an interesting way of telling you that Batman (or Catwoman) cannot absorb bullets. It forces you to think about how you're going to take down your gun-toting opponents (until you get a nifty gadget that disables weaponry, but even then, it has a limited amount of uses), since like the unarmed enemies, they also vary - like one enemy has a jammer that stops your detective mode from working when you're in the area.
Detective mode is also pretty nifty. You can see where your enemies are and memorize their patrols so that you can apprehend them and quickly escape like you're actually Batman.
Batman: Arkham City is pretty large, but it's built more like a hub world. You have to run and glide to your locations, ranging from the Gotham City Police Department to the Sionis Steel Mill. Each location looks different and feels different as well - the developers of the game really made mundane locations come to life, giving them personality (and often reflecting the inhabitants of the hub location's personalities as well).
Gliding in the game is pretty fun and like the combat, once you get good, the game really comes alive. It's possible that you can fly (essentially) from one end of Arkham City to the other end without ever touching the ground, with the combination of proper gliding technique and your grappling hook. It's far more refined than the next best gliding, Kingdom Hearts II (the gliding was by far the most fun part of that game, in hindsight).
I also liked the world-building, since if you find clues scattered around the city, you learn more about the characters and their relation with Arkham City (there are some genuinely interesting stories here, which could have and should have been implemented in the story).
The sidequests are tied into the exploration part of the game. Whenever you're feeling bored with the main story, you can take a break from it and go save a political prisoner, or listen to Zsasz's story through cryptic phone calls, or try to collect Riddler Trophies and try to outwit him (although, I have the strangest feeling that he's outwitting you). These sidequests help with making you feel more like Batman - far more than the actual story does.
The Catwoman missions, while tied into the story, feel more like diversions, which is both a strength and a flaw. It's nice to play as Catwoman, since she feels different, moves different and the tone of her story is more focused, with only one main antagonist for her. It also helps that she's voiced by one of my favourite voice actors, Grey DeLisle.
I like the challenge rooms the most. You're set in a room and your objective is to get as many points as possible in four rounds of combat. Simple, easy and fun. This is where the combat of this game shines brightest and where you can cut loose and enjoy the freedom of kicking ass with four different characters.
There's also the Riddler Trophies, which require you to think before obtaining a trophy, either by using a gadget in an inventive way or by just swooping in, grabbing the trophy with your BatClaw and getting the hell out of there. It's fun stuff, especially when you just want to take a break. The Riddler is also a funny character, and his quotes are pretty good as well ("So the shaved monkey has failed. How utterly, utterly expected.")
What I Didn't Like
The story feels... disjointed. In the course of a single night, Batman does battle with no less than six super-villains (this isn't including the sidequests, which bumps up that number by so much more). So where Batman's trying to get a cure for the Joker, he's also trying to fend of Dr. Strange's attempts at breaking him down, or fighting the Penguin. While there are a sequence of events, the current antagonist bounces around so much that it gets confusing or irritating after a while.
Batman himself is an unengaging protagonist. Despite his voice actor, Kevin Conroy, doing a brilliant job as Batman in the past, for some reason, he sounds... off. I mean, Batman is an interesting character with nearly limitless potential, but without context, that potential falls flat, like it does here. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the story relies on you filling in the gaps left by it (i.e. Batman's relationship with Talia al-Ghul), which is a recipe for disaster. So when the major plot points happen, unless you have an investment in the characters, which is hard to have without proper context, the major reveals/plot points won't... work out and they'll fall flat instead. Also, Batman is pretty boring and not funny, engaging or likeable - maybe it's because he's on the job, but in the animated series for example, Batman as Bruce Wayne is a playboy (the Bat-Pimp/Bat-King), a genius (the Bat-Brain) and a billionaire, with a deep character that accentuates why he does things as Batman, but that doesn't happen here (shame, that probably means that Bruce Wayne doesn't exist anymore).
Catwoman's story is short. Instead of delving further into her relationships with Batman and Poison Ivy, these relationships are barely touched on (her relationship and chemistry with Batman is far better than Batman's relationship with Talia - I bet he only hooked up with her was because of her rather excellent ass), which doesn't help her story out. There's one nice moment in the game regarding her, but that's more of a what-if than anything.
There's also the fact that the story includes a lot of text-based material that could have significantly helped with making the story deeper, but instead, they don't do that. Text in visual media is not a good thing, that's why you have visual media, to visualise things!
What's most disappointing is that Batman is probably the series with the best stories, whether it's in comics (which I will not mention, since I'm not knowledgeable in that field) or in movies (Batman Returns, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman: Sub-Zero, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, The Dark Knight), Batman is fleshed out and given a deep, realistic characterization. Batman doesn't really have that characterization here.
Maybe the story would have done better with one or two villains, with another two supporting characters (like with Batman, he could have had Dr. Strange or Joker as his main villain, with Talia, Harley Quinn (if Joker was the villain) and Catwoman as his supporting characters; with Catwoman, she could have had Joker or Two-Face as her villain, with Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn (if Joker was the villain) and Batman as her supporting characters), since it would have given the writers more opportunity to flesh out the characters and make the story engaging, interesting.
Answering the Riddler's riddles about landmarks is irritating. You have to be in the area and scan around with a pulse of sorts. This is a far cry from Metroid Prime, a game released nine years before this, but with a more sophisticated scan and log book system. That should be the standard for discovering things, instead of something exclusive to Retro Studios.
Catwoman has fewer gadgets than the Bat-Family. Why? She should have more combo attacks to compensate, but that isn't the case either.
The boss fights are far too easy and repetitive. The final boss battle is... interesting (and awesome) but it has the same pitfalls as the rest of the fights. The only good boss fight was against Mr. Freeze and that was because Mr. Freeze did something awesome: use his brain.
Despite my opinion that the story is wasted potential and is disjointed, I still greatly enjoyed the game. It makes you feel like Batman does, and even if the character himself isn't as likeable as he could have been, he can still pull off some incredible feats of Bat-Magic.