Batman: Arkham City Gameplay Performance and IQ Review

The Caped Crusader has returned to crack more skulls on the streets of Arkham City. Rocksteady has enhanced the venerable UE3 engine with DirectX 11 and PhysX support, but can this aging graphics engine really handle such large, richly detailed outdoor areas? You might be surprised.


Batman: Arkham City is the direct sequel to the 2009 title Batman: Arkham Asylum. Developed by veteran Batman game developers Rocksteady Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, it was released for Windows on November 22nd, 2011 in North America, and three days later in Europe. Batman: Arkham City has received widespread critical acclaim but mixed fan reactions on Metacritic with a professional reviewer score of 91 out of 100 and an average user score of 7.1 out of 10.

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Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City is a third-person action game set in an open world prison. Like Arkham Asylum before it, Arkham City incorporates elements of stealth and detective work along with large-scale brawls and a very large quantity of cinematic sequences, both pre-rendered and real-time. It's a single player only game with no multiplayer component. Apart from the main quest, there is a challenge mode comprised of brawls composed of escalating waves of enemy thugs. Challenge maps are unlocked through achievements in the main game, and can be played as Batman and Catwoman, and feature online leader-boards so that gamers can engage in some friendly indirect competition.

The Technology

Batman: Arkham City is powered by a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3, or UE3. Among modifications done to the game include DirectX 11 support of hardware tessellation, Horizon-Based Ambient Occlusion (HBAO), and Multi-View Soft Shadows (MVSS). Tessellation and HBAO should be familiar to most PC gamers, but MVSS is relatively new. Designed by NVIDIA, it is a means of creating soft shadows by blending together several shadow maps, each rendered with a different light source. It is an effective means of creating soft shadows, and seems to work rather well in Arkham City. Interested gamers can read more about MVSS in NVIDIA's white-paper (link to PDF).

Tessellation is used in Arkham City to increase detail in certain organic landscape objects, such as the plants around Poison Ivy's lair. HBAO is utilized by way of a DirectCompute shader program to increase the quality of ambient-occlusion shadows, as DX9 mode uses standard screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO).

While these DirectX 11 features are cool, and we are glad they made it in, there are severe performance issues which currently plague Batman: Arkham City on the PC when run in DirectX 11 mode. The issues were severe enough that we found gameplay with DX11 to be unacceptable, so the bulk of our testing was done in DX9 mode. This is a known issue you can read about here. When Rocksteady releases a patch to fix these issues, we will revisit Batman: Arkham City and hopefully show off what the game can do in DX11. As it is now, DX11 does not deliver a good gameplay experience, and DX9 is preferred.

Batman: Arkham City also features NVIDIA PhysX support. PhysX is used to enable particle effects such as dust and ice particles, sparks, cloth, and fluid dynamics. It can be enabled without PhysX capable devices present, but performance suffers dramatically.