Lost in Arkham City
It’s hard to follow up one of the most cohesive interactive experiences of the past generation. When Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum, they found themselves showered with praise, game of the year nods, and copious sales numbers. The relatively new development houses managed to meld combat, stealth sequences, narrative pacing, and character into a tight, focused package that felt nearly perfect. Normally when a licensed video game comes out, the nature of it being based on previous non-interactive material prevents it from being a great interactive experience. But against all odds, Arkham Asylum was. So how do you top that?
Follow the latest trend in gaming: open world design. Surely the increase in scale would complement a Batman game, right?
I wish it were as simple as that, and I wish I could say Arkham City tops everything that Asylum did and more. Sadly, the switch to open world has left the narrative and pacing with no time to mature, instead giving way too much traversal and too many side-tasks that aren’t necessarily very meaningful. Still, the main story is a well told peace of superhero fiction, and the Bat still knows how to kick some minion asses. It’s just not as great as its predecessor.
To Arkham City’s credit, it starts on very strong footing. Akin to Dead Space 2, things start off quickly, with players set in a vulnerable position, forcing some visual spectacle and establishing the bare minimum needed to begin a Batman story. Not much is explained, but by the time you get your Bat suit on, the plot is set up well enough: After the Joker’s murderous prank on Arkham Asylum, scientist Hugo Strange somehow persuaded prospective mayor and Asylum warden Quincy Sharp to purchase a large chunk of Gotham to wall off and christen “Arkham City” as a home for the super-violent criminals formerly sequestered off on Arkham Island. Bruce Wayne gets captured while campaigning for the closure of Arkham City, and must unravel the insidious conspiracy lying behind Strange’s stoic, but violent actions.
Players hoping to find Mark Hamill’s Joker as the head honcho again may be a tad disappointed as his role isn’t quite as large as it was in the first game, but half a dozen legacy villains, and some interesting cameos are all incredibly well voice acted and fit within the context of the world. At times, I did find that there wasn’t perhaps enough time to give all the villains the necessary time to develop, and some very late game revelations don’t play out as well as the writers clearly wanted. Paul Dini, the man behind the animated series, has taken this branch of Batman canon closer to some of the worst practices of comic book writing, trading semi-realism for straight up unbelievable mysticism, resulting in some groan-worthy moments.
Unfortunately, after the atmospheric opening, the game gives way to short, yet interesting main story missions stretched thin over an open world design that is lacking in meaningful, narrative side missions. There are some side attractions that are interesting, but many don’t end in much story payoff or interesting encounters. The lack of quality in side missions is compensated unsuccessfully with Riddler trophies. Arkham Asylum veterans will remember the clever, deliberate placement of the Riddler’s tests of wit, which is woefully cast aside in favor of sheer quantity. There are 400 total riddles, which is nice (or maybe not) for the obsessive-compulsive hoarders, but bad for anyone who is expecting to be able to take down the Riddler without becoming bored with repeating riddle patterns. And most aren’t accessible until you have all of Batman’s upgraded gear. My advise to those wanting to find all the riddles is to wait until after you’re done with the main story. Your time and mental wellbeing will be spared. It is a shame that a lot of back-story is unlocked through finding these riddles, which clears up some vague plot points, but will likely be lost on most players unwilling to slog through heaps of question mark idols.
It also doesn’t help that many of Arkham City’s buildings and streets that house the riddles and missions simply aren’t that visually memorable. That isn’t to knock the technical quality of the game, which is probably second best behind Gears of War 3 when it comes to using the Unreal Engine. No, where Arkham City struggles is to create a real sense of identity and place in its world. Arkham Asylum used every inch of its space to accomplish a tight pace and a great sense of life. Everything from the sewers to Batman’s second Bat cave felt like they were part of a living world, whereas much of Arkham City feels sort of bland and missions are broken up too much by travel. Much more time is spent gliding than fighting or sneaking about doing detective work. This sacrifices the pace considerably, and considering the incredibly focused nature of first game, comes as a shock. It isn’t a game breaker, but it does make the game feel much less special as a whole.
All these changes from sparse utility to increased quantity and scope may sound harsh, but it is a testament to the fighting system and main missions that Arkham City doesn’t end up feeling unsatisfying. The free-flow combo-combat is tighter than ever, new gadgets get put to good use and old favorites find new life, and the villains are still fun to take down. In particular, the new grapnel boost, which lets you keep a glide going from one end of the map to another, makes getting around the fairly large map quick and fun. The gliding also gets some new attacks that make taking out baddies from the air much more satisfying and brutal. Just like in Arkham Asylum, Batman isn’t afraid to break bones and crack skulls, and the new moves just add to the gutturally violent combat. In fact, he has probably never been darker, and doesn’t mess around with anyone. You get the sense that the stakes have never been higher, and shutting down Arkham City is of dire importance to the Caped Crusader. Most importantly, the responsive controls still make Batman feel like the powerful vigilante he is supposed to be.
Once you’re done with your initial play through, you can either keep messing around with side missions and unfound Riddler trophies, or you can start a New Game Plus, which gives you all your gadgets, keeps all your Riddles from the first save, does away with the on-screen counter attack indicator, and adds more bad guys to each fight. This makes things much more challenging from a combat perspective, but actually made me more willingly to play through again to clean up some riddles and side missions, and enjoy the main story again. There are also some challenge maps and leaderboards if you’re into that sort of thing.
What you’re left with at the end of Arkham City is a fantastic main story, but perhaps too much filler that clogs it up. The combat and gadgets have been improved to keep this series at the top of the action game pack and anyone who appreciates comics or simply cracking skulls will be deeply satisfied with the Dark Knight’s return.