Gotham's Got Talent
I wonder if the rest of the Justice League gathers around the Fortress of Solitude and gossips amongst themselves their envy towards Batman. Superman doesn’t get to appear in any award-winning video games. Wonder Woman wished that the rest of the world spoke in hush tones about anything she’s done the way the world does the Christopher Nolan Batman films. Green Lantern fantasizes about having an animated series that matches what cartoon Batmen has done over the years. I’m sure Martian Manhunter would love the attention of being in something as ironically revered as the Adam West series. Hell, in a parallel universe, Wolverine nudges up to Spiderman and says “hey bub, I wish Activision would stop dicking us over and make a real game like Batsy over there.” I guess talent is just drawn to the Dark Knight and his broody pecs. Maybe it’s because DC Comics learned hard lessons after the Batman and Robin movie nippled its way into existence. Maybe it’s just because Activision obtained the Marvel license just to spite the world.
2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was developed by people that clearly have a high opinion of Batman. They understand that Batman has no qualms being outnumbered 20 to 1, and that being left alone in a room filled with thugs armed with AK-47s is a horrifying experience for the armed thugs. Batman is a character so badass that only traumatizing childhood experiences can bring him to his knees, and even that requires hallucinogenic gases. That passion for vengeance, justice and gargoyle statues translates over to Batman: Arkham City, a game that ventures further into the psychopathic pathos that comes with breaking bones and collecting green trophies with question marks on them.
The titular Arkham City is a decrepit part of Gotham City transformed into a giant prison, I guess because economic times are rough and building new prisons isn’t a good use of Gotham’s tax dollars. (What with all that money being spent repairing all those buildings the Joker keeps destroying and all.) Being that the prison is operated by Hugo Strange, a man you know is evil based on his facial hair, something is amiss and Batman must deduce what. This game signifies that “Batman: Arkham Subtitle” is a new set of Batman fiction with a specific continuity separate from the comics and not a random schlep of trademarked characters slapped into a single game like every other comic-book game. The events of Arkham Asylum carry over here, and new events happen with a great amount of weight and impact.
How unfair it is; between the Nolan movies, the comics and now this series of games, that Batman fans have three different continuities to be excited about. The Justice League have every right to be jealous.
Rocksteady Games makes a note to expand on every element of Arkham Asylum that people loved. The combat is still based on timing button presses to strike and counter in a way that better resembles action movie scuffles than a video game melee fight. After all, Batman is too cool to do air combos. But subtle tweaks, like being able to counter several people at once, or do a bread-basket focused assault on a single foe’s solar-plexus makes things feel more dynamic. The game also makes sure to assign a bevy of shortcuts to quick-use all of Batman’s MANY gadgets. Want to quickly whip out some explosive gel to freak out enemies? You can. (Don’t worry, Batman isn’t fazed by such simple things as C4.) In a way, Arkham City is the Anti-Wii in that it not only uses every button on the controller, but in two-three different ways as to really confuse your brain’s wiring. Practice makes perfect, just look at Batman’s first year.
(Note: That Batman: Year One cartoon was okay I guess. The Red Hood one was better.)
That big, yellow utility belt also serves to make the stealth bits more satisfying. The core idea is unchanged; you perch on gargoyle statues and try to silently outwit armed goons and watch as they get progressively more terrified of you. The biggest innovation is that sometimes you aren’t perched on gargoyle statues! Sometimes they’re just metal structures placed around the facility akin to gargoyle statues! You also have new ways to play with your foes. Like a remote control that will sabotage a guard’s gun without them being awares. Or an electric blast that triggers one’s allergic reaction to high voltage.
If you focus on following the linear storyline, you’ll quickly realize that you are playing through Arkham Asylum. A more refined version of Arkham Asylum that seems to have more villains than they know what to do with, but still Arkham Asylum. (No, seriously. Two-Face seems to be shoved into the storyline for no reason other than to be another leader of hired goons.) The big difference comes when you’re allowed to explore the world at large. Arkham City is indeed a sizable mini-city, a city filled with hoodlums who don’t have much faith in their employers. No one ever says “boy, our boss the Joker sure is a swell pal. I’m glad I chose the life of crime.” There’s an awful lot of radio chatter from assorted goons that set a tone, though I sure do miss the Joker’s passive-aggressive, sometimes very aggressive death threats over the Asylum PA.
Within this city is a bevy of Riddler trophies and side-quests that will easily overwhelm a new player. The worst moment of playing Arkham City is the first hour, when your Batcomputer explodes with waypoints about sidequests, and a young, nubile new Batman player just doesn’t know what to do. It’s even more dangerous to your senses when you explore the city and realize that there are more Riddler trophies on the streets than litter. The new travel mechanics, which consist of Batclaw-rappelling and a more exciting variation on Super Mario World’s cape flight, make navigating around the city a pleasant and speedy experience at the least.
All of that side stuff is going to take an awful amount of time to do. Most of the side-quests relate to assorted Batman characters in an interesting way. Some of them just feel like decisive game-lengthening excuses to pad out the time it takes to reach the vaunted “100%” status. There are 440 Riddler tasks that one must do before you can confront the Riddler. As of this writing, I’m merely at 200. Many of them are tied to some kind of mini-puzzle contraption of sorts, so at least there’s a sense that some care went into the preceedings.
Still, it’s hard to not feel like corporate executives put some hard pressure on developers Rocksteady to make this game as resale-unfriendly as possible. The campaign is a decent 10-12 hours, but I feel that time can be more than doubled if one is crazy enough to venture for all of the side content. Then there’s the whole Catwoman ordeal. There are indeed segments of the game where you play as the walking fetish generator. Catwoman only plays slightly differently from Batman in that she has less toy gimmicks, but can climb walls like a spid…cat. But still, these segments factor into the main plot, and certain Riddler trophies can only be collected by Miss Kyle.
But alas, you won’t be able to play through those segments without an online pass. As someone that bought the game new, this didn’t affect me beyond the half hour it took to download all 320MB of Catwoman. But I never felt inclined to sell my copy of Arkham Asylum. That title was so damn exquisite that I was obligated to revisit it time and time again just to remind myself. This whole online pass business is a very gross reminder that men in suits want to make every dollar possible by any means necessary. What’s to stop the next Batman game from making you buy every thrown Batarang with real money?
Until that horrible day comes, we can at least take solace in knowing that Arkham City is an excellent title. I could have easily saved the hour it took to write this by saying “if you liked Arkham Asylum, you’ll like this”, as that is truly what it all boils down to. Still, there are two very telling feelings that preach to the quality of the game. One is my personal sense of obligation to go back and collect all of those vile Riddler trophies. The other is disgust knowing that my online rental service sent me Spiderman: Edge of Time, and that I should probably play that next. Wish me luck.
4 ½ stars