BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY and the douchebag in all of us
BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY is a videogame developed Rocksteady Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purposes of this review. It was directed by SEFTON HILL.
It’s late in Arkham Asylum. Dawn will break soon and it seems like the nightmare Joker would unleash onto Gotham was averted. The game is about to end, but, before it does, a call about Two-Face is overheard on the radio. It seems Batman: Arkham Asylum is all but over for Commissioner Gordon, you and me. But not Batman. He flies off to handle another crisis in Gotham City. He must endure. The game offers us a taste of what it is like being Bats, but just a taste. What that ending says is that never truly became him. His martyrdom must continue after the credits rolls.
Sometime after the first game, mayor Quincy Sharp, former warden of Arkham, together with the help of Dr. Hugo Strange, reallocated all criminals to a closed-off area in Gotham City and named that new prison Arkham City. The developer’s goal in doing this is pretty straight forward: to finally get the full experience of being Batman, as he scours the city for criminal activity.
In doing so, what they have managed to do was to corrupt all that understanding of what it means to be Batman that was so well-crafted in the first game. Batman is no longer a hero. He is a “video game hero”, with all game manias that entails.
That means that instead of fulfilling the quintessential Batman fantasy of being a lone dark vigilante in a corrupt city, what we get is a toy box. A place whose only inhabitants are either the “grunts” (black bob-ombs) and “political prisoners” (pink bob-ombs, quest givers and occasional hostages). Grunts are all ripping with muscles – which is good because Batman would probably feel bad brawling against flabby foes – and their role is to be punched. Never mind that, despite being, technically, in prison, they don’t even need to commit any sort of crime to attract Batman’s attention. The Dark Knight will come down at them anyways, so he can score some points like a true douchebag. I mean, like a true video game hero!
Truth be told, the only “villain” properly developed in Arkham City is the average thug. That’s the one great thing Arkham City brings to the table: it makes us meet the minion. As their unsolicited moaning and complaints invade your ears, you will discover the daily grind of the minion: working in the cold weather, feeling hungry, being forced to reassess whose side they should be joining every half minute, walking around in weird costume, and having to put up with Harley Quinn – Joker’s Yoko Ono. Batman, of course, is sympathetic: he dive bombs them into unconsciousness.
Apart of the average thug, no villain dominates the spotlight in Arkham City like Joker did in Arkham Asylum. That intense one on one feud disappears as many of these foes appear to be introduced for the sake of fan service, none of their plots being fully developed. Why is the Penguin kidnapping Mr. Freeze? Why, because he is the Penguin! Why is Mr. Freeze the one developing some random “cure”? Why, because he is a scientist, and that’s what scientists do! Why is Two-Face doing whatever a Two-Face should be doing? Because yadayadayada acid on his face! And yet each villain adds another mini-quest for Batman to fulfill. Such is the bane of Arkham City, the most domesticated a game can get. Each mini-quest is catalogued and brings its own to-do list, all of which can be tracked on the map some way or another. Holy, vigilante management, Batman! The player is going to become inescapably aware of this as he collects his 200th Riddler Trophy. Curiously, Batman: The Animated Series portrays the Riddler as being a former game designer which, when you think about the kind of “riddles” he comes up with in Arkham City, makes complete sense. Even Catwoman gets her share of Riddler Trophies for some reason.
As a result, Arkham City often feels like a GTA game without the story sections. Everything shares the same level of importance, so nothing stands out. The overarching goal itself isn’t clear. Dr. Strange knows who Batman is but, instead of ever exposing him, he kidnaps Wayne so he can have the Bats wandering about in his new town/prison. The initial feeling is that Batman could leave whenever he wanted. There is no sense of a threat strong enough to keep him from enjoying a sip of Alfred’s herbal tea back at Wayne’s Manor for a good part of the game’s first act.
The truth is that by creating a sectioned part of Gotham for you to play in, Rocksteady practically built its entire game inside a plot hole, just like a SPECTRE agent builds his secret base inside an active volcano. The game delivers the existence of the Arkham City “prison” as a given, but you are never able to suspend your disbelief – and mayhap that wasn’t even the goal. The goal was to play in Gotham City, but one whose overflow of grunts and evil maniacs could be justified. A little Gotham City, with justifiable barriers instead of invisible walls and filled with all the landmarks of the Batman’s canon – again, for fan service. The developers apparently took the “It’s All Radioactive” ploy from Bionic Commando (2009) a bit further. It’s a Synecdoche: Gotham City – you are in a prison that is actually a city, which is still supposed to be a prison, but not really. And, in this little Gotham City, weird things happen, such as the ability the so-called super villains possess of conjuring an unlimited supply of weird costumes and the fact that they are fighting each other instead of building boats to leave Arkham City. Did I forget to mention this is a prison… with a pier?
The effect on the game’s pacing is jarring. Once a game takes the sandbox route, its plot can no longer predict the player’s path. The issue becomes how you handle the feeling of urgency the player feels, and the way Arkham City chose to do this requires the player to choose between two or three situations with the same level of urgency. When two super villains threaten to kill a hostage, Batman is forced to choose to save one before the other. However, after he has dealt with the first hostage, the second super villain is still patiently waiting for his turn, his hostage still safe and sound, killing the illusion of emergency.
But is Arkham City a bad game? No! It is a perfectly good game. The problem is that all the reasons why it is a good game stream directly from prequel. Arkham City is good because the brawl mechanics, where every punch delivers the impact of a hammer, and the predator mechanics, where the enemies’ theatrics are a reward in itself, are extremely satisfying. Arkham City is good because its visual design is still an inspired mix of gothic architecture, art deco and now neon lights. Arkham City is good because of the interpretations delivered by a great cast of voice actors. Arkham City is good because there is still nothing like watching Batman’s cape flutter as you run.
Arkham Asylum was a near great game, with a tight story, a clear understanding of what it means to be Batman, and all the points mentioned above. Its only flaws were, perhaps, minor things like the fact Batman’s back took over half your screen and that was no underlying philosophical posit to it. Arkham City, on the other hand, is good frankly because it would require a true master in order to ruin the solid pillars established by the first game. Instead of stepping up its game, the Arkham City offered us a dutiful sequel, where the new brings along its own baggage: domestication, plot holes…