Batman Circa 2009
Batman: Arkham Asylum was an awesome game. Rocksteady did away with the need to tie-in with pre-existing Batman movies or comics and by doing so created an amazing game with a completely original story. It also helped that they got the feeling of being Batman himself so very right. The combat didn’t just ape what had come before in the 3rd-person action genre, but struck ahead to define a system that so fluid and graceful that it left most players feeling superhero-esque! Arkham Asylum also had more going for it than a well-written story and innovative combat – the unique environment of the asylum itself played a major role in convincing players to see Batman: AA through to the end, as did the constant malignant presence of Joker. These elements come together in a way that was completely unprecedented for a licensed game, and indeed for most games in general. It’s not really any wonder Arkham Asylum was my game of the year for 2009.
I finished Arkham Asylum two years ago and was left wanting more. I stayed in that world for some time after the story was complete – first to solve all the Riddler puzzles and thus the mystery of the Asylum, and next to hone my combat skills in the Challenge rooms until I could clear an entire room without being touched. Still I wanted more, and now two years later Batman: Arkham City is finally here to pick up that slack. Or is it?
Arkham City changes up the winning formula of Arkham Asylum in some pretty major ways: a bigger world, many more villains, many more combat moves, bigger battles, sidequests, hundreds more Riddler puzzles, and wait for it … more DLC. Like most fans, the previews had me totally convinced that these moves were all positive. After playing Arkham City, the truth is that none of these additions make the Rocksteady Batman formula any more compelling, and worse – they water down some of the best aspects of the game. Arkham Asylum had an elegance of design that the newer game seems to have sacrificed to the altar of MORE and BIGGER.
Let’s talk about the combat first. The first thing you’ll notice about combat in Arkham City is that the battles are bloody huge! It’s common to face dozens of thugs at once, and of course Batman encounters many new thug variants that need to be tackled in unique ways. Honestly, I found myself getting my ass handed to me for the first few hours (this on Hard difficulty keep in mind) even with the finely honed Batskills I carried over from the first game. A legitimate strategy for winning these early battles is to punch once, then counter once, repeat ad nauseam. If you attempt any fancy moves, you are almost guaranteed to be hit from behind and finished off quickly as Batman starts the game with very little health. As you progress in the game, gaining XP and thus unlocking new gadgets and skills, combat does become easier. But it never approaches the elegance of the first game because there are too damn many enemies! It’s extremely hard to plan a graceful but brutal combo-heavy assault when Batman is constantly surrounded by three thugs preparing to throw fists. In Arkham Asylum, I tried to wipe out the enemy in the most stylish and satisfying way possible; in Arkham City, I tried to survive. And it was ugly.
It doesn’t help that the control scheme in Arkham City is positively overloaded with gadgets and special moves. As I pushed A + X on my Xbox 360 controller to activate one special move, rapidly tapped LT followed by RT to throw gadgets and then Y + B for another special, I had the thought that there is literally no more space to add more skills/gadgets unless Rocksteady would like to map button combinations including the Back button (Back + RT + X anyone? You may need a Batclaw to actually pull off that move). In Arkham Asylum there were enough skills for considerable complexity but each move had its place and potential uses whereas in the new game I felt many moves were completely unnecessary – especially in light of the constant overbearing attack from the thugs mentioned above.
Joker returns as a primary villain in Arkham City and once again Mark Hamill puts on an amazing performance as the clown prince. But, he is not alone, oh no. Completely off the top of my head, here are the villains I can remember from Arkham City. Ok here goes: Penguin, Two-Face, Ivy, Bane, Deadshot, Ras al Ghul, Mad Hatter, Quincy Sharp, Hugo Strange, Riddler, Zsasz, Clayface and probably many more I forgot! It feels like Rocksteady went out of their way to cram in as many villains as possible into Arkham City and in doing so, lost the beautiful focus that the original game balanced on so perfectly. Yes, there were other villains besides Joker in Arkham Asylum, but they all served the greater purpose of the main narrative – and that’s not the case here. Arkham City’s main narrative skips from one villain to the next at a breakneck pace, almost as if Rocksteady were afraid players would lose their interest if any one storyline thread lingered overlong. It is truly overwhelming at times – and bewildering that such a talented developer didn’t see this outcome.
I’ve talked to many gamers that finished Arkham Asylum and really enjoyed it. One thing I never heard any of them say was, “If only this game was open-world. What an improvement that would be!” I never said that either. It’s not so much of a problem to create an open-world (and make no mistake, the world of Arkham City is extremely impressive in terms of scale and detail) but the difficulty lies in populating it with interesting tasks to tackle outside the main mission structure. Many developers have failed on this mark and sadly Rocksteady has fared no better. Let me broadly describe some of the sidequests you can take on in Arkham Asylum: Race from phonebooth to phonebooth across town; VR gliding missions (ie. Fly through rings. Seriously!); blow up TITAN containers (ie. treasure hunt with zero puzzles); and collect Riddler trophies (ie. treasure hunt with puzzles). None of these tasks will keep you from the main missions, folks. The worst part? Arkham City is a shorter game than the original when considering the main storyline. I have to wonder what might have been, if Rocksteady didn’t get all open-worldy. My guess is there would have been more time for the good stuff!
Catwoman: DLC Travesty
Finally I have to touch on the DLC situation with Arkham City. Flat out, it sucks. You've probably already heard that Catwoman and her missions are doled out in an Online Pass-esque manner – only to new game buyers. Let's first skip the fact that Arkham City is a single-player game, totally unaffected by the 'server fees' that the industry uses an excuse to grab $10 from used-game customers - that's a classless business move and sad for the industry. But the worst part is that the Catwoman DLC is terrible. It contains just four missions, all of which are very short – and none of which are good or add anything useful to the Arkham City narrative. Beyond that, Rocksteady has really flipped the proverbial bird to completionists, since some of the elusive Riddler trophies are only retrievable by the Kitty herself. I'm trying not to be cynical here, but this DLC must have been a product conceived in a boardroom, not a developer studio.
Batman: Arkham City is a very polished game made by talented developers with high production values and it shows. I haven't said anything yet about how the graphics are a big improvement over the first game. That's because it doesn't matter. Arkham City diverges from the first game in many meaningful areas with lackluster results. It doesn't surprise me that it was featured heavily in 2011 Game of the Year voting all over the internet, but it didn't get my vote. Not only does Arkham City lack the pure elegance of Arkham Asylum, somehow Rocksteady's new game lacks the soul of the Dark Knight as well.