The original Arkham Asylum game was great, and really proved that a studio that understood the essence of the modern Batman character could produce a fantastic game. In many ways, it’s stunning it took so long to get here. Batman IS the typical PC in a video game: peak athletic form, tons of equipment hidden on themselves, endless endurance, ridiculously flamboyant villains, and a tendency not to speak unless he absolutely needs to. Apart from the cape, he’s no different than Master Chief or the Doom Marine.
The Arkham Asylum’s real strength is creating a gameplay experience that was absolutely in line with the Batman character, and then telling a story that was 85% action, 10% introspection, and 5% Mark Hamill. By this formula alone, the game was crying out for a sequel.
The issue was, though, that the story of the first game didn’t actually set up very well for a sequel. There was the standard hook at the end when you see something emerge from the waters around Arkham Island, but apart from that, the game was very insular. Everything was one island, the island was lost, and Joker was taken down. What was next?
Arkham City expands the ‘island’ setting of the first game, with its fairly linear structure (more like a metroidvania game, really) and blowing it out into a GTA or Assassin’s Creed style open city with dozens of side missions and a roaming main plot that involves traversing the city’s rooftops or skyways with style. The parallels between this game and Assassin’s Creed were enough to ease of my doubt of an ‘open world’ Batman game, and the improvements to the fighting system and the fascinating beats of the story won me over.
The game is visually gorgeous, in line with if not exceeding the style of Arkham Asylum. With the change of setting from old island prison to decaying city, the style has a very Blade Runner feeling to it, dark, gothic buildings stacked on themselves with girders and scaffolding everywhere punctuated by neon signs and billboards. It’s different, I’ll admit, but feels sort of cluttered. As if the city was intended to emulate the rock faces that Arkham Asylum was built into.
It also makes navigation rough. Assassin’s Creed’s cities were invariably well maintained, with define pathways and a more or less easily traversed path from one end of the city to the other on foot. Batman’s city, however, is full of seemingly impossible shapes. Streets and roads don’t appear to connect in a logical way (such as to allow cars to move through the city easily) and as such the only practical method of getting around is to climb to the top of the nearest building and glide.
Gliding, of course, is fun, but takes a little getting used to. You have to be constantly heading towards a building if you want to keep your momentum because you’ll have to use your grapple to fling yourself back up into the air to get height. There are no updrafts or jetpacks to obtain in this game, you just have your cape, which glides well, but it is just a glide and is not flying by any means. In comparison, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Revelations had Parachutes, which accomplished the same thing, but you could gain some height and speed by diving then pulling up suddenly. Batman does not have this ability, which is perhaps more realistic, or perhaps a result of carrying around 2 tonnes of steel gadgets.
Much of your gadgets from the first game carry over, incidentally, which is awesome. Of all people, I would expect Batman to keep his equipment from game to game, so it’s gratifying to see the familiar detonation gel, remote controlled batarang, and hacking device to be right there from the start of the game.
Finally, the story. The game is a continuation of Arkham Asylum, but in the interim, the inmates have been merged with Blackgate (the prison) and cordoned off into a section of the city and given free reign of that area. Impossibly, the whole thing is run by Hugo Strange, the crazy psychologist Batman villain who knows Batman is Bruce Wayne. I can’t explain why he got the reigns of this establishment, but, whatever.
I find myself a little… meh, on the story right now. I haven’t given it a lot of time to develop, and this may just be a case of a game where I actually am more intrigued by the gameplay than plot. We’ll see if it gets better as time goes on. Right now it’s just been used to set up a few fetch quests and explain the return of the Joker. Maybe it’ll get more interesting. I really liked the story of Arkham Asylum, how the doctors developed the Titan formula and how Joker got control of it. We’ll see if something just as interesting happens here.
What IS interesting, though, is the Catwoman story, which runs parallel to Batman’s story and the game jumps back and forth between the two. This is a huge divergence from the first game and it’s absolutely welcome. Not that I particularly wanted a Catwoman game, but to see the plot from two perspectives very refreshing, and I like the various cues that show how the stories intersect. Hopefully Catwoman continues to play a major role to the end.
I’ll probably focus back on L.A. Noire for the next week to see if I can finish off the last two desks and close the book on that game before coming back to Batman. But when I do, I’ll talk more about my experiences in the game.