I Am the Batman
review for Batman: Arkham City (PC, X360, PS3), 1 player action, out now
To say Batman: Arkham City is the best videogame to come out this year is a hefty mouthful of a statement indeed, but the more I think about it, the more it rings true. Y'see, analysis of this game comes all but rationally. I've thought long and hard, and I've decided, as full of unbridled awesomeness as Batman is... it is really, really hard to do it right. I've been rewatching The Dark Knight, the Tim Burton Batman movies, Batman: The Animated Series, and as good as they all are - and they're pretty much all universally brilliant - there's always elements of Batman that come off as pretty damn, almost irredeemably, stupid.
Batman started off as a funny pages strip, of course. It wasn't until incredibly recently in the character's long, varied history that he became less of a detective and more of a fucking ninja, and the series started to focus less on a colourful array of comically fiendish bank robbers and arsonists, and more on a staggeringly dark, painfully accurate depiction of the depths of the insane, criminal mind. Modern Batman is incredibly deep and psychologically rooted. It's not quite Watchmen standards of dark, brooding, edgy and psychological, but it's damn close, and that says a lot for what started off as an incomprehensibly silly game of men-in-flashy-tights-beating-each-other-up back in the Golden Era of comic books.
Yes, to do Batman justice, you need to get all the elements right. Every villain, every inch of backstory, every side character and world detail needs to be just right to portray the Batman mythos as anything other than a two-dimensional comic book world. Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is the most realistically accurate, for example, but it doesn't quite get the characterizations right. The Animated Series is the most faithful to the comic books, but it often comes across as cartoonish. The comics themselves tend to get bogged down in continuity, the best of the crop being reboots or alternate reality stories like Frank Miller's Year One and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke.
It's Rocksteady Studios though - with the help of Animated Series head writer Paul Dini - who have crafted the best possible representation of the Batman universe. This may come across as the praise of a fanboy, but quite the opposite - as much as I love Batman, there are so many elements that irk me, so many elements the true Batman fans would say must be there. Robin, for example. I hate Robin. And Batgirl. And for the longest time, Riddler - the list goes on; there's so many parts of Batman that rub me the wrong way. Batman is a psychologically tormented ninja-type figure who stalks on the fear and superstition of criminals. That's awesome. A man who prefaces every sentence with "riddle me this," a small child who spouts hideous one-liners as Batman grimaces to himself... no. If anything, I hate the Batman universe! But Rocksteady, god bless 'em, have managed to combine all the elements of the Batman universe that deserve to be combined, trimming the fat, and adding details that amount to the best Batman world ever realized.
Arkham City is, of course, the sequel to 2009's Arkham Asylum, arguably the best game of that year, also. It took all the best elements from all the Batman continuities - The Animated Series' Joker wearing the comic book's Joker's outfit, for example - and made it into a dark, gritty, realistic - yet fun, sporadic, comic book-influenced - place full of insane madmen who all posed legitimate threats. They re-imagined Riddler to be a devious, attention-seeking prick. They turned Killer Croc into a Hulk-type, monstrous figure who lives in the sewer and feasts on the bones of humans. They turned simple henchmen into a legitimate threat to the Batman's life, and it was only sheer skill that separated Batman from his foes. It was the best Batman game ever made, with beautiful, simple, flowing combat, and pants-wetting stealth that saw Batman picking off scared stragglers one-by-one. It was brilliant.
Building on the core of the experience, yet improving every other element, Arkham City continues on from Asylum's story. With Arkham Asylum deemed not enough to contain the super-criminals that infest Gotham, newly elected Mayor Sharp has basically walled off a corner of the city and stuck every criminal inside, deeming the new "super-prison" Arkham City. It's a stupid idea, of course - with every major villain in the same place, gang warfare breaks out in what we can only assume is a matter of hours - but nevertheless, it appears to work, the crime rate dropping rapidly and Mayor Sharp pretty proud with himself. Or, so it would seem. Batman knows it's not good for Gotham - seemingly the only person on the planet with a shred of common sense - and starts to campaign as his alter-ego Bruce Wayne to get Arkham City torn down.
Things go pear-shaped quickly, though. The warden of Arkham City, Hugo Strange, has Bruce Wayne arrested and placed inside. He knows that Bruce Wayne, is Batman too, threatening to tell the whole world his secret. Bruce Wayne escapes from his imprisonment, of course, and after a series of events too spoilerish to list here, he is back as Batman, in Arkham City, too get to the bottom of what must be a plan deeper than it seems.
The real major change between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City is that Arkham Asylum's world map is really fucking tiny in comparison. Arkham Asylum consisted of three main buildings on an island - Arkham City, conversely, truly does feel like it's a whole freaking city. It's a huge place. Huge! Intimately detailed, down to the very last brick. Rocksteady have created a brilliant playing field for the villains of Batman to duke it out in vicious gang warfare, with political prisoners taking refuge from the madmen with guns terrorizing each other. With the city being so much bigger than Asylum was, serious change need to be made to the way Batman gets from Point A to Point B. Their solution? Elegant. Let Batman fly.
Not really, he still simply "glides" gracefully, but hold down the right trigger while gliding, and Batman rockets down in a dive bomb, which you can use to gain extra momentum and glide faster - and further - up into the sky. You can also use Batman's grapnel to hookshot yourself off the top of buildings at tremendous speed. The map is freaking huge, make no mistake, but with these new gliding abilities, it makes traversing the place fast, slick, and fun. You can make your way from one end of the city to the other without touching the ground, in less than a minute. It's going to be hard to play sandbox games like this in future without this ability, let me tell you. My index finger will be reaching for that grapnel button...
The world is a varied place, full of a lot of interesting locations and characters. Three main corners of the map are aptly themed after the villain whose gang controls it - Penguin's corner is full of ice and museums, Two-Face's is full of booze, bright lights and half-burned buildings, and Joker's is a steel mill which has been refurnished to look like a madman's amusement carnival. It's really quite neat, and it really does go to illustrate how three-dimensional and real Rocksteady's representation of the Batman universe feels that you can have a building covered in ice that belongs to Mr Freeze, that actually sits there like it belongs there (as apposed to feeling like, say, a shoed-in comic book villain's parlour shop).
The combat is also significantly - and deeply - improved. It still focuses on more or less a two-button system. X hits people across the chops, and Y counters their attacks. The Freeflow combat system has been revamped so the smooth, flowing, on-the-fly animations are more beautifully brutal than ever, but the core remains mostly unchanged. It's the little details that make it. All of Batman's new moves work into combat - his new slide, which is designed to slip under gates, can be used to knock over grunts. You can even use the grapnel boost to collide into snipers on top of buildings! It's all wonderful, the inclusion of these new gadgets and toys being implemented smoothly and naturally.
The stealth sections have been improved in tiny ways, also, but it mixes up the formula so well from Asylum... the gargoyles, for example, that once plagued every building in Arkham (for no reason other than Batman sits on gargoyles, duh!) no longer do, replaced by rafters, or protruding metal poles. The henchmen have, of course, wised up to Batman's "he sits on the rafters" trick, though, and they occasionally scan the gargoyles to see if Batman is on them. They also sometimes bring in radar jammers which makes the detective vision - the all-encompassing X-ray/navigation/investigation viewing mode that Batman uses to see enemies through walls and such - useless, until the jammer is taken out. What's especially cool is that even though they thought of everything, they then re-thought of everything - and Batman can counter every single new move on the bad guy's repertoire with a new one of his own. Gargoyle scanners can be countered with an anti-scanner. I'm surprised it didn't come in a spray can.
The enemy variation is particularly great (though with this being the playground for, you know, every major Batman villain you can think of, you'd expect nothing but), and unlike in Asylum where the plethora of Superheroed boss fights were completely disappointing in that they tended to repeat the same thing over and over, this time the boss fights are all unique and taxing in their own right. Solomon Grundy, the Frankenstein's monster-type zombie-thing that first appeared in Green Lantern and has been terrorizing the DC Universe at large ever since, is a giant, stitched together pile of broken flesh and bones who can't die, and so taking him down requires a lot of creativity on Batman's behalf.
Same so with Mr Freeze, who, after playing an important role in the plot as an ally of sorts to Batman, completely flips his shit and tries to kill him. Instead of a standard stealth or combat scenario, Mr Freeze's magical robot suit lets him "learn" Batman's moveset as he uses it, and so you must take him down without using any move twice. It's creative, it's hard, and it's a really cool element to the main storyline's mission structure. There are countless times when this happens, where you have to re-consider your approach to what is an otherwise straight forward "beat up the bad guys" objective. Especially so in "Game+", a new mode that puts you through the New Game after finishing on a regular difficulty setting that provides your end-game kit at the expense of stronger and more difficult enemy setups - in the Mr Freeze fight in Game+, you must not only not use the same move twice, you have to use every possible takedown move on Freeze to win. Now, that is a challenge worthy of the Batman.
With the gameworld and gameplay being perfect Batman, all that remains is for the plot. I won't lie, it's still not exactly perfect. Well, it is, actually, it's probably the best Batman plot I've seen in years. But there are some scenes and moments that I'm really not a fan of. There's some very Bioshock-esque scenes that take place in an underground, secret city, and it was very, very silly. Regardless, these are but minor quibbles - the main plot itself is a varied, huge, all-encompassing storyline that is satisfying and filling, as well as throwing a lot of legitimate questions the audience's way regarding established Batman ideals. What would Batman be without Joker, for example? With Joker sick and dying after his run-in with TITAN in Arkham Asylum, Joker decides to get a direct frequency to Batman so he can talk to him whenever he desires - and the character interaction between Batman and his longest-running foe seriously change. For a moment, Joker really does warm to Batman. Is Batman just ruining all of Joker's fun? Of course he is. I mean, Joker then poisons all of Gotham's hospitals, but hey. Can't blame the guy for trying.
The sidequests, however, take the cake for making the game an example of unbiased, shining brilliance. The Riddler, for example, is feeling pretty sour about being mocked by Batman back in Arkham Asylum, and has hidden 420 of his riddles and trophies around Arkham City. The catch? He's kidnapped a truckload of hostages and his keeping them tied him in Saw-esque DEATH TRAPS. This is a Riddler who has truly gone off the edge, and his unbridled glee as he watches Batman squirm around in his little cat and mouse game truly cements him as the best re-incarnation of the character yet. Yes, even better than Jim Carrey! Really!
There are ten or so sidequests, each one basically a mini-campaign of sorts. There are a lot of things, but highlights for me include tracking down the deadly assassin Deadshot, tracking the serial killer Hush before he kills again, and being drugged and kidnapped by the deranged Mad Hatter, who takes Batman to a truly demented tea party of his own devices. The sidequests are all quite brilliant, acting as more than just icing on the cake, but rather part of the cake itself. They add depth, another layer of intrigue to the overarching plot of this Arkham City, and really give Rocksteady's Batman universe so, so many chances to shine with brilliance. Without these sidequests, Arkham City would be less of a game, and their inclusion just goes to show that Rocksteady truly do understand what makes Batman so great.
What might be a slight dealbreaker, however, is the fixation on DLC and bonus content. Catwoman is only a playable character if you buy the game new, and while at this early stage of the game's release cycle, it's fine - I doubt you'd pick up a pre-owned game for $10 less than new because if you do you're a bad person who truly wants the industry to collapse, don't you? YOU PRICK HOW DARE YOU BUY PRE-OWNED...! But further on down the line, when Arkham City is a few months old, or a few years old, it'll perhaps prove to be an issue. Too early to see. I picked up the Collector's Edition of Arkham City - the one with the massive Batman statue - and the first two hours I experienced of the game was entering in the plethora of DLC codes that came extra with the purchase and waiting for the sizable content packs to download.
I shan't mark it against the game, rather against the industry and the way these things work. But it's disappointing that it's come to this. Catwoman is essential to the plot of the game, and she plays very differently from Batman, so without her you truly do miss out on a considerable portion of the main game. She doesn't get her own side-missions however, which is just fine, but she does have her own Riddler trophies to collect, which show up on the hub world whether you have her or not. Guilting players into buying her? That's not exactly a super-ethical tactic. It's besides the point though, and does nothing to bring down Arkham City as the GOTY contender that it is.
Pure, solid-gold Batman. A thrilling story, excellent, deeper-than-it-seems gameplay, and a world - a universe - that is truly teeming with three-dimensional, interesting characters and locations. This isn't just the best Batman videogame ever, it's possibly Batman's best adventure this decade, and certainly an epitome of polished videogaming brilliance. Batman: Arkham City is, at this point, looking like the best game of the year, and it'll take a lot of shoving from its Christmas line-up competition to push it off that pedastool. Truly, this game is a must-buy for anyone who likes fun, action-packed, and smart game experiences. You are the Batman.