I can’t tell you guys how many bad licensed games there are in this world. It’s so prevalent, it’s a trope. The number of good licensed games can pretty much be counted on one hand. There’s a lot of compelling reasons why it’s so difficult to make a decent tie in game, but the main one is, well, effort. See, to make a good licensed game requires more than the five seconds of thought that go into most of them. Licensed games are so bad in fact that one of them, the one from 1983 that we speak of only in hushed tones, nearly ended the video game industry before it could start. What I’m trying to convey here is that games tied into a license are, by definition, fighting an uphill battle for recognition, to be taken seriously in our cynical world.
So when Rocksteady Games got the go ahead to make a Batman game, they threw up their hands in surrender, and decided the only way to do it would be to make a game that would not only surpass every other licensed game out there, but also dramatically galvanize the action-adventure genre and force every game thereafter to try and crib off its revolutionary gameplay mechanics. And being the troopers that they are, that’s exactly what they did when they released Batman: Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum is what you would get if you put the best elements of every single interpretation of Batman into a blender, then threw in some unicorn tears and fairy dust for good measure, resulting in a definitive Batman for the ages. Well, I say the best elements of all of them, but there’s very little Adam West Batman here. Was I the only one hoping for Bat Shark Repellent? Bat Female Villain Repellent? Yes? Okay, then.
But we’re not talking about Arkham Asylum here. No, in honour of the release of Batman: Arkham Knight, now seems a good time to do a retrospective of the sequel to the critically acclaimed game, Batman: Arkham City. Since Arkham Knight will take place after the events of City, you should expect spoilers following this. With that out of the way I… Wait. What about the prequel? Batman: Arkham Origins? …GET OUT.
Arkham City begins shortly after the events of Arkham Asylum, in which Batman was able to foil the Joker’s attempt to kill him, but as a result, Arkham Asylum is no longer able to safely contain its various superpowered criminals. People familiar with Batman and Arkham Asylum will be laughing at this point, since that never seemed to be a problem before. The solution is as ingenious as it is simple; a portion of Gotham City will be walled off and every criminal will simply be put there and left to their own devices, probably spending the entire day Thunderdoming. Bruce Wayne, objecting to the radical proposal to give half of Gotham over to the superstitious and cowardly element, is immediately imprisoned by the director of the project, Professor Hugo Strange, and released into Arkham City, where he must become Batman and get to the bottom of the goings on and the mysterious Protocol Ten. There’s a lot going on beyond that, but I want this to be a retrospective rather than a review, since that boat kinda sailed.
Arkham City is notable, even at a first glance, for being everything that a sequel should be to something as critically acclaimed as Arkham Asylum. Asylum was a tightly controlled environment, a gauntlet pitting you against Batman’s biggest enemies like Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and, of course, the Joker. Similar to Metroidvania titles, Batman would get more gadgets as he progressed, opening up more of previous areas to explore, but always with a focus on the next objective. What Batman managed to do in the transition to the sequel, which Samus Aran never seems capable of, was to hold on to all of his gadgets from the previous game, and then get a huge open world area to play about with them. It does genuinely feel as if you’ve just stepped out of Arkham Asylum when you go into Arkham City, meaning none of the momentum you built up in that game is lost to reacquiring stuff like the Line Launcher or the Explosive Gel.
The open world approach loses some of Asylum’s tight narrative in favour of giving you a massive world to play about in. You can spend ages just gliding around Arkham City getting into random fights and solving Riddler Challenges, which make a welcome return from Asylum, without ever progressing in the main story. The story is handled brilliantly on two levels; the immediate threat of Batman’s various Rogue’s Gallery of classic villains such as the Joker, Two Face, the Penguin and Ra’s al Ghul, is contrasted by the overhanging threat of Strange, armed with the knowledge of Batman’s secret identity and his control of the environment. Capping that off are the various side missions that open up as you proceed through the game, which lead to more encounters with various members of Batman’s cast. Investigating an assassination will eventually lead to an encounter with Deadshot, for example, or teaming up with Bane to destroy canisters of the Titan formula from Asylum, to surprise encounters with people like Thomas Elliot and Azrael of all people. Strangely (ha!) this exposes one of the few flaws with the game, in that if you’re not exploring at every opportunity, some side quests will become locked off if you proceed far enough in the main story, but that’s a minor thing given that exploration is richly rewarded.
The combat system is another thing that Asylum was praised for, and the same ‘that but even more’ system has been applied in Arkham City. Everything you could do in Asylum is readily available to you, but now you can do things like counter multiple opponents at a time, pull off a wide variety of combo-powered multi-takedowns, incorporate all your gadgets into freeflow combat, and even temporarily channel Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star and rapidly punch people to knock them out. Enemies start off simple, but quickly pick up things like knives, guns, and shields, or become huge, and all require different methods of approach to handle. Since the game mixes them into various encounters, though, you’ll soon be able to handle multiple kinds of enemies without ever really breaking your flow, and because you’re playing Batman, every time the villains try a new thing, Batman will readily figure out the counter for it, leading to a few fights that let you try out the new method before throwing the more difficult encounters at you. The sheer number of ways you have to introduce your boot to another man’s skull should give you a maniacal chuckle or your money back. The culminating moment for the combat system is the fight with Mr. Freeze, whose suit is capable of creating countermeasures to every single takedown measure you can throw at it. Sneak under a grate, leap out and punch him down? He’ll freeze the grate. Lure him into an explosive gel trap? Won’t work twice. On the hardest difficulty setting, you’ll have to do every single possible takedown method just to beat him, and it is glorious. Since most of Arkham Asylum’s boss fights were some variation on matador fights, boss battles are something that City does very, very well.
What I always looked forward to were the Predator sections, where you take to the shadows and make a group of grown men wet themselves as you slowly but surely chip their numbers away while their boss reminds them of how they’re all going to die. Call me a bit of a sadist if you have to, I’m sure that’s true of most people who play video games. The same principles apply as to the combat, in that sections will get increasingly difficult as time goes on, only for Batman to unlock some new gadget or use for a gadget to make their lives miserable. Collars on bad guys to let them know when Batman’s just knocked one of them out? You can chuck a Sonic Baterang at them to send them all panicking in every direction, or even short them out causing them to explode and knock them out (though sadly only on a limit basis per encounter). Nothing’s quite as fun as watching them go from confident badasses to one terrified little man shooting wildly at shadows, unaware as Batman drops down on him from above that his gun’s been remotely disabled and he’s about to get a bumper helping of boot to the head.
And if this all wasn’t enough, then you can of course take advantage of the Catwoman DLC to play as Batman’s love interest of nebulous morality. She gets her own segments in the game which would otherwise be skipped over, so it’s worth it in that regard, as well as her own combat and stealth sections. Catwoman gets far less toys to play about with, possibly because she isn’t secretly a multi-billionaire running around in his underwear instead of ending world hunger. Also, she can’t fly, leading to a strange rhythm-style game mechanic whenever you want to leap up a building. Perhaps the most interesting thing about playing as Catwoman is that you can choose to completely ignore whatever your objective is and go interact with all the sections that Batman’s already done, and the various mooks and super criminals will all have unique reactions to her being there. Rocksteady put so much effort into all the various ways that you could sequence break or trigger various encounters that you feel for a moment that they’re channelling the ghost of Stanley Kubrick.
Finally, if all that story nonsense is too much for you, you can undertake the Riddler’s Challenge Maps, unlocked by story progression and progress in the Riddler sidequests. These are various combat and predator scenarios with target scores and various self imposed challenges that you can undertake at any point, serving as a way to hone your skills, although if you’re like me, you’ll play the predator ones, ignore the challenge aspect, and just spend all your time messing with the last sad bastard alive with all your gadgets. Purchasing all the DLC will let you play as Catwoman, Nightwing and Robin (Tim Drake), all of whom have their own combat style, gadgets, and reactions from the mooks, making them a worthwhile purchase. If you’re into purely cosmetic differences too, you can buy a bunch of different outfits for Batman himself, ranging from the future inspired Batman Beyond outfit, to the Sinestro Corps Batman (who does NOT come with his own yellow ring powers).
Overall, the concept of Arkham City as a sequel was ‘everything from before, but MORE’, and from the looks of things, Arkham Knight has a similar approach, contrasting with Arkham Origins’ plan of ‘Eh, just throw it in. Ooh, but charge them for DLC too!’ Time will tell, of course, but now that the mad geniuses at Rocksteady are back at the helm, one can only imagine that we’ll have plenty of toys to play around with. Dibs on the Batmobile!
Oh, and uh, if you guys want to put the Stephanie Brown Batgirl as DLC, well, I’d give you all the money. …Please? Come on.