December is a slow month for new games, so over the next few weeks we’ll look back at notable Fall releases that we haven’t reviewed yet. Today Joe Bernardi reviews Batman: Arkham City, the critically acclaimed Bat-sim from October.
The central conceit of Batman: Arkham City is as elegant as it is effective: Having apparently heard that open-world video games are in vogue (presumably from a media-savvy intern), new Gotham mayor Quincy Sharp cordons off part of his city as an Escape From New York-style open-air prison. By imprisoning all (seriously, all) of the local supercriminals and finally Bruce Wayne himself, Sharp creates what is arguably the perfect setting for Batman to traipse around doing Batman stuff. The end result is almost exactly what you’d expect, and only barely different in any meaningful way from Arkham Asylum, but the attention to detail here— both in the sticky, satisfying physics of being Batman and in the look and feel of Arkham City itself— keeps this from being a boring retread or cash-in.
Arkham City’s mechanics of gliding around rooftops and fighting large groups of enemies are just good enough to remain interesting for the amount of time you’ll have to spend using them. Considering there is almost nothing else to do in Arkham City, though, this qualifies as high praise. In spite of the fact that you’re given free reign, it amounts to little more than knocking out everyone you see, so gracefully moving between inevitable brawls is pretty much the order of the day. Much like its predecessor, the non-stealth combat in Arkham City feels like a mix between the now-standard God of War “Beat. Up. Everything.” style and a more agility-oriented sensibility that seems to crib from of the underrated PS2 reboot of Shinobi. While the stealth combat offers numerous ways to dispatch groups of armed goons, unless you take novelty into your own hands (at the expense of ease), it will mostly consist of waiting for a guard to get a certain distance from all of the other guards, swooping in and kicking him until he is unconscious, and repeating until all available guards are neutralized.
In an attempt to break up the punch-glide-repeat monotony, the game offers up a cut-and-dry list of nine or ten sidequests, which become available as the main storyline is advanced. Arkham City’s sidequests range from “engaging and intense” (Race across town to prevent innocent people from being killed!), to “not, in fact, sidequests” (Visit a place you are told to visit and, after encountering little to no resistance, receive an item!). While these missions keep things fresh and take the edge off having the likes of the Joker and the Penguin on your back, they’re overshadowed by one simple fact: Even Arkham City’s most substantial sidequests offer little in terms of a compelling story, and they tend to reward the player with nothing but in-game concept art. Nobody in the history of video games has ever been excited after unlocking concept art, and after spending a few hours hoping to unlock, say, a way for Batman to punch bad guys into outer space, mere art seems like a little slap in the face.
Considering Arkham City has been universally described as non-canon, it seems safe to describe its storyline as a Batman medley. Be it hero or villain, the gang’s all here. This method works surprisingly well in the suspenseful, Paul Dini-penned main storyline, but falls drastically short in the tacked-on sidequests, where less well-known Batman villains are trotted out for brief, predictable appearances, apparently because the game has literally run out of other characters to use. It’s always nice to see Batman taking on heavies beyond the usual, but the likes of Bane and Deadshot deserve better. (The former, at least, will surely receive better in post-Dark Knight Rises games.) It’s true that this has been a quality of superhero games since time immemorial, but the half-baked cameos in Arkham City only serve to dilute the game’s atmosphere, rather than enhance it.
Arkham City is a big, polished, mostly-realized Batman video game. It’s not anything more than that, but it’s not anything less, either. Down to the absurd gadgets, shark attacks, and endless waves of petty thugs, it’s a heretofore unsurpassed simulation of what it’s probably like to be Batman. The game’s secondary aspects need quite a bit of fleshing-out to compete on a level playing field with its open-world brethren, but the undeniable appeal of the Batman universe puts a convenient soft-focus sheen on the entire affair. If nothing else, though, the gameplay of Arkham City does that universe justice, and for that Rocksteady Studios is to be commended.
Joe Bernardi’s words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. Yesterday he supplied the KISS logo as the memo to a rent check. He’s got a blog that doesn’t really reflect either of those things. Follow him on Twitter at @blurstoftimes.