Batman: Arkham City

I know I’m in the minority, but as I laid out in my last entry, I did not particularly care for Arkham Asylum. It was well-crafted, but it failed to engage me. So I did not have high hopes for Arkham City, the sequel. But it turns out I was in for a surprise. I enjoyed it a lot. So much so that I blew through it in only a few days, without even meaning to.

Combat is improved. It never quite clicked for me in Arkham Asylum. It was always animated brilliantly, but now there are more options and more toys. It’s easier to manage combat against large groups, and single out and target particular troublesome enemies. Special props go to the sound design, which makes sure you can always tell when an enemy has a gun and is preparing to fire. The ability to counter multiple simultaneous attacks is both technically amazing from an animation perspective, and extremely satisfying from a gameplay perspective. Also, the camera does a great job of keeping up with the action and maintaining focus on the most dangerous threats. This is partly thanks to the level design. It seems like combat tends to take place in arenas that are slightly more spacious than they strictly need to be, which lets the camera pull back and find a good angle.

The boss fights are also much improved. They’re still quite formulaic, but they’re at least more varied and interesting than the ones in Arkham Asylum. I think part of this stems from a smart but kind of goofy story choice, where the less physically imposing story-villains have outsource their boss-fights to other more combat-focused villains. Additionally, the Mr. Freeze fights stands out for the way tests proficiency with the stealth system rather than the combat system.

There’s an actual open world this time, with actual interesting side-quests, in contrast to the stifling linearity of Arham Asylum, which pretended it had an open world but then didn’t provide anything interesting to do in it. The world is just the right size: big enough that it feels substantial but small enough that I never felt like I wanted a fast-travel ability. The grapnel boost makes it easy and satisfying to travel around.

The world is also tremendously dense. In addition to the many side-quests, it’s jam-packed with Riddler trophies. I found it a little distracting and overwhelming at times, but in a good way. And the trophies are much more interesting this time. In Arkham Asylum it felt like the trophies were arranged to be inaccessible the first time through to force a dedicated player to backtrack and pick them up once they’d gotten the appropriate upgrade. There are still a few like that in Arkham City, but the bulk of the trophies are instead locked away behind cute little puzzles, which require some ingenuity and thoughtful use of gadgets in order to get. I also want to commend the ingenious Riddler informant mechanic. It’s a small thing, but it adds an extra little wrinkle to combat that helps keep it interesting.

By default, the game is extremely aggressive about providing player-guidance, to the point of being obnoxious. In boss fights, it will put up a hint about what move the boss is vulnerable to right at the start of the fights, before I had any chance to assess the situation or experiment on my own. Breaking off the main story in order to do side-quests or collect trophies often will cause Batman to chime up with “I need to go to X so I can do Y” every thirty seconds. I’m all for guidance, but Arkham City overdoes it. I really need a game to give me some freedom to think and explore on my own. As far as I can tell, the only other option is to turn off guidance entirely. There just isn’t an option for a middle-ground.

And what’s worse is that, ironically, the one time I got stuck, the game didn’t give me any guidance at all, forcing me to go to a FAQ. There was a vertical garage door, and it would only open a little bit at the bottom, and the game didn’t do a good job teaching me that Batman has a slide move that can get him through tighter spaces than his basic crouching stance can. It would have been easy enough to pop up a reminder about sliding, and the game provides similar advice time and time again when I didn’t need it, but this one time I needed it to it didn’t.

The stealth system continues to be fantastic. This was the system that really hooked me in Arkham Asylum, and the refinements in Arkham City make it even better. Enemies are a little bit smarter. They’re better at tracking Batman through the air and disabling gargoyle perches. At the same time, there’s more great tools to manipulate enemies with. Weapon disabling, mine-sabotaging, electro-magnets, ice grenades – they all occupy interesting new niches in Batman’s arsenal. It’s just so great to play a stealth game where I’m not focused on looking for gaps in AI patrol routes, and instead looking for ways to terrorize them and manipulate the situation to my advantage.

I didn’t really care about the story itself. There’s a mess of plots and counterplots but it never resonated with me on any sort of emotional level. The machinations weren’t even intellectually compelling. There’s the villain pile-up I mentioned, which helps the boss fights but hurts the storytelling. I didn’t have the Catwoman content, and it made the story feel weird and disjointed in places. It continues to be frustrating to see game-makers degrade the user-experience for players who choose to rent rather than buy. It was also distracting how entirely on-point the constant inmate chatter was. They apparently have nothing to do but talk about exactly what’s going on in the plot right now. It makes it feel like these guys have no existence outside of the story (which is technically true, but I would have appreciated at least a bit of effort at maintaining an illusion).

Batman, as a character, is dull and humourless (which the game at least has the sense to make fun of occasionally). On the other hand, the cast of villains shines. The writing and performances for them are of uniformly high quality. Nolan North as Penguin is a particular standout, but they’re all great and unique, full of personality and character.

One more thing: in the wake of the game’s release, there were accusations of sexism levelled at the game. I don’t have the full picture because of the absence of the Catwoman content, but I think there’s some merit to the concerns. The game feels like it caters to a caricature of an adolescent male in how it clothes and treats its characters. There’s a distinct lack of female agency in the story. I think every woman in the game has to get rescued by Batman at least once. Talia and Harley are subordinate to and defined by their relationship to men. Catwoman is introduced by being tied up and dangled inverted over a pit of acid while a crowd of men cheer on the proceedings. Between the inmate banter about Catwoman and the other female characters – lots of rape threats and fantasizing about how sexy the fight between Catwoman and Poison Ivy must have been – and the costumes that all the female villains wear, the game seems to go out of its way to very specifically sexualize its female characters in a way it never does with its male ones. There’s also a time when Batman encounters a tied-up and gagged Harley Quinn, and there’s a button-prompt to ungag her, and then, troublingly, after the conversation there’s a prompt to gag her again if the player so chooses. One could imagine the game doing a similar thing with a particularly talky male villain (Riddler or Joker, maybe), but the designers chose to do it with Harley, and that left me with an icky sort of feeling.

So, it’s a great game. It’s got its share of issues, but they’re mostly peripheral to the gameplay. It’s fantastic to see Rocksteady take the level of polish that was present in Arkham Asylum and put it to work in a more expansive, engaging game.

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