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Hindsight : Batman Arkham City

Cart: Batman Arkham City
Cab: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC / Wii-U
Coin: Rocksteady Studios

What exactly is Batman?

Far from a superhero in the classical sense; this enigmatic figure has aged arguably better than any other of his kind. He remains as powerful, familiar and yet strangely elusive today as perhaps any fictional character that’s ever been created. An ordinary man by any measure in comparison to the super-human qualities of his peers, this multi-faceted creation has managed to capture the imaginations of both child and adult alike for generations – his dark tale manifesting itself in everything from pre-school toys to adult-rated films and comic books.

Comforting, reassuring, disturbing and menacing in equal measure, the Batman universe is simply dripping with creative content – a fact borne out through a long and rich tradition of highly successful interpretations in almost every medium imaginable from stage and film to games and animation.  And whilst your average super-hero goes toe-to-toe against a relatively small number of recognisable super-villains, Batman’s universe is filled with more iconic arch-nemeses than perhaps every other top-tier super-hero combined.

Batman is, quite simply: all things to all people.

And so in crafting a game based upon this extremely diverse and widely appealing universe, a developer must ask of itself an important question: do we aim to master one trade or do we risk being remebered as a master of none?

Batman Arkham City Screenshot # 2

In the late 80’s, the now defunct British developer Ocean Software attempted to answer this singularly difficult question by producing both possible responses in the same year in the form of the streamlined, puzzle-adventure Batman: The Caped Crusader and the decidedly genre-tick-box arcade outing based on Tim Burton’s 1989 film, imaginatively titled Batman: The Movie. Whilst both games were enjoyable romps in their own right and whilst the latter was a highly successful movie tie-in, it was ultimately the more refined and focused former effort that presented itself as the strongest overall package.

Criticised at the time for being rather a long-winded maze-crawl, if Batman: The Caped Crusader appealed to your sensibilities, as it did mine, you were guaranteed a consistently enjoyable affair for the duration. Batman: The Movie, on the other hand, tried to be all things to all people rather like the dark knight himself and the overall quality of the package suffered greatly as a result. No one section was quite as focused or effective as its one-trick-pony predecessor and whilst darting from platforming to driving and then flying was certainly fun, it resulted in a somewhat shallow experience. It was difficult to escape the feeling that the only real reason you were doing one particular section was to add some sense of variety until you got to the next section; ad infinitum.

And whilst Rocksteady Studio’s Batman may have turned to the world of comics for creative inspiration, much as Batman: The Caped Crusader did, it absolutely looks to the same horizons as Batman: The Movie for its conscience.

Building upon the stellar blueprint laid out the supremely confident and comparatively focused Arkham Asylum, Arkham City expands in almost every way imaginable: much greater outdoor freedoms and movement within an open-world environment; a far greater number of side-quests and collectables; a more complex array of moves and gadgets; more than one playable character; a dizzying collection of classic villains; considerably more enemies to fight at once and an even more convoluted plot.

But is more really, well, more?

Whereas Arkham Asylum had a tightly controlled narrative that was juxtaposed brilliantly with a smattering of Riddler puzzles, here we have a somewhat sprawling drag-net of a plot that’s been coupled with a plethora of fleshed-out side quests and over four hundred Riddler puzzles. Pour this into an open-world setting and what you’re left with is rich, diverse, distracting and, well, rather directionless.

Batman Arkham City Screenshot # 1

So easy is it to become thrown-off the scent of the main quest that when you do eventually re-engage, you’ve either stopped caring about what’s happening or you simply can’t even remember given the somewhat messy and complex narrative that appears to have had characters thrown at it like batarangs at a dartboard. In fact, the only thing that Arkham City really does do a consistently good job of reminding you – every time that you launch the game – that you haven’t yet paid extra for Catwoman’s levels. Couple all of this with the fact that Arkham City loses the one big ace that Arkham Asylum has up its sleeve – true-blooded originality – and you’re left sifting through a gargantuan pile of carefully polished and corn-fed content for something genuinely fresh and exciting.

If Arkham Asylum is akin to the thrill of watching Batman Begins for the first time, Arkham City feels like you’re being made to watch the entire Christopher Nolan trilogy simultaneously on three different screens for the third time running.

And so whilst the gameplay mechanics have, on absolutely every level, been expanded upon and refined – as has the immaculate level of presentation and attention to detail – what we’re left with is a package that, quite frankly, tried and, perhaps more worryingly, succeeded in doing far too much. No one element is at all weak, but the cacophony of noise that their collective conscience generates drowns out any sense of the purified pleasure that was to be found in Arkham Asylum. It’s a real shame because its predecessor did a number of things wonderfully well – and there are glimmers of them to be found here in Arkham City.

By far the most gripping experience to be had in both titles flies in the face of much of what Arkham City succeeds in achieving. When perched upon a gargoyle, patiently waiting for an armed thug to walk past some explosive gel that you’ve carefully planted, the point of Batman becomes crystal clear: it’s not about how many collectibles you find, how many thugs you can rapidly mash to a pulp or how many famous characters you can squeeze in; it’s about carefully stalking your prey. It’s about patience; it’s about purity; it’s about silence; it’s about fear.

It’s about the hunt; it’s just such a shame that I found myself hunting for this experience so hard in Arkham City – and that I found it so infrequently.

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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7 Comments

  1. @lukemartinvoxel I really wish you had examined the challenge rooms in #ArkhamCity – the pursuit of perfection in combos and the hunt.

    • @TheLeaderGill They are excellent additions but they remain additions nonetheless in a package that had already attracted too much clutter!

      • @lukemartinvoxel It, of course, depends on individual preferences. The clutter made you feel like it was a society spiraling into chaos.

        • @TheLeaderGill Granted, it did feel rather chaotic.

  2. Agreed, they are excellent additions, but they remain additions nonetheless, in a package that had already attracted to much clutter!

  3. @lukemartinvoxel that’s ace Luke!

    • @tulalotay cheers dude 🙂

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  1. Batman : Arkham Origins Review - […] myself struggling to get to grips with City’s sprawling narrative, incessant side-quests and directionless […]

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