the artistry and psychology of gaming


Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City

PlayStation 3: Batman: Arkham City | Xbox 360: Batman: Arkham City | PC: Batman: Arkham City

Review in Brief
Game: A prototypical action-adventure brawler with stealth elements, and the direct sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Good: Incredible, tense plot; breathtaking ambient story-telling; much improved and more engaging gameplay; all of the original’s strengths.
Bad: Can’t decide whether it’s open-world or story-driven; disappointingly short story; haphazard and disorganized side content; still somewhat unoriginal.
Verdict: A great game, although it has a little trouble getting out of its own way. Definitely one of the year’s best.
Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: Great for all gamers and Batman fans. Enough content to warrant a purchase, but the plot alone is easily beatable on a rental.

“A tense, fun, gripping thriller, despite trying to be an open-world game, too.”

Whenever I release a review for a big, recent release, I like to preface it with a disclaimer about my score: a score of 8 from me is probably the equivalent of a low to mid 9 from most reviewers. I don’t think there’s any use in a 10-point score scale if you’re not actually going to use all 10 points, especially given that GameFAQs limits reviewers to whole-number scores. Plus, GameFAQs’ description of an 8/10 — “Great – fun to play, some minor but no major flaws” — is a pretty accurate descriptor.

What I think is most remarkable about Batman: Arkham City, though, is that I was thoroughly, thoroughly disappointed with its predecessor Batman: Arkham Asylum, and despite being very similar in many respects and despite preserving most of the core gameplay elements, Batman: Arkham City manages to be several orders of magnitude better than that predecessor. It addresses the problems I raised with Batman: Arkham Asylum in ways that highlighted how relatively simple yet incredibly significant those flaws were, while still managing to preserve all of the previous game’s strengths. That’s not an easy thing to do; many franchises I’ve found (Assassin’s Creed and No More Heroes are the two that immediately come to mind) experience the problem where, in fixing the flaws of the original game, they lose many of the elements that made the original game good in the first place. Batman: Arkham City manages to fix all the original’s flaws while also preserving what made it enjoyable to so many people (myself not among them).

The plot, little more than an afterthought in Batman: Arkham Asylum, takes center stage here, and delivers one of the most engaging and engrossing video game plots I’ve ever witnessed outside of an RPG. Where the gameplay of the previous game was choppy and lacking identity due to how frequently it changed focus, the gameplay of Batman: Arkham City is squarely centered on the brawler elements, much to the game’s benefit. And while there is still very little that I would describe as completely and totally original in Batman: Arkham City, at least it doesn’t come across as entirely as an unoriginal rip-off of a couple more established franchises. Not every game has to do something completely and totally new; it’s alright for games to simply take existing frameworks and do them better, and that’s what Batman: Arkham City does with some traditional gameplay ideas and themes.

The Game
Batman: Arkham City is the direct sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum. Plot-wise, it opens with most of Gotham City’s supervillains and prisoners being plopped down to roam free on a heavily guarded island near Gotham, under the command of Hugo Strange, one of Batman’s old nemeses that somehow convinced the Mayor of Gotham to let him have his pet project. With free reign, the villains — most prominently Joker, Two-Face and Penguin – have started to war among themselves on the island, pulling in the convicts and inmates to serve as their soldiers. The game opens with Batman arriving on the island under surprising circumstances, and immediately getting to work finding out what is going on.

Gameplay-wise, Batman: Arkham City has more of an identity that its predecessor; the game is unquestionably a brawler first and foremost, but in different sequences it brings in elements of stealth combat, puzzle-solving, and platforming. The brawler sequences are what one might expect; positioned against numerous enemies, Batman has multiple skills he can use, but it comes down to basically defending, countering, and punching. Different enemies will have different strengths, requiring specific tactics to defeat. Other sequences mandate Batman take out enemies without being detected or traverse large areas in short amounts of time using his arsenal.

The Good
In my opinion, the hallmark of a great game is one that makes you want to write about what makes it good. It’s a lot easier to talk about flaws than it is to talk about strengths, and oftentimes good games make it hard to put your finger on what exactly makes the game good. Batman: Arkham City, however, is a great game because there are numerous very specific things that stick out as making the game experience one-of-a-kind, and, as stated previously, many of these are direct improvements on flaws in Batman: Arkham Asylum, starting with…

The Plot
The plot in Batman: Arkham Asylum was, in my opinion, awful. It felt predictable, inevitable, boring, and plodding. There was no tension, and despite the game jumping up and down and saying, “But look at all these plots to destroy Gotham!”, you never got the gist that anyone was in any real danger. Batman’s attitude in that game felt like, “I’m tired. Can I go home now? You know I’m just going to win anyway.”

From the very opening scene, the plot of Batman: Arkham City does everything its predecessor did not. The opening scene of the game is an enormous plot twist on its own, leaving the player guessing from the very beginning and introducing numerous unanswered conflicts. It also leads into an intriguing gameplay sequence where you play as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman, which is a surprisingly engaging and entertaining part of the game. Right from the very opening scene, the game grabs you and pulls you into a plot that you can already tell is going to be much, much more significant.

The best word I can use to describe the plot of Batman: Arkham City is tense: I complained that Batman: Arkham Asylum lacked tension, but Batman: Arkham City has it in droves. There’s tension around every level of the plot; Batman’s fate, the fate of other characters in the game, the fate of Gotham itself: all these things are presented in a way that actually feels real and risky. It doesn’t feel like Batman has everything under control, it feels like Batman is keeping up but is having to put forth his best effort to do so. A lot of the tension revolves around the threats to Batman himself as well; there is real plot risk of Batman’s death, as well as an early risk of his identity being revealed to the world.

The strength of Batman: Arkham City‘s tension is also that it does not solely exist at the “macro” level; tension is not only over the entire course of the story, but scene-to-scene as well. You’ll encounter people desperate for help in Arkham City, and it feels like they really actually are relying on you to save them. You’ll encounter plot elements where individuals’ lives are at risk, which always feels more significant since there is no reason to believe that individual’s death could not be part of the overall plot. Not only do you feel tension from beginning to end, but you also feel tension from moment to moment as well.

There are also several ongoing plot themes that are very entertaining. The game preserves Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s character relationships that were so interesting; moment-to-moment, the relationship between Batman and the villains shifts from mortal enemies to worthy adversaries to even friends, and given the Batman mythos underlying these characters, it is somehow completely believable. What makes Batman: Arkham City even more interesting is the relationship between the villains themselves, and how that plays into Batman’s actions. The game is set against a backdrop of a turf war in Arkham City between Joker, Two-Face and Penguin, and the ongoing discussions and references between them is as interesting as those between them and Batman. The characters seamlessly and naturally move back and forth between enemies and allies as the plot commands, in a way that feels surprisingly believable and very entertaining.

Finally, the game suffers no lack of plot twists. Whereas Batman: Arkham Asylum did not have a single major twist that I can recall, Batman: Arkham City seems to have one at the end of every sequence. The twists all feel very natural, and perhaps most important, they escalate. Each twist seems more surprising and important than the last, but that escalation also helps keep them all believable as well. The game also taps into parts of the Batman mythos that allows it to do more revolutionary things and put more at risk than it could restricted only to the normal dynamics between Batman and the villains.

Overall, the plot provide an incredibly strong and engaging driver for the game — although, one might say the plot does too good a job of driving the game, as we’ll see a bit later.

Incredible Ambient Story-Telling
Zooming in from the very large plot, there’s one particular tone and atmosphere dynamic that I feel like Batman: Arkham City does better than any other game I’ve ever played, and I also feel like it contributes a great deal to what makes the plot and the world of Arkham City seem so enthralling, engrossing, three-dimensional, and believable.

Ambient dialogue is basically the dialogue you hear when you’re wandering around a game world. These might be passing conversations, little quips, etc. that make the game world seem more realistic, although in most games these quickly become so repetitive and recycled that they have little impact. In Batman: Arkham City, the ambient dialogue isn’t just dialogue, it’s ambient story-telling. The bits of dialogue you hear between thugs and inmates around Arkham City actually disclose big and important details of the game world and the plot to the player.

Through these bits of dialogue, you learn everything about the faction warfare going on between the various supervillains. You learn how the plot developments are perceived by the masses and how they interpret what is going to happen. You get to hear their thoughts about Batman himself and whether they overestimate their chances. The inmates also become very human as well, talking about food and shelter, pondering which faction to join, and pledging various levels of allegiance (including little if any) to their faction. All that also makes the dynamic whereby Batman doesn’t kill anyone (only knocking them out) far more believable than it was in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

The ambient story-telling does serve the classic purpose of making the world seem more realistic and engrossing, but it’s also the mechanism the game uses to reveal a very substantial segment of the game plot and world. As a result of this strategy, the player feels less like the game is telling us the story and more like we’re discovering it ourselves. And most importantly, the way they player experiences this ambient story-telling feels natural, too. You don’t walk up to enemies and ask them, “Hey, what’s the deal with Joker?”; instead, you pick up their conversations over your gadgets as you’re moving through the city anyway. That keeps the way you hear the ambient story-telling believable and enables the message to be received more effectively.

More Engaging Gameplay
The above two points address one of the three major weaknesses I saw in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Another problem I had with the previous game was its gameplay; it lacked an identity of its own because of how often the gameplay focus changed and how short the sequences were. Was it a brawler? A stealth game? A puzzle game? It didn’t really have an identity of its own. Batman: Arkham City fixes this first and foremost by bringing the brawler elements to the forefront. The game is unquestionably motivated first by the melee combat, and the other gameplay portions are more the ‘varied’ part of varied gameplay.

More importantly, however, the gameplay itself has improved, both in terms of the brawler aspects, the other gameplay aspects, and the overall structure of the various gameplay modes. Focusing first on the brawler elements, the battle system has gotten much more fluid, equipping Batman with more and more natural techniques to use during the combat sequences. The battle system in general flows far better, and lends itself better to mastery than its predecessor. Also important is that there are enough varied types of battle challenges that the combat does not get as repetitive as brawlers often are. Every battle has something unique to it, and it isn’t just a matter of introducing new enemy types. There’s still the problem of overly formulaic demands for each type of enemy, but that’s a minor problem. Overall, the brawler gameplay feels natural, both in terms of how you control it and the situations where it comes up. One boss fight in particular stands out as particularly intriguing: rather than being a formula like most, there are a set of different ways you can damage the boss.

Another key improvement is that the gameplay sequences have been elongated within each particular mode. Gone are the 2-minute detective sequences, fight scenes, predator scenes, etc.; now, they’re all significant chunks of gameplay time. That means it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a different game every five minutes like it did in Batman: Arkham Asylum; you actually have the time to learn and improve in the various modes because they actually have some meat to them.

There are improvements to all the modes, but I think the most interesting and engaging improvement is how good the context-sensitive combat system is. It’s so good you almost forget it’s there: the animations of the enemies and Batman flow incredibly smoothly and naturally, especially remarkable given the wide variety of attack and combat options. But the best thing to me is how the context-sensitivity of the combat works. It first struck me when I had to interrogate an enemy; these sequences are frequent, and usually Batman just holds them in his hand and threatens to crush their neck. In this instance, though, I was near a railing, and Batman naturally held the enemy over the railing and threatened to drop him instead. The naturalness of the animation was remarkable, and the entire dynamic really makes the game feel less like a game.

All of Arkham Asylum’s Strengths
My reviews for both Assassin’s Creed II and No More Heroes 2 revolved around a basic theme: the games, while improvements, lost a lot of their predecessors’ charm and strengths. Batman: Arkham City somehow manages to keep all of Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s strengths while also improving on its weaknesses. The game has just as much fan service (if not more), delving deeply into the Batman mythos. All the enemies are ones drawn from Batman’s rich comic book history, and fans of the franchise won’t find anything in the game that makes them scream for more purism. Newbies to the Batman franchise will get a rich introduction to the depth of the Batman universe.

The voice acting, one of Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s most praised elements, is just as good as well. The original cast returns, with the iconic Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and Joker. Harley Quinn, Penguin, the Riddler, all their voices are perfectly immersive and capture the characters incredibly in a way that can even put animated films to shame. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is less stoic here, actually showing glimpses of determination that prevent the yawniness of Batman: Arkham Asylum. What should not be underestimated either is the quality of the voice acting with the inmates and thugs; you don’t feel like you’re hearing the same person over and over, which again contributes to the effectiveness of the ambient story-telling.

The game also retains Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s incredible tone and atmosphere. It’s dark without being too dark, horrific without being too horrible, and incredible cohesive. These elements also contribute to how immersive the game is; from the relationships with the characters to the voice acting to the driving and motivating plot, the game pulls you in and makes you forget you’re playing a game in a way that its predecessor never did. A friend of mine who is far more into the Batman universe described Batman: Arkham Asylum in a way that I think applies even more to Batman: Arkham City: you feel like Batman. You feel like the character. That’s an incredible achievement.

The Bad
The weaknesses of the game are actually relatively interesting because by and large, the main reason they’re weaknesses at all is because the game is so strong otherwise. While I had to prevent myself from nitpicking Batman: Arkham Asylum because there were such major flaws, Batman: Arkham City‘s flaws are precisely made possible by its strengths. Still, however, they’re significant and distracting, and the game is deserving of the careful analysis that brings up these kinds of issues.

Split Identity
In my review for Batman: Arkham Asylum, I accused the gameplay of lacking an identity. That problem is there, but instead it’s a problem with the game’s structure rather than its gameplay.

Put in a nutshell, Batman: Arkham City can’t decide whether it’s an open-world game or a story-driven game. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but open-world games necessitate less paced stories and more freedom to explore. Take Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, for example: it mixed story-driven gameplay with an open-world environment, but it did it by giving the player lots of instances where nothing plot-wise was demanding their attention right now. There were times when it made sense to pursue the sidequests.

The story of Batman: Arkham City is incredible, but part of what makes it incredible is the pacing; there’s always something at stake, there’s always something to get to, and there’s something at risk if Batman does not accomplish his goals fast enough. Given that context, how does it make sense for the player to run off on a sidequest to unlock a new piece of equipment? People might die if Batman doesn’t finish fast enough, and he’s going to spend his time flying around Arkham City popping balloons (yes, that really is part of a sidequest)? Slowing up the pace of the plot and giving a few instances of open plot-based exploration could’ve solved this problem.

There are people for whom this won’t be an annoyance, and that’s fine. But in my opinion, it’s what keeps Batman: Arkham City from transcending from “Great” to “Outstanding”. Great games are fun, outstanding games are art, and art requires cohesion. This is why this game is scored, for me, as an 8 instead of a 9. Batman: Arkham City can’t decide whether to be an open-world game or a story-driven game, and as a result, each part of the game suffers. The next two sections, in fact, will talk about how each suffers from the presence of the other. However, the game does have one saving grace in this respect: you can keep pursuing the sidequests after you beat it, and no, I don’t mean in the “reload the last save from right before the final boss” kind of way popularized by every other game ever. The game saves the fact that you beat it, then puts you back in the world. You get to hear the thugs and inmates react to the game’s ending. That’s fun, and at least it gives you a time when you can treat the game like it’s just an open-world arena.

Too Short
I speculate that the plot’s brevity is because of the focus placed on sidequests and the open-world; there just wasn’t enough time or space for a longer plot. That’s a shame, though. The game’s disappointingly short, and I mean that both in literal length and in the feeling of the plot. Length-wise, the game’s about 8 to 10 hours long if you don’t do any of the side content, and that’s just not very long by modern standards.

It’s not just about the raw number, though; the plot also feels like it’s supposed to be longer. I posted on the board asking how far I was when I speculated I was about 40% of the way through; in reality, I was about two hours away from the end. Even the game’s internal counter seems to be confused by the length of the plot; it treats the first six or eight hours as “50%”, then the last two hours as the other 50%. The plot is still very satisfying, but it doesn’t feel as if it was cut short: it still ends satisfyingly and climactically. It just feels like there should have been more to it than there is. There are plenty of twists and turns packed in there, but the game feels like it’s building up to a big mid-game twist that will lead into the falling action and eventual climax, but in reality it’s building toward the end of the game altogether.

Again, I could be wrong about why this is; I speculate it’s because they focused on the open world elements, but it could be for other reasons as well. It could be that they just didn’t want to pad the game, and I praise them for that; but padding and developing are very different things, and the plot could use a bit more development.

Poorly Structured Sidequests
I got into a discussion on Twitter with a reader that took issue with my criticism that the game has too much going on; “too much gameplay? Odd complaint.”, he wrote. The problem with Batman: Arkham City isn’t that it has “too much gameplay”, it’s the way it frames that gameplay. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the sidequests were largely silly, but they were well-formed and graspable. Collect trophies, solve puzzles, find tapes, and you’re done. You knew what you had to do, you knew what to do next in a given sidequest, and you knew how to switch from the main plot too drop of a hat.

The problem with Batman: Arkham City is that the sidequests are just kind of haphazard and all over the place. I don’t even know how many there are, they just seem to pop up out of nowhere with little rhyme or reason why. There’s a ton of them, revolving around everything from loosely plot-based developments (destroying Titan containers) to training exercises to the same old Riddler challenges, but it’s hard to really understand your progress in any of them and how they’re framed. You don’t always know what to do next on any of them, and that’s extremely frustrating when it comes to pursuing them.

Several sidequests are based on, as far as I can tell, wandering around until you find something: a ringing phone, a bunch of balloons, you name it. Those sidequests, in my opinion, aren’t engaging because you can’t pursue them as a cohesive quest; you kind of just have to wait until you stumble upon them. That’s a double-edged sword as well because on the flip side, that means you can completely accidentally trigger a sidequest. At one point, I was on my way to save someone from Joker, someone who he was threatening to kill at any second; but a phone was ringing, and I walked past it and figured I’d stop and find out what the heck it was all about. It triggered a sidequest that forced me to run the entire way back across the map. There was no way of getting out of it. It completely distracted from the main plot, and that interruption made me far less likely to do anything in the rest of the game to even risk getting dragged away by a subplot.

Most of these criticisms can be summed up by saying the sidequests are very poorly organizing, which makes them very distracting. That’s without even getting into the content of the quests themselves, which can range from fun to completely tedious. More distracting still is how visible many of them are, especially the Riddler riddles. Rather than just hiding trophies, Riddler’s set up actual puzzles all over Arkham City, and if you’re like me, when you see one you want to solve it. But oftentimes it takes a few seconds of trying it to realize you can’t even do it yet at all, but by then you’re already distracted from the plot. The sidequests of the game are big and thorough enough that they could almost be their own game, but they’re so indiscernible and uncompartmentalized, so nonsensical oftentimes, and so distracting that no matter how fun they themselves might be, I have trouble counting them as anything but a detriment to the rest of the game.

Still Somewhat Unoriginal
I mentioned in the introduction that it’s not necessary for every single game to be revolutionary and groundbreaking and do things that no other game has done before; still, however, I think it needs to be stated that Batman: Arkham City is still very unoriginal in many ways.

I thoroughly documented last time how Batman: Arkham Asylum could be described as Metroid Prime meets Assassin’s Creed; few of the game’s principles were absent in both of those games. Batman: Arkham City keeps this ball rolling; while the similarity to Metroid Prime has diminished with the diminished role of gadgets, the similarity to Assassin’s Creed (and every other pseudo-open world game) is very notable.

You’ll notice it the moment you bring up the map. You see a map of the game world with markers all over it for where quests and subquests and plot events can be triggered. The screen is wildly similar to what you’d see in various other game, where you can use it to plan your trekking around the game world based on markers for where interesting things can be found. At any time, you can go to the next “main objective” to move ahead the plot, or choose any number of optional missions. Sound familiar?

Many of the gameplay innovations can be directly compared to Assassin’s Creed as well. Batman has a variety of new ways to one-hit kill enemies that haven’t noticed him, including pouncing on them from an upper ledge, popping out at them from a hiding place, or pulling them over a ledge. The increased focus on the open world also means there are lots of places to climb buildings and walk on rooftops, increasing the visible similarly to Assassin’s Creed. Even some of the thematic elements of the game are similar to topics Ubisoft’s franchise dwells on as well.

Some of Arkham Asylum’s Weaknesses
And of course, Batman: Arkham City couldn’t solve all of Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s problems. That would be too much to ask for, and many of the downright silly game dynamics are still present in Batman: Arkham City.

There’s still an EXP system and a health point system, which to me has never made any sense. HP systems are always silly in my opinion, but in an open combat game like Batman: Arkham City they make even less sense; why is one more bullet or punch going to take Batman from a fully-capable killing machine to dead? And why does HP heal at the end of each battle? Those bullets just magically dissolve into his skin and he’s suddenly perfectly fine for another round? The EXP system is even stupider; EXP can be used to buy upgraded gadgets, armor, etc. How does that make sense? Bruce leaves the Batcave thinking, “Man, I really want to put on stronger armor, but I haven’t found enough random trophies lying around.”? There’s no good plot way to justify choosing upgrades based on your performance in the battle system. It just doesn’t make any sense for a multi-billionaire not to come fully equipped into the battle from the beginning. Learning skills is one thing, but upgrading equipment is silly. Also silly are the things you earn EXP for; finding trophies, solving riddles, beating up bad guys, you name it. You also get more EXP for being more varied in how you beat bad guys. That brings up the weird dynamic of, “Shoot, I could afford that upgrade if only I’d been more creative in beating the tar out of those guys!”, which makes no sense in such an immersive, story-driven game.

What it really comes down to is that Batman: Arkham City is a very immersive environment, and those games work best when the gameplay and plot justify one another well. In many ways, Batman: Arkham City accomplishes this; the boss battles, for instance, using enemies’ plot weaknesses to justify the battle behavior that takes them down. This EXP and HP system, though, just breaks that gameplay-plot dynamic altogether.

There are other issues as well: the Riddler sidequests are still bizarre and even more distracting, the EXP system has been visually deemphasized so it’s even harder to be intentional about accruing EXP, and the game’s best way of challenging you in battle still seems to be to throw more guys at you. And while the plot ends climactically, the final battle leaves something to be desired. But most of these are just nitpicks.

The Verdict
Batman: Arkham City takes video game narratives to an interesting and incredibly engaging place, opting for a twisting, unpredictable plot told with a very unique slant. The ambient story-telling of the game should not be missed even in and of itself; that’s something that illustrates such incredible attention to detail and understanding of structure that I’m not the least bit surprised that we don’t see it more often, but it’s breathtaking when we do. The battle system is much improved and much more enjoyable, and the game has a gameplay identity that its predecessor lacked. The game is also as immersive and enthralling as can be, thanks to a very cohesive tone, setting, and atmosphere, a strong driving plot, and incredible voice acting.

The game’s weaknesses are largely things that detract from its strengths. The shortness of the story and the distracting sidequests limit the plot’s impact and leave the player wanting for a bit more. The disorganization and haphazardness of the sidequest structure is discouraging and makes pursuit of those quests more tedious than enjoyable. The game doesn’t do anything totally revolutionary, and even though it does execute some tried-and-true practices better than other contemporary games, it could have pushed the envelope a bit more. There were also some annoyingly game-y characteristics that really have no place in modern immersive games.

Overall, the game is the quintessential great, but not transcendent or outstanding, game. It does most of what it sets out to do incredibly well, it provides a very fun and beautiful experience, and it exhibits remarkable attention to detail. Its major problems are only drawbacks because of how good the game is otherwise, but they do keep the game from transcending. The game is one of the best of this year, but it shouldn’t go down as an all-time classic.

My Recommendation
Fans of games in general and action games in particular will love it, as well as any Batman fans. It won’t appeal to everyone, but chances are it’ll appeal to anyone that would even think to try it (unless you’re of the Adam West school of Batman fans, in which case you should steer way clear). There’s more than enough content here to warrant a purchase, although you can easily beat the plot in a rental period as well.

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PlayStation 3: Batman: Arkham City | Xbox 360: Batman: Arkham City | PC: Batman: Arkham City

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