Revisiting My Expectations of Batman: Arkham City

About a year before the release of Batman: Arkham City, I wrote a post entitled “10 Things ‘Arkham City’ Should Do’.”  At the time, very little was known about the sequel (which was released this past October), but I already had extensive experience with the previous entry in the series (Arkham Asylum).  Not knowing what to expect, I wrote my own simple, 10-bullet point list of ideas, based off Rocksteady Studio’s work on Asylum.  Now that I’ve finally had the chance to play Arkham City, I thought it’d be fun to look back at some of my predictions and judge them based on the final product (I suppose you could also consider this a review of sorts).


What I said: “Keep the boatload of subtle Batman references.”

What they did:  Arkham City was able to keep the Batman references coming in a way that Asylum could not — it actually took place in notable locales from the Dark Knight’s rich history.  Locations such as Penguin’s “Iceberg Lounge,” the “Monarch Theater” (where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed), and the old GCPD building are not only within the confines of Arkham City, but they can be visited and explored.  There are also a fair number of subtler homages — including a wide array of smaller villains for the side missions.  True, much of the Bat trivia in the game is specifically focused around “Arkham City” this time (instead of merely providing info, as in Asylum), but there’s no denying the veritable smorgasbord of references for the keen Batman fan to pick out.

Verdict: Accurate as Deadshot.


What I said: “Break the Addiction to Detective Mode.”

What they did: I liked Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum, but I felt like I had it on for the entire game.  While Rocksteady made a few subtle alterations to it (like changing the color of armed thugs to a less-harsh orange), Detective Mode remains largely unchanged in Arkham City.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Detective Mode is pretty vital for getting a Batman-like advantage over your adversaries, but, if anything, you actually have to rely on it more because of the massive environments of Arkham City.  Interestingly, there were one or two battles where thugs would wear some sort of “radar jammer,” inhibiting the use of Detective Mode.  It was a great concept, but I wished Rocksteady had actually implemented it a bit more (Challenge Maps notwithstanding).

Verdict: About as reformed as The Penguin.


What I said: “Keep Combat Fluid and Simple.”

What they did: Arkham Asylum was my go-to example of the best combat system I had played in a videogame…until Arkham City.  Somehow, Rocksteady managed to take a system I thought was near-perfect and make it even better.  The gadgets are far easier to implement during a combo than they were in the first game, and despite having more moves at your disposal, you always feel in control.  The amount of moves Batman can pull off is about doubled, but after a few rounds of learning some new combinations, it begins to feel effortless.  Going into it, I was afraid that I would feel overwhelmed by a bunch of new moves added to the simple combat system, but Rocksteady absolutely nailed it with a host of improvements — all while somehow maintaining that elusive feeling of simplicity and fluidity.

Verdict:  Nailed it.  In the face.  With Batman’s fist.

The ability to counter multiple thugs at once is a huge improvement.


What I said: “Get Alfred Involved.”

What they did: Oracle did a great job serving as a source of information in the first game, but I couldn’t help feeling let down by the absence of Alfred.  Imagine my delight, then, when Batman gets on his communicator and starts talking to Alfred within the first few minutes of the game.  Martin Jarvis (the actor who played Alfred in the game) isn’t the voice of Alfred from the Animated Series, but he did a pitch-perfect rendition of the character.  Snarky, deadpan, and always loyal to Bruce Wayne, Alfred was in top form in Arkham City.  True, his role was hijacked by Oracle once again about halfway through the game, but not to worry — everyone’s favorite English gentlemen still gets his say.  Near the end of the game, he even forces Batman to make a difficult decision.  It’s been stated before that Alfred is the conscience of Batman, and we actually got to see a tiny bit of that in this game.

Verdict: Classy all the way.


What I said: “Get Dark.”

What they did: Despite my love of Arkham Asylum and its great story, I realized that it didn’t really test the character of Bruce Wayne himself.  Sure, it was “dark,” but I wanted to see the sequel really stretch and test Batman.  The very beginning of Arkham City seemed to promise this idea — revealing that the big villain, Dr. Hugo Strange, had figured out Batman’s true identity.  Even further, the Joker ends up setting a trap for Batman that gives a sense of urgency to most of the game.  Once these two endgames have been put in place, however, the game follows a general “good guy must beat bad guy” feeling.  Of course, it’s not necessarily straightforward or simple (and plenty of other villains will get in the way and try to mess with Batman), but Batman simply sticks to his mission.  I was pretty disappointed with the fact that the game does little with Dr. Strange’s unique knowledge (it doesn’t even seem to worry Batman too much).  Naturally, there are a few character moments sprinkled into the game (more so than the first one, in fact), but there could’ve been so many more, given some of the plot’s setup.

Verdict: As split as Two-Face’s personality.

"I have very valuable information that everyone here would love to know. I think I'll spend the whole game in my tower, contemplating it."


What I said: “Make Catwoman Good… and Bad.”

What they did: Catwoman factored heavily into the early promotions for Arkham City, but I was slightly worried by this fact.  After all, when Catwoman works, she works well, but when handled poorly, she can be, well, a disaster.  One of the biggest problems writers have with Catwoman’s character is emphasizing her duality — because she’s generally in it for herself, she often works against Batman just as often as she helps him.  Unfortunately, Arkham City really muted this aspect of her character.  True, she has her own motivations (getting her loot and leaving Arkham City), but she’s pretty much seen as a “good guy” (or at least an antihero) throughout the game.  In fact, I was surprised by how little Catwoman had do with the basic plot of Arkham City as a whole, given the heavy promoting.  Her story only intersects with Batman on two occasions, and in both scenes, Batman treats her like an ally (albeit, one he’s slightly wary of).  At only one point in the game is Catwoman capable of making a decision that would harm Batman, and it’s an artificial one — decide to (passively) kill him, and the game will give you a “gotcha” moment and make you replay it in Batman’s favor.  It’s understandable — given that you, the player, control both characters and would want them both to live, but Rocksteady should’ve seen that difficulty ahead of time when they made the choice to include her as a playable character.

Verdict: The Cat got declawed.


What I said: “Keep Batman a loner.”

What they did: When Rocksteady announced that they were making a sequel to Arkham Asylum, rumors of a co-op mode flew around the internet.  When Catwoman started showing up in the promotions, people got even more ideas about some kind of multiplayer in the game.  From the beginning, I was against this idea — stating that Batman works best when he works alone.  Furthermore, I didn’t want to be constantly switching between main characters — diluting the sense of isolation that was occasionally present in Asylum.  I wanted to be Batman, on his own.  Fortunately, the developers managed to get this one right.  Before the game was released, Rocksteady announced that they weren’t concerned with doing any kind of multiplayer.  What’s more, they stated that the playable Catwoman portions of the game would take up very little of the overall playtime.  When Arkham City released, these statements were found true.  Even better, when Robin showed up in a scene during the game, Batman told him off — stating that he would take this one by himself.  It was the perfect way to show the larger world that Batman is a part of, but still keep the Dark Knight very much on his own.

Verdict: Almost as if another Robin died.

Naturally, Batman can't do all his brooding without some alone time.


What I said: “Remember that Bigger does not always mean Better.”

What they did: Early revelations about Arkham City hinted that Batman might drop the Metroid-esque setup of Arkham Asylum for an open-world game in the sequel.  The formula for the first game was so well executed that I was loathe to see it go for an open-world style game (especially since so many developers seem to be making them these days).  I stated that, at the very least, Arkham City should retain some of the claustrophobic environments of Asylum.  Additionally, open-world games tend to favor large, outdoor environments, and I didn’t want to see Rocksteady forget the smaller moments.  Fortunately, these fears were (for the most part) unfounded.  While Arkham City is, in fact, most definitely an open-world game, it still has a number of interior environments.  There’s not more of them than there were in Asylum, but it’s probably close to the same amount.  Additionally, City is probably one of the best open-world games that I’ve played (even though I’m not a raving fan of the genre).  Yes, the game hardly has any backtracking (unless you want to hunt for Riddler trophies) and I do miss that Metroid-like formula, but there’s no denying that Arkham City uses this new formula to its fullest potential.

Verdict: Gotham is Batman’s turf, after all.


What I said: “Develop the Bosses.”

What they did: If there ‘s one area in which Arkham Asylum was sorely lacking, it was the boss fights.  Most of them were either repetitive, out-of-character, or just non-existent.  Rocksteady even acknowledged this fault during development of City, and it seems this self-awareness has paid off royally.  Gone are the dozens of Bane knockoffs.  Gone are the same four different types of thugs in every fight.  Gone are the normal Batman enemies, but with some “magic” formula to make them more of a threat.  Gone is the Titan-infused Joker!  Each boss in Arkham City is thankfully, and mercifully, unique.  You’ll never again fight and defeat one boss, only to have him return in some revamped form a little while later.  Each one requires a different strategy, and all of them make sense within the context of the Batman universe.  Best of all, the fights pull from the wide selection found in Batman’s Rogues Gallery and utilizes them all appropriately.  Now, instead of every boss being a bigger threat than the last one, we see them as they really are.  For example, Solomon Grundy is a much bigger threat to Batman than the Joker is by himself (even if Grundy comes first, chronologically).

Verdict: Batman has his hands full.


What I said: “Keep some sort of Upgrade System.”

What they did: With all the justified praise heaped on Arkham Asylum for its myriad achievements, one very strong element that was often forgotten was the game’s addicting upgrade system.  In terms of execution, it was very much like an RPG — you would level up after a certain number of points (gained from winning fights or finding trophies), and you could upgrade one (and only one) gadget or move at that time.  It was simple, but it offered incentive for making each combat round count, and it gave the player a gratifying sense of control — allowing the player to upgrade the items that suited his play style.  I enjoyed it so much that I wanted Rocksteady to keep it for the sequel.  Fortunately, the developers must have felt the same way because, not only are there even more upgrades this time around, they all have a higher degree of usefulness.  Let’s be honest — not all of the upgrades in Asylum were instant successes (remote control batarang, anyone?).  Rocksteady seems to have acknowledged this, because, in Arkham City, just about every upgrade counts.  You’ll probably have a hard time deciding what to upgrade when the chance comes, but don’t worry — the game also makes it feel as if each level-up is just around the corner.  The amount of upgrades is actually somewhat astounding when you realize that Batman already starts with a lot of the gadgets he had to earn in the last game.  Rocksteady really outdid themselves by thinking of better and far more gadgets and moves than we saw previously.

Verdict: As varied and useful as Batman’s utility belt.

Well, there’s a quick summary of my expectations versus how the game actually turned out.  Not everything I called for quite made it, but, of course, it’s a developer’s prerogative to mix it up and surprise the audience.  On the whole, I was immensely pleased with Arkham City.  It’s not a perfect game, mind you.  The story was just barely on the same level as Arkham Asylum, and I had a number of issues with how it ended.  Nevertheless, in terms of gameplay, it has no equal.  The best superhero/comicbook game that I’ve ever played was even further perfected in this sequel, and Rocksteady deserves credit for that.


~ by digitallysmitten on February 14, 2012.

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