Arkham City is in some ways a very good game. I’m not talking about characters, story or game play, the latter of which I wrote about last week. Rather, the fact that it takes two weeks to properly review all parts of the game is genius on the part of the developers. Even if the game itself is lacking in areas, which it certainly is, they can be guaranteed that players will be talking about it. So let’s get to the talking (or writing). This week I want to address character.
Despite having his name on the box there is little to be said about Batman. He hasn’t really changed much but that is a good thing. Batman was never going to be like Spiderman, swinging from the roof tops and tossing out the odd quip between experiencing abnormal amounts of anguish over his girlfriend. With Batman you just get to sit on gargoyles and brood, ever vigilant against the threat that out there somewhere someone might be killing another little boy’s parents. That is, fundamentally, why Batman will never change. To change Batman would take away his motive. Sure, he’d still have to defend Gotham but I suspect that his heart just wouldn’t be in it. Batman’s motives aren’t born from a saviour complex, like Superman, or guilt, like Spiderman. Instead, Batman’s motives are revenge and that’s what makes him one of the darker, and potentially more interesting, superheroes.
Unfortunately, Rocksteady doesn’t really do much with the character in Arkham City. Arkham Asylum did a fantastic job of exploring the darker implications of the Batman/Joker dynamic. These were usually done via Scarecrow’s mind-bending gasses but City lacks any of that finesse. Batman is thrown into the city (though it’s actually rather small to consider it a city) because Hugo Strange says so. He immediately runs off in search of what Protocol 10 means but gets side tracked by The Joker who poisons and blackmails the Dark Knight into finding Mr. Freeze. Storylines seem to be discarded almost as soon as they’re revealed which leads to it feeling skittish in places and never really gets down to the same level of characterisation that Asylum did so splendidly.
So while Batman stays the same the plot doesn’t really get a chance to delve into his psyche in the same way. Well, perhaps Catwoman will get a little more psychoanalysis this time around because she’s the new playable character, right? Well, not really. Catwoman is a thief and switches sides really depending on what benefits her most. This is far from properly explored either though but in some ways you can’t fault the developers for this decision. Catwoman is a secondary character and in fact she involves some re-downloading before you can even attempt her story missions. Spending too much time on a secondary character who might not even be available to everyone currently playing would be a horrible waste of story. You still have to pay extra to play with Catwoman though. Otherwise you get to play the game but with bits missing. Honestly, that seems a bit underhanded and greedy. If you don’t have the money for Catwoman at the minute it may be worth waiting for a collectors or game of the year edition which might include her in the game price. I bought my girlfriend the pre-order edition with her included so thankfully, I dodged a bullet there.
Having read thus far, you might be tricked into thinking that if the anti-heroes aren’t as fleshed out this time around then the new villains must be getting all the good characterisation. Well you’d be wrong. The problem is actually less about the depiction of villains and more concerning the sheer volume of them all. In Arkham Asylum you faced Bane, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc and The Joker. I don’t know if I’m missing any but if I am it’s only one or two others. The Riddler showed up at times just to make you solve puzzles but never physically appeared. Throughout Asylum there were also numerous allusions to the other villains in the canon which was a nice touch. There were a lot of villains available for players to speculate about. In the end it seems like Rocksteady just didn’t want to disappoint anyone and threw them all in. Within the first hour you will be subjected to Hugo Strange, The Joker (again), The Penguin, Two Face, Mr. Freeze and Solomon Grundy. That’s five villains which you will meet within the first hour of Arkham City compared to the five villains that appeared in the entirety of Arkham Asylum.
Furthermore, a lot of that first hour will be spent gliding around the city doing errands for the bad guys. As I said earlier, you get blackmailed into finding Mr. Freeze by The Joker. He probably could have just put a tracker on you since you were going to look for Mr. Freeze anyway but The Joker always did have a flair for the dramatic. Swinging about the city on orders from The Joker just doesn’t feel right though. Worse still, side missions involve finding Titan for Bane or playing a phone game with Victor Zsasz, both of whom appeared in Asylum. Bane is somewhat understandable because Batman and Bane have teamed up in the past but a lot of the characters still feel repetitive. We’ve already met Bane and Zsasz. We’ve already ran around after The Joker once. Poison Ivy pops up again too. It simply would have been a much stronger game had they focused on a smaller group of different bad guys.
I’m not trying to say that the game is bad. Most of what made Asylum fun is still there: enjoyable combat with simple controls, an array of gadgets to make moving around the city fun while established devices like the line launcher have got upgrades and both the story and game play are still very well grounded in DC lore. However, it feels as though Rockysteady are resting on their laurels by overcrowding the game with popular villains and introducing a sandbox city which they don’t really do much with. It is fun to glide about the city but sandbox game play isn’t enough. The game simply seems to miss that little something that made Asylum special. I would still recommend playing the game, especially if you’re into Batman, but don’t go in expecting a perfect game. There are flaws, mostly in character and story. If you can see past those flaws and simply enjoy beating up loitering criminals you’ll certainly find Batman: Arkham City to be a satisfying experience.