Review: Batman – Arkham City (*** stars)

TL;DR – Batman: Arkham City blatantly steals game mechanics from the past decade to craft a derivative game. However, despite Rocksteady’s blatant plagiarism, such solid mechanics allows them to craft a basis for the game while they can focus on making YOU the Batman. Each mechanic, in its context, lets the player become Batman, and becoming Batman is a thrilling experience from start to finish.

Why am I still playing Arkham City? I don’t know, honestly.

Let me say, with great glee, that I wasn’t much a fan of Arkham Asylum. This isn’t being a contrarian just for its own sake; it felt like, for all intents and purposes, a completely plagiarized product. It wanted to be Zelda, Metroid, Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid – you name it, it tried it. The fusion of melee combat, stealth sequences and exploration sounds like a recipe made in heaven, but each individual aspect detracted from the whole. Melee combat wasn’t that interested, mostly requiring the player to hammer on the attack button. On Hard mode (which I played), it became an exercise in frustration and repeated attempts as combat “difficulty” made the enemies identical and increased the numbers to the point of absurdity (see: fight before final boss). Boss fights were boring exercises in tedium, requiring the same strategy for each one. That strategy was: wait for charge, use Batarang, dodge, punch enemy, repeat three times and win. Add two or more of these “bosses” at the same time certainly increases difficulty, but it’s repetitive rather than fun.

The “predator” sequences, as they are called, equate to stealth sequences akin to Tom Clancy’s excellent Splinter Cell series (until recent years). However, Batman’s unique acrobatic abilities gives a meaning to “stealth” more akin to “flying demon of death” than “huddling in corner until enemy turns around”. This means that, like any Batman comic or movie, you’ll rapell around the room eagery looking for openings and isolated enemies. You can distract them with sounds, glide into them from the sky, grapple onto nearly any platform, use remote mines and detonators – you name it, Batman has it. This made the predator sequences incredibly enjoyable purely out of variety’s sake. That some rooms didn’t allow for instant escapes (through hilariously fourth-wall breaking “gargoyles” that make you invisible to the AI) added to the challenge. Rocksteady knew they had something cool on their hands here.

Unforunately, Arkham Asylum wasn’t all that interesting to visit. Imagine visting a hospital in a game; now, imagine that the hospital equals the whole game. That doesn’t allow for much diversity in the environments, nor can they really improve on that template. Rather, like any Batman property, they threw dark muted colors of green, red, and black everywhere. That’s it for art design, folks! As well, the game doesn’t have much of a climax; like any game hoping to add a sequel, it just ends. The plot was the standard comic book fare as well, which didn’t really do much for me. If it’s entertaining and unobtrusive, I’m good with it.

Of course, you’d imagine that would mean Arkham City would be “more of the same”, seeing as every game reviewer in the universe praised Arkham Asylum to high heaven. I will allay your fears: Arkham City equals more of the same, except bigger and better! So why am I playing this game still if it’s the same game? It is, in a lot of respects. In the vein of more recent video game sequels, it gives you more stuff to do just like the last game. It has its own host of flaws which I can rattle off in sequential order here.

The grappling controls are fun, yet imprecise. It isn’t all that uncommon for Batman (or whatever character you’re playing) to grapple onto an object beyond your view or further away from where you intend. Asylum didn’t have this problem because it took place in an enclosed environment, but a city with skyscrapers shows the shoddiness of the controls. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like the game even knows what command you gave it. Furthermore, the “automatic” controls tend to frustrate. Jumping off a platform, rather than falling off, presents the exact same problem with Ocarina of Time’s auto-jump: it just isn’t consistent. Sometimes you’ll jump, other times you’ll glide, and sometimes you just fall off the platform. Perhaps placing context sensitive actions at the whim of the camera, rather than precisely timed buttons, wasn’t the greatest idea. The game never penalizes you for these flaws in the open ; it isn’t as if Batman will die if he falls to the ground. Certain segments, such as those involving water or terrible heights, make these tiny issues glaring.

Combat, as I said earlier, also suffers this fate. Basically, press the attack button towards an enemy, mash the button, counter and/or jump flip at the right times, repeat. There’s not much finesse, and countering can be a chore because you don’t control what attacks come out. You may end up with a long delayed jumping punch, making you unable to counter an enemy attack through no fault of your own. Unlike Asylum, actual enemy variety exists! Enemies with shields and enemies with armor/guns pop into melee packs, meaning your straightfoward melee attack isn’t always the most effective tool. As the game piles new techniques and gadgets onto the player (they don’t take a single thing away that you had in Asylum, thank God; I’d hate to do the Metroid thing in this game), they actually become useful in combos! Still, though, the increased enemy variety shows the same flaw as the grappling/flying: imprecision. Sometimes you’ll target the wrong enemy and punch the guy with a stun baton – not a great feeling. Once you have 15-20 goons at once gunning for you, it can be hard for the game to differentiate between one or the other. This leads to many, many frustrations. At least the old “giant guys who charges at you” enemy/boss has almost been removed in its entirety except for one or two fights!

City, like Asylum, also gives the player myriad collectibles to find. As the city-space arguably triples the area you can cover, the collectibles have increased in number and relevance. Side quests actually mean something now, as they’re fully voiced and acted. More obscure villains of the Batman roster find their way here, but their challenges actually put the city itself to good use. One involves finding payphones throughout the city in a time limit; it forces you to master the gliding controls and cover as much ground as possible. Some descend into more tedious fare (Titan capsules = find and destroy it), but others require some puzzle solving (Zelda-like, in fact). This comes to the fore with the Riddler trophies, each of which offers a new puzzle for the player to complete. They aren’t necessarily difficult, but if you like logic puzzles (and Brain-Training, apparently), there’s about four hundred of them waiting for you. Some use the gadgets in pretty inventive ways, I admit, but they’re really there just to open up challenge maps.

Challenge maps distill the combat/predator sequences into scored and timed events. Some give you higher scores for completing the maps with certain moves and techniques, and others reward a little creativity with the tools you have. You also can play these maps as multiple characters (like Catwoman, Robin and Nightwing; the last two are DLC only) to change the challenge and, perhaps, add a little difficulty. Catwoman, whose is playable for a few missions in the main game, makes many stealth sequences much harder as her whip isn’t as versatile as a grappling hook. However, she gains the ability to grapple onto certain ceilings, changing the dynamics a bit. She also has her own Riddler trophies, and some require her to work in tandem with Batman’s gadgets.

As with last time, the plot isn’t anything inspiring or special. If you’ve read some comic books or watched any of those new-fangled superhero films, you have a good idea what  will happen. Boss battles still fail to inspire for the most part, even if they have far greater variety. There’s one fight (that I won’t spoil) that requires some thought, but most repeat a single tactic/ability over and over again in new ways – hardly amazing game design. In fact, due to these two factors in tandem, I didn’t even know I fought the last boss fight until the credits rolled. That should tell you something’s wrong! Even then, most boss fights have checkpoints within the fights, meaning you never have to survive all their attacks in one long, epic fight – this points to a deficit in one’s ability to avoid attacks and the developers putting a bandaid on a gaping wound.

Rocksteady, from what I have described, obviously mastered the art of plagiarizing every single major trend in video games in the past decade. If you haven’t heard any of these game mechanics being used before in some fashion, then you haven’t played enough video games! Given these elements, they then stuff them into a blender and see what comes out. That’s not a bad approach at all, in fact, but you sacrifice the individual elements for the whole.

I’ve only been listing flaws this whole time! So why am I playing this game still? Why do I search for stupid trophies and play challenge maps when I could just as easily play some other game? Well, the best reason I can give is…fun. That could be said of every game, certainly, but Arkham City rises above these myriad flaws by simply being a blast to play.

Ah, to describe the ineffable; I’ll sure try! Playing as Batman means you accept, by default, every aspect of the game. Because Rocksteady gives you all of Batman’s tools, and gives you the controls (complex at times) to play as Batman, you start feeling like Batman. Even if the combat reduces to a game of Simon Says, you look awesome taking down 20 criminals at once. Batman jumps, kicks, punches, and swoops around in a boxing ballet, effortlessly destroying a small army. If you play well, Batman looks even better! The same goes for the predator maps; it’s like a reverse horror movie, with you in the role of the antagonist. You can see when enemies are frightened when a friend suddenly turns up on the ground, or they’re suddenly hit by an object. You’re literally scaring them into mistakes, and it’s almost like a miniature power trip. Catwoman doesn’t quite give you the same feeling, but it’s up there. All the issues fade away as you actually start playing the game and believing in yourself as the Batman.

Can I really give it four star based purely on a feeling, though. Yes, yes I can. Despite Rocksteady’s blatant plagiarism, such solid mechanics allows them to craft a basis for the game while they can focus on making YOU the Batman. When I stopped focusing on all these tiny details and started seeing the good, I found that even these bland elements became something more in the context of the game’s experience. When I let go of myself and my hangups instead of just playing, it was Rocksteady’s guiding hand that made the experience truly enjoyable and fulfilling. Each part of the game is placed to provide the right pacing, making the game more exciting than it should. In fact, there’s a point where you work around the flaws of the game and enter a zen-like state of being the Batman. If “art” always consists of reconstituted aspects and influences, then Arkham City strikes pretty close. Proverbs 16 gave me a little perspective:

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives. 3 Commit your works to the Lord And your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil. Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; assuredly, he will not be unpunished. By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil. When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Better is a little with righteousness than great income with injustice. The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.

Motives can, at times, define the criticism of a game. When I plan and define what a game is, I can completely miss out on something exemplary. It was in playing simply to have fun that Arkham City became enjoyable. When I tried to play the role of a critic without due recourse and positive thought, the game failed. When I came simply to have a great time, it suceeded. When I accepted it for what it was and came in with the right intention, the game thrilled and wowed me. If you let preconceived notions get in the way, you’re not going to have fun. The game doesn’t get away with every flaw, but it sure makes up for it. Get over yourself and you’ll enjoy it; nitpick and it’ll just hurt you.

To understand the scoring system, see our Review Policy.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.