RETRO REVIEWS: Arkham City
The downtime caused by this quarantine has offered me some opportune time to get back in touch with my gaming roots. The last console I owned was a Playstation 2 which should give you an idea of what generation of video games I peaked on. Everything that came after, I missed out on. So as I relive the carefree gaming days of my youth, I thought it’d be a fun idea to review some of the games I missed out on. Spoilers ahead.
A huge fortified wall is built around the slums of Gotham, with psychiatrist Hugo Strange leading the project with a shoot-to-kill strike team called TYGER, in an attempt to quell the criminal element of the city for good. Bruce Wayne publicly lobbies to shutdown this inhumane fortress, now called Arkham City, and is arrested by TYGER forces. Bruce is brought right into the belly of the beast and therein begins his investigation into this fortress of misery.
I should preface my thoughts on the game with the fact that I clocked in 36 hours of gameplay – DLC and all Riddler challenges completed – when I finished it. Suffice to say I got the most out of Batman: Arkham City.
It’s no surprise that the game’s biggest star is the core gameplay. You put a character like Batman with all his fancy gadgets and skills in a sandbox as huge as Arkham City, you’re bound to spend hours just trying to parkour across rooftops, gliding to the next district, hanging on to patrolling helicopters, divebombing from tall structures, Batarang-ing unsuspecting villains, and drop-kicking enemies from the roof. The mobility you’re given with the character is just too damn fun.
Of course, you got the signature Arkham combat which has become the gold standard for games of this kind. There’s almost nothing new left to be said about it at this point: it’s fluid, dynamic, graceful, stylish, and whatever adjective applies to fighting mechanics. The game does a great job of keeping it dummy-proof which incentivizes players of all skills to really excel with the combat. Being able to utilize gadgets like the Batarang and grappling hook in the middle of combos takes the whole thing to another level. The combat almost has a relaxing addictive component to it; you fight waves of bad guys and it slowly becomes this choreographed dance where it becomes a fully instinctual exercise for your fingers on the controller. If I didn’t have other games queued up on my list, I would have definitely spent more time topping those Riddler combat challenges.
The stealth component is also stupid fun. The game gives you the freedom to either just brutally assault enemies head-on like the tank Batman is in a room or to use some of his League of Shadows ninja skills. Granted, I do wish the stealth mechanics were more developed (more options on how to ninja your way around a room and better level designs that accommodate it) but it’s just absolutely hilarious to watch goons react to dangling unconscious bodies from your grappling hook. I’m curious on how succeeding Arkham games improved on this component.
Much like the groundbreaking first game, one of Arkham City’s biggest strengths is how it builds on the Batman mythology. There’s a slew of classic villains waiting to ruin Batman’s day. Two-Face, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Bane, Mad Hatter, Victor Zsasz, Solomon Grundy, Clayface, Ra’s Al Guhl, Deadshot, Hush and Riddler all make an appearance in this game. For someone like me who rarely gets to read Batman comics and see his villains, anytime I get to see pop culture’s best rogues gallery showcased is always a win.
Going through from point to point and seeing villains in different parts of the story (main mission and side missions alike) felt like I was playing various episodes of the iconic Batman: The Animated Series. There’s an episodic quality to the way the rogues gallery are spread out in the game and it keeps things varied and fresh. Overall, I do wish some villains were given the limelight more than others which brings me to the game’s biggest weakness: the actual story.
Arkham City doesn’t really know what story it wants to tell. The game oscillates between two arcs: the titular one centered on Hugo Strange’s Arkham City and a continuation of the Joker story from the first game. Now, this wouldn’t generally be a problem if these two arcs intersected in some way but they don’t. The momentum constantly shifts between you dealing with neverending Joker problems and getting to the heart of Hugo Strange’s sinister Protocol 10 plot that neither end up being a fully satisfying story. It also doesn’t help that you’re forced to play Catwoman at times in a plot that also doesn’t connect to the main story, save for one or two scenes.
The main plot, which is the Hugo Strange one, is by far the more interesting one. On paper, the notion of Arkham City as a whole sounds ridiculous. More than anything, it feels like a cheap attempt to keep the Arkham name alive in the franchise but the game actually manages to explore some intriguing ideas that pertain to incarceration, criminality, fascism, and human rights. Even though you don’t actually see Strange until the third act of the game, him being a constant voice you hear in the prison’s PAs reinforces those themes as he recites the inhumane laws that govern this city and counts down to his endgame: Protocol 10, an order to kill all inmates inside the prison.
Sadly, beneath this mammoth of a plot lies a narrative foundation that’s basically made of straws and the entire thing collapses once the nature of Strange’s role in the story is revealed. Turns out, he’s an errand boy for Ra’s Al Guhl. Now, if you’re a comic reader or have a semblance of basic Batman knowledge, you know that Ra’s and the League of Shadow masterminding the plot to get rid of Gotham’s crime makes sense. The problem is that the game doesn’t make an effort to tell you this. Ra’s makes a 10-minute appearance as a boss mid-game in a subplot that has nothing to do with Arkham City. Suddenly, he’s the big bad pulling the strings and the game just expects you to go with it. Strange is reduced to a bumbling lackey. Even worse, within like a minute of the reveal, both Strange and Ra’s die and you’re back to dealing with Joker’s bullshit. The game doesn’t care to explore Ra’s and the League of Shadows’ twisted sense of righteousness.
Joker’s bullshit by the way is just as frustrating. The effects from hulking out from the previous game are killing Joker so he devises a plan that leaves Batman and the rest of Gotham poisoned. The Caped Crusader is forced to find a cure via the Lazarus Pit which is how Ra’s comes into the picture. Of course, the pit becomes the Joker’s eventual endgame of immortality. It’s not a bad story in itself but in the wake of the more interesting Arkham City plot, it ends up being a detriment to the big picture. If the developers managed to find a way to blend the two stories and have them connect in a big way (what does Joker think of Strange’s attempts to get rid all criminality? Surely, Joker has some things to say about that!), my feelings would be a lot more different.
All that said, the weak story does not take away from how fun and immersive of a game Arkham City is. With so much to do and explore as the Dark Knight, the shortcomings of how the story comes together feel inconsequential. I groaned when I was about to face off with the Joker in the final fight but was jolted with excitement when Clayface surfaced as the final boss. The Riddler challenges were painfully grueling but the promise of getting to knock the shit out of Nigma was enough to get me to complete the damn thing. The game truly is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m probably not gonna play any more Arkham games given how this and Arkham Asylum checked those boxes for me but I am more than excited to check out Rocksteady’s next offering which is the Suicide Squad game that was just announced.