I am pretty sure that Batman: Arkham Asylum received a higher score from me than any other game that I reviewed in 2009.
Like a number of other critics, I was really struck by Rocksteady’s ability to create, for the first time, a game that really made the player feel like they were inhabiting the skin of the Batman through combat, stealth, and investigatory mechanics that seemed to really simulate the experience of “being” the Dark Knight Detective.
Additionally, I was extremely impressed with Arkham Asylum‘s ability to tell its story through the environments in the game world itself. Much like games that had just preceded the release of Arkham Asylum by a couple of years, like Bioshock and Portal, attention to detail in the creation of the world itself allowed the player to really get a handle on the inhabitants of Arkham by exploring the spaces that they inhabited. The addition of Riddler puzzles, which encouraged you to examine the environment even more thoroughly than you otherwise might as an optional quest, even further encouraged exploring events in Arkham through its architecture.
Thus, I have probably been awaiting Arkham City and the expansion of the gaming space developed by Rocksteady more than almost any other game this holiday season. It seems that after getting “being Batman” just right, the developers of this Batman franchise seemed to want to get “being the caped crusader on the prowl in his city” just right, too (okay, this isn’t all of Gotham — Arkham City is a section of that fictional metropolis cordoned off as a kind of very, very large super prison for Gotham’s undesirables) .
I’m afraid that I don’t feel like Rocksteady hit quite as close to the mark this time out, or to put it more accurately, perhaps, this goal of opening up Batman’s world may not have been the best thing for the franchise.
While Arkham Asylum was somewhat open-looking in its structure, with Batman able to move between many different portions of the Arkham Island throughout the game, by limiting his equipment in a Metroidvania sort of way the game kept the player on “narrative rails” by only allowing him full access to certain buildings (and thus certain chapters of the plot) as he progressed through a linear story.
While more linear and more claustrophobic, perhaps, nevertheless, it was this methodical progression through the game’s environments that kept the player focused on exploring the game’s narrative architecture. Arkham City‘s open world approach enlarges the game and as a result broadens the focus of the player from the most interesting details of a world inspired by the comics to a dark city that is quite busy with things to do and see — probably too busy.
What results is a game that has great moments and great environments spread out more thinly throughout the map and story themselves, leaving the density of well crafted detail more diffuse and more difficult to fully appreciate. Side quests and an explosion of Riddler quests in a much larger world tend to distract from these moments and places, rather than enhance and encourage the player to explore through them.
While one disappointment that I had with the first game is the relatively limited number of Batman villains featured directly (more of his Rogue’s Gallery was merely hinted at by finding objects that belonged to them in the environment or seeing spaces that they had occupied in the asylum), like the enlargement of everything else, an explosion of villains in Arkham City makes the plot and goals of Arkham City seem unfocused and often bloated. Yes, I was pleased to see Rocksteady’s version of the Penguin and Two-Face or Hugo Strange and R’as al Ghul, but then as the game tries to shoehorn more and more of these faces of Gotham’s underworld into the central plot, the storyline grows more convoluted and, again, just plain out of focus. The R’as al Ghul business and the introduction of Batman’s former lover Talia seem especially forced, for example. I realized then that the decision in the first game to focus on fewer villains in order to give them each clearer motivations was a correct one. Again, smaller and more focused seems to me to have benefited Rocksteady’s approach to Batman considerably more than a game seemingly “bigger” with a “broader view.”
Which is a pity because the central plotline and especially its ending (ironically, the greatest weakness of the first game — with the inclusion of its goofy Joker-boss-monster-thing), which I won’t spoil here, is quite good without these various odds and ends tacked on to the events that precede it. The ending of the game is one of the stronger dramatic moments of a game that I feel like I have seen in awhile (though this may be aided by being an old time comic book reader). Without getting into the details too much, I almost feel like Paul Dini and his fellow writers have created a subtle homage to one of the most classic Batman stories of all time, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, in the game’s final moments, while escaping entirely the trap of being derivative.
The other highlight here is the somewhat controversial Catwoman content (available for download for free only with a first time purchase of the game). Much like Arkham Asylum‘s smart approach to building an experience of “being Batman” through mechanics that complement the character, “being Catwoman” is a tremendous experience. She plays faster than Batman, is a bit more fragile (lacking the Bat’s body armor), and has counter moves and stealth attacks that speak to her role as femme fatale in the mythos (I especially like a move where she turns and kisses an opponent over her shoulder before throwing him violently to the ground in front of her). Quite honestly, I would happily pay for a Rocksteady game featuring only Catwoman based on how she plays alone. After the game was over and I was let loose in Arkham City to wrap up side quests in its open world, I spent most of my time playing as Catwoman because I had gotten too little of her in the main game itself.
Being Batman is still fun and at times as equally engaging as the first time out (gliding above a group of thugs before engaging them is, at times, extremely compelling and fits the mood of a Batman story perfectly), and, again, the game features an assortment of truly great moments, truly great moods, and truly well crafted spaces, but their arrangement is spread far too thinly on the canvas. I want the denser, more limited spaces of the asylum back. I want my prison more cramped, more uncomfortable, a place where a better experience of being Batman can be found.