2011 wasn’t a bad year for games. There were some disappointments, some unsung gems, and some outstanding successes. One game that struck audiences as being all three is Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City. “Sure,” the universal criticism begins, “it’s tightly designed, it has fluid controls and the world — while having a somewhat silly premise — is open and free. Still, it can’t hold a candle to the more focused, superior narrative of Arkham Asylum.” While Asylum did have the advantage of having no precedent, the more schizophrenic tone of City adds a dimension that few have overlooked. Specifically, it illustrates what Batman might feel like on a nightly basis.
Even the most pedestrian Batman fan can leave Asylum with a diploma in Batman studies. Asylum told the story of the Joker using a handful of other villains to keep one step ahead of the caped crusader until he inevitably backed himself into a corner, where Batman disposed of him with little difficulty. Underlying that story was the excellent collectible system that also provided a background on a plethora of Batman’s other foes. Perusing the files of other villains gives the sense that a sizable portion of the villains were ordinary but unstable individuals until Batman punched his way into their lives. Arkham City is the Gotham that Asylum alludes to, the one that Batman created.
In the first twenty minutes of the game Batman encounters a dozen sworn enemies promising to finally get their revenge. In the first hour, he gets drawn into a game of cat and mouse with Zsasz, he’s sent on another grocery run by the Riddler, he commits to an uneasy alliance with the monstrous Bane, and he drops into a room of over 50 of Two-Face’s henchmen. All of this occurs in addition to delivering brutal pummelings to the minor drug offenders occupying the prison. Arkham City isn’t a prison district, it’s a playground for a billionaire wearing rubber tights.
One of the core appeals of Batman is that it’s never clear whether he’s a one-man army against crime that refuses to stoop to the level of criminals or a delusional thug that refuses to eliminate the threats against his city because it would reduce the number of people he can punch later on. Asylum shows a Batman with a clear objective and a straightforward approach to accomplishing it. City gives us a Batman in the streets and alleys of the Gotham that he’s responsible for — where deranged former district attorneys get tied upside down and throttled instead of medicated.
Arkham Asylum took place in an institution for the criminally insane (apparently Gotham is working with a unique edition of the DSM) where everybody is a threat. The patients in the asylum are there because they’re not just criminals, but insane ones. There are no qualms in lodging a bat-themed chunk of metal in their person. Arkham City shows a place that is operated by a politically interested figure. The population is enormous and encompasses everyone from political prisoners and drunk drivers to murderers that, to survive, must group in one of the many gangs. Every one of them ripe for a bat-thrashing.
And it’s a lot of fun. For the player and for Batman. For the world’s greatest detective, the part of Batman’s job that’s most entertaining is the part where he manhandles repeat offenders. The logical consequence of all the empty cages seen in Asylum is the chaos if City’s streets were to open. There is more to do in these open streets, more criminals to beat up. Asylum needed to be focused; there was just one ultimate goal. In City, there’s always somebody else to track down, some other villain that Batman refuses to kill slicing up one more hostage that Batman will fail to save (who may even hold a grudge against Batman and become a villain himself). Batman’s work will never be finished because he loves what he does. Perhaps too much.
Asylum showed a no-nonsense Batman on the job. Arkham City shows a completely different side of Batman, one that’s springing back and forth from task to task, never concentrating on a problem long enough to solve it totally, just long enough to get his kicks from it. I won’t argue which is better, but at the very least, City deserves to be put in the same weight class as its predecessor. The major criticism of City is that it’s too open to get to know any of the people in the prison or understand them. But Batman doesn’t care, so why should we?
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