Saturday, October 29, 2011

Arkham City review (Non-Spoiler)

    I love me some Batman.

    So much that I'm going to do my review of Arkham City in three parts. The first part, this review, is going to review the Arkham City game from a non-spoiler perspective. The next will be a spoiler review that covers all of its plot elements in detail. The third will be a discussion of Arkham City's social commentary. Yeah, you heard that right. I'm going to devote an essay to discussing the social satire of a Batman tie-in video game.

    Yes, I am completely insane. Thank you for asking.

    A little background before we get into this. I LOVE Batman. I grew up with Batman: The Animated Series. I was one of those kids who watched the original Michael Keaton Batman in theaters with awe. I know who Azrael, Cassandra Cain, Spoiler, and Hush are. Hell, I actually proposed to my wife during a impromptu Batman movie marathon. That last bit, I point out, is kind of coincidental but it cements Batman's importance in my life.

    So yeah, this game is made for Batmaniacs like myself.

    So what's the final verdict? I love the game, I give it a ten out of ten, and yet I can't say it's quite as perfect as the original. Oddly, I'll still probably play Batman: Arkham City a lot more than I played Batman: Arkham Asylum. Maybe it's nostalgia at work here but Arkham Asylum is just a note perfect video game to me.

    I may do a retrospective review of it someday, I love it so much. It felt like a six-issue Batman miniseries and I see no reason why it couldn't have been in-continuity. Of course, given DCU regularly savages its own continuity, maybe it's for the best.

    I liken Arkham Asylum to a perfect meal of steak, garlic mashed potatoes, bread sticks, and tea. It's delicious and after you're done with it, you're left wanting more. There is no more, however. Arkham City is more like Chinese food. You can scarf it down and afterward, there's enough to go back and get a second helping. Still, there were things I would have done differently.

    The premise is simple enough. Blackgate Prison and Arkham Asylum were destroyed due to the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum. As a result, there are thousands of hardened lifers and homicidal lunatics now impossible to incarcerate. Rather than in real-life where these guys would be transferred to other institutions, Gotham City takes care of the problem in a unique fashion. They wall off the slums of Gotham City and dump their criminal population inside. There is no order inside and the criminals are left to their own devices.

    You'd think I'd find this premise ridiculous but it's actually really intriguing. I think it's because I approach it from the perspective of a comic book. In this universe, the Joker has undoubtedly escaped dozens of times already and murdered hundreds of people. He's not alone either, making Gotham City something of a festering black hole in terms of crime. If the Gotham City Earthquake happened in this continuity it's also possible this is a disaster zone. One where it's cheaper to use it as a makeshift prison than try to repair everything.

    Whatever the case, it's Escape from New York-esque premise is one I'm willing to believe. Comic books are filled with a lack of government supervision or the government being evil. In the X-men comics, there's countless secret societies in the government devoted to kidnapping or killing mutants.

    Hell, one of Marvel's major missteps was actually going out and having a death camp made for them by Weapon X. That's another issue, however. Whatever the case, it's easy for me to believe the Gothamites hope Arkham City will solve their crime problem. By solve, I mean, believe the citizens the criminals will kill each other off. The game is filled with causal evidence the authorities are habitually abusing, starving, and arming the prisoners well before the explosive climax.

    Batman's role in the game is to head into Arkham City and pretty much do what he does best, punching bad guys and saving innocents. After all, not all prisoners in a penitentiary are going to be as psychotically evil as say, Two Face. It doesn't help that the prison is being supervised by long-time Batman villain Hugo Strange (apparently making his first appearance in this continuity) and fascist dictator wannabe Quincy Sharp (now Mayor of Gotham City). You just know that something terrible is going to happen with that premise.

    The game controls are much faster and more intuitive than Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman is able to handle larger crowds of thugs much better than in the first game, which is almost a shame. The first game did an excellent job of establishing Batman was a human being rather than a superhuman like Superman.

    It's possible for Batman to fight off six guys at once in the first game, but it's a tremendous strain on him and you mostly have to rely on stealth to survive. In Arkham City, I had no difficulty fighting off seemingly dozens of mooks as if they made of paper. It's not until later in the game that the thugs gain any weapons more dangerous than a baseball bat or pipe and, even then, they're pretty easy.

    Swinging across Arkham City is a bit like running rooftops like in Assassin's Creed 2, though you have the advantage of Batman's grappling hook. Honestly, I felt it was a mistake not giving Batman the option to physically jump from rooftop to rooftop like Ezio. The grappling hook is fun and all but there's something classic about Batman leaping across the rooftops.

    The pandering to those who have a working knowledge of the Batman mythos is tremendous with literally hundreds of references spread throughout the game. The references are much easier than the ones in Arkham Asylum and thus, you can use them to solve the Riddler's challenges much faster. Still, I would have appreciated a list of the actual Riddles because it would have made my enjoyment all the greater. Instead, I just saw a reference to the Falcone Crime family and took a picture with the Bat-Camera.

    Riddle Solved.

    One change I didn't like was the removal of Oracle from the game for the substitution of Alfred. I understand that Barbara Gordon is no longer going to be Oracle in the rebooted DCU. Hell, I have a copy of the new Batgirl 1# and it's obvious she's not nor likely ever has been. Still, I really liked the relationship between Batman and Oracle and wanted to see more of it. Alfred's banter with Bruce is entertaining, though.

    What I really approve of is the addition of side-quests to the main story. Arkham Asylum was highly tight in its storytelling. However, once you were done with the game, there wasn't much left to do other than solve the Riddler's various challenges. After Arkham City, there's plenty of re-spawning thugs and stories to continue pursuing.

    Some of them were very good, some of them were frustratingly hard, and at least one I found impossible to complete even with the internet. I'm very happy with the developers for making the game this way and I give them two thumbs up for it.

    Overall, I give this game a ten out of ten and highly recommend everyone with even a passing appreciation of Batman to pick it up. I suspect a lot of the references will go over the heads of most people, but it's all explained in the video game to the point I don't think anyone's enjoyment will be affected.


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