By Alec Meer on October 31st, 2011 at 2:56 pm.
Batman! A game so good that Yahoo awarded it 6/5, thus unwittingly demonstrating that review scores are little more than a media pissing contest whose only real beneficiary is publishers’ marketing departments and people who like to shout at other people on forums. Which is exactly why we don’t give scores here. Can Arkham City possibly live up to such drooling superlatives? Well, I can’t yet speak for the PC version – which isn’t out until November 18, though we’re hoping to have code before then – but I did spend far too much of my week off playing the console version (I’m sorry, I just fancied getting a different sort of RSI on top of the one I already have from my mouse and keyboard), thus have a very good sense of the game itself if not its technical aspects and improvements on PC. So, if you must, consider this not a Wot I Think, but an extended preview offering some idea of what to expect in a few weeks.
Arkham City, as well-named a game as any ever was, is a direct evolution of Arkham Asylum, genuinely and impressively pumping up the player abilities, scale and freedom in big, big ways – making it something close to a true sequel, as opposed to the ‘the same, with knobs on’ approach most big gaming franchises tend to pursue these days. With Jim’s eloquent grumpiness about fake freedom in mind, I think BAC approaches its open world in the right way: it doesn’t promise freedom, and in fact goes out of its way to convince you you’re trapped in a huge outdoor prison, so freedom sneaks in organically once you find your feet, rather than is dangled straight at you then never lived up to. I use the small but smart freedom on offer to achieve specific objectives, not to roam willy-nilly, because I’m here for a reason, not a ramble. I might have a city to explore and admire if I wish, but there are people to save, villains to stop and clues to find. I’m the god-damned Batman, not Ian Sinclair.
Arkham City is, in theory, but a fraction of Gotham City, though that said it does seems to contain most of the important bits, like the church and the police station and the docks and the industrial district and the courthouse and the museum, does leave me wondering what’s left to document. Regardless, knowing this urban slice has been sectioned off as a giant prison for dangerous criminals and knowing that my primary purpose in being here was to beat up said criminals means I didn’t face the conceptual disappointment of not being able to reach other areas. Obviously I couldn’t. Plus, this area was in peril, and so was I. Important work must done. Except…
Well, except the game manages to mangle its own tension and drama at critical points, thanks to a bombardment of side-missions and collectibles. It was distracting enough in Arkham Asylum, but here there’s a constant, city-wide scattering of gotta catch ‘em all Riddler trophies, political prisoners about to suffer a beat down, hoop-diving stunts and kidnappings screaming for your attention, even while you’ve apparently only got minutes to live or save Gotham from becoming a smoking hole in the ground. “The Penguin is threatening to execute six policemen any moment now, but I am too busy trying to bat-rope across six skyscrapers in order to collect this green question mark.” Oh Batman, I fear you’ve lost sight of why you first became Batman. Are you not satisfied by all those billions you own as Bruce Wayne? Do you really need all this crap too?
In fairness, there is narrative justification for every aspect of the game, rather than leaving it to the dry desert of achievement-hunting. All the collecting and side-questing ties into defeating the nefarious, usually life-threatening schemes of an impressively large section of Batman’s rogues gallery, culminating in a typically lavish confrontation with one of the many supervillains causing merry hell in Arkham. It isn’t just about the experience points (which unlock new abilities as well as challenge maps and snorrrrrrrrrre concept art), and there is smartly-designed delight in finally getting to the face your assorted arch-nemeses, but it sure does make for a noisy, attention-hungry game that loses a lot of the scriptwriters’ surely intended impetus.
To refer to the ancient RPS descriptor of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City is perhaps not tight. It is excellently entertaining to punch people, to swoop from skyscrapers at high speed and to use a fat array of clever gadgets to access new areas and challenges, it is lovely to look at and it is a sturdy creature of impressive size, but frankly some of that bulk is pure flab.
Yet despite this, I was compelled to pursue every lead, subquest and mildly irritating timing mini-game Arkham City threw at me, and for the first time in my long and easily-distracted gaming career, the idea of attaining the fabled 100% completion seemed appealing. I stopped myself from doing it, quite sensibly telling myself that I had better things to do than desperately make a number slowly increase, but the urge was certainly there. And still is. It was there because Arkham City offers an excellent and slowly-growing toolbox of abilities, with your/my own expertise at the use of these tools improving noticeably over time.
While the pursuit of tiny, gotta catch ‘em all objectives might have been entirely meaningless outside of the most lizardy part of my brain, it was also enormously satisfying, rewarding the deft use of elaborate controls, observation and logic-leveraging. Whether Batman really would waste his time on such things is perhaps a moot point – what’s important is that Batman can achieve such things. I am the god-damned Batman. And it’s my god-damned business if I want to use my incredible abilities and wonderful toys to collect toy question marks instead of saving Gotham from mass-poisoning.
My other gripe is the bulk of the writing and quite a few of the performances. This element of the game simply doesn’t live up the splendour of its look and city and ability toybox, with the enormous exception of Mark Hamill as The Joker. Luke Skywalker turns in what I would say is a career-best performance, and is able to add charisma and menace to even the most turgid of lines – as well as getting all the game’s best ones. He’s a halogen-bright Batsignal flaring up from the darkened buildings of his fellow performers, towering above them. Most of the rest of the cast is merely adequate – nothing to complain about, but they can’t lift the often plodding, humdrum dialogue into something so much more in the way Hamill manages to. (Alfred was good; the guy doing Hugo Strange had a great, sinisterly flat voice but rote evil genius lines; The Riddler was a decent nerd; Batman was solid, not too growly but blandly straight-up heroic).
Then there were the really bad ones. Two-Face as roaring, purely-angry thug who seems to use ‘bitch’ as his every other word, Catwoman as one-note, pantomime-flirt, Nolan North doing an atrocious Dick Van Dyke take on the Penguin, and the array of same-voiced thugs who also didn’t make it past B in their dictionaries of casual misogyny.
I’m not going to say too much about the game’s attitude towards women, as it’s been so well documented elsewhere, but I would agree that Rocksteady haven’t done their best work in that regard. I wouldn’t call it a matter of straight-up contempt for female characters however, but more another reflection of how humdrum some of the writing and acting can be, and how sharply that contrasts with other aspects of the game. But it is mystifying why BAC strives to come up with fresh, clever, inventively freaky takes on its many villains’ personas and appearances, yet settles on the most generic sexy/sassy/double-entendre-y/lowest common denominator-y take on Catwoman, for instance, accompanied by the bulk of the game’s NPCs endlessly bombarding her with the b-word (the sheer repetition is almost as obnoxious as the sentiment). Some characters just haven’t been imagined or treated with anywhere near the same attention to detail and invention as others, and for some reason most of those characters are female. Don’t blame the source material, because while there is certainly a sad history of This Sort Of Thing over the many decades of Batman stories (including the most recent reboot of the Catwoman comic, sadly enough), there have also been many examples of thoughtful, nuanced, grown-up interpretations too. And as for the thugs, they’re just looped-dialogue robots with a miserably limited vocabulary, not convincing criminals using authentically salty language.
Anyway: as I say, I think it’s more to do with the game being so uneven in its realisation of what is a massive, massive cast of characters than anything else. As it elects to squeeze so much in, someone was always going to get the short straw. Another question is whether it needed to squeeze so much in – despite broadly aiming for Nolan-style hi-tech realism, it occasionally chucks up openly fantastical elements, which offer over-neat deus ex machinas as well as improbable boss battles. It does add up to an almighty and unprecedented package of Batmanniness, but I would have preferred a tighter, smaller game.
For all this, I spent my week with it, I was glad to and I’d have little hesitation in recommending Arkham City. It’s a remarkable piece of interactive superheroism, rich and lavish in detail in most respects, offering just enough freedom alongside fixed goals and the kind of dramatic, high-speed urban outdoorsmanship that puts Assassin’s Creed or Mirror’s Edge to shame (even if they offer far more fleshed-out takes on the narrower sections of city-navigation they offer). It’s not the ‘oh my God, they actually pulled off a good superhero game’ shock of Arkham Asylum, but it’s far meatier, it pulled me in more, it’ll pull me back again and it’s all the proof I needed, in this sad age of cheerless military manshoots, that lavish, expensive, blockbuster singleplayer games are certainly not lost to routine and cynicism. I really can’t wait to see how good it looks and plays on a high-end PC, and to find out if anyone can make a mod that patches out Nolan North.