I thought that I was going to write a full, No High Scores review of Batman: Arkham City but as I played through the first five or six hours, I realized that doing so was kind of pointless. By now, you’ve undoubtedly read through some of the effusive praise that has met Rocksteady’s follow-up to Arkham Asylum- itself a widely and rightfully acclaimed AAA blockbuster. Even notorious contrarian Tom Chick gave the game a perfect score. Regardless of whatever you’ve read about it, you’re likely either playing the game or are going to because it’s simply that kind of must-play title that demands attention, sells through the roof, and is the subject of many gamer conversations into the near future. And if you like video games and care at all about where they are in 2011 and where they should be going in the future, then you have to play this game. It is that elusive Empire Strikes Back-level sequel. Arkham Asylum was simply Rocksteady clearing its throat.
Oh sure, I could rhapsodize about how Rocksteady likely understands the Batman character better than Chris Nolan and recant again how great the voice acting, art direction, writing, and brawling mechanics are. I could go on and on about the architecture of Arkham City and how intricate details, suggestions of stories and histories, are mortared right into the very brick of the place. I’d be able to write a full essay on the subtle and overt references the game makes to German expressionist cinema, gothic horror, No Man’s Land and Escape from New York.
Do you really want me to rattle off a list of the tremendous villains you’ll meet over the course of the game and to prattle on about how the new game is deeper, richer and far more expansive than its predecessor? Is it really necessary for me to pontificate that the game brings forward some of the best mechanics and ideas from Metal Gear, Assassin’s Creed, Bionic Commando, and Metroid, and that the content is so abundant that it’s practically overwhelming. But you probably know that already. I mean, seriously- do you really need me to tell you at this point that Catwoman and Robin are in the game- and you can play as them?
If we held our Game of the Year balloting at Gameshark today, I would unquestionably tick the box next to “Arkham City”. It’s a stunning, masterfully conceived and constructed piece of entertainment software and it is absolutely among the best and most significant games released in the history of the medium. It’s also one of those cases where the mainstream is right on the money, and the news today that the game has sold two million copies in a week means that there are a lot of folks playing and enjoying a masterpiece. Hype isn’t always wrong, and sometimes the big-budget blockbuster blows the entire indie scene out of the water.
But the fact that the game is so great, blah blah blah, isn’t very interesting at this point. What’s more interesting to me is that it is everything that an AAA, well-funded, well-marketed, and expensively produced video game should be. There’s nothing lazy, half-assed, or sloppy about it. There is no crap multiplayer added to appease some exec that wanted to see it on a bullet list of features. It’s a game made with a tremendous passion not only for the subject matter, characters, and setting but also for video games and their potential to tell stories and involve players directly in the events and outcomes described. This isn’t a game where you passively watch cinematics or follow a scripted path between story beats. Rocksteady doesn’t want you to just play their game and watch their story unfold, they want you to become Batman in it. It’s immersion of the highest level.
The number of different activities you get to do as Batman is staggering, dwarfing any of the caped crusading in the previous game. Hacking. Listening in on thugs for clues. Gliding. Conducting detective work. Interrogating the Riddler’s henchmen. Chatting with Zsasz on a payphone. Exploring abandoned subway tunnels. Rescuing wrongly imprisoned political prisoners. Tracing the trajectory of a sniper shot fired by Deadshot. The game makes other AAA titles seem empty and sparse by comparison, its density is at once thrilling and intimidating.
It’s also a game that is an artifact forged by a creative team dedicated to outdoing themselves and pushing further than they did in the last game. You can almost feel how emboldened Rocksteady has become after Arkham Asylum. There’s a confidence in everything this game does that is simply incredible to witness. There’s nothing tentative, and even the new gameplay elements such as the more open world structure, a host of new gadgets, and expanded combat techniques are handled effortlessly. Everything is immaculately directed, expertly framed, and there’s almost nothing in the game that feels compromised or second best. The worldbuilding in particular is among the best I’ve ever seen, with a unified, expansive vision that makes Rapture look quaint by comparision.
If you really want to, you can pick out minor details to bitch about like how the Unreal Engine still struggles with Batman’s cape from time to time. But to that, I’d have to ask you why you were focusing on that instead of the snowflakes caught in the cape. Yeah, it’s a little silly that Batman feels like he’s got to train himself in the middle of a mission to literally jump through hoops, but I’ll be damned if I’m not climbing back up that crane and trying again and again until I get it right. The only serious complaint is that if you don’t like Batman then some of this game’s greatness is diminished. But what kind of weirdo doesn’t like Batman? Oh, Joker. Joker doesn’t like Batman. Who’s side are you on anyway?
I suppose this really is a review of Arkham City after a fashion, but I’ve yet to finish it and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s the kind of game where you are constantly afraid that you’re going to miss something- not because you might need it, but because you want to see everything that it has to show you. I’ve spent more time looking around the Museum than I have on the story progression there. I’m taking my time with this game and savoring every minute of it. I feel sorry for the writers that rushed through the game to get the launch day review on their editors’ desks. If you feel that I need to see the end credits before I can pass critical judgment on this game’s accomplishments, then just regard this as an extended love letter to a game that I am completely, almost irrationally smitten with.
Love letters don’t end in letter grades or numerical quantification of criticism. But if you insist, A+, 10, 100, *****.