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A Love Letter to Arkham City

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?

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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.

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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?

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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, *****.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

29 thoughts to “A Love Letter to Arkham City”

  1. I am not quite as effusive but it is a damn fine game.

    They must be doing something right because I spent half an hour doing a single trophy puzzle the other day. And those puzzles can be downright brilliant; they’d be a main game somewhere else, totally optional here.

    It is definitely a serious step up from AA, already amazing in itself. I am glad it is selling well to show that sinking all your resources into a fantastic single player experience is still financially viable.

  2. Amen! Oh you poor reviewers who had to blast through this game as quickly as possible to write a review. I pity you. I’ve finished the main story mode, and I’m a fraction of the way through the sidequest content. It’s ridiculous how much stuff there is to do in this game. The actual side missions have some nice variety to them, and the Riddler trophy hunting is fantastic. Some of the trophies are simply picking them up, but many of them are actual puzzles that need to be solved which force you to use all your abilities to the max, especially the gliding. I’m very impressed.

    Michael, no spoilers, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what you think of the ending. It’s a bit different, but I think it really works. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling, but there’s some imagery I just adore and I shed a tear when it finished playing out. A big, manly Bat-tear, but a tear nonetheless. It also changes some of the dialogue you overhear from the thugs on the street when you’re running around after the main story is finished, which is just awesome.

  3. Okay, so at this point, I’ve completed the main story. Which, to be clear, does not mean I’ve rushed through it. Much.

    While I can’t say that I fell quite so deeply in love with it (particularly with what I still think is a pretty rocky early section), it is absolutely one of the best games to come out in recent memory.

    My only remaining complaint with the game is that as the story progresses the over-world ends up getting so dangerous I felt pushed to complete the story so that I could go back to safely exploring the rooftops (thankfully, after completing the story, Arkham City is back to just moderately dangerous, which is where I prefer it). So, yeah, about 2/3s of the way through the game, it simply became impractical to take a break from the story and do side quests, which made me a little sad.

    But, I do love the detail in this game. And the voice work. Oh the voicework. There’s one section where Batman doesn’t have cell reception and Joker calls him, like 10 times, and the conversation Joker has with himself is…perfect. I won’t spoil anything, but the payoff between Joker and Batman at the end is beautiful, and sad.

    And The Riddler, who was my favorite part of the first game, is awesome. I still hate the stupid button puzzles and I swear I must be missing some key, useful thing for a significant percentage of them, but the expansion of The Riddler’s challenges is excellent. And his interview tapes seem to actually be explaining how he managed to set all this up, which is kind of cool.

    Speaking of interview tapes, all of them are excellent. It was fun to hear them grudgingly talk to psychiatrists, but it’s amazing to hear them talk to each other and Batman.

    Same with the thugs. The mixture of desperation and sadness and frustation that so many of them express made them so much more than random goons. It felt good to feel a little guilty about knocking some dude digging through the trash out, just because I didn’t want to be disturbed while answering the phone or working on a Riddler trophy.

    Of course, it also feels good to hang a Riddler informant off the second story of a building and, after he talks, just drop him. Man, it was awesome to get that context sensitive “enhanced interrogation” technique to trigger.

    At this point, I do have quibbles, like how Batman is way more fun than Catwoman and I would have preferred to do more stuff as Batman and lose Catwoman altogether. Also, how does one get to play as Robin? I haven’t gotten that yet. And that stupid Watcher dude is hard to find. And who pronounces Ra’s as “Raze”? And don’t tell me everybody because Christian Bale certainly doesn’t.

    This one’s just embarrassing, but I’m still trying to piece together exactly what happened near the end there (can’t say more than that, though, but I think I’ve figured it out).

    Okay, I’ll stop now. For a little while. But I’ll want to talk about it more in, like, 5 minutes.

  4. It really shows that the prevailing wisdom in AAA that multiplayer a) sells games and b) keeps people from putting their played-through games into the used market is faulty. If you provide players with a top-tier single player experience and give them enough to do- I’m not talking about value as expressed in number of campaign hours- then you’ve got a winner.

    This game could easily have had some stupid co-op mode or, god help us, a competitive multiplayer one. But it doesn’t, because it wouldn’t be right.

    The puzzles are really awesome, and there’s such a wide variety of them. Some are really obtuse, some are pretty obvious. I totally agree that the puzzles alone could have made for a great game.

  5. I’ll definitely follow up when I’m done with it, Flek. It may not be for a while though since I’ve got the Battlefied 3 and Cave Story 3D reviews on my plate right now. I’m hoping to get it done before Uncharted 3 hits though, definitely.

    A Bat-tear? Wow.

  6. I don’t think there is better voice acting in games- the Uncharted games are the only thing that comes close. The writing is absolutely outstanding, which helps, but there is also a complete commitment to the characters at every level. It helps too that Conroy and Hamil have more or less owned their characters for going on 20 years now. But even the new voice for Harley Quinn is seamless and right on target.

    And Nolan North as Penguin- WTF? How awesome a piece of casting is that? His read of Penguin as a Cockney hoodlum is _masterful_. Penguin is always one of the more iffy Batman villains to me, but I think the Penguin in this game is almost as great a revision as Ledger’s Joker. It’s definitely a take on the character that has precedence in the better Batman comics, but seeing it in a video game is pretty thrilling.

    One thing I love- and Penguin is a part of this- is that the game really nails a sort of macabre whimsy. As dark as Batman is and can be, there is a Tod Browning-like (but absolutely NOT Tim Burton-like) absurdity at play. It’s tricky though, because in the wrong hands characters like Penguin either don’t work or can be silly.

    I knew Ra’s Al Ghul was in it but I’m not there yet. His name gives me fits. It really should be RAHs Al Ghul, I really don’t know where this “Raish” business started. “Leea” “Laya”, “Fahlcon” “Falcon” I guess.

    I love the Catwoman stuff. I love that the game starts with her- what a sucker punch. Her design is great, her fighting style is great, and I love that Rocksteady thought well enough of the character to give her her own upgrade path and story arc.

    Some of the chatter I’m hearing about sexism is really stupid…something tells me that Arkham City thugs aren’t exactly gentlemen.

  7. Yeah, I was surprised about the number of comments about sexism in the game on Qt3. My policy when I was playing was that if I overhead some thug saying inappropriate things about one of the female characters in the game, then he got two feet to the face.

    Also, sorry for bringing up Ra’s, it didn’t occur to me that it might be a spoiler. And I totally didn’t realize that Nolan North was the Penguin, but I definitely agree that it was a really effective take on a tricky character.

  8. Oh, no worries on Ra’s…I saw that Talia was in it months ago, and assumed that daddy wasn’t far behind.

    The sexism comments are particularly goofy when both Catwoman and Poison Ivy are incredibly empowered, strong characters that routinely use, abuse and beat the shit out men for their agendas. Harley is a different situation, but she’s also a dangerous psychopath. Why wouldn’t Two-Face call Catwoman a bitch? I mean, what do you expect…for him to treat her like a lady? “Excuse me, miss…” That can be just as sexist as “bitch”.

    That’s really the key with The Penguin and Harley- these characters aren’t goofy or cartoonish at all, they’re actually dangerous.

  9. After writing a several-paragraph review, I decided it had too many spoilers in it, so I saved it to a wordpad doc and called it a day.

    Long story short, I think it was good, but not as good as AA. I think they lost focus of the in-depth canon that made the first game so good.

  10. Well, I guess there’s the obvious reason, being that she’s all cat-like and stuff…

    Sorry, that was lame.

    Particularly in terms of Catwoman, though, I feel like she gets to really respond to the sexist things that Two-Face and Penguin say to her. And her response is definitely not to sit quietly and take it.

  11. What’s funny is that I always pronounced it Raish, but I’ve read that is should be pronounced RAHs or Raz. I wonder if Batman: TAS pronounced it as Raish.

    No matter. It’s an excellent game and your write up is an excellent post.

  12. It’s a real shame what WB has done to this game. Between labyrinthine pre-order bonuses, the online pass, and multiple DRM layers on the PC version, I don’t know if I’m going to bother playing it.

  13. Yes, definitely. The marketing is just the reality of selling AAA games right now. How WB promotes the game should detract from the quality of the game. The preorder bonuses and all that are, however, completely secondary and ultimately irrelevant.

  14. It’s just frustrating. This shouldn’t be an issue, it’s a good game that I want to play. But I don’t approve of the concept of denying game content for on-line passes to begin with and the way WB handled it made it several times worse. I’d just like to be able to buy the game without feeling dirty for doing it.

    The worst part of it all is how completely unnecessary it all is for this particular game.

  15. Great piece! I’m playing it too, and gotta admit that you just have to feel sorry for people who rushed through it just to get review out in time. This game is simply amazing. And then some more.

    And I’m not even a fan of Batman comics, but could easily become one soon, I think

  16. You should try some of the major graphic novels…The Long Halloween would be a great place to start. The Dark Knight Returns is the best, but it’s a very different kind of Batman story. Hush is good, it has a similar “villain rally” feel to AC. No Man’s Land too. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is still the best Joker story, and Year One is an essential Frank Miller take on the origin story. Lots of great Batman books out there!

    The Animated Series is also well worth your time- one of the best animated shows of all time.

  17. Batman’s in a prison, and the armed psychopaths there use aggressive language. Futhermore, there isn’t a single person there who uses sexist language, that can’t be horribly damaged as payback.

    A certain Gawker-oriented game site had a big article on how many times the word “bitch” is used in-game, but I think that’s an artifact of that being the worst word that can make it through the rating system. There SHOULD be f-bombs aplenty – and never mind that Brits use the c-bomb a bit more freely than we do here in ‘Merica.

  18. Feeling dirty? This is entertainment. We’re not talking about human rights violations or racial discrimination here. If you want to play the game then play the game. I don’t understand how you would let marketing or a publisher’s attempt to get people to buy the game new influence you to not play a game that you would otherwise play.

    If it would make you feel better rent it, or even better, steal it. Then nobody gets your money. That will show them.

  19. I’m renting it at the moment. Kind of sucks no Catwoman, but that’s ok, because it’ll cost me $10 (a little more than half a month of Gamefly) to play versus $50. Not sure how much of the story I’m missing. Hopefully not a lot.

  20. I can understand where the complaints are coming from, though. She does get to respond, but her dialogue is basically just one liners, and the physical response would probably work a little better if the zipper on her suit wasn’t down to below her breasts. There is some serious side-boob going on there. I know she’s always in a skin tight cat suit and all, but at least let it cover her properly. It’s slutty enough as it is. I do like making her a brunette and the little aviator goggles though.

  21. The apostrophe (hamza) is actually pronounced in Arabic. The hamza is the noise you make in the back of your mouth right before pronouncing the first I in “imagine”. So “Rah-’is”, only two syllables, hiccup in the middle.

    It’s enough of a pain that we removed it from the name of the terrorist group, Al Qa’ida, and replaced the hiccup with an E.

    I would give any pronunciation of the name a pass, if only DC didn’t admit that it knew exactly what “ra’s al ghul” meant in Arabic (Head of the Demon).

    The word for “President” or “Head of Company”, ra-ees (kinda like “Clarice”), is very similar, and sounds a lot like “raish”, but without the H at the end.

    The ONLY thing that broke the immersion, for me, was this, and the other subtle indicators that a bunch of Brits wrote the patter:

    “Well it sure don’t stop snowin’ ‘ere, does it? And me without my skis.” When somebody said that, I could hear it in Cockney.

    But even that makes me want to punch other designers in the face. The worst thing I can say about Batman’s thugs is they’re too LITERATE?

  22. I don’t normally get so effusive about games, but this one has me wanting to recommend it to everyone I know. It is just so well done, from the atmosphere, to the voice acting, to the character animations, to the soundtrack (which is cinema quality), to the controls etc etc etc.

    I have even greatly enjoyed replaying some parts over and over due to repeated failure, which is something I normally hate in this type of game. I am only 27% of the way through the main storyline, but I really don’t want it to end. Just a wonderful game.

  23. Get a rope, boys!

    I see what you’re saying about the focus…AA was much more finely scoped.

    But you’re wrong!

  24. Thanks for all those recommendations, gonna check at least some of them (for now, my eyes are on that Animated Series, I just want to hear more of this Batman/Joker duo :D)

  25. Truth be told, you’re not missing much storywise, she’s got just 4 missions, which last from 3-5 minutes, to maybe 10-15.

    But, you can play freeroam with Catwoman through Arkham City and look for 40 Riddler’s trophies, and also play as her on all of the challenge maps (she’s got some awesome moves). You should’ve bought it, it’s got enough game material to last you very, very long And it’s awesome to boot

  26. A great place to start is the Mask of the Phantasm animated film…it was a theatrical release, and until Chris Nolan turned up. Hamill and Conroy are in full force and it’s written by Paul Dini.

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