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Review Postmortem – Batman: Arkham City

I know that I’ve been talking a lot of Batman lately, but I had a few things to get off of my mind before closing the book on Bruce and company. Also, it’s Friday and I need something to write about, mostly that first one though.

I won’t lie, the Arkham City review was one of the hardest reviews I’ve written in a long time. Typically reviews that swing to either end of the scale are easy to write, it’s the ones in the middle that give pause. Sometimes it’s just a matter of articulating what it is about the game that doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s the need to reconcile your feelings with a silly score. Sometimes games that get middle of the road scores are, frankly, kind of boring, so trying to get your interest level up enough to write something is a challenge. Really good games and really bad games typically bring out intense emotions so it’s easy to get one’s fire up and write about it. This was definitely the case with Arkham City, as I absolutely loved the game, but still I had problems.

What made the Arkham City review hard for me was the feeling of responsibility…

As game reviewers, we already have a responsibility to a number of different parties. First, we have a responsibility to our readers to provide as accurate a review as possible. Second, we have a responsibility to the game, and by extension the game’s creators to be as impartial and thorough as possible. Finally, we have a responsibility to whoever is paying us for the review to do the best job we can in the time allotted. In this case though, I also felt like I had a responsibility to Batman.

Originally, I wasn’t scheduled to do this review. As it was a game that I was really looking forward to, I didn’t want to have to review it due to the time constraints that go along with a review. Unfortunately Todd’s pre-Batman assignment ran long and others were busy. When Bill approached me about it, he told me that he wanted someone with a knowledge of the Batman lore and canon doing the review, which makes sense. Unfortunately, that comment made it pretty much impossible to say no as I can’t tell him that I’m not that guy when I have a friggin’ Batman tattoo on my right shoulder.

In Michael’s post about Arkham City, he mentioned that he felt bad for the reviewer who had to rush through the game in order to get a review on his or her editor’s desk. I’m here to tell you that I agree with that statement 100% as that’s exactly what I did. Now, this is not due to some external constraint. Bill is very generous with the time he gives us to do reviews and I was under no pressure to get the review finished when I did, but given that the game had already been reviewed by pretty much everyone by the time I started it, I wanted to make sure I got the review done as quickly as possible. I also knew that once I was finished with the story, I could then take on things like the Riddler trophies and the various challenge maps at my own pace, something I was really looking forward to.

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Is playing this game’s story start to finish the best way to play it, I don’t think so. Does that make my review as accurate as it could be? Probably not, and I do regret that I didn’t tell myself to relax and be a little more flexible with how I approached the game’s story, but at the same time, if you marathon a game’s story and love it, and then have a bunch of cool side quests once you’re done, it’s not that hard to assume that completing the side quests within the framework of the larger story would be equally if not more satisfying. My own natural curiosity and lack of focus in open world games did cause me to complete some side quests, get some trophies and do the necessary AR training to obtain the super grapple boost, so I don’t feel like I was completely ignorant to the side quests. I do think I could have better served the game though by calming the frak down and not placing an arbitrary deadline on myself. I didn’t do myself any favors either as I found the experience to be somewhat stressful, but I try to keep it in perspective. If the biggest stressor in your life is that you have to finish your super awesome Batman game in a short period of time, well, consider yourself lucky.

Once I was finished with the game, I had a really difficult time figuring out how to approach the review. One of the benefits of being late to the review party, for me any way, is the flexibility to take a different approach to a game’s review. Again, this is one of my quirks as a reviewer. There’s nothing that says I can’t do the same thing with a launch day review, but at the same time, launch day reviews usually have time constraints on them, and I tend to be less creative when pressed for time than more creative. So I knew that I didn’t just want to write what everyone else had already written, that the game was great, because I didn’t think that added anything to the conversation surrounding the game. Honestly, when I read Tom Chick’s review, which is a great review by the way, it cemented in me the need to approach this differently. One of the things I love about Tom’s writing is that he always approaches games from a different angle, and I felt that his review, while good, was more of a typical “this game is great and here’s why” kind of review.

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What was missing from Tom’s review is exactly what Bill wanted from our review, namely the perspective of someone who knew a lot about Batman. I wouldn’t consider myself the biggest Batman geek in the world, but I know my way around the Batcave and I still have the Dark Knight returns TPB that I bought almost 25 years ago. It certainly helped that the animated movie version of Batman: Year One came out on the same day as Arkham City and I had watched not only it, but the extras that came with it, extras that featured a number of Batman’s creators, past and present, talking about Batman and the impact of Frank Miller’s work on the character.

See, a big part of what Frank Miller brought to Batman was the characterization of Gotham City. Metropolis may be a nicer place to live, but I always thought it was kind of bland, same as Keystone City and Coast City and all of the other fake cities that DC made for their heroes. In a way, it makes sense. Bruce Wayne has all of the money in the world. He has no need to stick around in Gotham, especially with no family ties. He stays though, because the city needs him. Becoming Batman was necessary, not just to prevent future tragedies like the one that took his parents’ lives, but also to save his city. Gotham City. That idea was rattling around in my head as I was playing the game, and as I played through the story and came to the ultimate motivations behind the villains, it was pretty obvious that placing the game in Arkham City was as much a story based decision as it was a chance to expand on the game’s mechanics.

So, with that in mind I started the review and man, did it take a long time. Reviews usually don’t take me a lot of time but this one felt like it took forever. Make that FOREVER. I knew what I wanted so say, sort of , but I just couldn’t get my head around how to articulate it. Then, once I thought I was done I realized that a) my word count was waaaaaay too low and b) I hadn’t really talked about how the game was as a game. I mean, it’s great and all to talk about how well the game is as a piece of Batman’s greater universe, but many people just want to punch bad guys in the nuts, so all of this blathering about proper Batman characterization is somewhat useless. So I went back to the drawing board, added some bits here, fleshed out some stuff there and ended up with something I was somewhat happy with. I still think I could have done a better job of balancing the game stuff with the Batman stuff, but I tell myself that Bill wanted the POV of a Batman fan, so best to give the bossman what he wants.

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When I sent the review to Bill, I also sent it to Todd because I honestly thought I had gone off the deep end of the Batman pool and written something more at home on some DC comics Batman discussion board and not on a mass market games review site. Todd thought it was good though, so I figured it was ok as is. Granted, given Todd’s deep and bitter hatred of me, he could have been saying that just to screw me over, but that’s always a risk when dealing with Todd, so ignored it and moved on.

In the end, people liked it, so I guess I did my job. I wish I could approach every game the way I approached this one, and that being able to think about how a game relates to a larger landscape wasn’t due to having a deep affection for that larger landscape. There are far better writers than me who do this kind of thing with every review they write and this one damn near exhausted me. I’m going to try and use what I learned from writing this review and apply it to other ones, but doing that makes me feel like Calvin after witnessing the fireflies. I don’t even know which muscle to flex.

Any way, that’s enough navel gazing for one day, and probably enough Batman talk for several. Next week you can look forward to a thousand words on what Nathan Drake’s half-tucked shirt means in relation to developing third world economies.


Brandon loves games, which shouldn't be a surprise given where you're reading this. He has written for GameShark, The Escapist and G4, and made them all less relevant as a result.

8 thoughts to “Review Postmortem – Batman: Arkham City”

  1. It is rare to get raw thoughts like this from any sort of professional. I found it very interesting. It is stuff like this that makes me check this site first when I access the interwebs.

  2. I said that on Twitter, and I’ll say it again here: yours was by far the best Batman: Arkham City review I’ve read so far, and it is the best exactly because you, unlike other reviewers, just *get* Batman.

    I know authors tend to be themselves their worst critics, but difficult as this review might have been for you, you can be assured it is one of your best. Could you have done it better? Perhaps, and I say that not because I see any immediate flaws in your review, but because I know how talented you are.

    I’d say Batman himself would be pleased with your review. Actually, I’m certain of that, because…

    …I’M BATMAN.

    (this last part was a joke, of course; the rest definitely wasn’t. That was a job well done, sir. Congrats)

  3. Tom Chick is one of my favourite critical reviewers, and his review was good, but Brandon, your’s was better.

    You detailed the story of the geek that actually watched his overhyped hopes and dreams come true. Who would normally be leaving a cinema saying they destroyed your childhood, was instead putting down your controller dream fulfilled.

    Wonderful :).

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