'Batman: Arkham City' videogame review
While playing Batman: Arkham City, the kinetically entertaining new videogame from developer Rocksteady, I found myself thinking constantly about another game based on a decades-old media franchise: The Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye 007. When GoldenEye was in production, there was no reason to believe that it would become one of the greatest games in history. It was a first-person shooter, a genre that had never made the successful transition from computers to consoles — the whole FPS aesthetic seemed positively hard-wired into the specifics of PC gaming. GoldenEye was being designed by Rare, a company that had never worked in the shooter genre; they were known for frothy sidescrollers like Donkey Kong Country and for Killer Instinct, the fondly-forgotten third wheel of the Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter arcade era. Heck, in hindsight, it’s bizarre to even imagine family-friendly Nintendo doing a first-person shooter: By comparison, imagine discovering a lost Disney zombie cartoon from the silent era.
But more to the point, GoldenEye was a Licensed Game — the industry catch-all term for anything based on a pre-existing property. And Licensed Games have been existentially terrible since the dawn of time. Take a casual gander at the list of videogames based on movies, and you find an endless array of mortal sins: Glitchy gameplay, half-hearted storytelling, level design that borders on abstract expressionism, cut-rate imitation voice actors imitating celebrities, actual celebrity voice actors phoning it in. (Videogames based on TV shows are their own separate hell — woe to all who have ever gazed upon the empty horror of Lost: Via Domus). There were exceptions — the Sega Aladdin, the Nintendo Ducktales, LucasArts’ point-and-click Indiana Jones adventure games — but those were rare indeed.
And then GoldenEye came out, and it wasn’t just incredible: Like an Orson Welles film or a Beatles album, the game simply dripped with innovation. There is much to be said about how, exactly, GoldenEye was able to be so good: it came out a full two years after the movie, something unthinkable in today’s tie-in environment. And there is also much to be said about how GoldenEye pushed the medium forward: focusing on stealth over action, turning “Multiplayer Deathmatch” into the most popular male hobby on college campuses.
But the greatest thing about GoldenEye was just how effectively it captured the source material. It wasn’t just a straight adaptation of the first Pierce Brosnan James Bond film — although the videogame so completely colonized our cultural memory of GoldenEye that the film itself looks a bit shrimpy today.
No, the videogame felt like a massive art-installation translation of the whole James Bond concept. The soundtrack reconfigured old Bond themes. The globe-hopping missions took you from subterranean bunkers to cities to lush green forests. The game’s overall tone could shift on a dime from Connery-era stealth to Moore-era whimsy to Brosnan-era ultraviolence. If you were any kind of James Bond fan — and TBS’ 7 Days of 007 was a holy tradition in my household — then the game’s retro-fabulous extras (the Moonraker level! Play as Oddjob!) made your head explode. It was like listening to your favorite band’s Greatest Hits album, performed live by that band in a perpetual rooftop concert that featured every song five different ways.
And so, as I said, GoldenEye 64 has been on my mind over the last couple days, which I mostly spent in a dark windowless room embarking on a heavily-caffeinated marathon playthrough of Batman: Arkham City. Arkham can’t possibly achieve the same epoch-shifting influence as GoldenEye — it’s very much in the modern tradition of Licensed Videogames that re-skin existing gameplay tropes with superhero outfits. Spider-Man 2 was basically “Grand Theft Auto with a web-shooter,” and you could argue that the essential thrill of Arkham is “Grand Theft Auto with a batclaw.”
But Spider-Man 2 became pretty boring once you got tired of web-swinging. And Batman: Arkham City never gets boring. A big, rollicking, dementedly over-detailed and addictively brutish adventure, Arkham City isn’t just one of the most fun games I’ve played this year. It’s also just a flat-out entertaining Batman story, a celebration of the Caped Crusader’s expansive mythology.
It sounds like heresy given the game’s popularity, but I wasn’t a fan of 2009’s Arkham Asylum, which was a repetitive slog through standard videogame environments: Some Ridley Scott external piping here, some David Fincher steam over there, and you gotta have air vents. (The concept pitch for Arkham Asylum: “Metal Gear Solid with more punching.”) City expands Asylum in every direction. The new game’s basic set-up focuses on a unique civil-engineering solution to the national prison overcrowding crisis: The corrupt government fatcats at city hall have turned a few square miles of downtown Gotham into a walled prison-state. Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne is kidnapped by Arkhamites — and you know the game is going to be good when you play the first fight scene as Wayne, with your hands tied. Wayne escapes his captors and tosses on his Bat-suit.
From there, the storyline takes off in a few different directions. You explore the city, and find that different zones have been taken over by beloved Bat-villains. The cityscape detail is relentlessly pleasing. Two-Face has redecorated the courthouse, so one side is pristine and the other side is burnt; the Joker has turned an entire neighborhood into the worlds’ worst theme park ride. The story has a number of different levels that I don’t really want to spoil — it’s simultaneously a race against time and a surprisingly intricate mystery.
But one thing I do want to say — and I’ll highlight this segment with a SPOILER ALERT, just in case you want to skip ahead to the next page — is that the game’s storyline literally takes you from the heights to the depths of Arkham City. You realize that the developers are really onto something special right around the chronological midpoint of the game’s story, when Batman descends into the subterranean underworld of Arkham City and discovers an old World’s Fair exposition: The Wonder City. The design vaguely resembles the retro-futurism of BioShock or Fallout, but the pleasures of the Wonder City go beyond ambient world-building.
The main narrative of Arkham is all about internal corrosion — of Gotham City and of the poisoned, dying Joker — and the Wonder City sequence is a beautifully cynical portrait-in-miniature of the dead hopes of the past. The game’s first climax carries you to the absolute top of the city, and features a striking look down on the destruction of the game’s world from the tower at the center of Arkham City. (Like Shadow of the Colossus, this is one of those canny open-world games where you realize afterwards that the final act was hovering over you the whole time, like a terrible premonition. Also like Shadow of the Colossus, your outfit gets steadily more and more torn up as the game goes on. What can I say, I’m a sucker for SotC references.) [End spoiler alert.]
I worry that I’m talking mostly in abstract here, mainly because I don’t want to ruin too many of the game’s surprises, but I also wouldn’t want to obscure the main important thing about Arkham City: This thing is freaking fun. The combat gameplay is a nice mixture of pure button-mash attack and surprisingly in-depth strategy. When you knock out one of the game’s infinite minions, the soundtrack lets out an immensely pleasing explosion — it’s like the pistols in Sergio Leone movies, the ones that sound like cannonfire when they shoot.
Like 1000-page novels and concept albums, even the best open-world games have flaws. The puzzle gameplay isn’t too challenging; as with Arkham Asylum, most of the “crime solving” basically comes down to turning on Detective Mode and looking for bright dots. The overheard dialogue becomes repetitive pretty quickly. (Although it can be pretty funny: I actually laughed out loud when I heard one henchman ask another, “You gave your own mother a poisoned birthday cake?”)
Even the most casual Bat-fan could point out all the game’s various influences. The cinematically gritty aesthetic comes straight out of the Christopher Nolan trilogy. The story draws from several far-flung corners of the Bat-verse. The notion of Batman’s villains going to war over dystopian real estate comes from “No Man’s Land,” and the main storyline bears a slight resemblance to “Hush,” uniting the entirety of Batman’s rogues’ gallery in one big mystery.
The game’s most clear influence is Batman: The Animated Series, which was co-created by Arkham City writer Paul Dini. (Animated Series vets Kevin Conroy, as Batman, and Mark Hamill, as the Joker, return to lend gravitas and insanity.) But there are also hallucinogenic sequences that recall the work of Grant Morrison, and sci-fi subplots that tip a hat to Batman’s space era, and Mr. Zsasz is still lurking around to remind you of the early ’90s serial-killer boom.
On The No Doctor Cop Lawyer Show, Keith Staskiewicz and I argued that the key to Batman’s cultural longevity is that his particular iconography seems endlessly adaptable. He can be street brawler, a closet psychopath, a science hero, the patriarch of an ever-expanding Bat-family, and a cartoonish demi-god. The joy of Arkham City is that it somehow combines all those interpretations. Batman fights street thugs and surreal hallucinations, suffers from psychological torment and forced flirtation, flies through the air gracefully, catches a thrown chair and hurls it back. The whole time, Alfred and Oracle are arguing in your ear like a pair of disapproving parents.
You could argue that Arkham City’s storyline is arguably too overstuffed, with some villains just stopping in for a quick cutscene cameo. But the overall moment-to-moment experience is breathtaking. By the time I finished the main game, I felt like I knew the game’s world the way I knew Vice City or Red Dead Redemption’s New Austin. By its very nature, Arkham City is less epic than those games — they tell slow-emerging stories set over long months, while City is fundamentally the tale of one bad night in a bad part of town. But Batman: Arkham City remains a solid piece of videogame production that will almost constantly surprise you, and a pure injection of comic-book entertainment: gleeful villains, shady plots, big-eyed women with prominent everything, skies that are always cloudy. Addictive, curiously thoughtful, vividly realized and darkly funny, it’s a feast for comic book fans, and an expansively mythmaking new addition in the Caped Crusader canon. Grade: A-
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
Can’t get enough Batman? Check out the latest episode of EW’s new geek-weekly web-series, The No Doctor Cop Lawyer Show, where we discuss why Batman is pop culture’s best superhero. (Sorry, Martian Manhunter!)