Batman is the ultimate liberal. Guns are bad, you see, so why can’t poor people just get ten years of ninja and detective training then buy a half-billion-dollar armored suit and matching custom jet and tank in order to fight crime, like I did? I know better than everyone else, so only I have the authority to save them from themselves. But when it comes to doing things that would actually help society, like building schools and hospitals and putting a bullet in the Joker’s brain, you can count me out; that kind of sensible behavior will result in lower comic sales. All hail the status quo.
Batman has a code of honor that involves never killing anyone, ever, and makes no sense until you realize that it springs directly from the Comics Code Authority and the Hays Code. Early Batman killed bad guys all the time (even with a gun) until the censors got a hold of him. I once told my friend Erik how dumb it is that Batman refuses to kill anyone even when it would make a lot of sense to do so and he responded, “So you want him to be the Punisher? Or Azrael?”
He had a point. There’s something distantly admirable about a character that fights evil and steadfastly refuses to use lethal force. Even if it would never work in the real world, it makes for a good noble fantasy. So in Arkham City, when you really should be killing these mass-murdering scum in order to protect their inevitable future victims, you instead cleanly knock them into unconsciousness (an act that realistically would result in brain damage, comas, or death in real life) to temporarily prevent them from causing harm. It’s putting the tiniest of band-aids on the huge festering wound that is Gotham City, but who cares? We gotta be consistent with the character here. If Batman can magically knock people out without causing permanent damage, so be it. We’ve already established that Batman is not man enough to kill his foes, so it’s not like it’s ruining my precious immersion when he drops on a nameless thug from two hundred feet into the air and the guy gets nothing but an ice cream headache.
People reviewing Arkham City often make comparisons between it and other supposedly open-ended games like Grand Theft Auto IV. (Ignoring the rich history of computer RPGs along the way.) In reality, Arkham City has a very linear storyline that you’re supposed to follow, but it throws you a bone with tons of optional side quests you can do any time you feel like, somewhat like last third of a JRPG. So there’s at least the illusion of freedom, which is a step above Arkham Asylum‘s strict railroading of the player back into the plot. You can hunt around for Riddler riddles, item upgrades, VR mini-games, or just punch thugs to grind experience. But these ultimately add up to mere tweaks to a simple and somewhat predictable game.
Combat, unfortunately, is laughably easy. You can just mash the counter-attack button and there is literally nothing that can hurt you except for guns and bosses with unblockable attacks, both of which are uncommon. I know that Batman is supposed to be superior in combat skill to basically everyone, but give us a challenge more often than once an hour. And sure, if you do nothing but counter you won’t get the multiplier bonus, but you still basically can’t lose. Anyone looking for a combat system as rich and rewarding and Ninja Gaiden or God Hand will be disappointed. You have lots of gadgets but none of them except the grappling hook are really necessary, and even the hook is primarily for moving around the city and not for combat. Why bother throwing batarangs to stun enemies when you can just mash and take them out more quickly?
The stealth bits are actually a welcome relief from the banality of regular combat. This is when Arkham City shines: when you have to use your brain to sneak around, behind, above, and underneath enemies with guns so you don’t get filled with bullets. This adds more variety and interest to the game than some dumb gimmick weapon ever could. And for the most part, the stealth isn’t forced. Sure, you’ll probably die if you charge foes head-on while they point automatic weapons at you, but you at least have the option and sometimes it’s even the best way to go, especially if there’s only one of them. There’s a gadget that snatches the enemy’s guns from their hands (which would seemingly render stealth obsolete) but as far as I can tell it’s pointless unless the enemy is alone, in which case you’re close enough to bum rush him anyway.
Another good thing about Arkham City is how it looks. You can identify individual creases in clothes, subtle marks on characters’ faces, and all sorts of cool bleak architecture. Batman’s suit get more torn and worn the longer you play the game. (And they look just as good in-game as they do in the cutscenes!) And if you’re a moron, you can choose to ogle every last bit of detail in Catwoman and Harley Quinn’s ridiculous slutsuits. Yes, there are lots of cameos of various Batman characters for comic book fans who love nostalgia and staleness. The main villain of the game returns for the first time since (I think) the 1980s, so you know he’s going to be DARK and EDGY rather than campy and hilarious like his first 1940 appearance probably was. Or was he one of the guys Batman was allowed to kill in his early days? Ask someone who cares about comic continuity. Batman has some of the dumbest villains, and that’s saying a lot considering he’s in the same genre as a hero who fights an old dude with green feathers glued to him.
I bought Arkham City on the big Steam sale a couple of weeks ago and found (to my delight) that I was forced to make a Windows Live account and keep constantly signed into that while playing. Given the spotty nature of my internet connection, this was doubly irritating. No more of this forced-online-for-single-player-games business should be tolerated. You should raise your voice and gripe about this wherever it appears.
Arkham City is a decent but insubstantial game. It doesn’t deserve its reputation as an untouchably amazing free-world do-anything simulator, but it has its merits. It’s fun playing as a nearly-invincible dude knocking thugs’ heads together and rappelling across a rotten city while you explore dank corridors, but there’s not exactly a shortage of other games that can do those things, and do them better.
And roided out Joker looks really, really stupid.