Whatever your opinion of the knuckle-dusting pantyhose fantasy Batman: Arkham City, you can at least tell it was made by people with a huge amount of genuine affection and reverence for the source material. Even though I’ve said before that Arkham City lacks the structural tightness of the original Arkham Asylum, the combat has retained its fun fluidity, and gliding through the game is still a real treat. More than anything, Arkham City is an excellent use of the license, and the game is so packed full of lovingly-used villains from the Batman canon that at times it feels like a cabaret featuring the Dark Knight’s phonebook. Arkham City itself is a hugely textured and detailed urban sprawl, an impressive technical achievement, but the true success of the game is how confidently the dark tone of the comics has been captured in the game world.
In Arkham City, Rocksteady have brought the myriad villains of the Batman franchise to life with an unusually high quality of voice acting and writing. The Victor Zsasz* phone-chasing challenges, for example, take a fairly basic game mechanic, and use it as a narrative device to explore the history of Zsasz himself. I found myself wanting the game of cat-and-mouse to continue for longer because I wanted to hear more of the dark, twisted misadventures of Zsasz’s past. The performance by Danny Jacobs is superb, bringing what is already very accomplished game writing chillingly to life.
Pictured: being Batman. Like a boss.
In this way, Arkham City’s use of boss battles display a real understanding of how to convey character through gameplay. In the excellent battle with Doctor Freeze, for example, you find yourself confronted with an intelligent, resourceful enemy, packing technology equal to Batman’s. Like the trained scientist he his, Freeze recognises patterns in your attacks and adapts to them so you can never pull off the same trick twice. Freeze also uses his technological wizardry to pursue you, and much of the battle involves throwing him off your trail, eluding the eyes of his scanners (which in many ways makes it a sort stealth-based boss battle). It’s a very adept way of making gameplay a kind of characterisation, reflecting the villain so well that they feel like a tangible part of the game world.
The fight with the Penguin achieves something similar. Physically speaking, the Penguin himself is a frail and weak man, but he manages to keep himself clear of a swift beating by stealing one of Doctor Freeze’s weapons and raining icy laser death on you from a distance. Once you can avoid the blasts long enough to get face-to-face with the Penguin, you easily smack the shit out of him, and indeed, you proved this was the case during an earlier encounter with the acquatic hobbit, where you barely had to nudge the X button and you punched his head nearly clean off.
The Penguin, played here by David Suchet impersonating Churchill.
Then of course there are the vindictively well-hidden and epically frustrating Riddler trophies, of which you have to collect something like four-thousand to be able to progress through the quest. It’s like the game is trying to be grind, but somehow justifies it because that’s sort of what the Riddler would do. Of course the staunchly logical Riddler would taunt you with mercilessly arbitrary tests of skill and perseverance. I’m not saying that justifies the tedium of scouring the game map (which isn’t itself what you would term small) for all those damn trophies, but at least it’s an expression of character that adds depth to the narrative.
It’s these character details that make Batman: Arkham City such an evocative iteration of the Batman franchise, and what make it a real stand-out experience. They’ve paid lip-service to the animated series from the 90s (which remains one of the best depictions of Batman ever, and won numerous awards for its strong writing) by bringing in the vocal talents of Kevin Conroy and Luke Skywalker to voice Batman and the Joker respectively. Conroy has Batman’s gravelly husk down way better than Christian Bale, and Hamill’s vocally acrobatic performance as the Joker remains one of the most well-realised and entertaining interpretations of the character. When game developers have this kind of fondness and veneration for the source material, it comes through really clearly in the game, and makes the world of the game so much more powerful.
On a side note, Arkham City wins the Fraudience Gratuitous Cleavege In Gaming trophy.
*Bonus language-dork point: “Zsasz” is my new favourite palindrome.