Return to Arkham - City Break (Opinion)

No man’s land

Played on: PlayStation 4

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows

Genre: Action-adventure

Developer: Rocksteady Studios, Iron Galaxy

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Release: November 27, 2018 (Batman: Arkham Collection)


I loved my return visit to Arkham Asylum. Experiencing all the story beats, the antics of the wild cast of characters, and pummelling combat was satisfying to the fullest degree. But, upon entering the wicked confines of the super-prison known as Arkham City, I felt a more potent rush.

Playing as Bruce Wayne, I was thrust into the violent arms of the facility’s residents once again. As I ascended the infamous Ace Chemicals building to retrieve some much-needed equipment, my anticipation began to build at a rate that was in perfect harmony with the billionaire CEO’s climb. After reaching the roof of the chemical manufacturing building, the music swelled, and Wayne suited up to become his alter ego.

I was vengeance. I was the night. I was the goddamned Batman.

This was the precise moment where I knew I was in for a nostalgia-filled return to one of my favourite games of all time. It had been many, many years since I played Arkham City. For all of its improvements and updates, how could it possibly measure up to the internalised, impossible standards I bestowed on it so long ago?

Regardless of the outcome—this was a city break I was very much looking forward to.

Aggressive expansion

The most immediate thing I noticed after suiting up and hitting the skies, was the larger-scale world as compared with Arkham Asylum. The difference this time was how much smaller it felt, compared to when I first played it upon its original release.

Arkham City is as detailed as ever. Around every corner and rooftop, there is something to participate in, a reference to the wider Batman universe or a Riddler challenge. It’s comparatively bigger size is as justified as ever, but I cannot deny a palpable sense of deprecation in terms of breadth. This is something I attribute to the passage of time and the sheer scope of some games in the intervening years.

This is also not a negative.

With contemporary gaming, we see an overwhelming number of open-world games being released. A huge portion of these, in my opinion, don’t warrant the sandboxes in which their narratives reside. It’s common to see these releases integrate a large number of collectibles to artificially populate their worlds, and create a false perception of bustling activity.

Despite my cognizance of a shrunk map size, Arkham City uses its space wonderfully and cleverly, even in a contemporary gaming context.

The walls and buildings of the penal institution are emblazoned with iconography referencing The Flying Graysons, The Scarecrow, Prometheus—a wide array of characters and groups who don’t make physical appearances in the game.

On these same, lawless streets, the many side missions take place. These excursions add a level of flavour which its predecessor was sorely lacking, that I welcomed with open arms during this playthrough. In 2011, I was blown away by the non-essential quests. This time, I was similarly delighted to face off against the wider Gotham City criminal element, but perhaps with a more scrutable outlook.

The common denominator with every mission is that the build to the final confrontation of it is excellent. The objectives (mostly) involve using The Dark Knight’s ample detective skills and technology to chase down perpetrators of murder, violence, and whacky schemes. Cold Call Killer, featuring serial killer Mr. Zsasz for example, is one of the most fulfilling sections of the game. Batman must triangulate the murderer’s position through a series of phone calls, ultimately tracking him down and defeating him before he commits more heinous acts.

The factor which varies wildly is the resolution of the aforementioned missions. Not all side quests are born equally, unfortunately.

For instance, the Deadshot and Hush missions end disappointingly. In both cases, we’re trailing killers and the chase is most certainly better than the catch. A brief faceoff with the iconic Hush character and an encounter with Deadshot which lasts seconds end both quests on a sour note. Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule, and the remainder of the distracting jaunts you find during your adventure in Arkham City are satisfying.

Overall, the ensemble cast of characters is used well, where some appearances are undercooked or misused.

Theatricality and deception are powerful agents

I don’t mean to insult the iconic Arkham Asylum—but the action in this sequel is much better in every way.

I performed better in this game than I did in the original title, and here’s why.

There is a multitude of mechanics that I took for granted as being there from the franchise’s inception. Beat downs, batclaw attacks, countering several enemies at once, destroying enemy weapons—you get the idea. All of the above-noted moves also just so happen to be integral to my style of combat in this series. My re-introduction to these standards elevated my proficiency and enabled my conquering of every fisticuff I became involved in.

The same goes for the stealth-based predator sections.

These conflicts evolved in several meaningful ways. Due to the open environment, we get to experience these covert operations in larger arenas in addition to the more claustrophobic surroundings, à la Arkham Asylum. Advanced enemy capabilities also force the Batman to utilise all his tricks. Your foes can now destroy the ever-useful vantage points and hide from your detective vision. Coupled with the enemy’s ability to locate you with more ease, The Caped Crusader has a more challenging yet essentially rewarding experience when doing battle with armed thugs.

The combat, in all its varieties, is an empowering experience that felt relatively unchanged when compared with its original 2011 launch. Smoother, faster, and more versatile—this is one of the many strengths of Arkham City.

I’ve got a date with immortality!

I adore this story and herald it as one of the best Batman narratives ever told.

From the somewhat esoteric use of Hugo Strange as a major villain to The Joker’s sickness and shared interests with Batman, there’s a dynamism to this tale, never to be surpassed in the series. What elevates this above its predecessor is the interplay between characters and their web of relationships.

Often we see two-way relationships explored in any media where there are clear cut heroes and villains. In Arkham City, we see a more multi-dimensional approach to character interconnection. Villains have ties with each other that aren’t strictly co-operative, with some being outright antagonistic. A perfect and early example of this is Penguin’s kidnapping of Mr. Freeze during the game’s opening chapters. Within the walls of this facility, villains are treacherous to not just the heroes of the story, but anyone who gets in their way.

Further adding to the many-sided narrative expressions is the flirtation with conflict among the Bat-Family. We see the Tim Drake version of Robin on screen, and while his appearance is little more than a cameo, the player intrinsically understands there is a degree of tension. Batman is refusing assistance from his allies under the guise of keeping them safe, and Robin makes his displeasure clear. While investigating a string of murders perpetrated by Hush, Oracle, daughter of Commissioner Gordon and The Dark Knight’s informant, explores the idea of our hero possibly being the assassin. In typical, gruff fashion, the vigilante takes exception to her musings. This does far more for the characters of Robin and Oracle than blindly following their mentor ever would, while also being indicative of the future direction of the series.

Oh, and that twist ending? As inspired now as it was upon release.

Dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight

Something that struck a chord with me, unlike my first exposure to the game, was the inherent filmic quality.

The aesthetic is like an amalgamation of the Christopher Nolan and Burton/Schumacher period films. At the street level, we see a gritty and grimy city that is subject to senseless, violent crime. As you emerge from the ground and take to the skies, the influence of the gothic and often cheesy 1980s and 1990s films becomes more apparent. Gothic architecture is clad in bold, neon colours. The comic book influence is strikingly clear from character design and costumes. It’s a perfect storm of visual Batman identity.

Beyond the design, some of the set pieces seem destined to be seen in the realm of cinema. The explosive confrontation at Wonder Tower, the haze-like journey with Ra’s Al Ghul, and the unfolding of Protocol 10 immediately come to mind as standout scenes that would translate well to the silver screen.

While I generally have found something to love in all the big-screen iterations of Batman, an Arkham-like approach would be mouth-watering. Stylised yet grounded, The Dark Knight could be broody all he wants to be because his nemeses would make up for it in explosive colourful and maniacal plots.

The last laugh

It was like riding a bike. I knew where to go and what to do for side missions, the sequence of events, and the fates of every character. Replaying games to me is often like an inverse spoiler of sorts—you know exactly what happens but for good reason.

I can confidently say that Batman: Arkham City remains one of my favourite games of all time, and it was never bested in the series.

This is the upper echelon of gaming for me in all respects that matter. Who said sequels have to be so difficult, eh?

All images are taken from the Batman: Arkham City press kit here

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