Batman: Arkham Asylum did what many thought impossible. Developer Rocksteady proved that someone could, in fact, make a great comic book hero game. For once, controlling Batman felt fluid, hearing Batman, and the rest of the amazing voice cast, was thrilling, and "being" Batman finally felt badass. Whatever minor quibbles people had (overused Bane-type enemies, disappointing finale, etc.) were boisterously drowned out by the sea of much-deserved praise. When people discovered "plans" for an "Arkham City" in a small hidden room of the Asylum, imaginations ran rampant about where it could all lead in the sequel. Unfortunately, it seems reality has caught up with us.
Batman: Arkham City begins about six months after the events of Arkham Asylum, in which Dr. Hugo Strange has somehow manipulated elected officials into walling off the worst part of Gotham City and turning it into penal colony. Inmates are left to fend for themselves, resulting in back-and-forth gang wars between Two-Face, Penguin and the Joker. Initially, the story starts out very strong, with you playing as Bruce Wayne, suddenly thrown into the prison and tasked with breaking out of your handcuffs, surviving Penguin's ambush and suiting up as Batman. Sadly, from the moment you put on the dark cowl, the quality of the story-telling plummets like a rock.
Arkham City is a perfect example of a developer's reach exceeding its grasp. As I played, more and more characters were added to the mix. At first, I was psyched to be going up against Two-Face. He had captured Catwoman and it was up to me to stop him...which I did in less than ten minutes. "That's fine," I thought, "they're just briefly setting him up now and they'll come back to him later." Indeed, even the various thugs scattered around his old hideout continuously mentioned how Batman had kicked his ass and that he would be back with a vengeance soon. That follow-up never happened*. The same occurs with Penguin (he spends the last 80% of the game in a glass display case), Deadshot, the Mad Hatter, Zsaz, and worst of all, Hush, whose story doesn't even conclude! He has a thirty-second conversation with Batman, full of threats and monologuing, Batman does his usual "I'll find you! I am the night!" speech, and then Hush vanishes from the game forever. Even when there's a fight between Batman and Mr. Freeze, it literally comes out of nowhere and after it's over, it's as if it never happened in the first place. "I'll help you Batman. No wait, I won't and now we have to battle because I'm a 'bad guy'...Alright now that you've soundly kicked my ass, I'll totally help you again!" Never have I witnessed such a sloppy change of character just to accommodate squeezing a boss battle into a game.
My best guess is that Rocksteady wanted this to be an epic experience, spanning many dozens of hours. Indeed, I would estimate that the first two thirds of the game is just set-up. At some point, I imagine that their publisher, Warner Brothers Interactive, strolled by the office and casually asked, "So is this game going to be a mega-hit this Christmas, or what?!" and the blood in the faces of the Rocksteady team immediately drained. "I'm sorry, this Christmas? But we spent so much time animating and introducing Catwoman as a major, playable character! Now we have to reduce her to about forty five minutes of screen time!" Unfocused, schizophrenic, convoluted, bloated...all of these words could describe the narrative of Arkham City. As a final example, I had a visit from an old friend that went nowhere: " Oh hey, Robin. Damn, I like the hood and staff you got going on. Want to help me clean up the streets of Arkham City? Oh, you got other stuff going on? Sure, yeah, thanks for randomly delivering this new Zelda toy. Maybe I'll catch you in the next game. Bye Robin."
Speaking of Zelda toys, that's another pretty large complaint I have. I know that the previous Batman game was very similar, but whereas Arkham Asylum did a decent job of "covering the rivets" (i.e. fabricating pretenses as to why Batman was still getting new devices halfway into the game), Arkham City doesn't even try. From beginning to end, Batman is clearly receiving new toys specifically for the "dungeon" he has to enter next. Sometimes, the gadgets don't even make sense to the character. Working with Mr. Freeze briefly means I can now throw unlimited insta-popsicle ice grenades that...form mobile platforms? Sigh. When do I get the blue lantern, fairy-in-a-bottle and master sword? While we are at it, maybe since I beat Penguin I should get a bat-themed umbrella-gun. Far from being Batman, I was feeling like something else entirely: a brain-dead console gamer. All that was missing was a motion control gimmick.
Did someone mention console gaming? Because let me tell you, if you love mindless collectible hunts in your open world game, Batman has you covered! The Riddler has apparently spent months littering the city with green question marks and puzzles designed specifically for your gadgets. Nothing says "immersion" like a treasure hunt to find an arbitrary number of question mark trophies. Yes, this ridiculous mechanic was in the first game, but once again, Arkham Asylum did a decent job making the treasure hunt non-obvious, something you had to go looking for if you wanted to partake. Arkham City is literally covered from head to toe in garish green question mark graffiti and neon lights. It completely ruins the aesthetic and takes us further away from the immersion of the game, that being a semi-open world Batman-in-Gotham-City experience.
There are a few areas where Arkham City excels. As in the previous game, the voice work is great. Maurice Lamarche (the voices of Kiff and Morbo on Futurama) nails Mr. Freeze and I really dug Penguin's cockney accent. On a similar note, I would actually contend that the music was the single best feature of the game. As you fight and/or silently take down one goon after another, the gothic, orchestral music swells and makes you feel supremely badass. Oftentimes, I just sat in a dark corner and enjoyed the music, not wanting gunshot or fist impact sound effects to mar the experience.
Gameplay-wise, the best part is hands-down the open world aspect. While Rocksteady could have gone so much further, the little bit they did provide is pretty damn awesome. This is the closest we have come to having a true Batman simulator and I'm hoping that at some point, this method will be applied to Gotham City as a whole, rather than just a few blocks of walled off slums. And because you aren't confined to one room at a time, you have the ability to approach every encounter using stealth or brawling, as you see fit. Yes it would be smarter to take that group of armed thugs out silently, but I'm Batman, I'm that damn good and I'm going to move so quickly that bullets can't hit me!
Batman: Arkham City is what you get when a studio isn't trying and is content to rest on its laurels. Other than the half-hearted attempt at an open world setting, nothing stands out as being an improvement on the previous game and many things that Arkham Asylum did well were completely fumbled here. If you want a tight, immersive Batman experience (albeit with a goofy ending), just play the first game (again). However, if you don't really care about story, characterization, immersion, or even decent pacing, and you just want to beat up random thugs, have arbitrary boss battles and collect meaningless hidden green statues, this is the game for you.
*Yes, you (the player) get a little Catwoman epilogue in which you have to get "your stuff" back from Two-Face. But that only serves to reinforce my point: every character was just an extended cameo and Two-Face's story was only "resolved" as an afterthought.