Superhero games are in a great place right now, and people have plenty of great video game adaptations to play, and even more to look forward. The sequel to Spider-Man is going to be one to keep an eye on, the next Batman game (whenever it arrives) is sure to get a lot of people stand up and take notice, whatever Rocksteady Studios are working on next is going to be a big deal, while the upcoming Avengers game is one that many are cautiously excited about as well.
But though superhero games are in a great place right now, until not too long ago, the best we could hope for in this area was middling games. We’d get the occasional good superhero game ever now and then, but by and large, superhero games were either fun yet forgettable at best, or absolutely horrible at worst. That all changed with Batman: Arkham Asylum, when Rocksteady Studios – then a largely unknown studio with no track record to speak of – delivered one of the best, most authentic Batman experiences, and showed the industry that audiences were hungry for well-made superhero games.
The Arkham series is one that can make a claim that very few other series can- it’s got four mainline title, and every one of them is – at the very least – a great game. And while both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City can arguably stake their claim to the throne of best Batman game of all time, the one we’re concerned with here, in this feature, is Arkham City. Taking the formula of what made Arkham Asylum so good and expanding upon it in every way possible surely would have been no easy task. When developers get things as spectacularly right as Rocksteady did with Arkham Asylum, it’s hard to make a sequel that manages to be even better, but with Arkham City, that is exactly what Rocksteady Studios did.
With a Metacritic score of 94 (96 on PS3), multiple Game of the Year awards under its belt, impressive sales, and an unforgettable legacy, Arkham City is widely considered one of the best games of the PS3/Xbox 360 era, if not of all time. But what is it that made the game so good? As we have been doing for several games over the past few weeks, in this feature, we’ll be taking a look at what we feel are the three core elements that made Batman: Arkham City as good as it was- starting with authenticity.
Because really, that is the greatest strength of not just Arkham City, but the entire Arkham series. The moment you start playing these games, you can see their respect, love, and devotion to the source material in spades. In Arkham City, it’s probably more apparent than in any of the other Arkham games. This was when the Arkham series went open world, and though the world itself isn’t anything special, from a tone and atmosphere perspective, it’s pretty much perfect. Gotham City – or the sections that’s been designated as the walled-off Arkham City – looks and feels exactly like what we remember from the comics, from the Tim Burton movies, from the animated series. It feels and looks dark and grimy and decaying.
But it’s not just the city that contributes to the game’s atmosphere. Arkham City is an expertly written game, and here, too, Rocksteady display an expert understanding of what makes this property tick. The dual personalities of Batman and Bruce Wayne are portrayed perfectly, the portrayal of the Joker is good enough to rank alongside some of his best across all media, and the way the game makes use of characters and storylines without ever feeling like they’re being shoehorned in or like they’re padding out the game unnecessarily deserves all the praise it can get.
Of course, no amount of praise will be enough for the performances of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the Batman and the Joker either, and sure enough, those two contributed to the authenticity of the game immensely. For years, these two were the voices of two of the most iconic characters in pop culture in Batman: The Animated Series, and both of them brought their A game to the Arkham games. Arkham City’s story was, first and foremost, all about Batman and Joker, the way those two play off each other, and what lengths they will go to to get the upper hand on the other – you know, the way the best Batman stories usually are – and there should be no doubt in anybody’s minds that if it were not for the excellent performances of Conroy and Hamill, the story would lose a lot of its impact.
Arkham City is a Batman game and story through and through, and though that might seem like the most obvious sentence in the absence of context, it’s actually the highest praise that can be given to this game. This is a rich universe full of personality, and Arkham City nails every one of its aspects. And of course, as any Batman fan would tell you, Batman stories are only as good as the villains in them- and no superhero has the kind of rogues lineup that Batman does. That, incidentally, is the second core element that we’re looking at for this game and what made it so good- the villains.
We’ve already spoken about the Joker and his brilliant portrayal in the game, and the memorable performance by Mark Hamill that makes that portrayal so good, but Arkham City pulls in many, many other villains from the Batman universe, and nearly every one of them is used excellently. The twist revolving around Clayface comes to mind immediately, and is a perfect example of Rocksteady managing to strike the perfect balance between being true to their source material and yet still finding ways to surprise players.
And there’s so many others. From Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins to the Penguin, from Hugo Strange and his insidious plan to one of the best boss fights of the previous generation with Mr. Freeze, from Two-Face to Solomon Grundy, Arkham City pulls in countless rogues from Batman’s gallery of villains, and uses them in exactly the right way. And there’s so many others that we see in the game’s side-missions as well that also bear mentioning, including the likes of Hush, Deadshot, Mad Hatter, Victor Zsasz, and so, so many others.
And now we move on to the third and final key element of Batman: Arkham City’s success, which, unlike the other two, has more to do with the way the game plays and less to do with its quality- the stealth. The Arkham games aren’t the most complex as far as stealth goes, and the mechanics themselves weren’t necessarily the most revolutionary. It was the way those mechanics were used that made the series – and Arkham City – stand out. Using fear as a weapon against his enemies is what the Dark Knight does best, and in these games, he did that every chance he got.
Studying and analyzing the environment, swinging from one vantage point to the other, isolating thugs and taking them out with a single move, using all of Batman’s gadgets to throw smokescreens, explode weak points in walls, and mixing and matching all of it turned every arena into a stealth puzzle box. It all felt so Batman, adding even more to the game’s authenticity. You know that meme about how these games made you feel like Batman? Yeah, it’s funny how overused sentences like that are, but you know? It’s actually true. Arkham City really did make you feel what it would be like to step into the Caped Crusader’s boots.
We don’t know when the next Batman game will be out (or eve when it will be revealed), and we don’t know who will be making it, but one look back at Arkham City and the games that came before and after it is enough to renew our faith in the property. These are the games that finally figured out how to make a good Batman game, and with Arkham City, they were at their absolute peak. And if the next Batman game will be even half as good as it was, we’ll be in for yet another outing as the Dark Knight.