EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m traveling for four weeks, returning in mid-June. During this period, I’m running a series of articles that take another look at some of the bigger releases of 2011, reassessing their impact outside of the release-schedule hype.
While it was widely critically acclaimed at the time, in retrospect Arkham City feels like it went in the wrong direction. As a sequel to Arkham Asylum, which still stands virtually alone as a classic in the superhero genre, Arkham City understandably seems to have felt the need to go bigger and louder in all directions.
Arkham Asylum was, in many respects, the worst kind of game to be a sequel to: the unexpected success. Where the first game had the benefit of being a relative unknown, the second game had nothing but raised expectations to meet. While Rocksteady are still to be commended that they did not fill the obvious expectation of adding an unnecessary multiplayer mode, Arkham City still fell foul of trying to outdo the achievements of the first.
The first problem with the game was its setting. Arkham City, the urban jungle-cum-gaol that serves as the setting for the game, does not have the same sense of identity as the island Asylum of the first game. Of course, the City itself is an intervention into Batman lore, an invention that the first game did not deal out so readily. But that is less of a problem than the design of the City itself: every building feels as anonymous as the last, every location only occasionally distinguished by the crudely-inserted architectural theme of the resident villain.
Fictions like Arkham City work well in film and comic books—the similarity of the skyscrapers has an oppressive, characterising effect on the world. We can be subsumed by the city in a film, the silhouettes of buildings fusing to create an evocative, smothering feeling.
In a videogame, things are more complex. That same smothering feeling quickly turns to boredom if a city does not feel different from its east side to its west end. It feels like we are not going anywhere at all, like Batman is wading through mud, instead of soaring over a metropolis.
The same method of overcompensation was applied to Arkham City’s villains. The first game displayed hints of this issue too, though being set in the Batman universe’s famed asylum lent it some credibility. Still, Asylum framed itself around one core villain—The Joker—while granting some license with a small handful of supporting antagonists, like The Scarecrow, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy.
Where Asylum teetered on the edge of excess, City pushed into overindulgence. Villains are exploited with breathtaking frequency: here comes Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Victor Zsasz, closely followed by Ra’s al Ghul, Clayface and Calendar Man. There goes three of the central Batman villains, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face and The Penguin, as quickly as you like, with Mad Hatter, Bane and Solomon Grundy hot on their heels.
All of these adversaries are structured around the twin suns of the Joker (who has a badly handled dramatic arc) and Dr. Hugo Strange, the game’s most developed enemy. The overall feeling is that Arkham City used its villains much like its city: each feels indistinct and underdeveloped. Going from one villain to another feels as exciting as going from one nondescript Gotham tower to another. It is a blur. Only Freeze and Strange provide any sort of interesting diversion.
In Arkham City, more is less. It does not make the same contribution to the Batman universe that Arkham Asylum did. In fact, it feels less like an addition to the Batman world as a simple use of its assets and iconography, put together in an outwards-spiraling collage.