Batman: Arkham City is an interesting contrast to the last two games we’ve talked about:
1) Mass Effect: Details / worldbuilding firstAt least in the first game. The fact that this focus changed is one of the things that makes the series so controversial and fascinating..
2) Final Fantasy X: Characters / emotions first.
3) Batman: Arkham City: Gameplay first.
I don’t want to be overly reductive here. I’m not implying that the Mass Effect teams didn’t care about gameplay, or that the story in Arkham City wasn’t important to anyoneAt least, I HOPE someone cares about the story, since I’m going to spend several entries on it.. But there is a clear mechanical focus about Batman. To me it looks like Mass Effect (especially the first one) was written like this:
“I’ve come up with this world and I want to tell a story about it. What gameplay would work best?”
While Arkham was written more like:
“I want to make a Batman game about brawling, stealth, and puzzle solving. What story would work best for that?”
The Arkham games are designed with a particular rhythm of changing gameplay modes in mind, and a story is stretched to fit over this framework. If that means adding in the occasional supervillain boss fight with no relevance to the main story, then so be it. Both are completely valid ways of designing a game, but they produce different experiences with different challenges for the developer to overcome and different problems for us to nitpick.
The Test of Time
Arkham City is a pretty good example of a game that’s aged well over time, and why after-the-fact retrospectives like this one can be useful. Two years ago I put it at #13 on my “stupid list of top games in a meaningless order”. I’ve played the game again since then, and I think I’d put it a few pointless slots higher. For contrast, Tomb Raider made the top 10 back then, and I’m sure it wouldn’t today. It’s not that I think the game is bad. It’s just that I doubt I’d remember to include it at all. In both cases I finished the game and thought, “That was pretty good!” They’re both open-ish games with a linear story, combat and stealth sections, some light puzzle solving, and the usual collect-a-thon filler. But I’ve had the urge to return to Arkham City many times over the years, and my opinion of it has increased with every trip through the game. In contrast, I tried to revisit Tomb Raider and found the magic had kind of faded.
My point is that while games are often purchased based on their day-1 reviews, we don’t typically have a full understanding of their virtues and faults until after we’ve had a few years to collectively think about, discuss, and replay them.
I’m worried that a lot of people will give this series a pass because it falls pretty far outside our usual areas of interest. It’s not an RPG. There’s no dialog wheel. No morality meter. No branching story that reacts to player choiceUnless you want to count the one where your choice is “continue linear story” or “Game Over”.. There’s almost no focus on the relationship between our hero and his friendsSure, Batman argues with Oracle and Robin a little, but the vast majority of the dialog is between Batman and whomever he’s about to punch in the face.. There’s very little worldbuildingTo be fair, the world has already been built in other works, and this story just sort of assumes you’re familiar with the basics.. So in order to capture your interest I’ll say something provocative yet vague, and promise to explain it later.
I’ve said before that I don’t like Dark Souls. But what’s interesting is that I love Arkham City, and the things I love about Arkham City are the things it has in common with Dark Souls.
Hopefully I can string you along with that idea for a few weeks.
One final note is that I did a short-form review of this game five years ago, and I’m going to re-use a few of those points in this series. I’m only pointing this out because if I don’t, someone else will.
Too Many Batmans
These days when someone says they like Batman, I always feel the desire to clarify: Which Batman?
Do you mean Animated Series Batman? Cornball camp Batman of the 60’s show? The “Sherlock with a cape” Batman? Frank Miller’s violent psychopath Batman? The Vegas camp duo of the Batman and Robin movie? Year One Batman? The Batman who leads a franchise of Bat-sidekick alumni as various Bat-themed crimefighters? Iron Man with a Cape Batman? Obsessive loner Batman? Chubby post-post-retirement Batman?
From a pure character design standpoint, he’s a really striking and versatile hero. The gothic city sets him apart from the other crimefighters bouncing around in their various New York / LA analogs. Everyone is familiar with who he is and what he’s all about. Yes, we’re pretty sick of his “my parents are dead!” schtick now, but the reason we’re sick of it is because people keep telling the story. And they keep telling the story is because it’s so evocative. He’s got interesting foes that have complicated relationships with him. He can go it alone, with a partner, or as part of a sprawling team. His stories can be crime thrillers, murder mysteries, personal dramas, and standard-issue superhero power fantasies. He’s an incredibly interesting character with a rich background and is one of the most instantly recognizable characters ever created.
So it’s understandable that there have been so many different remixes of him over the years. He’s like Hamlet. Everyone finds something different when they analyze his stories, and everyone feels the need to take the familiar base recipe and give it their own distinct spin.
But out of all of them, my favorite is the stoic idealist of the Arkham series, who is pretty close to the Batman of the Animated series. I like how he works as such a great straight man for the antics of this crazy-pants adversaries. It’s okay that he’s totally humorless and has a massive stick up his butt. His stiff persona is a great contrast with basically everyone else in his world.
This game offers three very distinct difficulty levels (and also a New Game+ variant) and since Arkham City is so gameplay-focused I imagine some people will be curious what I chose. I’ve been through the games many times over the years. For this series, I went through an additional three times. I did it once on easy difficulty to quickly round up screenshots, and again on hard difficulty because that’s my preferred way to play. And then last week in a fit of madness I began yet another trip through the game on normal, so I could go achievement-hunting.
I enjoyed the game every time, although they make for very different experiences. We’ll talk much more about the gameplay in the next few entries.
Saved From GFWL
This game came out at the tail end of the Games For Windows LIVE ordeal. It was one of many afflicted titles. During my first playthrough, I actually lost all of my savegames. I fired up the game one day and my save was simply GONE. The Microsoft help database had many irrelevant answers to unrelated questions, but nothing to say about my problem. Sure, I could have submitted a support ticket, but this was not my first time at the GFWL rodeo. The odds of them helping me were astronomical and I didn’t want to waste any more hours on the problem. So I started over.
Then some weeks later, my saves vanished again. By this point the problem was widespread enough that clever people had figured it out. Some searches brought me to a site (probably a thread on NeoGAF or somesuch) where someone explained that GFWL shuffled your saves around between a couple of different directories. One location was where the GAME ITSELF wanted to keep saves, and the other was where the dingbats at Microsoft thought they should go, and if GFWL bungled the movePerhaps if it crashed at an inopportune moment, or perhaps it got into a tiff with Steam about which one of them owned the files, or perhaps it was a bug, or whatever. then the saves would be stranded in that other directory.
Once I knew where to look, I was able to find my saves. I also found the long-lost saves from the previous incident.
Everyone rejoiced when GFWL finally started to die. It meant no more games would be infected with this time-sucking murderer of fun. The only worry now was about what would happen to the existing GFWL titles.
Arkham City was one of the lucky ones. GFWL was patched out, and today you can play it with no additional encumbrance beyond Steam. Other games (like FUEL) were not so lucky.
This game is a classic, and it would be heartbreaking if the only way to obtain a working copy was to pirate it. Since I refuse to use the torrents – even for games I own – I’d be cut off from one of my favorite games forever.
This stuff matters. It’s going to be hard enough to keep our games working in the future. We don’t need our games to enter into a suicide pact with irresponsible, apathetic, and incompetent systems like GFWL. This is why I’m pushing so hard against the Windows 10 store. It’s why I don’t think we should “Give them a chance” or “wait and see if it gets better”. I’m not impressed if someone insists that they’re “really trying”. Screwups like this can destroy games.
I’m glad Arkham City was saved. I’d feel better if we weren’t about to put another generation of games in jeopardy.
 At least in the first game. The fact that this focus changed is one of the things that makes the series so controversial and fascinating.
 At least, I HOPE someone cares about the story, since I’m going to spend several entries on it.
 Unless you want to count the one where your choice is “continue linear story” or “Game Over”.
 Sure, Batman argues with Oracle and Robin a little, but the vast majority of the dialog is between Batman and whomever he’s about to punch in the face.
 To be fair, the world has already been built in other works, and this story just sort of assumes you’re familiar with the basics.
 Perhaps if it crashed at an inopportune moment, or perhaps it got into a tiff with Steam about which one of them owned the files, or perhaps it was a bug, or whatever.
The plot of this game isn't just dumb, it's actively hostile to the player. This game hates you and thinks you are stupid.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
Push the Button!
Scenes from Half-Life 2:Episode 2, showing Gordon Freeman being a jerk.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
A screencap comic that poked fun at videogames and the industry. The comic has ended, but there's plenty of archives for you to binge on.