Batman: Arkham City – A Numbing Joke

Empty conflict.

Batman: Arkham City is awful. It seems that after the success of the surprisingly effective and confident Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady found themselves ready to fulfill the awfully boring and hyper-consumerist “Bigger, better, more badass” mantra, which Gears of War creator Cliff “Cliffy B” Bleszinski so famously (infamously?) came up with to hype the overrated Gears of War 2. And much like that game, Arkham City is a well-crafted yet convoluted mess that doesn’t know or care why it exists.

The best thing I can say about Arkham City is that it plays great. It’s a a great improvement over Asylum’s already impressive combat system. Much like its predecessor, it’s preoccupied with flow and rhythm rather than complex button executions. It’s an accessible but still exhilarating form of combat that, even during the game’s hardest moments, tries to instill a sense of player empowerment and communicate the combat mastery that Batman so famously has over his enemies. Same could be said about the game’s stealth. Despite not reaching the high levels of suspense of near perfect stealth games like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Mark of the Ninja¸ and the first two Thief games, Arkham City manages to continue its predecessor’s proficiency at giving players the feeling of being in control of an environment and using it to your advantage. These two factors will be these games’ lasting legacy: Batman, the myth, finally translated into video game form.

But myths are all these games provide. Myths distilled to their very core. This in and of itself isn’t a problem. Arkham Asylum’s goal was to provide a Batman story with little to no pretensions. Despite offering little substance, it was honest and concise in its aim to give context to the player’s actions. Simple, to the point. A classic, unassuming Batman tale. Arkham City, on the other hand, implies that it has *something* going on. It builds intrigue, suspense, hinting at a grand reveal. What is this “Protocol 10” that wasted villain Hugo Strange keeps announcing every few hours? What is the Joker planning really? The revelation is an obvious twist that relies on mere Batman fan pandering. Arkham City treats its final moments with self-important grandiosity that borders on the hilarious. The ending forgets that everything leading up to it is just an awkwardly paced story designed to hold long hours of video game content. If one separates all that “content” from the main storyline, Arkham City would be shorter and quicker. Yet length isn’t the issue; it’s the lack of narrative elaboration. And I don’t mean elaboration in the way AAA video games thinks that means (lore dumps, exposition, etc.) but in a way that focuses on elaborating characters and their motivations to expand the story’s themes. Wasting time seems to be Arkham City’s design ethos and its real underlying purpose. It peppers menial side missions and objectives throughout a drab urban setting that could never match the eerie technological regality of Arkham Asylum.

During the credits, Arkham City has Mark Hamill give his most peculiar and moving performance as the Joker, serenading The Platters’ song “Only You (And You Alone)”. But the game doesn’t deserve this moment. It hasn’t earned Hamill’s heart-wrenching, sickly performance. After hours of cycling through the same formula over and over again, Arkham City attempts to convince the audience that the Joker, deep down, is in love with Batman. Before the ending, this idea is merely suggested in phone messages (audio logs, really) left by the Joker that can easily be missed, seeing how often the game flashes new objectives and updates on the screen. The logs’ reference-heavy style doesn’t say much more than “Have you read The Killing Joke? Are you a Batman fan? Do you get it?” It doesn’t take long to realize that these are half-assed attempts to create intrigue for anyone not familiar with Batman’s history.

Rocksteady Games seems unaware that Arkham City strips its superhero of any kind of human intricacy. The developer appears convinced that it has players on the edge of their seats, waiting for an answer, for a thesis on the legendary Batman. There’s a shot in the last cutscene of the game that tries to create a sense of shock. “Witness this tragedy,” it says. “What has the Batman done?” it asks.  It’s a question with only one answer: he has starred in another video game. Nothing more, and nothing less. Much like the Joker in the game, Batman: Arkham City is a wheezing, coughing mess that works hard to look presentable, every cough mixed in with a smug laugh.

Thanks to Jed Pressgrove and Alex Botts for their edits, guidance, and advice.