How do you guarantee success for the highly anticipated sequel of an extremely successful title? Easy. Just make the same game over again.
Batman: Arkham City amounts to a collection of recycled conventions tenuously strung together by a threadbare plot.
The game follows a structural convention that goes back about as far as gaming itself. You travel around the “overworld” of Arkham City. You see a door. You try to open it. If the door opens, you follow whatever winding corridors it leads you down, fight anything that gets in your way, and emerge with the treasure. If the door doesn’t open, you come back later when you have the correct tool or key. Sound familiar?
The only difference between Arkham City and its antecedents are the motivations offered for the players actions. Where once the promise of a shiny item was enough, gamers like to think they’ve grown up, and “plot” seems a more adult McGuffin than the Triforce of Wisdom.
However this method of “narrative as incentive” has its own problems within the game’s sandbox structure. For example, early in the game, Batman contracts a lethal infirmity (I won’t say how). Later on, his condition worsens to the point that he has mere minutes to live. He must rush to the next Mission checkpoint! But if he stops to complete any number of side missions along the way, the game doesn’t seem to mind. Worse yet, these side missions rarely have anything to do with the main plot. Batman enters a tangential subplot, thereby completely negating any narrative tension that might have existed.
This is to say nothing of the fundamental effect of the overworld structure, which is to create a feeling of vastness by making it take forever to get from point A to point B. Yes, there are lots of dudes to fight, and if your OCD is getting really out of hand, you can try to find even more Riddler secrets. There’s stuff to do, but it’s a tedious facsimile of the stuff that you’re doing on the Main Missions. Wouldn’t it be better to play through fewer interactions of quality rather than a greater number of blasé, meaningless ones? Nope. Rather than give us something better, Rocksteady opted for more of the same ol’ thing.
Yet it may be that sameness was a kind of theme that they were going for. The environments all look the same: dark, dingy, dilapidated. Sure, Rocksteady has thrown in the occasional wacky hallucination level, but these are feeble shadows of the Scarecrow encounters in Arkham Asylum. They’re visually loopy, but never inspire the convention-bending chills that the Scarecrow did. Another level throws in a lackluster rehash of the “vibration sensor” mechanics used in Asylum’s Killer Croc sequence. Redundancy, thy name is Arkham.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was rife with new gaming ideas. Batman Arkham City is its polar opposite. It is Zelda/Assassin’s Creed/GTA Lite. At best, it can briefly entertain with holdover mechanics from Arkham Asylum. At worst, it is a harrowing disappointment.