Bit-History: Batman – Arkham Asylum/Arkham City (And Why Asylum Is Better)

I’m going to do something a little different this time around – With Batman: Arkham Origins on the horizon, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss something that’s bothered me for some time. In order to make my point, I’ll be ‘reviewing’ two games at once. This isn’t something I plan to do regularly, but when it comes to the Arkham-verse, I feel this is the best approach.

Anyone who follows the likes of IGN, Gamepot or N4G have undoubtedly seen their fair share of ‘best of’ lists. More often than not, we see one of the Arkham games make the cut, it not both, which is excellent. They’re solid efforts that took the gaming community by surprise, which is quite the feat, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it – Superhero games tend to suck. They’re usually made to tie-in with an upcoming film, leaving the devs a very strict schedule to create and perfect whatever they hope their final product to be. This usually leaves the gameplay feeling ‘sticky’, the in-game world bland and uninspired, and the story… oh, the story.

So many of these games don’t even follow the plot of the film! They make up whatever the hell they want, slap on the film’s logo and call it a day. Remember the Spider-Man 2 game that was on Xbox and PS2? It was actually a better effort than most, but uh, it really had nothing to do with the film. You KNOW there are countless examples that illustrate my point, so I won’t bother in providing an exhaustive rundown. On the flip side of the coin, there are games that actually attempt to follow their respective films to a ‘T’, but come up with superficial (read: stupid) quests to pad the game’s runtime. This usually means you’re playing a bunch of levels that look like locations from the film, but all of your objectives still have little to do with the original plot.

*sighs*

So, yep, I was highly skeptical about Batman: Arkham Asylum. It looked dark and appeared to have some cool ideas in the gameplay department, but so what? Screenshots and promo videos never tell the whole story, so I continued to expect a so-so experience that did little to make itself memorable. Well, I was wrong. Not only was it memorable, but it stands out as one of the better games to have surfaced this gen. Apparently I’m not alone, as its popularity helped to make the Arkham-verse an annualized franchise… that is, if rumblings about upcoming projects actually come to fruition. Of course, everyone was excited as hell to see what the subsequent offering would provide, myself included. Well, Arkham City was met with even more critical acclaim, with more than a few fans claiming it to be better than the original. Even a bunch of those ‘best of’ lists rank Arkham City higher than its predecessor. Hell, sometimes those very same lists failed to mention Asylum at all!

Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but this is where I deviate from the general consensus. Don’t get me wrong – Arkham City is a damn fine game, but graduating from a sandbox island to a sandbox city? That decision was directly responsible for taking away the ‘core’ of what made Asylum work so well in the first place – Its sense of danger.

For the uninitiated, Arkham Asylum pulled no punches. At the very start, we (as Batman) escort the Joker into the Asylum, believing he ALLOWED himself to be captured. Of course, Batman wants to know why. Well before we know it, all hell breaks loose and the island is effectively sealed off from the rest of Gotham. So, there’s Batman, stranded in the middle of a plot that involves a host of villains with a bunch of their hired goons watching every square inch of the place. Does Batman run? Of course not. He uses stealth and nearly all of his gadgets to string these bozos up, hoping to figure out what the Joker’s plan is and what it means for the innocent people of Gotham.

It was a really, really dark game. Outside of Nolan’s Batman films of course, we haven’t seen such an accurate depiction of the Dark Knight since Batman: The Animated Series. Recognizing how successful and iconic that very show as, the devs wisely sought, and acquired the talents of Kevin Sorkin and Markin Hamill (voicing Batman and The Joker, respectively). They also capitalized on the series palpably tense mysteries, the cat and mouse games that were played in tight quarters, and kept the visual aesthetic as dark as possible. In each respect, Arkham Asylum succeeded – if not actually perfecting the formula – making it the definitive at-home Batman experience to date.

You see, Arkham Asylum was comprised of numerous buildings, each specializing in a particular use. One was where the inmates where kept, another was the medical facility, and so on and so forth. A fair chunk of the game is spent inside of these facilities, worming your way through enemy infested areas. At times you’ll be hopping across the ceiling as you strategize a way to take out all the armed guards in the room below, or you’ll be forced to sneak on the ground quietly without attracting any attention. In short, get spotted and the jig is up. Most of the time you’re in close quarters, which makes this not only a stealth-action game, but a nail-biter of one at that. The atmosphere just dripped with tension, and at times even a bit of fear. Once in a while the Scarecrow would use his hallucinogens on ole’ Batsy, causing his mind to transport him into a frightening world. This included reliving the worst parts of his past. Outside of the main story missions, you have an opportunity to pick up a bunch of clues left behind by The Riddler, as well as audio from Arkham Asylum inmate interviews (with the likes of The Joker, amongst others). Both of these audio cues throughout the game are very, very creepy.

So the atmosphere was flawless – Dark and serious, which is the way Batman should always be depicted… you know, because we don’t need bat suits with nipples or our hero to have his very own Bat Visa Card. Our villains also don’t need to look like they popped right out of a Sunday comic strip. Another thing that helped Arkham Asylum was, of course, the gameplay. You actually FELT like you were Batman. Hiding in the shadows using detective mode? Stringing up baddies upside down? Using gadgets from his utility belt to zip to high elevations in an instant? Even the fighting mechanics made you feel like a practiced brawler. It was a simple ‘hit a few buttons in succession to string combos’ method, although you’d have to watch for enemies that were ready to attack, which was always signified by a little flash of light around their heads. To counter, all you’d have to do is hit a single button, and then continue racking up hits. There’s nothing more rewarding than successfully taking out an entire room of bad guys without taking a single punch, or even being seen for that matter.

Everything just gelled. Between feeling like the Dark Knight himself and the palpable tension and dread, Arkham Asylum proved to be much more than your average superhero game (which as I’ve discussed, usually amounts to absolute suckage). It’s one of those games where if you hear a friend say the dreaded words, “I haven’t had a chance to play it yet”, you’d instantly respond with, “That’s a mistake. Correct it. NOW.” It was a semi-linear experience, yes, but that only served to keep you engrained in the story, not to mention convey the intended tone. This is probably where Arkham Asylum excelled most of all.

Last but not least, it’s worth mentioning how Rocksteady were able to incorporate a multitude of notable villains without having the game feel oversaturated. Considering how many foes you’ll be up against, I’d say the devs have accomplished a feat I previously thought to be impossible. Many other devs have tried to provide such a diverse range of villains in a single game, but at the cost of the story and the characters contained within…. And why? So they could ‘proudly’ tell their publishers they threw the kitchen sink at us. Rocksteady took a serious gamble in focusing on so many villains, but they ultimately made every character and plot device flow organically…

…So of course, hot on the heels of their success, they felt the need to outdo themselves, to go bigger and better with their follow-up.

In an attempt to deliver that bigger and better experience, Rockstar brought us Arkham City. I won’t give a complete rundown of the game because many of its core mechanics feel the same, so I’ll merely focus on what I feel it’s somewhat inferior to its predecessor.

As the name implies, Arkham City pits you in the middle of a significant chunk of Gotham City, as opposed to the confines of an island teeming with crazies. It’s a good idea on paper – being able to scale buildings and using your cape to glide around for what seems like an eternity – but the more time I spent out in the open, the less I actually wanted to. I appreciate Rocksteady’s ambitiousness, but I don’t feel they accomplished what they set out to do.

My major complaint is the city itself, as it acts as a ghost town with no real population to speak of… well, except for the assailants that have been planted on the occasional street or rooftop, but dealing with them quickly becomes a tiresome chore. Sure, they’re fun to toss around at first, but eventually the game’s development becomes too transparent to ignore – They’ve only been placed around the city so you’d have something to do. As a result, the city is so lifeless it’s boring, which is a shame. The devs should have taken a page from the likes of Infamous, where the city was populated with citizens in peril and destructible property. Don’t you think that would have upped the fun factor considerably? Anyway, I eventually just wanted to get from point A to point B without much of a hassle, because I exploring all that open, deserted space just didn’t entice me. It’s a downright shame, because I actually went out of my way to collect all the Riddler trophies in Arkham Asylum, but this time around I just couldn’t be bothered. After beating the game, I was content with my experience and wouldn’t look back.

Look, I know devs tend to believe that bigger always means better, but the Arkham-verse is a prime example as to why that isn’t true. Case-in-point, I had no desire to explore the open world they provided. Arkham Asylum was different though – Its island was big without being too big, so it was never a hassle to return to any of the on-site facilities, meaning it was actually FUN to move from location to location and collect everything, Arkham City just makes 100% feel like a daunting experience though, and not in a good way. I’m always looking for a challenge (look at my articles about Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls for evidence), so difficulty wasn’t my concern. No, it was merely that the devs failed to hold my interest in collecting all the goodies they’ve strewn about.

Then there’s the story, which simply wasn’t as compelling as the first go-round. In short, it wasn’t as focused. More of the fan-favorite villains are introduced and provide some of the better boss battles in the series overall, but their inclusion didn’t feel so organic. They felt as if they’d been wedged into the plot, and again, it’s because the devs wanted ‘bigger and better’. Each villain has an intriguing story in and of themselves, but moving from one evil baddie to the next feels extremely disjointed. The inclusion of one villain in particular also ties in to another minor complaint I have, which is that Arkham City actually begins to stray from the grounded reality of its predecessor.

This is why I can’t understand why so many people prefer Arkham City over the original. Again, I understand that opinions are subjective and all, but I can’t help but feel that gamers are neglecting to take story and atmosphere into their overall consideration. Those are the things that made Asylum such a hit in the first place, and I feel that detaching those elements a bit was a big mistake.

Just so I’m clear though, I didn’t hate Arkham City. Not in the least. It was still a really enjoyable game. Playing as Catwoman was fantastic and I applaud Rocksteady for at least making her inclusion feel necessary. She’s probably the most engaging character in the game… outside of Batman, of course. Also, all the ‘levels’ you’ll visit in the city are really well done. Even more impressive is the amount of environmental hazards Rockstar implemented in each of these areas. Some are bad for the big bad Bat, some actually serve as advantages in a boss fight. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll say that one the biggest ‘oh shit’ moments I’ve had in this gaming gen, came from the Penguin’s temporary lair. Anyone who’s played this game knows about this unexpected way to die, and are likely to be even more irrationally afraid of in-game water than they already were. I know I am! Well played Rocksteady, well played. Thanks for making the water parts in The Last of Us that much scarier. Last but not least, the ending was far more satisfying (and shocking) than I had anticipated.

So after all is said and done, I definitely recommend playing both games. To miss on either one means you’ve missed on some of the greatest gaming this generation had to offer, and really, since both games are available as dirt-cheap ‘Game of the Year’ editions, there’s no reason for you to stay in the dark. This review/opinion piece was really the result of all the praise I’ve seen Arkham City receive over its predecessor. For my money, Arkham Asylum was a far more engaging and immersive experience in every perceivable way. I worry for the future of gaming if City is considered by most to be the pinnacle of Rocksteady’s work, because that means people actually care more about gameplay than the package overall… but then again, The Last of Us is already being touted as the best game of all time, and that’s BECAUSE of its story and character development. Sort of a mixed message that I’ve been receiving, but what can I do (besides bitch about it on the internet)?

As far as Arkham Origins is concerned, I’m actually not too pumped for it. I’m certainly intrigued, but Rocksteady isn’t working on the game, and when the original dev isn’t attached to such a project, that’s always cause for at least a little skepticism. The prequel route is also somewhat off the mark, because such a story should actually tie into the rest of the story in some way, shape or form. Unfortunately, game development doesn’t have a good track record in this respect. Just look at God of War: Ascension if you need an example. It’s a fine game, but completely unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Here’s hoping the new dev is able to work a bit of magic instead of making the franchise feel stale. I have my fingers crossed, but I have a feeling that the best of the Arkham-verse is already behind us…

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