Batman: Arkham City

Lego Batman has inspired me to go back to another Batman game I’ve been neglecting. I had played this for a few hours back when it was… well, not new, exactly. Old enough to be bundled. But even that was on the order of ten years ago now. Anyway, I’ve already gotten farther into it than I did back then, and may even reach the ending at some point, if I can stop being distracted by side-quests and Riddler trophies. The Riddler trophies are my favorite part of the game: many of them are puzzles based on understanding the implications of the game mechanics and exploiting them in ways that the rest of the game doesn’t push you to discover.

The game’s elevator pitch is “Arkham Asylum, but open-world”. That’s why side-quests are such a factor. Early on, it tells you that there’s a time limit of ten hours before the “Protocol Ten” is implemented, whatever that is, and that caused me some distress on my first pass, because it seemed like it was telling me that I couldn’t muck around as much as I wanted to. This time around, I’ve looked online and reassured myself that the time limit is fake, and that the number of hours remaining ticks down in response to plot events rather than real time.

The setting is basically Escape from New York but with Batman villains: a section of Gotham City walled off and populated entirely with criminals, the insane, and a smattering of “political prisoners” who were dumped there with dubious legality when they started asking questions about the facility’s real purpose. Major villains like the Joker and Two-Face have their own little fiefdoms; a lot of the random chatter between random thugs is discussions of the hot topics of inter-gang politics, like who’s going to take over Joker’s territory if he dies of the medical condition he’s been suffering from since the end of the previous game.

In tone, it’s AAA macho, with a side of absurd sexualization in the form of Catwoman. This is another part of why I left it alone for so long. There’s been a lot of talk lately about “Wholesome Games” as a genre or as a movement. Well, this is a superb example of an Unwholesome Game, the sort Dr. Wertham would look at and say “That’s so true to the original comics”. 1Well, except he’d probably say there wasn’t enough homosexual subtext to be completely faithful. The opening sequence, involving Bruce Wayne sans bat-gear being brutalized as he’s led into the facility in handcuffs as another political prisoner, is absolutely engineered to appeal to people who enjoy being angry, and who want reasons to feel angry and to feel righteous about it. While I’m enjoying the game on the whole, it very much strikes me as targeting the very worst in gamers.

I inevitably wind up comparing them in my mind, the two Batman games I’ve played this week. In many ways, they’re not as different as you might think! The gameplay is deeper in City, but the environments are more richly interactive in Lego; it’s rare that objects in City can be interacted with at all. (After Lego, it felt vaguely wrong to just walk by a desk in City without smashing it into lego studs.) Combat in both is button-mashy — City provides more incentive to attempt combos and special moves once in a while, but you can mostly get away with just hitting people until they fall down if that’s all you feel up to. Their tone is fundamentally different, but even Lego chooses a Gotham City that’s run-down, dirty and decaying — normal for Batman these days, I suppose, but that game drew a lot of inspiration from the 1960s TV show, where Gotham wasn’t like that at all. City takes it a few steps farther, mind. Arkham City is what the normally-run-down Gotham becomes after it’s been completely abandoned by its government and service workers for a few months.

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1. Well, except he’d probably say there wasn’t enough homosexual subtext to be completely faithful.

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