Arkham City: Not a Clean, Well-Lighted Place

A few hours further in, Batman: Arkham City has Arkham Asylum's fingerprints all over it. Batman handles like a Maserati with even more to think about, move-wise. But then we expected that after Arkham Asylum showed other superhero games how it's done, even if Batman's not technically a superhero, and the "world's greatest detective" remains Sherlock Holmes (the forensically unflappable Londoner solving more sophisticated cases with none of Bruce Wayne's money or toys).

I'm still early days in the game, swinging and cape-diving around the city, taking in its gloom-lit sights, poking around its edges. I'm always sure where to go next, but not what I'm stirring up when I slip off-path and rouse a scrum of thugs. Whose thugs? Protecting what? Why? It's clear thus far that Arkham City's lost some of Arkham Asylum's economy and pacing. Asylum benefitted from its linear approach, packing you into grime-smeared, claustrophobic passageways, keeping the story beats tight, and letting out the lead slowly, by degrees. After the game spit you outdoors, those wide-open spaces were mostly empty, a place to breathe before linking to other structures housing your next corridor crawl punctuated by thug and mini-boss meetups.

Arkham City, by contrast, drops you in the midst of its makeshift city-prison, brings you to the top of a tall building, and shouts "all this is yours—go play!" So far, playing amounts to either pinballing between story locales or dropping in on crowds of stereotypical goons. Bursts of radio chatter through Batman's cowl flesh out the game world, but where it's coming from, how I'm picking it up, or why I have to listen at all to heavies talking thug-shop is unclear. I suppose that's part of being Batman in a billboard and brownstone jungle, and I admire Rocksteady's attempt to keep me connected to the world, even if it's somewhat confusing.

What's really missing: the setup for Batman's second big night out. I'm talking about the political background for Arkham City's creation, something that deserves more screen time (perhaps it'll eventually get it?). How long did it take to put up those walls? What part of the city am I in (aside from "the island")? What'd they do with Arkham Asylum's prisoners while the walls were going up? Where'd the bad guys scrounge up the resources to weaponize their new super-villain lairs? What does the public think of all this? That, and the prison warden's off his rocker: How'd a psychiatrist with a "shady past" and the name "Hugo Strange" land the lead spot running a massive city-prison experiment, anyway? I care about that stuff, and I've always assumed a writer like Paul Dini does, too.

But okay, hello Escape from New York: a maximum security super-prison, no rules or guards on the inside, only "prisoners and the worlds they have made" and where "the rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out." As they say, you have to get the hook out.

Speaking of hooks, I was surprised so many Bat-gizmos were unlocked from the start, or that there's very little said about how they work. It's no bother for an Arkham Asylum vet (especially an Arkham Asylum challenges vet), but the learning curve's going to be steeper if you bypassed Asylum. The same is true of Batman's fighting styles: You're shown how to punch and execute one or two special moves, but there's no mention of "striking" or how to enter "freeflow" mode or how to use half the gadgets you come pre-equipped with.

My only serious quarrel with the game so far would be some of the dialogue. I know, everyone loves Paul Dini, and Batman: The Animated Series can do no wrong, but Rocksteady's Bat-creatures feel more Alex Ross than Dini, all chiseled jaws and realism-angled anatomies. So when you have Catwoman making "nine lives" jokes, or quipping "How's it hanging, Harv?" I cringe, because that's cartoon-speak. The visual/narrative styles don't mesh. Assuming Dini wrote the latter, by the way, he must think we find ironic double entendres comical (sorry Paul, not since Child's Play 2).

Another odd detail: At one point, Batman saves someone from a sniper's bullet. There's no indication who held the gun, just a tracking dot, and after the gun's fired, a bullet hole in a pane of glass. How's Batman know who's responsible? Beat's me. If I missed some subtle detail here, call me out, but that sort of narrative gap-leaping's a pet peeve. Update: A commenter points out something I missed, namely that the tracking dot's a greenish smiley face, which means I'll be officially trying harder hereforth not to chew on my foot.

Next up: I'm Catwoman!

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