I watched The Dark Knight Rises recently and came away with a vague feeling of disappointment. It just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be – too much ‘realism’, far too much daytime Dark Knight (he just doesn’t work in the sunlight, does he?) and not enough fancy detective work. Considering Batman is meant to be the world’s greatest detective, he spent an awful lot of time simply walking up to people and punching them in the face. And then being a bit surprised when it was a trap.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Christopher Nolan films are very good, and they’ve done an admirable job to turn around the big screen fortunes of the character after the debacle of Batman and Robin. It’s just… well, it’s just not quite how I see the character. It’s not my Batman.
I miss the slightly more fantastical characters from the comics – the immortal Ra’s Al Ghul and the undead Solomon Grundy – and I feel like the move towards more realism has taken something away. Some of the best Batman stories tend to be the ones that feature a little bit of mysticism, stories in which you’re never sure what’s quite real – although I tend to switch off as soon as aliens begin arriving from another dimension. It’s funny when you think about it – I’m quite happy to suspend my disbelief and accept that a man dresses up as a bat to fight immortal villains, but as soon as anyone pops out of another dimension or travels back in time I suddenly find it ‘unbelievable’.
But I suppose my point is that everyone has their own image of what Batman should be like, which is one of the strengths of the character – he’s been moulded to fit into countless forms and concepts by hundreds of different writers over the years, and he’s malleable enough to fit into all of them. Christopher Nolan was clearly influenced by the gritty Year One interpretation of Batman when he launched his film trilogy, but Batman: Arkham City… well, Arkham City is more like Batman’s greatest hits.
Rocksteady have done a remarkable job in reinventing Batman for the Arkham games. They seem to have combined elements from the films and the comic books to come up with a brand new take on the character. He’s realistic, but not too realistic. Dark, but not too dark (and in fact, quite funny in places). It’s like they took all of the best bits from the character and just wrapped them up in one, and this is probably best expressed in the way you control Batman. He feels heavy and solid as you walk around, but he becomes surprisingly agile when you enter a combat situation, and his many combat moves really give you the sense you’re controlling a master of the martial arts who would barely break a sweat in putting down a room full of bad guys. Despite this though, he’s vulnerable – encounter anyone with a gun and your tactics have to change dramatically towards a more stealthy approach in a reminder that you’re controlling a superhero without any super powers. These ‘predator’ sections really focus on the fear that Batman uses as his main weapon against the villains of Gotham – as you pick off the thugs one by one, descending from the ceiling to swallow them up in the blackness of your cape and suspend them from rafters, the remaining few begin to run around in a blind panic, giving you a real sense of Batman’s ability to inspire terror. Then there are the myriads of gadgets at Batman’s disposal, the rich man’s substitute for super powers. But if anything, Batman’s real superpower is his brain, his ability to plan ahead and figure out the most fiendish mysteries, and it’s this that Arkham City focuses on again and again, and this that perhaps The Dark Knight Rises neglected to its cost. Whether you’re solving Riddler challenges or scanning a crime scene for clues, the game is constantly emphasising that fact that Batman’s greatest asset is his intelligence.
It’s also refreshing to see the developers credit their audience with some intelligence too – there are some really cryptic puzzles hidden away, particularly some of the Easter eggs, and it’s even possible to use Batman’s tools to figure out the twist at the end of the game long before you get there (if you’re clever enough – I wasn’t). And speaking of which, extra special praise should be given to the story, which cleverly turns the previous game on its head: rather than the inmates taking over the asylum, here the asylum has taken over the inmates through the nefarious machinations of Dr Hugo Strange. In a storyline worthy of the very best Batman comics, the Dark Knight finds himself facing off against a whole series of his greatest adversaries, but what could have been a contrived device to crowbar in all of the best villains actually feels like a natural consequence of the situation the Bat finds himself in. It’s a story with countless twists and turns, along with several engaging and thought-provoking side quests, and it all ends with a genuinely shocking climax.
Most of all though, it’s gratifying to see a developer put so much care and attention into absolutely every aspect of the gameplay: aside from the Mario games, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a game that’s as polished and professional as this, and it’s an easy contender for the best game I’ve ever played. The only problem is, how on earth can they follow it? After improving on every single aspect of Arkham Asylum, what on earth can Rocksteady do with a third game to make it even better? As with The Dark Knight Rises, expectations for a third Arkham game are sky high, so there’s always the danger that anything Rocksteady produce will struggle to measure up…
[Another game successfully bataranged off The Mantelpiece by Lucius.]