This October, Batman: Arkham City hits store shelves and digital download services across North America, following soon thereafter in Europe and Australia. It's to be the latest in a long line of Batman-themed videogames that stretches back to classic (and nigh-forgotten) home computers such as the Amstrad CPC/PCW and ZX Spectrum, though it's likely that most gamers' memories of the franchise kick off with the movie-licensed Batman on the NES, from 1989. The game was a difficult and hectic side-scrolling action-platformer that was certainly enjoyable at the time.
The rest of the franchise's history doesn't treat it so well, from the ho-hum Batman: Vengeance to the execrable Batman Forever, based on what was, for years, the last passable Batman movie. That's the thing, isn't it? Even when the movies got a much needed shot in the arm with 2005's Batman Begins, the resulting game was forgettable at best. It wasn't until Batmania hit fever-pitch in the wake of 2008's seminal superhero piece, The Dark Knight, that we saw the release of a similarly transcendent Batman videogame. I speak, of course, of Batman: Arkham Asylum, which launched in August, 2009.
Literally the second game out of Rocksteady Studios (the first was Urban Chaos: Riot Response, and it's not bad if you're curious), Arkham Asylum succeeded not only financially, but critically. In fact, it's the only comic-based videogame I can think of that received Game of the Year accolades from major media outlets. It wasn't just a good superhero game; it was simply an unqualified success.
And that is because it used the fact that it was a Batman game to its advantage. Rather than using an existing videogame framework and attempting to shoehorn Batman into it as previous titles had done, Arkham Asylum was entirely about the experience of being Batman. His combat prowess, his keen intellect and forensic ability, his acrobatics, and his stealthy movement were all blended together in a seamless and enjoyable manner. Amazingly, Rocksteady managed to capture his fragility.
As one of the few normal, human members of the Justice League, Batman has to rely on outsmarting his opponents and avoiding them more often than combating them head-on. Knives are trouble, stun batons are frustrating, and guns are absolutely lethal—they to be taken out of the equation immediately. Building the game around this understanding of Batman's character drew on his appeal and made players feel like they were, if only for a few hours, the Dark Knight himself. The story contributed to this by making his opponents, the named and familiar inmates of Arkham Asylum, insane and monstrous, powerful beyond Batman's measure. And here is where I'm a bit concerned about the upcoming sequel.
Arkham Asylum was a tight experience, with a small selection of Batman's expansive rogues gallery. The core, immediately recognizable characters were present, with references to a few of the more esoteric members. Arkham City is all about bigger, better, and maybe more explodey. The list of only the most recognizable names from the villains side? The Joker, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Hugo Strange, Two-Face, The Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Talia al Ghul, and Solomon Grundy.
That's a very long list, and it worries me. The biggest mistake superhero media can make when dealing with iconic, established characters is to try to do too much at once, throw too much together in the name of fan-service. The larger the cast, the grander the story has to be, and the more tightly wound it has to be to make sure that the viewers (or players, in the case of a video game) stay interested and aware of what is happening. The fans need to feel that their favorite characters aren't simply there to fill out the ranks, but to actually contribute in some meaningful ways to the action. Spider-Man 3, besides effectively absolving Peter of responsibility for his uncle's death, fell flat because it simply had too much going on. Venom, the return of the Green Goblin, and Sandman (in addition to the whole sub-plot necessary to justify the Venom symbiote) all together in a two-hour-long movie? It's an overload, and the potential impact of each individual story is lost.
This isn't a problem limited to movies and videogames. Whenever a comic company has a major crossover event between its flagship titles, a universe-spanning conflict such as DC's various Crises or Marvel's Civil War, major characters often show up without obvious plot significance, simply because they're iconic and it seems like they should be there. Worse, they can become absolutely central to the plot to the exclusion of the other major characters that others might love. 52 managed to avoid this because it was focused on second-tier heroes, who are more malleable due to the simple fact that people don't care about them as much, allowing for a huge ensemble cast to tell an effective story. Blackest Night worked, to a degree, because it threw out the notion that major, iconic characters were untouchable. Will Arkham City be able to do this with its increased character bloat?
As a more gamer-centric worry, I present Catwoman's appearance. Adding a second playable character takes attention away from the primary reason that people are playing a Batman game in the first place. I doubt the response will be as vehement as it was to the infamous Raiden switcheroo from Metal Gear Solid 2, but I remember playing Ninja Gaiden Sigma and groaning at the additional little levels that had me play as Rachel. I play the game to pretend I'm badass ninja Ryu Hayabusa, not the woman with the war axe.
That said, I'm excited for Arkham City. Apprehensive, yes, but that's at least fifty percent excitement. Arkham Asylum was able to redefine Batman games entirely and this sequel certainly looks to take at least those core gameplay tenets to heart (save the fact that one plays as Catwoman for a portion of the campaign, but even that may be done well. Who knows?) Will it fall victim to the pratfalls of comic-based media in the past? Will it be a new Batman Forever or, heavens forbid, a Batman & Robin? I doubt it, but it's certainly something I hope Rocksteady is keeping a watchful eye out against.
By Shelby Reiches
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*