Batman: Arkham City is not as good as Arkham Asylum.
Now I know that the amount of enjoyment someone has with a game is a largely subjective experience, and that many people are going to disagree with this statement, but I can’t help but feel that it’s an inferior product in many ways. Arkham City tries very hard to improve on the original—especially with it’s larger world and grander scope— but it does so sloppily, oftentimes making contradictory design choices that render aspects of the game irrelevant. More is not necessarily better, and the lack of focus leads to the core gameplay and story not coalescing together as tightly as in the original, especially when it comes to the integration of stealth.
The stealth/hunting segments of Arkham Asylum were some of my favorite parts, simultaneously ratcheting up the tension, while giving the player enough power to make them feel like a hunter slowly picking apart at his prey. Unfortunately, these sequences did not carry over well to Arkham City. Not only are these scenes fewer in number, but they don’t provide the same gameplay balance as they used to.
In the original, stealth segments were your way of getting around goons with guns, which could tear Batman apart in less than half-a-second if you got caught in the crossfire. This led to juxtaposition between hand to hand fighting with “physical” baddies, and having to sneak around and stealthily take out gun wielding enemies. It helped in both switching up the gameplay, as well as rounding out Batman as a character. He’s not an immortal superhero—he’s a just man. While he may be able to take a punch better than most of us, bullets are just as deadly to him as you or me.
In fact, I actually liked the last sections of Arkham Asylum the least because stealth was de-emphasized in favor of combat, eventually putting you in fights WITH gun-wielding guards. While that does seem like a natural evolution in gameplay, it only serves to undermine the threat you were originally avoiding. You can argue that Batman became stronger throughout the game, and could now more cunningly take on those adversaries, but in terms of story, Batman gets the living shit kicked out of him before the night is over ( just look at his cape), and it’s odd that he’s suddenly more capable later on. Barring that, even if was just to increase the pressure/difficulty of fights, all it served to do was wreck the (until that point) pitch-perfect balance between stealth and fighting.
The problem is magnified Arkham City, because in order to not repeat the pacing of the first game, the player is forced to do battle with foes armed to the teeth before even hitting the halfway mark. This throws a major wrench into the sequel’s balance. Why? Simply put, you’re not as threatened. You learn to deal with “gunners” much sooner with your fists, and as such, the need for the stealth mechanic evaporates. And while you can argue the designers did try to add some other wrinkles to keep you in the shadows, they don’t work as well. Take hostages as an example: many sequences have the enemies taking hostages, warning that if you come close they’ll shoot. However, they’re not an effective threat because you can punch out every enemy in the room, and as long as you just creep up on the guy holding the innocent, you’ll be okay. In addition, while one could argue that you can approach many of the open-world aspects in a stealthy manner, the pre-scripted levels/indoor sequences very much emphasize combat over stealth, which would make it a deliberate design decision to diminish it.
In fact, for me, I found that Arkham City emphasized all the parts of Asylum that I didn’t think it should. There is significantly more combat, and you’re forced to do battle with greater numbers of foes much earlier in the game than in the original. Some would argue this is part of the necessity of the sequel—you can’t ramp up the difficulty in the same way, otherwise players who enjoyed the original will get bored. But for me, it just served to make combat more repetitive and unwanted. I simply didn’t want to have to have another backyard brawl with a dozen enemies—it’s not fun, it just gets boring quickly ( the mad hatter sequence comes to mind). Batman’s combat system works well, but it’s not particularly deep, and forcing players to use it so much makes it that much more obvious where it’s shortcomings lie ( especially in the majority of the boss fights, which are primarily one-on-one encounters, and not what the system was built for).
Going past the stealth and combat, there are other aspects of the design that don’t make sense. Why, for instance, is it halfway into the game before you get the line launcher? Batman orders several equipment drops throughout the game, and even though he realizes he’s going to be traversing a large city, doesn’t order this effective travel gadget for many hours. And then when he does, there was no reason for it, be it narratively ( he decides to get it out of nowhere), or in terms of you knowing about an upcoming challenge that would require it. It’s literally the designers saying, “Well, now you’re going to need this item, cause you’re coming to an area we designed that requires it.” In fact, one of the major things that bothered me was how there is so little context to WHY things happen, in either the design or the narrative.
When it comes to the plot, it suffers from all the problems of sequels—it’s too sprawling, there’s too many characters, too many locations, and too much history shoe-horned into the story. The open world gets in the way of the narrative by making it more disjointed than the tightly constructed plot of the original, which, while containing a pretty big cast of characters, was focused squarely on the Joker. In this one, way too many elements are added via dues ex machina that both come out of nowhere, and made less and less sense. The game simply does not set-up many of its plot turns effectively. For instance, when a game that has mostly been grounded in the “real world” (as real as you can make it) suddenly tells me I need to hunt down a several hundred year old man to get a sample of his blood ( someone who hasn’t even been mentioned in the story until now) eyebrows start to raise. I understand his role in the comics ( I’ve have several Batman die-hards explain it to me) but that doesn’t change the fact that throwing this character into the plot out of nowhere, and making a large portion of the story REVOLVE around him is amateurish at best. It screams sloppy fan service, and reinforces the overall feel of things being cobbled together as opposed to being thought-out and interconnected.
Lastly, the game’s final plot twist is random and ineffective, and I’m honestly shocked at how many praised it. Plot twists are supposed to make you reconsider what you thought occurred, to have you reinterpret events with new insight—this plot turn does not. Slight spoiler warning, but I want to pose this question: Why did Joker even need this red-herring to “get the drop” on Batman? It seemed like he could’ve done fine without it. And perhaps I missed something, but why didn’t he just drink the cure when he had it in his possession? While the final fate of the Joker was pretty well done, this abrupt and unnecessary turn dampened its shine.
Now, I don’t want too act as if I hated Arkham City. I enjoyed some parts ( the Mr.Freeze fight comes to mind) and while I do think there are some areas that were improved from the original( it’s ambient storytelling is second to none), I can’t help but feel it was a step back from Asylum in many ways, yet somehow garnished more praise. It seems as though Rocksteady started with plenty of great ideas, but when it came down to it, couldn’t decide which ones to eliminate to craft a more cohesive experience. I know I’m in the minority on this, but I really hope Rocksteady takes a better look at what made its first game work so well, and tightens the focus in the next one.