With no traditional venue to premiere news about extracurricular comics media DC held an event dubbed “FanDome” a couple of weekends back. A bunch of nerdy, fun things were announced, but what’s happening in the video game realm is what I’m most hyped about. For years, the speculation around the next projects from game studios Rocksteady and Warner Bros. Montreal has been hot tea, and we finally got to find out they’re giving us Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League and Gotham Knights, respectively.
Those two studios combined to deliver the Batman: Arkham Asylum series of games, considered by critics and fans to be gaming’s most successful superhero adaption. Well, for me it absolutely is. The Arkham games are probably the most loyal I’ve been to a franchise since the 2000’s era Pokemon or Super Mario Bros. games. I don’t play a whole lot of mainstream console offerings, but I always made sure to find my way back to the Arkham-Verse as soon as able.
I end up thinking about the games a lot, they were remarkably good, and stand as a sneaky important entry in the Bat mythos, as some of the ideas and choices seeped into Batman stories across other media. Below, I’m going to take the totally unrequested stab at ranking the four. A bunch of spoilers ahead.
1. Arkham City (2011)
While I probably had more grueling periods of angst and wait during my SNES days, I remember the gap between this game’s annoucement trailer and release requring master-level patience. It was sooo fucking worth it.
There are several fictional settings worthy of the video game treatment and Gotham is perched on a gargoyle at the top of the list. When the collective developer community basically perfected the open-world style game in the mid-2000s it made a Batman game in that style inevitable. We needed it.
The eagerness I had while sitting through City’s initial loading screens and cut scenes culminated in something close to euphoria once I got to actual gameplay. You’re dumped into a neighborhood reformatted as a prison and all at once the Dark Knight’s arsenal of paraphrenia, his unique style of movement, and the character’s overarching mise en scène become finally actualized in digital glory.
Arkham City is still a remarkably polished, glitch-less peice of art painted over with an incredble amount of brooding detail. The graphics and neonoir feel of Gotham (or rather, a section of it) is evident, but equally inspiring are smaller details like the various interfaces, menus, etc. City is one of the prettiest games I’ve played, but it’s also dour and spooky and filled with the exact type of dread that keeps a player on their grind.
On top of the design, the game very likely is the best in terms of story and character. The game’s final act twist seriously fooled me, and it brings me shame; I should have totally seen the imposter Joker thing coming. But that’s kind of the beauty of it: Arkham City is so stylized, loud, nuanced, plentiful and exciting that the finer details go unnoticed. Also, this is the one where Rocksteady started to break out some of the deeper mythology, like Calendar Man, Deadshot and Jack Ryder, not to mention elevating Professor Hugo Strange to the primary antagonist. These characters bustle in and out of the game with grace due to an efficient and flexible storyline and side mission dynamic.
A smattering of favorites Hunting down the mass of Riddler Trophies, a tedious task but very satisfying// Playing as Catwoman in those side missions added a level of artisanship that worked in so many ways. The alternate ending was lit// The Mr. Freeze boss fight is sickenly ferocious on the higher difficultly levels. All the helper icons and other benefits are taken away, and he wrecked me for hours// The Ra’s al Ghul glide-y side mission is one of the best segments of the whole franchise; the assassin enemies were great as well//
2. Arkham Origins (2013)
Entries #2 and #3 could be swapped, it’s close. The fuzzy ranking math goes like this: Arkham City is better than Arkham Asylum because it improved on nearly every aspect of it, and Origins is basically an ultra deluxe supersized DLC of City. It’s got new enemies, weapons, characters, missions and near-total redo of the map. There are a few bugs scattered throughout the game but it’s mostly an excellent time.
When announced, there was a smidge of controversy over Warner Bros. Montreal making a spin-off/prequel to City, as some considered it an imposter money grab. It created resistance and played down the release, and I get that, however, you’d be a foolish fool not to acknowledge how thoroughly enjoyable the game is.
First, the story is about as good as its predecessor and mimics many of the same beats, including a similar twist regarding the Joker (fool me twice…). The plot truly keeps the mystery alive despite the prequel recounting the first meeting between (the Arkham-verse) Joker and Batman during the Christmas Season. For something so trodden WBM spices it up with dynamic cut scenes and crafty use of comic book lore. The game is packed with secondary villains as well (Copperhead!), and features some of the most satisfying boss battles I’ve ever played (Deathstroke!). Special shoutout to the enemy that makes you counter their counter. You proffered a grand challenge, sir.
The game is mostly a breeze, which isn’t a great thing under critical review, however, the overall entertainment factor keeps you chasing the next clue around another shadowy bend. I think it’s apparent that WBM was unable to actually alter the gameplay or narrative of the mainline Rocksteady games, so there’s some cleverness in how the story and gameplay suss out.
A smattering of favorites: I remember liking the whole vibe of Anarky in this game. The Occupy movement had emerged a little before Origins came out and his message and theme adapted nicely to the world of Gotham//The map is sneaky great//Being able to digitally recreate crime scenes is a master move addition by WBM, a snappy interpretation of Bat’s detective prowess (and filthy wealth)//
3. Arkham Asylum (2009)
The first time I became cognizant of Arkham Asylum was reading a short preview of it in a Game Informer of something. I totally, aggressively even, dismissed it as another installment in a storied line of plodding and halfbaked Batman video games. It seemed to me that in a world post-Vice City it was very misguided to box Batman inside a restrictive mental hospital of halls and cells. Dumb ass me.
I was over a friend’s sister’s house with a beer in my hand when someone there mentioned they had Asylum on PS3 and I figured “what the hell, let’s see what the damn thing do.” I was stunned. Stunned. I played about ten minutes of the combat Challenge Mode and could not believe how rendered everything was. What totally gripped me by the throat were the dozens and dozens of animations derived from the sinisterly easy-to-learn combat mechanism. It wasn’t the days of Rock’em Sock’Em beat-em-ups, Bruce was kicking ass. Stylishly.
The utilization of the whole Batman allure is really what Rocksteady should be commended for. This isn’t a game of fighting waves of enemies in a simple string of buildings and courtyards, it’s an exploration of a whole ass island of dangerous goofs, and it concentrates heavily on an often underutilized aspect of Batman — his unrivaled skills of search and stealth. The invention of Detective Mode is one of the most lasting trends in modern gaming, and though extremely challenging at first I found myself having a blast stalking and subduing enemies.
I try not to penalize the first game of a blockbuster franchise for being subdued, and Rocksteady was extraordinarily smart for limiting the scale of the project to what it did, but it does sag toward the end with repetitive tasks and a weak sauce final boss fight. It hasn’t aged too well, especially when the sequels improved just about everything. Still, so many parts of the game are thoughtful and fantastic. The very smooth grappling and gliding, the Metriod-style world, the voice-acting and animations… It’s hard to really explain how refreshing playing Asylum for the first time was. Something similar to seeing Iron Man in theaters. You just knew things were going to be different.
A smattering of favorites: The opening sequence is a true harbinger, it basically promises you a good time// Riddler’s role and omnipresence work so, so well. Filtering the Easter Eggs through his side quest bullshit made a lot of sense//That Killer Croc mission is annoying, but mostly because it’s so spooky//Why is throwing the remote control Batarang so damn cool??//The Scarecrow stuff was very neat, and makes his whole (oversized) role in the below entry superfluous//
4. Arkham Knight (2015)
So yep, the most recent, and largest, most stuffed game is my least favorite. That’s the case for quite a few of the fans, which is unfortunate because the love seeps out of every pixel of the third Rocksteady game. I guess even great things become rote.
I mean, Arkham Knight great, great game, and needs to be experienced if the previous offerings made you squee in costumed vigilante delight. The inclusion of the Batmobile is reason alone to give it a spin. In another example of their ingenuity, the studio somehow overlayed a racing game on top of an open-world map; it’s concurrently disorienting and awesome to jump in and out of the Cape Crusader’s legendary vehicle, experiencing basically two different modes of play in the same environs.
The Batmobile was atop the fan wish list since its cameo in Asylum and Rocksteady delivered in abundance. They obviously dropped an abundance of man-hours into making the gameplay work, and in a true money paw moment, the designers make you use that thing OVER AND OVER. Again, it’s a well-designed mode of play, but I remember the exact point Knight broke me: during a mid-game mission where you have to clear a portion of the city of the Arkham Knight’s tank toadies. My multiple failures, combined with the infinity of the dark, Halloween-ish atmosphere just got to me. The series had played itself out somehow.
Some aspects took small steps forward but failed to really advanced. The map is smaller than you might expect; combat is basically the same; the plot is competent but unmemorable etc.. There’s a lot to love of course: The way the Joker pops in and out of gameplay as a fear-toxin hallucination is nearly brilliant, villains like Deacon Blackfire and Professor Pyg are fresh additions, and given that the setting is (finally) Gotham City proper there’s an army of secrets and side quests to be uncovered. It’s a fitting finish in the studio’s attempt to make the “ultimate Batman simulator,” and definitely graded at a B+ or better.
A smattering of favorites: The DLC is pretty legit, especially the Batgirl one//Beating that final Bat-Tank mission outside the GCPD is extremely satisfying…for the wrong reasons//The part where you find Man-Bat is fucking incredible game design. Big ups to my heart for not giving out//The final (real) ending is confusing and dumb and fun and craft and I hate/love it//
I think the new games announced at DC FanDome are extremely appropriate directions for Rocksteady, who need to shake off their Bat-habit, and WB Montreal, who can push forward the format and style of new Batman games. Both have my money and time reserved.