Batman: Arkham City
Reviewed on Xbox 360
For Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Perhaps the best way to explain the magnificent depth of Batman: Arkham City is to say playing this videogame is like living inside an ever-evolving graphic novel. And I don't mean something like Scott Pilgrim. Batman: Arkham City features a cacotopian world that can feel utterly insane and imaginative characters that are wittily melodramatic. If you thought The Dark Knight movie was the bee's knees as far as taking chances goes, the Arkham City videogame makes that successful film look like The Brady Bunch. It's so much darker and bolder.
The game's first canned, filmic sequence doesn't have the terror-inspired ravings of the freak-faced Joker to scare you, as was the case with the previous game, Batman: Arkham Asylum. But it sets up the story to come very well. The somewhat annoying, uber-confident Bruce Wayne ("Millionaire is so last year. I'm a billionaire.") is beaten badly. Groggy, he awakens in a festering prison. It's part of a strange, expansive portion of Gotham City in which criminals rule the roost. Here, the inmates have really taken over the asylum. And it's not pretty.
It's a testament to the game's careful, balanced design that you literally feel imprisoned in one of the worst hellholes ever imagined. Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio would feel nervous in here. Prisoners mock you. They block your way. They threaten your life. And they beat you again. In those early moments, you are trapped, cornered, tortured and controlled.
In a way, this portion feels like gaming's version of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. It's made palatable for its target teenage audience. But you can see the burbling violence within Arkham City's wall. Even the music is sometimes reminiscent of what's in the Burgess book. Maybe it doesn't include Beethoven's Ninth. But its score can be stormy and propulsive.
Early on, there is a series of moments that make this game feel shades of awesome beyond many other games. As a baritone tessitura-voiced Batman played by actor Kevin Conroy, you are on the track of the maniacal Joker, your constant nemesis, played by Mark Hamill. Even more, you're out to shutter Arkham City and restore a relative peace to the chaos of Gotham City. (Saving the world is a constant, often banal trope in videogames, but Arkham City riffs on it admirably.)
From Batman's stash of tools, you find a grapple to zip up to the gargoyle-decorated pinnacle of a massive, Gothic church tower. The effect is elating, thrilling, and must be akin to being shot up in the air in a Ringling Bros. circus cannon. As a nerd who occasionally gets motion sickness while playing games, this is the moment where I perch high upon a gargoyle and marvel that the shot up to this granite sculpture didn't make me dizzy.
In fact, I feel like I'm the loner king of the world, a dark, unforgiving world. I see the expanse that is Arkham City, full of black, looming helicopters, dirty, greasy smoke and overall, a heavy, palpable gloom. It's Dickensian with its creepy ragamuffins and industrial look. And it's a bit Blade Runner, too, with its lurid signs and the SciFi technology used by Batman and the criminals. Within this mashup are crazy-tall buildings everywhere, strange and foreboding as haunted houses. In the distance, there's even some eerie version of Coney Island, daring you to enter its evil gates.
You can go there because Arkham City is an open world game. The open world genre features game design first made popular 10 years ago in Rockstar Games' landmark Grand Theft Auto III. An open world allows you to travel to pretty much anywhere you want to. So in Arkham City, you can grabble onto a passing helicopter and then move to a thin skyscraper ledge or a precarious telephone wire as you stealthily approach pug-faced criminals to attack. Using your cape as wings, you glide down like an elegant bat or you plop onto your enemy from above, raptor-like. This ride down is often as exhilarating as the grapple up.
Even the fighting is elegant. A number of murder-minded assailants come at you at once with crates or baseball bats. In many games, you can mash a lot of buttons and get away with defeating your foes. Here, you need to fight in a kind of dance-like rhythm. Flail away like an amateur and you'll be killed. Hit with the perfect button at the right time and you see slow-motion animation that shows a craggy-faced goon going down for the last time. It almost feels like something out of Scorsese's Raging Bull — without the blood.
But there's more than flying around and hitting. Batman is supposed to be a crime solver par excellence, a detective so Mensa-brilliant he has no peers. The game is full of wonderfully confusing mazes to traverse and puzzles to solve. For instance, in order to pass some pipes spewing steam, you need to find a way to stop the steam (in this case, by hitting a series of buttons with your Batarang).
You also get clues from the people you encounter. In a hospital, you come upon a doctor near a horribly deformed patient who moans from pain. Both the doctor and the patient may have something to offer. And if you stand next to the cretin in the bed for longer than a moment or two, some cool, light jazz begins to play in stark contrast to the horror next to you. Yet you hang for a while because even Batman needs to chill with the arts. Too bad you can't get Batman to snap his fingers.
Even 50 years after the first videogame was made, it's still often said that videogames aren't as immersive as books or movies, that they're just toys. But after 40 hours of play and even before, Batman: Arkham City becomes its own book and its own movie. You muse upon the cynical dialog, the smarmy humor and the over-the-top adventures you have embarked upon even when you're away from the game. In fact, after hearing the reams of taut dialog, and indulging in the intricate storylines that always seem to mesh seamlessly, you might even dream about them. Depending upon your fate in Arkham City, your REM sleep will either result in a darkly heroic dream or a horrifying nightmare.
Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us, How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture. He can be found crowdsourcing a movie about games at www.playingwithfirefilm.com.