This Place Is A Prison

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a brilliant game. It’s the rare title that’s overflowing not just with action and puzzles but an overwhelming sense of place. Not only did it completely nail the tone of a Batman comic (or the much-loved 90s animated series), but it truly made the setting a character in the narrative. The Arkham estate was just as threatening and foreboding as The Joker or Killer Croc – because we were stuck there, it might have been even more threatening.

I finished the game, riddles and all, in a long weekend. I haven’t done that in years, and I was hungry for more.

I mention this so you know how much I wanted to love the sequel, Batman: Arkham City. But I don’t, and it’s completely because of the setting.

In our Arkham City discussion on the Conference Call, Shawn Andrich called the game the perfect sequel “on paper.” It’s got more of everything: More bat-gadgets, more villains, more of the Riddler’s OCD on display. His theory – and I know I’ll regret trying to quote him – is that more of the same gameplay mechanics isn’t always a good thing. He found the FreeFlow combat system more stale this go-around, something I personally attribute to his machine-like mastery over the brawling in the first game.

I want to agree with him (don’t tell him that), but having three different variations of Batarangs or four different combo options at my disposal while beating down thugs never got on my nerves. More missions? Distracting, but I imagine that’s what it’s like to be the Detective. Don’t worry, political prisoner, I’ll save you from a mugging as soon as I tag this Riddler trophy.

Instead, it all comes back to the city itself. Arkham Asylum in the comics is an ever-present force, but never well defined. Grant Morrison’s landmark graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, comes closest to pinning down the feel of Gotham’s nuthouse, but what it really shows is a clear picture of the insanity contained within. Because Arkham Asylum the game is loosely based on the graphic novel, it gets the best of both worlds. Asylum put the feeling of the comic into tangible dimensions, then dropped you head-first into the space.

What was always a plot point in Detective Comics is now well and truly fleshed out. I wanted to explore its nooks and crannies, finding references to Amadeus Arkham or the horrors those walls have contained over its imaginary history. There’s a lot of mood in that game, and mood is hard to pull off.

Arkham City, in contrast, has you exploring Gotham’s repurposed slums. Again, on paper, that should be amazing – There’s the theater Bruce Wayne left with his parents when Joe Chill shot them down! – but the urban sprawl often feels generic as you’re soaring over it. Apart from the Monarch Theater, there are few recognizable spots in Arkham City, and the game does little to build them up as more than a setting for another 20-on-1 combat encounter.

The problem is that Arkham City, as a setting, has no character of its own. It’s a setting that’s designed to give you a jungle gym to play in, but it’s not integral to the plot. The construction and setup of the open-sky prison in Gotham’s slums is barely set up in the game itself, and aside from making allusions that it’s a “bad thing,” none of the game’s named characters seem all that eager to leave. You’ll often hear petty thugs complaining that they miss their high-def televisions or Facebook statuses on your handy-dandy Bat-Radio as you launch yourself across rooftops, but the game never shows you that it’d be hard to actually leave.

In fact, midway through the game you find that Robin, the boy wonder and ever-present sidekick, can somehow leave and enter as he pleases. That continuity gaff alone makes the “impenetrable prison” seem more like a myth, and certainly doesn’t give it an ever-present character. I’m only in Arkham City because the game needs to put me somewhere.

Unlike exploring the halls of Arkham Asylum, I feel like I’m grappling and soaring over Liberty City. Even with all the new villains included, it feels like Arkham City left out its most important antagonist: the setting in which you’re trapped.

Also, and it’s a small point, but come on. Someone convinced the people of Gotham to turn half their city into an open-air prison? Even for comics, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But I digress.

Having now finished the game, I don’t feel the same draw to find all of Riddler’s secrets, a game mechanic that I loved in the first game. I don’t care enough to track down Deadshot’s clues or wait around for the mysterious stranger – who totally isn’t mysterious if you’ve read Knightfall – to show up while I’m failing AR challenges. I’ve come to the conclusion of the story, watched how Rocksteady tied the threads of plot together, and I feel done. It was fun while it lasted, but I can’t see myself cleaning up the streets all over again.

Unlike Batman at the end, I’m ready to leave Arkham City to its own devices, letting the thugs and criminals and freaks tear themselves apart instead of scouring the streets for a way to save it from itself.

Which makes me a really crummy Caped Crusader.

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I'm sad to hear this. I loved the setting of the Asylum, and hearing that the city didn't get the same treatment is a bummer. I'm sure that when i eventually have time to pick up the game on the PC, that I will have a great time as playing as both the Bat and the Cat, but knowing that the landscape I'm traversing is going to be somewhat generic and doesn't have that same sense of exploration is a bummer.

I'm glad we made it through editing this without including a reference to Rapture.

wordsmythe wrote:
I'm glad we made it through editing this without including a reference to Rapture.

I know, right?

Yoreel wrote:
I'm sad to hear this. I loved the setting of the Asylum, and hearing that the city didn't get the same treatment is a bummer. I'm sure that when i eventually have time to pick up the game on the PC, that I will have a great time as playing as both the Bat and the Cat, but knowing that the landscape I'm traversing is going to be somewhat generic and doesn't have that same sense of exploration is a bummer.

Your millage may vary. I expect I'll be in the minority on all these points.

Cory, I totally get where you're coming from. Arkham City isn't just a traditional "bigger and better" style sequel, it's actually kind of a totally different game. For me personally, as much as I loved running around the asylum, the city was really what I dreamed of while playing AA. I totally get what you're saying about having less character, but to me, flying over the city just felt even more like Batman. This is my city, and I'm cleaning house! It is basically just a big jungle gym for you to play in, but that's kind of exactly what I wanted in a Batman game!

I also think you're selling the side missions a bit short, because they really are much better this time around. The missions themselves have some good variety, and the Riddler trophies aren't always just "have this gadget, get trophy". Some of them are like that, but a lot of them are actual puzzles and skill tests of your abilities, especially gliding in the open city areas. Also, the justification for the whole "prison city" thing was supposed to be how AA got so out of control in the last game, so they needed something even more drastic. Yeah, I agree it's still a hard sell, but I've seen a lot crazier ideas in both video games and comics.

On the whole, it's definitely going to feel a little less "fresh" than AA. AA came out of nowhere and surprised the hell out of everybody with it's ideas and just how damn good it was. I also think AA had much better pacing overall in the main story. The pacing in AC is good for the first half, but in the second half it kind of becomes climax after climax and there's no actual pacing curve going on. When I finally reached the ending, it took me completely by surprise. Not because it was a bad ending (I actually really like it now that I've had a chance to digest it) but because the pacing was running on all cylinders for the last few hours. There was no indication in the pacing that this was the big finale.

Everything else though, combat, exploration, the side content, the sheer amount of stuff to do in this game, I love it.

The problem isn't so much that it's a hard sell, more that they didn't sell it at all. Having not really paid much attention to the pre-release marketing, I really had no idea how Arkham City came to be, or really anything about the context of the game. What happened in the past 18 months since AA? Did I say 18 months? Yeah, I only found that out because I unlocked a story after having collected some riddler trophies.

We knew what Arkham Asylum was because of it's long time presence in the Batman canon, but Arkham City is a brand new monster. All of the world building work that should have been done here is locked away at the start of the game. Surely it's all there in the manual but, oh wait, no manual.

As for Akrham Asylum, yes it is a fantastic game. That said there are enough terrible things about that game that it's easy for me to call Arkham City much better. Ever boss battle in AA (save one) was Bane-redux, jump the charging bull and let it run into the wall ad-nauseum, brilliant. I was tremendously hooked on the combat rooms in AA and while the freeflow system isn't substantially different in AC, it's refined to brilliance. Every gadget is useful, and necessary, in the right context. Sure, you can punch/counter your way through easier fights, but you absolutely cannot once you're dealing with mixed groups of body armor wearing thugs packing assault rifles, shields, stun prods and baseball bats. Step it up to NG+ where they are more aggressive, better equipped and don't have counter icons and you're going to need all those combo moves,

The biggest concern I've had with this game, and your article suggests that it's justified, is that in the headlong rush to stick more of everything into Arkham City, the game's designers will have lost the claustrophobia that helped define Arkham Asylum. Where some games work well with spaces that seem to sprawl forever outward from where you are, Arkham Asylum thrived by making the island feel small and cramped, so small and cramped that there was nowhere to escape to or to hide. I have a hard time imagining that feeling coming from a walled-off section of a city.

wordsmythe wrote:
I'm glad we made it through editing this without including a reference to Rapture.

You could have cheated and referenced the UNN Rickenbacker. Oh, how the greats are forgotten.

While I agree that some of the areas in City felt a bit repetitive compared to Asylum, I definitely felt more like Batman in Arkham City. One of the things that has always defined Batman is his complete mastery over Gotham City. Criminals are never safe when he could swoop down from the sky at any moment. In Arkham Asylum, every environment was controlled by the inmates. Batman was an intruder in their territory, sneaking through vents and keeping to the shadows. Arkham City still does this in the indoor areas, but the open-world elements allowed for a refreshing bit of role reversal. In the open world, Batman is in control and criminals are only safe so long as they don't attract his attention. There were long stretches in Arkham Asylum where I felt like I could easily have been Sam Fisher, or Solid Snake, or some other sneaky dude infiltrating the enemy base. In Arkham City, I was definitely the Goddamn Batman.

muttonchop wrote:
While I agree that some of the areas in City felt a bit repetitive compared to Asylum, I definitely felt more like Batman in Arkham City. One of the things that has always defined Batman is his complete mastery over Gotham City. Criminals are never safe when he could swoop down from the sky at any moment. In Arkham Asylum, every environment was controlled by the inmates. Batman was an intruder in their territory, sneaking through vents and keeping to the shadows. Arkham City still does this in the indoor areas, but the open-world elements allowed for a refreshing bit of role reversal. In the open world, Batman is in control and criminals are only safe so long as they don't attract his attention. There were long stretches in Arkham Asylum where I felt like I could easily have been Sam Fisher, or Solid Snake, or some other sneaky dude infiltrating the enemy base. In Arkham City, I was definitely the Goddamn Batman.

That's 100% because of the dive and glide mechanic. Personally, I liked being an intruder more.

You and I are still going to have it out about the ending, too.

Demiurge wrote:
That's 100% because of the dive and glide mechanic.

What can I say? I like swooping.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
claustrophobia

Exactly, the main reason the Asylum never much appealed to me. I much prefer the more open, free-form environment of the City, in both gameplay terms and in terms of what I expect to be able to do playing as Batman. Granted the setup takes some suspension of disbelief, but I understand they didn't want/have time to model and populate an entire Gotham City, so this little section of it is a nice compromise, and it is certainly dense with content.

muttonchop wrote:
In Arkham City, I was definitely the Goddamn Batman.

AcidCat wrote:
[W]hat I expect to be able to do playing as Batman.

It's not important to me that I play Batman. I'm not a fan, so it's not a plus or a minus for me to feel like him. I prefer vulnerable characters, and Arkham Asylum made Batman feel vulnerable in a way that I don't think he will in a sprawling city.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
muttonchop wrote:
In Arkham City, I was definitely the Goddamn Batman.

AcidCat wrote:
[W]hat I expect to be able to do playing as Batman.

It's not important to me that I play Batman. I'm not a fan, so it's not a plus or a minus for me to feel like him. I prefer vulnerable characters, and Arkham Asylum made Batman feel vulnerable in a way that I don't think he will in a sprawling city.


For what it's worth, there are still lots of indoor areas that follow the Arkham Asylum model. Most of the open-world gameplay in the main story is just traveling between these areas.

The open city and utterly ridiculous amount of Riddler guff is kind of hard for me to swallow I have to admit. I find I'm enjoying the game much, MUCH more when you get to an enclosed area, like the fantastic natural history museum section (which gets bonus points for having lots of buttons to push and interesting things to look at).

A couple things since you asked those of us playing it to comment.

#1 - I thought Robin made it into Arkham City via a bat vehicle. That was my impression since Bat planes seem to keep popping up to drop stuff off for Batman. Still a whole in so far as it seems silly that Bruce Wayne would have to get himself arrested as opposed to just dropping in from a plane.

#2 - I'm noticing a lot of the disagreement over this game seems to come from how much you loved or didn't love the first game. I personally couldn't get into the first game. It was too much of a brawler without anywhere to go. Maybe later there was, but by that time I'd given up.

Conversely I love this game. Precisely because I can roam the city and do what I please. I think that actually validates your point. Since I'm basically saying that the game, not the overall environment is what I like best. You're saying you miss the environment as a character of sorts.

stevenmack wrote:
the fantastic natural history museum section (which gets bonus points for having lots of buttons to push and interesting things to look at).

The museum really is a wonderfully realized game environment, I loved just wandering around and looking at stuff, so much detail.

DSGamer wrote:
#1 - I thought Robin made it into Arkham City via a bat vehicle. That was my impression since Bat planes seem to keep popping up to drop stuff off for Batman. Still a whole in so far as it seems silly that Bruce Wayne would have to get himself arrested as opposed to just dropping in from a plane.

I didn't get the impression that Bruce got himself arrested on purpose as a way to get Batman into Arkham City. My impression was that the political rally was an honest effort to drum up support to get AC shut down, and Strange arrested him to make an example of him.

I was also never under the impression that Bats was supposed to be "trapped" in AC. He can come and go as he pleases via the Batwing; he just chooses not to leave because AC is where crime needs fighting, and he has access to whatever he needs via Batplane drops and his radio connection with Alfred/Oracle without ever having to make a trip to the Batcave himself.

Phew...it's not just me. Great article and much the same feelings. Nice to have a break from Dark Souls anyways....

There's always that guy...well I guess reading the comments, there are several of you;-)

MisterStatic wrote:
There's always that guy...well I guess reading the comments, there are several of you;-)

We are legion!

Demiurge wrote:
MisterStatic wrote:
There's always that guy...well I guess reading the comments, there are several of you;-)

We are legion!

Go back to Shadows of the Damned. Best recommendation you gave this year. Leave my Batman joy be.

So, I loved Arkham Asylum; it was one of the best games I played all year, and certainly one of the most surprising. Any time I really got into the fluid combat, really started nailing it, it was like HOLY sh*t I'M BATMAN.

So I was super psyched for Arkham City.

And then I read
http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/goddammit-video-games-the-first-few-hours-of-arkham-city-is-lots-of-fun-but-super-duper-sexist/

And now I don't know what to think. So, Goodjery, is the blatant, unnecessary sexism that noticable? I haven't seen anyone else comment on it.. so it's hard to tell. But this is something that's really giving me pause on whether or not to buy AA.

Demiurge doesn't like a popular sequel?

Shocking!

Azure Chicken wrote:
So, I loved Arkham Asylum; it was one of the best games I played all year, and certainly one of the most surprising. Any time I really got into the fluid combat, really started nailing it, it was like HOLY sh*t I'M BATMAN.

So I was super psyched for Arkham City.

And then I read
http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/goddammit-video-games-the-first-few-hours-of-arkham-city-is-lots-of-fun-but-super-duper-sexist/

And now I don't know what to think. So, Goodjery, is the blatant, unnecessary sexism that noticable? I haven't seen anyone else comment on it.. so it's hard to tell. But this is something that's really giving me pause on whether or not to buy AA.


I want to say, "No, the sexism claims have been linkbait." But then, you'd play the game and potentially find it sexist every time someone utters the B-word. So it's a risk I don't want to take.

interstate78 wrote:
Demiurge doesn't like a popular sequel?

Shocking! ;)


I'm not falling for this. Everyone knows my love for Weekend At Bernie's 2.

While it's true that the environment may not be as much of a character in Arkham City, the characters themselves and the story in this game pulled me in much more than the first game. I'm also a sucker for the freeflow combat and I'm probably one of the few people who thinks all the additions they made to it have made it deeper and more enjoyable to master.

I can see the complaints about Catwoman's outfit and demeanor. She's no worse than most video game heroines, and better than many, but if you have a problem with female characters in video games being hypersexualized, this ain't the game to solve it.

I really don't understand the complaints about the use of the word "bitch" in the game, though. It's all about context. These people are hardened criminals, many if not most of them mentally disturbed. What do you EXPECT them to say when a badass femme fatale drops in, kicks their asses, and takes their loot? It would've been more distracting if they HADN'T dropped a bunch of sexist profanity.

---

Re: the setting issue, as I see it the big difference in setting between AA and AC isn't a matter of scope or open-ness. It's this: Arkham Asylum has a function to perform and a natural order of things in which the inmates are restrained, the guards are in control, etc. In the beginning of the game, you briefly get to see the setting in its natural state before Joker upsets it by overthrowing the guards and causing chaos. Your task as Batman isn't just to foil Joker's vague plan to make a bunch of Titan-enhanced superthugs to do... something... bad. It's to restore the natural order of the world (using "world" in the narrow sense of "the setting of the game.")

At the end of AA, the natural order has been restored. There are no more prowling gangs of gun-toting thugs. All the supervillains have been restored to captivity except Riddler, and the rest of the game is devoted to taking him down, too. The Asylum is quiet. (Although it strains credulity a bit that thugs I took down in the first fight in the game are still lying unconscious right where I left them; some mention that the GCPD is cleaning things up after me and being able to see formerly empty cells now housing prisoners would've been nice.)

Arkham City has no such purpose or natural order. The guards are as bad as the inmates, and at the end of the game, no order has been restored. The streets are prowled by gangs of fully armed thugs, and there is little or no indication that anyone is stepping in to either convert the area into a more traditional prison or ship the inmates back to the asylum or Blackgate (at least in the short term). If anything, things are WORSE: the thugs are better-armed and the guards (such as they were) are nowhere to be seen. It makes Batman's victory feel rather Pyrrhic, which may be what is affecting some player's motivation to pursue the post-game content.

I like Arkham City. I did not like Arkham Asylum, though I'm willing to give that game a second chance, now.

I suppose it's unsurprising that a significant part of that is also because of the setting. Where Cory finds the Asylum intriguing, I found it confining. It was ridiculous to me for any modern game to set itself as a long corridor, and doubly so when it's a brawler since there isn't even a game design reason for wanting to funnel the protagonist that way. I did not like in a house, I would not like it with a mouse!

At least in Mass Effect, I got to choose the corridor I was going to enter next. You don't even get to do that in AA, at least up to the part where you fight Bane, which is when I finally decided that I wasn't having fun and that I could spend my time better by watching paint dry.

Arkham City's open nature, IMO, characterizes the Batman better. In Arkham Asylum, he doesn't have that much freedom of choice, or of movement. He can only come from one direction, so it's a little weird how the criminals don't just camp out where he's coming. In AC, you may know that he's coming, but you have no idea from where or with what weapons.

I also liked the gameplay better. It starts off just the right amount of complexity, and it ramps up faster. AA started off button-mashy simple (punch-punch-counter) and took a long time to really take off. Gadgets were used as a method for dealing with obstacles in the long corridor, instead of being tools for exploration and discovery.

That said, I still found the dialogue stilted and the camera blocking and body language to be awful. ME2 did the cinematic thing a whole lot better. Loading times between deaths are still a royal pain.

I've gotten frustrated at the difficulty level -- I'm shortly after the first really MAJOR change in Arkham City -- and already the fights are about as hard as they were at the very end of the original. I banged my head on one fight for about an hour, and finally gave up and went to bed, and I'm not at all sure I'll ever go back to the game. Not feeling I got my $60 worth.

And I agree completely that the concept of Arkham City simply does not make sense. Not even comic book sense.

Arkham Asylum was incredibly atmospheric and interesting. It was fairly relaxed until you wanted it to not be relaxed anymore. Arkham City isn't like that -- it's frantic, all the time, especially after The Change. It's hard to sightsee, and it's hard to explore.

In Asylum, the environment was creepy; in City, the environment is frustrating. Huge, huge shift in tone.

4xis.black wrote:
Everything I wanted to say

This. THIIIIIS. This is why it's all a big deal, and this is why I'm so amazingly conflicted over the game.

Does it get better? Is it just the first few hours? Or does it keep going?

Azure Chicken wrote:
4xis.black wrote:
Everything I wanted to say

This. THIIIIIS. This is why it's all a big deal, and this is why I'm so amazingly conflicted over the game.

Does it get better? Is it just the first few hours? Or does it keep going?


No, it doesn't get better. I'd say if you find the first 6 hours to be sexist, it only gets worse as the game progresses.

It's just faithful to the original material, for better or worse.

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