Batman: Arkham City Review — The Dark Knight Repeats
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A similar “if we can, we should” mentality pervades Arkham City’s story, not always to its benefit. The game’s titular City refers to an area of Gotham that has been walled off to form a giant outdoor prison, and it’s a concept that Rocksteady exploits to toss in practically every notable Batman adversary they can think of. The appearance of classics like the Penguin is welcome, but by the time Deadshot and the Mad Hatter show up, you’ll wish for a little more focus.
The game’s most important task was to get the character of Batman right, and the developers certainly succeeded. The game mechanics do most of the work making you feel like a powerful superhero, but the writing and voice acting are also top notch. The struggles of a moral man in an immoral world might not break new storytelling ground, but Arkham City depicts the Dark Knight’s plight with maturity and nuance.
Individually, the villains also shine. Mark Hamill is superlative again as the Joker, delivering a performance of sinister, cackling camp. Other, lesser villains, like the solemn, slightly pathetic Mr. Freeze, are also well characterized. They’ll all appear to taunt you in the killscreens, speaking into the camera in well-written, well-voiced, well-animated close-ups.
Arkham City provides an engrossing introduction, acclimating players to the controls as Bruce Wayne is ushered into a floodlit jailyard, filled with hardened prisoners baying for his blood. It’s an interesting inversion of the Arkham Asylum intro, which has players steer the Joker as he begins an incarceration of his own.
Despite these extremely well-executed specifics, Arkham City’s grand story is a mess. There’s never any satisfying explanation for why the monstrous outdoor prison exists in the first place. The revelation that the prison’s warden, the enigmatic, Indian-accented Dr. Jonathan Strange, knows Batman’s secret identity is introduced without explanation and then summarily dropped.
The rest of the narrative plays out like standard video game boilerplate, sending the Dark Knight hying around the map on one poorly explained errand or another. The cloying nature of McGuffin hunting is exacerbated by Oracle, Batman’s paraplegic personal assistant, who acts as a constant source of too-convenient information and logically faulty exposition. Will video games ever outgrow the kind of lazy storytelling that requires every protagonist to have an omniscient female voice talking in his ear, telling him where to go next? Arkham City seems happy to abuse their pre-recorded privileges. At one point, the Joker even starts leaving you voicemails.