Comics don’t stay in comics. For better or worse, most comics are produced with the hope they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths. Extra Medium is my weekly column about all those things and more.
There’s a good chance that as you read this I am sitting in my home office, guiding my Batman avatar through the open-world Gotham featured in Batman: Arkham Origins. Having picked up the game at the midnight release, I’ve either been up all night playing, or I grudgingly slept for a few hours and jumped right back into the game as soon as daylight made it seem less crazy.
Unfortunately, review copy embargo or no, I can’t give you a review of Batman: Arkham Origins this week. Even if I’d somehow managed to get a review copy, I’m just not that hardcore. I don’t finish games that quickly and wouldn’t feel right about reviewing a game I hadn’t finished. So while you can expect my thoughts on the prequel next week, today I thought I’d talk about my seemingly rare opinion on the two games that preceded it.
Let me be clear. Like just about anyone who played both Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel Batman: Arkham City, I feel both games are not only two of the best super-hero games out there (not a tough title to earn, unfortunately), but simply two of the best video games, period. But I suppose in part because I’m more comic geek than gamer, overall I think Arkham Asylum was the better experience.
And since most gamers look at me like toes are growing out of my forehead when I confess my opinion, I thought I’d explain why.
1. THAT STUPID DAMN REMOTE CONTROL BATARANG
I hate this thing. They made it available in Arkham Asylum, but you didn’t really need it for anything. I think I spent most of my time with it trying to figure out a way to turn it around and hit Batman in the head.
But in Arkham City they not only made it necessary to complete the Riddler stuff, but to complete the main story as well.
If WB Montreal keeps this out of the new one, they’ll win plenty of brown points with me.
2. SCARECROW AND KILLER CROC
If there’s one thing I hate about Batman: Arkham Asylum, it’s the auto-save feature. If I were allowed to save manually and to choose different slots each time, I would have three slots saved right before each of Arkham Asylum‘s Scarecrow sequences so that I could go back and play only those levels whenever I felt like it.
Three times in Arkham Asylum, the villain Scarecrow uses his fear toxin on Batman, and it results in some of the trippiest and frightening sequences you could experience in a video game. There were a hundred reasons why Arkham Asylum was awesome, and at the top of my list was Scarecrow. I enjoyed those parts of the game so much, I was disappointed when I finally defeated Scarecrow and Killer Croc took him for a swim.
Rocksteady tried to recreate that experience in Arkham City with the trip to Wonder City as well as the Mad Hatter side mission (which was pretty damn creepy), but nothing in Arkham City had an impact like Scarecrow’s invasions into Batman’s fear center.
Right after the final scream with Scarecrow comes Batman’s trek through Killer Croc’s lair and it was another favorite of mine. Every time that danger music started, my breath stopped until I could see which way the bastard was coming from. And every time he fell back into the water, I sighed with relief.
Just as they did with the Scarecrow sequences, the developers tried to recreate the menacing dread of Croc’s Lair with the great white shark in Penguin’s club, but while gut-punching a shark proved plenty of fun, it just wasn’t the same.
Overall, it seemed like Arkham Asylum was meant to feel less like a video game than a story. It’s arguable whether or not you can accurately call characters like Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Harley Quinn, and Zsasz bosses because there really isn’t much in the way of a boss fight. Sure, the game had plenty of more traditional boss fights like those with Poison Ivy, Bane, and the final tussle with the Joker, but the relative lack of such fights with other villains was refreshing.
On the other hand, Arkham City didn’t really have any of those moments. When you were in a boss fight, you knew you were in a boss fight.
3. THE RIDDLER
Using the Riddler as an optional opponent you fought solely by solving riddles and finding hidden objects was ingenious. It was the perfect way to utilize a character as cerebral as Riddler, and it added one more thing Batman needed to handle while already juggling the nefarious plans of too many bad guys at once.
But Arkham City just took it too far. I’ve never finished the Riddler stuff in Arkham City and I never will. There was just too much to find, too many nooks and crannies, and in too many places that weren’t easy to get to or to leave. It’s one of the biggest things upon which I’m hoping WB improves in the new game.
Just like there are a hundred reasons why Arkham Asylum is awesome, there are a thousand reasons why Batman is popular, and one of the secrets to his success is his rogue’s gallery. Batman has some of the most appealing and memorable super-villains in comicdom.
Now, I don’t think anyone could complain about not getting enough bad guys in Arkham Asylum. We got Joker, Harley, Zsasz, Croc, Bane, Ivy, Scarecrow and kinda-sorta Riddler. And the asylum was chock full of wonderful Easter eggs that really made the game feel like a love letter to Batman. There was Ra’s al Ghul’s disappearing corpse, Catwoman and Penguin’s equipment on display like trophies, the emptied cells of villains like Two-Face and the Ventriliquist, and really too many to name.
Arkham City, in the meantime, just felt overloaded with Bat-villains. Within the first five minutes of the game you’ve been tortured by Hugo Strange, watched Black Mask get beaten by security guards, been slapped around by the Penguin, and you’re on your way to save Catwoman from Two-Face. Not to mention that one of the prisoners who threatens you when you enter the prison as Bruce Wayne is probably Deadshot incognito. It felt almost like the designers figured it might be the last of the Arkham games, so they better cram everyone in the story that they could. I mean, I certainly was hoping to see some different villains from what we saw in Arkham Asylum, but I didn’t want almost every single villain from Arkham Asylum plus 53 more.
I’m sure some people will feel this is a BS complaint. I don’t know. I just felt like a little less-is-more philosophy would’ve worked better.
5. THE OPEN WORLD
Regardless, I question whether or not the Arkham games are served well with open worlds. Arkham Asylum had a sense of ever-approaching menace. You felt like Batman was pushed to his absolute limits; dealing with as many things as he possibly could at one time.
The open world and the many side missions of Arkham City bring a never-ending night to Gotham, and that sense of impending doom is dulled. You don’t think “I have to get over to the Botanical Gardens right away!” You think “I need to find a way into that factory! After I just kind of jump around a little bit. Maybe find some riddles. Do some of these red bat challenges. Climb the Ferris wheel just ’cause. Ooh hey! A phone is ringing! Why wouldn’t Batman stop to answer payphones when he’s trying to save Gotham? Makes sense to me.”
6. THE STORY
One of the hundred things that made Arkham Asylum awesome was that if the game had never been made, I could easily see the story of the game showing up in a Batman comic. No, I don’t think it would do to show Batman spending hours looking for Riddler trophies, but other than that just about everything in the game could go right from the screen to the panels.
Arkham City, not so much.
First, the notion that Gotham citizens and politicians would allow the creation of Arkham City stretches things too far, even for a comic book. Why would the besieged people of Gotham, tired of costumed maniacs escaping Arkham Asylum to terrorize them, agree to give up a chunk of their city to bring those villains closer to their homes?
Not to mention, how the hell did Quincy Sharp win a mayoral election? Sharp’s only claim to fame is that he was the Warden of Arkham Asylum, a place known as a super-villain revolving door. There are sick houseflies with longer lifespans than the time it takes for a super-villain to get in and out of Arkham.
Second, the concept behind the story of Arkham Asylum was that it was supposed to be the longest night of Batman’s life. That carried over into the other games, insomuch that they’re supposed to take place over the course of a single night. But there’s just no way everything that happens in Arkham City takes place between one sundown and sunrise. There’s just no way.
Third and finally, Arkham City‘s story felt convoluted compared to its predecessor. The identity of the “main” villain changes, like, four times. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it was a bad story. I just think that while Arkham Asylum took a story that felt familiar to anyone even casually educated in the Batman mythos, the story of Arkham City was all over the map.
Like I said earlier, I would be crazy and stupid to suggest Arkham City was anything but one of the best video games we’ve seen. I just feel that Arkham Asylum offered a much more cinematic, and overall more satisfying, experience.
In all fairness, I’ll admit that when I’ve gone back to replay Arkham Asylum, I’ve found myself hitting certain combos and realizing “Oh, right. I can’t do that in this one.”
Hopefully, next week I’ll be here to tell you Batman: Arkham Origins is the best of the bunch. I’m not expecting it (that’s no dig, what could top both of these games?) but I like being wrong sometimes.