Arkham City is a work of genius
Play enough sandbox games and it’s easy to conclude the genre is inherently flawed. The freedom such games give you is often a simultaneous blessing and curse. In theory, the removal of hidden boundaries should make the gaming experience more realistic. In practice, the freedom often panders to the gamer’s worst instincts, to the detriment of narrative continuity.
Looking back, Grand Theft Auto 3 was the start of this problem: right, I just need to drop these drugs off and…oh look, a granny to beat up. Oh, now the police are after me. And now the guys in tanks. And now…fuck it, what was I doing again? The problem is simple: gamers are dicks. Give them the chance to behave as such and they undoubtedly will. Take Just Cause 2. If you have a bag of weed & a weekend at your disposal you might well end up spending two days straight recreating gigantic terrorist atrocities using planes, school buses and skyscrapers rather than going anywhere near the actual stories.
It’s one of the little-noticed elements of the very best games – the Ocarina of Times, Mario 64s – they provide a sense of freedom, but at the same time they never let our twatty gamer too far off the leash. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to get right. Arkham Asylum got round the problem by only providing a linear path-you could wander around looking for the odd riddle, but by & large there was no point deviating from the game’s path because there was nothing to do. And that was fine, because it had a really compelling story. There was a sense you were being taken for a ride by the game’s writers, waiting on the edge of your seat for the next surprise. The downside was the occasional moment where you became aware the game was clamping down on you-the odd ‘really? I can’t go in there either?’ bit.
Which brings us to Arkham City. It takes the genius gameplay mechanics of its predecessor, & adds freedom to roam. The question is, does this add to or subtract from the original? After day one, I was pretty convinced it wasn’t a good thing. I felt like I was drowning in sidequests, upgrades and riddles. The story wasn’t really gripping me either. It had too many villains for a start. It’s great knowing you’ve either seen or are about to see a good twenty or so baddies, but not when all you’re getting is a glimpse. Everything felt too bitty, in stark contrast to Asylum’s taut, claustrophobic yarn.
By day two of playing, I’d realised I was pretty much wrong on every count. Turns out this is a game which gets the whole sandboxing thing right to a greater degree than almost any other. There are two main reasons:
1) From an unpromising start, an absolutely incredible story which demands your attention. In the second half it shifts up a gear into something epic and very special. It’s written by Paul Dini, who it’s fair to say knows his stuff. Dini plays on pretty much the classic Batman tension, the one which Christopher Nolan drew on in the last film: no one can save Gotham from its villains but Batman, but what if they only exist and operate at such a deadly level precisely because of him…furthermore, what if someone realises that, and exploits it? It’s hard to talk about this without giving away too much, but suffice it to say the final scenes are worthy of the iconic comic book arcs like Knightfall or The Killing Joke. It’s a brilliant tale, one clearly influenced by Lost, Saw and the Usual Suspects for starters. If you devour it all in a couple of marathon sessions like I did then by the end of the game you will, like the character you control, be emotionally shattered.
2) Once you get going, there’s a perfect balance between the sidequests and main story. Some are pretty much integral to the main plot. Some are very closely linked, but can be ignored if you choose. And others are simply hidden around the map for you to engage with or neglect at will. There’s never a sense that you’re being distracted. And the sheer number of extra…things is incredible, reminiscent of the great Nintendo games. There are scores upon scores of hidden nods to the animated series, the comics, to the previous game, to upcoming plot twists (which you only notice in retrospect). I’ve just completed the main story and I’m at 45% completion. Then there’s just the general attention to detail. There are too many little nuances to mention – but here’s one example. Towards the end of the game you take on specially-trained elite soldiers. They’re better-equipped and quicker than the ones you’ve fought previously, and if you switch on detective mode once you’ve started picking them off, you’ll notice that not one of them is getting nervous, even if it’s the last man and all his friends are down. You could play through the game three or four times over and keep spotting stuff like this.
Oh, and also 3) The gameplay itself. The predator scenes are, as in Asylum, incredible, but it’s the fighting that’s gone up a gear. I’ve realised that I never *actually* mastered fighting in Asylum. I usually just attacked and countered rather than trying to string together combos. Here, you absolutely have to get them going, or once you fight the serious bad guys you’ll die in seconds. And now you have to start incorporating gadgets – of which you have a LOT. Once you play the Catwoman side missions you’re given control of an entirely new character with very different movement, strengths and weaknesses, all of which are perfectly balanced.
In spite of all this, the actual game map is reassuringly small – unlike, say, aforementioned Just Cause 2, which has a game world the size of a small planet and within which, as a result, you rarely feel a sense of place. I get the impression that this game’s world is going to build and build through the upcoming DLC packs. That’s probably the most exciting element of this game: the potential for it to grow month-by-month. Rocksteady got a lot of calls for a multiplayer mode. They ignored them. They’d set their sights on creating a single player masterpiece. And that’s what they’ve done.