It is commonly accepted in geek circles that Matrix Reloaded ruined the Matrix franchise.
People feel it’s too ponderous for it’s own good, that it’s tacked on and dismantles many of the plot points that made the first movie great. While I disagree with this and find Reloaded be the highpoint of the series, I can see why people would feel this way Matrix sequels. After all, the Matrix series would not be nearly as well regarded if we were forced to judge the franchise based entirely upon Reloaded and Revolutions.
We all share the fear that something we enjoyed years ago will be retroactively ruined by it’s sequel, and for good reason. Usually when a movie is successful enough to warrant a sequel it’s because it was tightly focused, its storyline neatly wrapped together, and never felt like something something that needed a followup to begin with.
With games or movies, a sequel cannot help but harm the original product. If it’s mishandled as badly as The Lost World or Bioshock 2 we would rather the sequel never have happened at all; our memories of the original are somehow diminished by the clumsily-handled and unnecessary cash-grab. If it the sequel does as well as it possibly could , for instance The Dark Knight or Resident Evil 4, you don’t really want to experience the original again because the sequel outclasses it in every way.
This brings me to Rocksteady’s outstanding Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum was a revelation, of the finest action games of its generation and perhaps the single best 3d Metroidvania game that neither Nintendo nor Konami could ever be bothered to make. Not only was it an amazing videogame, it was proof that when freed from the restrictions of a movie tie-in that we could expect good superhero videogames. This was all the more remarkable considering that Rocksteady Studio’s previous experience at producing videogames consisted of Urban Chaos: Riot Response and... well, Urban Chaos: Riot Response.
Arkham Asylum wasn’t simply the finest superhero game ever produced; it was one of the best stealth games made since Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It was easily the equal of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time in the realm of 3d platformers. In addition Arkham City provided a satisfying (and some would say, superior) take on 3d action brawlers. You can’t name a game that managed to bring so many disparate gameplay elements together into one package in such a seamless, organic way. In the same 30 second window Batman could shimmy from a ledge to inside an air vent, grapple onto a gargoyle unseen above a room of hapless thug, swoop down to leave a single henchman hanging midair and seamlessly flit unnoticed behind his buddies when they came to investigate, dispatching the lot with immediate and brutal violence.
We had never seen a videogame like it before or since. Arkham Asylum was, of course, enormously successful.
A sequel would, of course, be necessary.
It was with no small amount of dread that I received news of Arkham City. Was it too soon? Rocksteady had less than 18 months to produce a sequel to one of the greatest games of this generation, and their plans to expand the sequel into Gotham City itself were undeniably ambitious. Would Rocksteady screw this up? Would Arkham City be Dead Man’s Chest to Asylum’s Curse of the Black Pearl? Or could Rocksteady defy convention and produce a triumph in the vein of Assassin’s Creed II?
An Asylum Writ Large
I’ll be honest-- I’d have been perfectly happy if the sequel were instead Arkham Aslyum 2: We Promise Not To Fuck Everything Up. There’s plenty of places in the Batman mythos to visit using the same basic concept as Asylum. Blackgate Prison. Belle Reve. Maybe Alcatraz or an invaded and overrun Wayne Manor. Or even expand the original location with new locations and a shuffled roster of prisoners. Of course that would be playing it safe, and no developer has been successful by being safe, as Blizzard can attest.
Okay wait that’s a terrible example. More like Treyarch.
No, wait wait, I can figure this out. Nintendo? Koei? Those assholes responsible for Imagine: Party Babyz?
Okay, so maybe it’s extremely easy to be a successful videogame developer by being as safe as possible and continually rehashing the same game until its run into the ground and you’re forced to sell out to a Chinese mobile phone developer for an enormous amount of money. Given that, the direction Rocksteady took with Arkham City is admirable. They could have played it safe, they could have produce Arkham Asylum: More Dudes Edition, maybe shoehorn some Robin/Nightwing co-op in there, but they didn’t. They produced an entirely new environment and new gameplay mechanics to go along with that.
But to me, the “City” part of Arkham City seems lazy, as if the devs were up late one night in the pre-production process trying their best not to just set the stupid thing in Blackgate and said “You know what, fuck it, we’ll build a bunch of Gothic-looking skyscrapers, cross reference them to the Batman Wiki, cram Catwoman in there and call it a day”. And that’s exactly what the city feels like-- a few recognizable landmarks with roughly as many unique places to visit as Arkham Asylum, with clusters of annoying vertical traversal segments linking them. But this change comes with a host of significant issues that in my opinion detract from the experience and make Arkham City a lesser (albeit still enjoyable) game.
Arkham City is undeniably gorgeous, although after Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3 and Skyrim the term “undeniably gorgeous” doesn’t exactly hold the same weight. Games should look as good as Arkham City did in late 2011. The difference in Arkham City is in the level of detail. There’s not a common generic alleyway to be found in Arkham City, and every building is lovingly crafted with passion for both the medium and the Batman legend. Which is a shame, because for much of the game you are likely in Detective Mode, seeing through buildings as you scan for packs of armed thugs, or in search of cameras or Riddler trophies or some other godawful collectible.
Worse, you’re encouraged to ignore the scenery and instead follow the compass from one story location to another. Arkham City’s storyline is told within a bare handful of buildings, perhaps a half dozen in total, and you revisit each quite often. Once you enter one of these buildings you’re instantly shuffled into an instanced environment cordoned off from the rest of Arkham City proper. In these buildings Arkham City is just as tightly crafted and as enjoyable as anything found in Arkham Asylum, but the end result is that the “city” part of Arkham City seems like an artificially bloated contrivance. I couldn’t help but wonder how much better Arkham City would have been if those buildings were instead consolidated to a single island.... roughly the same size as Arkham Asylum.
An Endless Hell of Blinking Green Lights
Earlier I mentioned Rocksteady’s admirable avoidance of Arkham Asylum: More Dudes Edition, but it seems in doing so they produced Arkham Asylum: More Collectibles Edition. Indeed, the point of the “City” behind Arkham City seems like an excuse to pile more collectibles, sidequests, and superhero cameos into a game that was the perfect length to begin with. Arkham Asylum provided the best case scenario of in-game collectables imaginable: Riddler Trophies cleverly hidden away in rarely visited parts of the game that rewarded the player for exploration.
In Arkham City this concept mutated into something unpleasant and obnoxious, a low-level malevolent presence that simultaneously teases and shocks a gamer’s base instinct to collect and explore. It is the proverbial example of having too much of a good thing, like being asked to eat an entire meal of nothing but the richest, gooey-est, most diabetes-inducing black tie cheesecake from the dessert menu at The Olive Garden.
There are now over four hundred Riddler trophies to collect, and Arkham City is barely able to contain them all. The presence of these trophies assault you immediately after breaking free of The Penguin’s goons and donning your Batsuit, blinking green question marks stretching out to the horizon in all directions, so many that you instantly know any attempt to catalog them all would be utter madness. What’s worse, since Arkham City is a 3d Metroidvania, you lack the tools to access even a tenth of those trophies at the start. At best you can add each trophy to your map for retrieval later on, and since it’s not obvious what tools are necessary for any given trophy it’s best to wait to start on the New Game Plus mode before you even begin an attempt.
What was previously a reward for simple curiosity has become an excuse to replay the entire game when you’re serious about “really” completing it. Whether this is disgusting or delightful is for you to decide; personally I gave up on my attempt at collecting the Riddler Trophies the moment I realized that Catwoman-specific trophies meant I could not access the entire collection until after finishing the game for the second time and unlocked Catwoman as a playable character.
Holy Inacessable D-Pad, Batman!
To keep pace with this abundance of trophies, Batman has collected a bevvy of new gadgets. In addition to Asylum’s grappling hook, zip-line launcher, dubiously logical “explosive gel” and array of Batarangs, Batman collects a dodgy-looking electric gun, ice grenades (an obvious shout-out to Arkham’s Metroid roots), a device that shuts down electronic devices (and somehow guns), as well as smoke grenades, an improved zip-line launcher and a cape capable of granting limited flight, SMB3-style. It is a cumbersome expansion of gadgets to say the least, and mostly they exist to either solve puzzles specific to their use or get in the way of accessing the grapnel gun in the middle of combat. Outside of these isntances the gadgets don’t particularly add a whole hell of a lot-- in fact I found myself wishing that Rocksteady had paired down the number of gadgets back to the iconic grappling hook and Batarang. Batman’s greatest enemy isn’t so much packs of heavily armed thugs as much as managing to not accidentally fire a harmless blast from his emp cannon when he meant to throw a Batarang into someone’s eye instead.
Paradoxically this wealth of gadgets seems to have gutted options available to solve any given scenario. All too often the game provides challenges that are only solvable through a very narrow set of tools. This is depressing, as one of the joys of Asylum was the number of ways you could solve a puzzle or dispatch a room full of thugs.
You can’t navigate a series of hot exhaust vents until you have the ice grenade from Mister Freeze, but that’s okay because you never ran across those vents in the story until it was time get the grenades anyway. The game introduces the remote-controlled Batarang for a very specific door puzzle that you rarely encounter again. You’re given the EMP gun to open a door necessary to continue the story, but you never ran across that type of door previously, and so on.
Once you strip away the polygons and and shattered femurs and tittering madmen the devices in Arkham City act identically to the color coded card keys in Doom. You get a lot more use from these devices in solving puzzles for Riddler Trophies; however this means for your first play-through most of the devices exist mostly make the d-pad impossible to navigate in a hurry.
It’s a running theme in these articles that I spend a great deal of time tearing down a game only to reassure the reader that the game is worth playing, and such is the case with Arkham City. Arkham City a worthy game, it’s just that it doesn’t add anything of value to the Arkham Asylum. It’s still a great game, perhaps one of the best of the year. It’s just that during my entire playthrough I kept wondering if I had forgotten enough about Arkham Asylum to make it interesting enough play through again.
I opened this article by drawing a comparison to movie sequels and asked if Rocksteady had produced a worthwhile sequel that does not detract from the original. Ultimately I feel Rocksteady did as good as a job as could be expected without remaking the first game in a thematically similar area. But just like Matrix Reloaded, I have to wonder if we would care as much about Arkham City if we never played Asylum.
More troubling is what Arkham City says about Rocksteady’s approach to the Arkham formula. If bringing Asylum’s gameplay to Gotham City was Rocksteady’s best answer, will they simply escalate matters in the next game and expand it to other cities? I hope not. The legacy of Arkham Asylum deserves better. I hope instead that Rocksteady possesses the maturity and confidence to instead pull back to a more intimate game for conclusion--
--and we know there will be a conclusion, that’s the way these things work.
THE END (?)