NEW YORK — Even after 70 years, the image of Batman — a lone figure prowling the night to protect the innocent — has lost none of its potency. By adopting a code of honor and turning the trappings of evil against those who would do evil, Bruce Wayne transformed his personal torments into an almost chivalric quest to save others.
What most impressed generations of children (and adults) is that he did it all without any "superpowers" beyond his own intelligence, wealth, and physical prowess.
Comic book figures have a fairly mediocre track record when it comes to video and computer games, and Batman was no exception. In 2009, however, a relatively unknown studio called Rocksteady unleashed "Batman: Arkham Asylum," and the superhero genre finally had a game that could stand on its own merits.
Combining superb storytelling and visual flair with a wild mix of gameplay styles — stealth, detection, exploration, puzzle-solving, and hand-to-hand combat — "Arkham Asylum" became one of the breakout hits of the year.
"Arkham Asylum" took place on a single island, allowing the designers to create a tightly crafted, carefully structured masterpiece. Any follow-up would have to follow the mandatory sequel formula: bigger, better, more.
But more and bigger, as we know, isn’t always better. Taking Batman from the confined location of the asylum and placing him in a sprawling open city game is a risky proposition.
Would the focus of the gameplay become diffused, and the tension of the madhouse setting lost, once the Bat was free to spread his wings over a sizable portion of Gotham City? Could the strange mix of gameplay elements survive a significant increase in length and a more open style of play?
The answer is an (almost) unqualified "yes." The "almost" has to do with the one thing "Batman: Arkham City" (Warner Interactive) can’t duplicate, and that’s tightness. There wasn’t an ounce of flab on the original. Everything pointed to a singular end, and nothing was wasted. "Arkham City," on the other hand, is big, sprawling, and jammed with content. That’s not a bad thing, but it does dilute some of the suspense of the original.
The game begins with a remarkably implausible setup, reminiscent of the 1981 film "Escape From New York." A big chunk of Gotham has been walled off and turned into a maximum-security prison for supervillains and assorted criminals, as well as the occasional innocent or political prisoner. Catwoman is there as well … just because.
The rest of Gotham has fallen under the control of Arkham Asylum’s former warden, Quincy Sharp, who has placed Arkham City under the control of supervillain Hugo Strange (who knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne!) and his army of mercenaries.
Strange arranges for Wayne to be arrested and committed to Arkham City for no discernible reason, thus allowing the World’s Greatest Detective free range inside the supervillain’s fortress city on the eve of Strange’s unveiling of a cryptic evil plan called "Protocol 10."
None of this is even the tiniest bit credible, even at a comic book level. But once you muscle past the premise, you really do get a terrific setting for a game. The city is a warren of buildings, underground levels, alleys, and major sites like the museum or the police station.
Batman soars through this concrete jungle like Spiderman, using a combination of grappling hooks and the gliding properties of his cape.
A number of plots and villains present themselves almost immediately, which slackens the tension of the central story line involving Hugo Strange, but does provide plenty of quests for Batman to follow. The result is a huge game with lots of places to explore, secrets to find, mysteries to solve, crimes to stop, people to save, supervillains to thwart, bosses to fight, and cats to rescue from trees.
Batman, it seems, can’t go a block without someone either trying to kill him or needing his help.
All of the other gameplay features are brought forward from the original. The hand-to-hand combat, based on timed moves and the use of gadgets, is as brilliant as ever. And the batsuit, skill, and gear upgrades come at a measured pace.
Boss battles — seriously frustrating in the original — are a little better this time around, though they still have a puzzle-like quality that may irritate some. With 400-plus Riddler secrets and puzzles to find, and plenty of regenerating foes, there’s also a lot of room for ongoing gameplay after the major quests are finished.
From a moral perspective, there is both good and bad. The criminals range from minor thugs to raving psychopaths, and all of them are perfectly willing to kill. Batman, of course, never kills, but merely knocks his foes unconscious.
The atmosphere is grim and dark — there is no sunlight in the environment — and corresponds to the gritty tone of the current movie franchise. This is not a game for young children, particularly considering the bone-crunching nature of the dustups, the unrelenting nastiness of the villains, and the occasional use of innuendo and foul terms.
The game contains extensive hand-to-hand and weapons violence, a few gory images, several sexual references, suggestive costuming and some crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board rating is T — Teen.
McDonald reviews video games for Catholic News Service.