Historically, video games that are licensed for TV/movie/comic book properties tend to suck. They are usually crappy game mechanics and shoddy controls hiding behind a popular cartoon character, so kids are into them. Sometimes a developer is rushed to meet a deadline so their game can release alongside the movie it was licensed for, but the lack of polish on the “finished” product is outshined by the movie’s hype. It’s safe to assume that if an upcoming game is tied to a movie, it’s not worth waiting in line for on release day. Curious? Go fire up a copy of the last Harry Potter game and let me know how it is. After five games worth of practice and feedback, you’d think EA could produce something good enough to have me wielding a second wand while I play.
Batman games were no exception to this. The disappointment was only exacerbated by the fact that Batman fans put a lot of upfront faith into any new project featuring the Dark Knight. It took about ten years, but those at the intersection of Fanboy Rd & Gamer Ln figured out not to trust an upcoming Batman title, to do their research first, and often confirm their suspicion that the game was junk.
Note: In all fairness, I very much enjoyed the 1989 release of Batman for the NES. It was a side-scrolling platformer that was challenging but not frustrating, and it had some of the better music in the NES catalogue. It was also the first time I had seen wall-bouncing in a game, something I think should be in every game where the player can jump against a wall.
In 2009, Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum, and destroyed all of that. It was the best Batman video game ever made, which isn’t saying much based on the above-mentioned history. But it was one of the top-rated games of the year, and easily in my top five games of the last five years (maybe ten years). If you haven’t played Arkham Asylum, and you’re into Batman or action/stealth adventure games, then holy-balls-on-a-stick go find a copy and play it. If you’re not into either of those, just play the first 20 minutes. That 20 minutes will turn into your whole weekend if you didn’t already have plans. If video games really aren’t your thing, but you enjoyed ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ from the early nineties, then have someone else play while you watch (and backseat drive). Paul Dini, who was responsible for many of The Animated Series’ episode scripts and production, wrote Arkham Asylum’s story. Also, Kevin Conroy, Arleen Sorkin, and son-of-a-sith Mark Hamill reprised their roles as Batman, Harley Quinn, and The Joker, respectively, for the game.
Two years later, Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham City, which is currently the best Batman game ever made. It took what was great about Asylum and enhanced the shit out of it, increased the world map about five times, included side missions that contain their own sub-plots, and added so many Riddler Trophies they were almost their own game.
While it is not necessary to play Asylum before City, there are some story elements that reference the first game. They’re mostly things like Joker’s thwarted plan, and Bane’s stash of super-juice. Talents from ‘The Animated Series’ that helped make Asylum so good also returned to put their flair on City. Paul Dini wrote the story, and both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voiced their respective characters. However, Hamill has stated this will be his last work voicing The Joker. As much I don’t want this to be true, it was a pretty fucking good way to end his career in that role. Knowing that it was his last performance made the whole story a little more satisfying when it was all over. Best wishes to Mr. Hamill. May The Force be with you.
There’s also some game mechanics that carry over from Asylum, so the seasoned pro will soar (then grapple-boost and soar again) through the first few hours of the game, but will still find new elements to keep game-play fresh. Other than that, you could go into this game blind and enjoy it as much as anyone, which would be a lot. It was the top rated game of 2011 (on PS3), according to the aggregate score sites Metacritic.com and Gameranking.com, beating out Portal 2 and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, my other two favorite games of the year.
There are a few downloadable expansions to the game, which are great for some people and not great for others; I fall into the ‘others’ category. The Catwoman pack is a source of inner turmoil for me, not because of its quality (fuggin’ rad), but because of its delivery. A new copy of the game comes with a code to download the content free, but the code can only be used once, so a used copy of the game won’t have this expansion. Having grown up in a hippie-ridden surfside town, I’m a fan of recycling/reusing and frugality, so used games are kind of my jam. I’m not necessarily against the practice of included bonuses with a new copy, because my money would go back to the developer (not just the used-game shop), and I may never want the usual offering of more challenge maps or character skins anyway. But the Catwoman stuff integrates into the main story so well, and the content itself is so good, that I don’t know that I would have enjoyed the game as much without it… and I would have been pretty bent that I had to pay ten bucks and play through the game again for the full effect.
There are other expansions for the game too, but they’re just more Challenge Mode maps and characters usable only in Challenge Mode. For me, challenge maps are kind of fun when I need my Batman fix, but they’re not a reason to turn on the game. As much as I would like to play as Robin or Nightwing, confining them to Challenge Mode doesn’t appeal to me at all.
Should you play this game? Yes. There are no quantifiers around this recommendation. If you don’t want to play it, watch someone else play it. The fighting looks badass, and the story unfolds like a good movie. A friend came over when I was close to the end, and I played a few more minutes to hit a good stopping point… because I’m that dick that doesn’t stop games to properly greet a guest. When I got up to turn it off, they told me to keep playing because they wanted to know what happened next. It is definitely a must-play for any fan of The Dark Knight.