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The word “blockbuster” is bandied about a lot in relation to games. So is the word “epic”. In most cases neither is really applicable. Mostly, they’re used simply to refer to any game with a triple-A budget and a high profile marketing campaign. Most of the time they’re just cheap go-to plaudits for a big games, with little thought to real cultural or narrative impact.
Batman: Arkham City however, is the real thing. Right from the first, as the pounding urgency of that opening title score starkly highlights the dynamic, brutally moody initial imagery, Arkham City feels like an event. This is a game in which the title screen alone is an immaculately directed work, and as a statement of intent it’s as affecting as it is prophetic.
Arkham City outdoes its predecessor in every way. Where the first game transcended its licensed roots to repeatedly earn the now hackneyed praise of “The best superhero game and a great game in its own right”, Arkham City goes one further. It’s not just the best Batman game ever made. It’s one of the best adaptations of Batman in any medium.
Rocksteady weren’t just content with making a great game about Batman. Instead, Rocksteady did what every great writer, artist or director of chiroptera-obsessed psycho vigilantes does. They decided to make a great game about their Batman. You see Batman isn’t an endlessly resonant character simply because he has a cool suit and is harder than a thousand diamond-crusted moons. He’s vital because he and his world are imbued with unfathomable depth, psychology and affecting themes which can be interpreted and reinterpreted in any way a particular creator wishes.
The best and most memorable Batman stories are the ones that take that content in a tonally unique or narratively powerful direction. Arkham City is one of those. If Arkham Asylum was about Rocksteady making a few grimly creative hints about the shape of their own personalised Bat-verse, then its sequel is them hosing down an entire city with the thick black goo that pumps through the dark hearts that envisioned it. If Christopher Nolan’s Batman films answer the question “What would Gotham be like if it really existed?” Arkham City is more concerned with “What would Gotham be like if it grew out of your worst cheese-fuelled nightmares?”.
For every spectacular, exhausting combat sequence and every immaculately structured stealth sandbox (and there are many of both), it’s the consistency and dense richness of world that really puts Arkham City on an entirely different plateau to its predecessor. Both believably gritty and fantastically grotesque, Rocksteady’s take on Batman is exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, using a grandiose aesthetic dancing on the edges of the horrific and the operatic in order to heighten and highlight very real moments of human trauma.