Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady)

Helen Lewis-Hasteley enjoys swooping round Gotham as a superhero.

Batman: Arkham City
Rocksteady

This is a funny time to be a gamer. With the PlayStation 3 nearing its fifth birthday and the Xbox 360 more than six years old, it's impossible not to get the feeling that we're at the fag end of the console life cycle. (Nintendo has already announced its contribution to the next generation, the Wii U.) Big studios are already beginning to weigh up whether to put out their upcoming projects on the 360 and PS3 or to hang on for their successors. And you can't have failed to notice that there hasn't been a great deal of high-profile original "IP" - intellectual property - in the past 18 months. This has often seemed like the year of the three: Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Saints Row: the Third, Gears of War 3.

Still, gaming sequels are not always poor imitations of their predecessors, as Grand Theft Auto IV and Portal 2 have proved. Both games came freighted with critical expectation because of their studios' records, a fate shared by Batman: Arkham City. Made by Rocksteady, a medium-sized developer based in Highgate, north London, it follows the universally beloved Arkham Asylum (2009). That game won over critics and consumers with its intuitive combat system, macabre atmosphere and tight storyline. Even more astonishing were the - gasp! - strong acting performances, as Rocksteady brought over Kevin Conroy and Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill from the animated series to voice Batman and the Joker.

It's no exaggeration to say that Arkham Asylum did for the Dark Knight in the game world what Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins did in the cinema: turned a campy brawler in a silly costume into a sleek, noirish, modern superhero. It's apt, then, that this video game sequel is reminiscent of Nolan's follow-up, The Dark Knight: it is more expansive, more ambitious, at the expense of pacing and focus. In the first game, as in the first Nolan film, there was one arch-villain. But just as Batman's second cinematic outing saw evil duties split between the Joker and Two-Face, in Arkham City, several villains jostle for screen time. As a consequence, none really makes a satisfying nemesis.

The franchise has developed a little middle-aged spread in other areas, too. The map is larger, there are more side missions and Riddler challenges and you can now play a handful of episodes as Catwoman. (Inevitably, her low-cut catsuit, some frankly perverted camera angles and the henchmen's insistence on calling her "bitch" provoked a mini-thunderclap of controversy in the days after the game was released.)

What the sequel gets right, though, is in remembering that being Batman is supposed to be fun. One of the great joys of Arkham Asylum was playing the challenge rooms - where you have to "take out" patrolling henchmen in the swiftest way possible by sneaking round them or perching high up in the shadows to choose your moment to swoop. Here, bound within an interesting story and setting, was a gameplay mechanism that was both intuitive and endlessly varied. Arkham City repeats this trick, teasingly dialling up the difficulty with new armour, weapons, gadgets and special moves.

Yes, there are gripes. The story, sadly, isn't quite up to the standard of the first game and I could cheerfully never hear another thug referring to the Penguin as "Mis-tah Cobblepot" in the most Dick Van Dykey accent you've ever heard. Neither are the boss fights particularly challenging, as they ditch the otherwise intuitive free-flowing fighting mechanic for a game of "hunt the weak spot". But there's still enough juice in just cruising round Gotham, gliding down and grappling up its dilapidated buildings, to make up for these quibbles.

Arkham City proves that even a variation on a very good theme will never have the impact of the original. In a market flooded with games that are more of the same, however, it at least tries to reinvent itself, bigger and better. Mostly, it succeeds.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism