Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady)

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

Batman: Arkham City

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

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.