Important is a relative term. My job consists mainly of writing about toys, while my wife’s job includes helping children who are on the brink of being kicked out of school or report serious abuse. Therefore, I’m keenly aware that nothing I have to say is very important at all – but in the context of superhero games, Batman: Arkham City, ten years young today, is very important indeed.
Batman: Arkham City isn’t my favourite superhero game. At least three Spider-Man titles (2018, 2000, and Miles Morales) are ahead of it, plus X-Men: Origins Wolverine and maybe even Lego Marvel Super Heroes. Batman: Arkham City isn’t just the most important superhero game because it’s the one I like the most – it’s the most influential and foundational game in the entire genre.
To this day, the Batman: Arkham combat has yet to be bettered, with only Final Fantasy 7 Remake coming close. Several action-combat games riff off or outright steal it, and while it’s not as pervasive as it once was, it remains a core building block for hand-to-hand fighting in the medium. Spider-Man (2018) even took the punch-duck-dodge combo system and added Spidey tech to it. While Arkham Asylum invented this style of combat, it was perfected in City, with Origins and Knight barely touching it – every change they made only served to damage City’s perfect formula.
Video game storytelling has grown far more detailed and mature over the past decade, and while titles like The Last of Us rightly receive the lion’s share of attention, Arkham City deserves praise too. Just as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy helped superhero cinema evolve after X-Men and Spider-Man laid the groundwork, Arkham City took a famously goofy genre and made it far more tense and compelling. Just two years prior, Arkham Asylum set the scene, but then ended with Joker injecting himself with a toxin and becoming a Bane-style punching monster. It was proper naff. Arkham City – spoilers for a ten-year-old game – had a fantastic Clayface twist and ended with a meaningful, heartfelt death for Joker. Arkham Knight overused the ghost of Joker, but it still honored the villain’s death and the pivotal role his demise played in Batman’s outlook. There was no secret revival, no retcon, no even-bigger-twist. All we were left with was Joker’s corpse in Harley Quinn’s arms.
I’ve now gone four paragraphs of writing about Batman and only just mentioned Harley Quinn, so please allow me to indulge. Harley is my favourite comic book character ever. Birds of Prey is my second-favourite superhero movie ever, bested only by the spectacle of Avengers: Endgame. I love Margot Robbie’s, Kaley Cuoco’s, and Arleen Sorkin’s takes on the character in the DCEU, the Harley Quinn show, and Batman: The Animated Series respectively. I’ve read a helluva lot of her comics. I firmly believe Batman: Arkham City, where Tara Strong plays Harley after Sorkin had reprised her role in Asylum, is the best portrayal of Harley Quinn anywhere. It’s a shame that by the time she’s playable in Knight it goes a little too far into self-parody, but it is Harley post-Joker we’re dealing with there, in fairness.
Maybe I am placing too much importance on video games, which as I’ve already explained, are deeply unimportant things. However, I don’t think Harley gets the starring role in the DCEU she currently occupies, nor the Oscar-nominated talent of Margot Robbie, without Arkham City.
It was also proof you could make a modern, somewhat open-world superhero game and do it well. Yes, there are some special measures in place like the empty city, constant flight, and now dated mission format, but Batman flew so Spider-Man could swing – or at least he would have if ‘flew’ was to ‘swing’ as ‘walk’ is to ‘run’. Do you get what I’m saying? Arkham City proved Spidey could work in the modern triple-A environment.
Funnily enough, the things Arkham City does best – natural mission pick-up and boss sequences – aren’t that important as nobody seems to have copied them. I’d say it was because of fear they couldn’t live up to them, but no one had any qualms ripping off the combat, so I have no idea. Answers on a postcard, yeah?
Superhero movies used to be very hit and miss. Partially that was because they were movie tie-ins, but mostly it was because it’s a difficult genre to get right. Unlimited power doesn’t mesh well with video games, which tend to incentivise playing with the prospect of greater powers as the game goes on, and need to provide you with a worthy challenge. Superman, as proven by Superman 64, is too powerful to make an interesting game about. That’s why all the upcoming superhero titles, from Spider-Man 2 to Wolverine to Gotham Knights to The Suicide Squad, focus on more depowered or inexperienced heroes. Spider-Man is the most powerful but struggles with work-life balance and typically faces off against equally powerful – if often technologically enhanced – foes. Meanwhile Wolverine can heal, but his strength is just that of an incredibly strong man – he’s no Superman.
Arkham City, as well as Asylum before it, provided the formula to get superhero games right, and as a result they have been much more consistent ever since. Even Avengers, while not great and poorly suited to the live-service format, is a good game at heart when you look at Kamala Khan in the single-player mode. Arkham City is the reason modern superhero games aren’t shit very often. On its tenth birthday, that’s worth celebrating.
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