Like many PC gamers I’m currently lamenting the fact that I’m unable to play the (purportedly spectacular) Arkham Knight, the third and final chapter in the Arkham trilogy by plucky UK developers Rocksteady and Warner Brothers games.
It turns out that third party developer Iron Galaxy, best known for their ports of Capcom classics, well and truly screwed the pooch when it came to this one. With a frame rate lock of 60fps, widespread reports of horrible lagging and an apparently uncontrollable Batmobile, WB elected to pull the game from the Steam marketplace.
While the Steam forums are laced with glib tossers reciting the “this ain’t Minecraft, N00b” mantra as they brag about their thick and veiny graphics cards and how the game runs just fine on their thrusting, muscular rig… Most of us are left grumbling about the definitive Batman game that lies elusively out of our reach (even as callous scumbags go ahead and spoil the ending for us).
Still, rather than cursing the dark, I’ve elected to light a candle and revisit the games, starting with the vastly underrated Arkham Origins and ending with the practically perfect Arkham City.
Each of these games is not only an affirmation for Batman fans but they stand on their own as well designed, expertly crafted games in an the wake of an age where games thought that they could coast on the popularity of their license (insert name of more-or-less any licensed game ever).
From the easy to learn, hard to master combat and stealth, to the production design (a little bit Burton / a little bit Nolan / a little bit of the Animated Series), to the stellar voice acting (from everyone except Penguin Van Dyke) the Arkham games are assembled with a great deal of craft and a whole load of love for their mythos.
The list below is by no means a definitive account of the best moments of the games, but a few of the stand out moments for me personally.
The Grim Mile – Arkham Asylum
Arkham Asylum had a lot of baggage to shake off due to some pretty ropey predecessors, and resultantly came out of the paddock swinging (how’s that for a mixed metaphor).
The opening sequence, which sees Kevin Conroy’s Batman hauling in a cackling Joker and he long walk into Arkham’s processing centre represent Rocksteady jabbing their calling card into your squishy eyeball. With influences from the Arkham Asylum graphic novel and The Killing Joke, the player strolls along the corridor while orderlies wheel in the trussed up maniac. Cowed staff cower in your wake, inmates jeer and taunt and the Joker (Mark Hamill-obvs.) has some of the best lines of Joker dialogue ever recorded as he plays mind games with The Batman and the terrified orderlies and guards. The moody score, the lighting, the functional yet sinister design of the environments, it’s all as close to definitive as it gets.
It’s definitely the most fun walking in a straight line has ever been.
And yes, I’ve played The Graveyard!
Sleuthing at Sionis’- Arkham Origins
Warner Bros. Montreal’s 2013 entry into the Arkham canon has had its detractors but one thing the game absolutely nailed was the detective work. On a tip off from the Penguin (still replete with ‘gor blimey guv’ accent), Batman investigates the apartment of Roman Sionis AKA Black Mask and finds what looks like the scene of the kingpin and his girlfriend’s murder. But all is not as it seems.
Origins brought a few new elements to the table but probably the most successful was the enhancement of the ubiquitous “detective mode”. As well as scanning evidence, Batman’s cowl can now extrapolate the evidence to reconstruct crimes as 3D blue holograms which the player can then walk around Iron Man 3 style!
Not only is the sleuthing fun in and of itself but every piece of evidence seems to create a contrary narrative, creating a web of intrigue that becomes more mysterious the more we learn. It’s also the first we hear of a mysterious unknown killer who operates with no known motive and is known only as The Joker.
It’s nice to experience the moment when Batman first learns of The Joker’s existence (in this continuity, anyway) and the prospect of learning about him by sifting through the aftermath of his violence is a great touch.
Suit up, Bruce! – Arkham City
If Arkham Asylum’s opening sequence grabbed us by the balls, its sequel’s looked us square in the eye and started twisting. We’re thrown right in at the deep end as a bruised and battered Bruce Wayne completely at the mercy of the sadistic Professor Hugo Strange, taking a savage beating down before being dumped unceremoniously into Arkham City’s gen-pop.
Handcuffed and apparently helpless the player is left to mix it up with the scourge of Gotham, including the Penguin who has a very personal axe to grind.
But they have no idea who they’re dealing with.
After completely dismantling a handful of Cobblepot’s thugs as an out of costume Wayne (secret identity be damned, shit’s got real!), the player scampers up to the rooftops, guided by an in-ear Alfred, to don the suit… Airdropped in by the faithful butler.
Attack(er) on Titan- Arkham Asylum
He stands there, The Clown Prince of Crime, atop a metal vault suspended over a huge elevator shaft, daring our intrepid Dark Knight to knock him off his perch with a batarang to the skull and end things once and for all.
But Batman is a hero and away goes the Batarang. With a blood curdling laugh the Joker unleashes the vault’s cargo… An Arkham inmate infused with Titan; an unstable super-steroid that makes Venom look like Lucozade.
The giant monster lumbers towards you and without some quick reflexes and well placed batarangs, he’ll be painting the wall with your brains.
It’s a great study into how Batman can rush into battle against villains twice his size and makes for a fun boss battle. The game proceeds to massively overplay this hand, repeating it over and over again with a series of roided out villains from Bane to Joker but the first encounter with a Titan addled inmate is really rather thrilling.
Shit Gets All Silent Hill – Arkham Asylum
So you’re minding your own business and suddenly something suspicious starts seeping through the air vents. No bother, you press on until… Wait, isn’t this the room you just left?
Why are the walls melting?
Why am I staring down at the zombified corpses of my parents?
Why am I suddenly eight?
That mischievous little sociopath The Scarecrow has been dumping his fabled fear toxin into the vents and it’s up to you as the player to navigate your way through Batman’s nightmarish dreamscapes.
It’s masterfully scripted, wonderfully designed and, although it gets a bit samey, still very compelling and shows how the developers really love and understand Batman.
Indeed, the bit where the game gets all Eternal Darkness on your ass and convinces you that the game has crashed is such a nicfe touch that they repeated it for the PC port of Arkham Knight.
Just another Manic Grundy- Arkham City
The beauty of these games is that despite their Nolan-esque sense of superficial realism they still manage to embrace the more fantastical elements of the Batman universe and make them seem plausible.
Elements like… Fighting a giant blue indestructible fucking zombie!
After infiltrating The Penguin’s notorious drinking pit, The Iceberg Lounge the player finds themselves falling through the exploded floor and into the holding pit of Cobblepot’s latest acquisition… Solomon Grundy. Complete with zombie revivification kit.
The design of the fan favourite villain, combined with a beautiful score, clever gameplay mechanics and just the right level of difficulty make it one of the many boss battles that the game completely nails.
Those Fucking Question Marks – Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins
Let’s face it. They’re a pain in the arse. They’re a bluebottle drone in your ear, as you glide around Gotham or navigate the asylum. Collecting them accomplishes almost nothing! But that doesn’t stop them from being so damned addictive you’d glide straight past a double homicide just to get your hands on the glowing green bounty.
Acquiring these little trinkets requires solving a LOT of tasks ranging from insultingly easy to screen-punchingly difficult.
They’re tedious, irritating and oh-so addictive!
Dawn of Deathstroke- Arkham Origins
Tracking The Penguin down to his personal freighter / casino The Final Offer you think you’ve got everything just about wrapped up. Gloved fist around Cobblepot’s throat you’re about to squeeze out the goods when WHAMMO! An unseen rope takes your feet out from under you and forces unknown yank you into a giant hangar for a brutal boss beat-down.
Oh yeah, that’s right! A cabal of the world’s deadliest assassins is out to collect the bounty on your head and chief among them is enhanced paramilitary badass Slade Wilson AKA Deathstroke.
While a lot of the really cool stuff takes place in spectacularly animated video scenes, there’s plenty of cool Batman stuff that the player gets to command (blocking a katana with your gauntlets anyone?) and you even get an awesome new gadget after winning (pity he misplaced it before the events of Arkham Asylum).
Badass Boy Wonder- Arkham City / Harley Quinn’s Revenge
Even a crime fighter of Batman’s fearsome reputation needs a helping hand every once in a while and Tim Drake’s Robin (having been given a gritty Arkham-verse makeover by Rocksteady) shows up in the main game to lend an ailing Batman a hand against some pretty sneaky ninja ladies.
Fans were delighted by the release of some extra story DLC which served as an epilogue to the main game which pitted Robin against Harley Quinn (voiced by B:TAS mainstay Arleen Sorkin in the first game and the one-and-only Tara Strong here).
The recently bereaved Harley is more bonkers and vindictive than ever and The Boy Wonder gets to pit a range of cool gadgets and abilities against her and her thugs.
The developers could have just done a skin change on their Batman model and it speaks to their integrity that while of course Robin handles similarly to Batman he has a host of skills and toys to call his own.
I’m led to believe that Arkham Knight features a co-op mode which allows the player to switch between Batman and Robin Lego Batman style, and that for me is worth the price alone.
Fear and Loathing in Wonder City- Arkham City
Seemingly on your last legs, the player has to wade through the sewer system of Gotham to go crawling to Ra’s Al Ghul for some of that sweet, sweet immortality juice.
In doing so we are made to journey through the city-beneath-a-city Wonder City.
A dusty embarrassment from a long forgotten age of optimism Wonder City is a 50s style World’s Fair writ large, a beautifully realised steam punk environment powered by the Lazarus pits and guarded by long dormant Iron Giant-like robots.
Navigate this faded paradise to get to the lair of The Demon himself and transition into a trippy dream sequence including gliding through a Dali-esque dreamscape and into the daddy of all boss fights with Batman’s one time mentor.
Wayne Manor Under Siege- Cold, Cold, Heart
While Origins‘ DLC is essentially an interactive version of the wonderful B:TAS episode which details the origins and motivations of Mr Freeze, its jumping off point is both refreshing and fun.
While hosting a New Years’ Eve party at Wayne Manor, Bruce finds he must don cowl when armed thugs siege the stately home and kidnap the guest of honour, humanitarian Ferris Boyle.
I’m a huge sucker for anything that allows me to roam around Wayne Manor (indeed I used to play the training level from Tomb Raider 2 over and over again, fantasising about a Batman game that would allow me to do likewise), and for doing Batman stuff as Bruce Wayne. This DLC allows me to do both.
Stripped of all his gadgets, and the Detective Mode which can become a bit of a crutch Bruce must use his stealth skills, his wits and his fists to subdue the invading bad dudes and make his way to the Batcave.
It’s evident that a lot of love went into the design and rendering of the manor and its so well realised you can practically smell the dust and cherry polish as you make your way from manor to cellar to Batcave.
A Freeze is Coming- Arkham City
One common criticism of Arkham Asylum was the repetitive nature of its boss battles. Rocksteady were clearly listening and went all out on providing clever and engaging boss fights against iconic characters for the 2011 sequel.
When the game makes you form an uneasy alliance with a captive Victor Fries, you just know it’s only a matter of time before you and the tragic villain come to blows.
As you confront a suited and freeze gun-toting Mr Freeze in the GCPD crime labs you quickly learn that a frontal assault is suicide.
Sticking to your old tricks, you stalk through the precinct, attacking from the shadows. But Freeze is a smart cookie. As you attack him he will systematically take away your advantages, ensuring that you never get to try the same trick twice.
It’s the epitome of what a boss battle should be. Clever, engaging and it makes you think and act like your character. Oh, if you really want to piss him off, try lobbing a batarang at one of his carefully constructed ice statues of his dying wife Nora.
And should you falter… Just imagine you’re fighting Arnie’s version of the character from Batman & Robin.
The motivation will come from somewhere.
Showdown at the Monarch Theatre- Arkham City
I believe we’ve established that Arkham City has some awesome boss battles but few have anything like the drama and gravitas of the game’s climactic showdown.
The player is lured once again into a final confrontation with his arch nemesis and where better to stage this ultimate battle? How about the very cinema where young Bruce Wayne enjoyed a last movie with his parents before they were gunned down in the neighbouring alley?
The score lifts the mood from creepy, to suspenseful, to full-on epic battle even as the Joker is revealed to be Basil Karlo, a one time Hollywood star known to many fans as the shape-shifting Clayface, standing in for a dying and emaciated Joker.
This version of Clayface is as formidable as he is terrifying and you have to be on your toes to avoid his onslaught of metamorphic attacks.
Using an amorphous character as the game’s final boss allows for some RPG style battles between different incarnations of the character until finally Clayface is reduced to a brown puddle spewing sentient drones that look like something dreamed up by David Cronenberg.
This battle is challenging but never tedious and no amount of consecutive deaths diminish the drama of the climactic sequence.
Some might argue that the bittersweet ending that comes afterwards is something of an anticlimax but I have to respect Rocksteady for making the ballsy choices they did and I for one wouldn’t change a thing.
Those are my Top 10 moments.
Agree? Disagree? Want to castigate me for missing out your favourite?
Talk nerdy to me, folks!