Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series was one of the big breakout hits of last generation. Expectations for Batman: Arkham Asylum back in 2009 weren’t super high in large part thanks to the poor history of the property and Rocksteady’s status as an unknown quantity. Despite this, Arkham Asylum was a huge success both critically and commercially, which was especially impressive given that it had no connection to the mega popular Dark Knight film series. With as well as the game did, sequels were pretty much inevitable, and while subsequent entries were solid games that even improved upon the original in some ways, I would argue the series hasn’t produced anything as good Arkham Asylum again. With the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight set to be the conclusion to Rocksteady’s work on Batman, they have one more chance to top themselves.
Now to be clear, Arkham City and Arkham Origins (if to a lesser degree) are still very good games that most studios would love to have on their resume. The only reason these games can even be remotely described as lesser titles is in comparison to the phenomenal Arkham Asylum. Much of what made Asylum so outstanding is fully intact in the two other games, most notably the best melee combat system in gaming. There were even some nice additions and improvements made to this system in the sequels, but not to a huge degree. For me the reason Arkham Asylum hasn’t been topped yet is because, while the mechanics are just as good or even slightly better, the defining aspect of the original, Arkham Asylum itself, sets it apart.
The central concept of Arkham Asylum, Batman being trapped in Arkham with all his greatest foes ready to torment him, was so monumentally brilliant that the sequels have been unable to really replicate its excellence. The atmosphere and the level design of Arkham Asylum are flat out better than anything in the two follow up games, and in many ways it feels like those games just went bigger for the sake of going bigger without being able to really recapture what made the first game so great. Arkham Asylum‘s claustrophobic hallways, eerie aesthetic, and Metroid-like level design all felt like perfect fits for the game, but the other two games don’t share that distinction.
Arkham City as a concept, that being a a penal colony within Gotham City, is an inherently ridiculous idea. To think that the citizens of Gotham would be willing to abandon a significant portion of the city to be converted into a giant prison is ludicrous. Even with that concept set aside, Arkham City is a much less interesting place to inhabit than Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum is a place with history and purpose while Arkham City is a place that was cobbled together. The incredibly purposeful level design of Asylum gives way to an environment that is too small to be a real open world and too empty to be all that interesting. Arkham Origins was even worse, with a largely re-used environment and an insanely stupid explanation as to why the city was populated only with criminals.
As I said, this is mostly nitpicking two very good games, but it’s still very clear to me that both are inferior to the original. With Arkham Knight set to be Rocksteady’s final Batman game, one would hope this will be the one that finally surpasses Arkham Asylum. As we saw with City and Origins, the incredibly strong foundation the series has with its melee combat, gadgets, and stealth mechanics can go a long way towards assuring the next game will be at the very least a solid title. However, this foundation alone isn’t enough to surpass the prior games. If Arkham Knight is truly going to be the definitive Batman game it is going to have do something more than simply tell a new story in a new setting with the established Batman gameplay.
The addition of the Batmobile and the many new intricacies it brings with it is certainly a good start, and potentially a much more meaningful gameplay addition than anything in City or Origins. Of course, it still remains to be seen if this addition is truly a game changer or just a minor wrinkle. Beyond the Batmobile, we don’t really know what Rocksteady has in store in terms of new features for Arkham Knight. I think there is a real chance Arkham Knight ends up being the best game in series, and considering the game is only on new consoles and is wrapping Rocksteady’s trilogy, I expect them to push things forward to a much greater extent than they did with Arkham City. Hopefully we’ll see more from Batman: Arkham Knight at E3 in a few weeks.
Read our Arkham Knight interview with Rocksteady here.