Is Arkham City Still The Best Superhero Game?

Superhero games have had a turbulent track record considering their obvious application to the interactive medium. Entries in this genre usually ranged from infamously bad to mediocre at best. That was until the beloved Arkham series, developed by Rocksteady, was released. Since then, the pantheon of superheroes, DC and Marvel alike as well as some other licenses, should have gained true credibility in the gaming market. However, except for Marvel’s Spider-Man and The Injustice series that hasn’t been the case. In fact, there have been just as many lacklustre superhero games since Arkham Asylum as there were before it. So, what other superhero games rival Batman? What made the Arkham series so good and considering upcoming games, such as Suicide Squad, Wolverine, Wonder-Woman and Gotham Knights, can anything topple Arkhams critical monopoly?

Arkham’s Competition

Many developers have tried their luck at producing superhero games that are both worthy of their source material and that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other critically acclaimed games, this has proven to be no easy task, however. Best exemplified by the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man who’s entries in the genre have been plentiful and have run the full gauntlet of quality ranging from sub-par, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), which received a damming 5.4 from IGN, to the aforementioned brilliant Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) which contrastingly received an 8.7. That’s only in recent times too as the web-slinger has a rich history in the industry dating back to 1982’s Spider-Man on the Atari 2600 which was a product of its time but not terrible considering. During this tenure, Spider-Man has fallen victim to the crux of this article in that a lot of the games are painfully average, therefore not worthy of being compared to any other great games of their time until the 2018 iteration of course. He has proved more successful than most though, with releases such as Spider-Man 2 (2004), Ultimate Spider-Man (2005), Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (2010), Spider-Man (2018) and Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020) which can all be considered as good games with the latter 2 being arguably the only superhero games on the market with the pedigree of the Arkham series.

Similarly, the X-Men have had an interesting history and boast a large collection of games albeit with a much lower success rate than Spider-Man. Notable entries include X-Men: Legends (2004), X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse (2005) and some other interesting releases such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), which had a novelty damage/healing factor mechanic, and X2: Wolverine’s Revenge (2003). Despite its limited successes, Xavier’s ensemble has also followed the trend of mediocracy and false hope. X-Men: Destiny (2011) had fans excited due to its RPG roots and the ability to create your own mutant using a combination of famous powers from the X-Men, but alas this fell short of expectations, and then some. This killed the license, and we haven’t got an X-Men game since, thankfully fans don’t have to wait much longer as the upcoming Marvel’s Wolverine will no doubt be awesome as it comes with the Insomniac seal of quality.

There have been other relative success stories, but none that ever quite reached the heights of the Arkham series. Deadpool (2013) was decent, but mostly because of its comedic style, which was admittedly hilarious and one of the funniest games out there. However, its gameplay left much to be desired. Even The Hulk has had a well-received game with The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (2005) which was surprisingly fun if not a little generic for what it was. The only other licensed superhero games that have been top-notch are the team up examples such as The Injustice series, developed by the masterful NetherRealm, the first 2 Marvel’s Ultimate Alliance, which have become somewhat of cult classics, and more recently The Guardians of the Galaxy (2020). Other special mentions outside of the DC and Marvel universes include the Infamous trilogy, a franchise that holds great potential if another entry was to come out that could hit the highs of Rocksteady’s behemoth and the 2 Prototype games which were good in their own regard but again didn’t set the world alight.

All the games mentioned thus far are respectable games, good games, exceptional even in some cases but not Game of The Year contenders as Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were. So, what exactly made this franchise, particularly Asylum and City, a bonafide masterpiece?

Arkham’s Legacy

There’s not much that can be said here that hasn’t already been said about the Arkham series in truth. Batman burst out of the gate with great aplomb and iterated upon itself smartly and effectively culminating in Arkham Knight which was almost the epitome of superhero games, apart from the misstep of the Bat-Tank. What is interesting, however, is what it did differently to set itself apart from its competition.

First and foremost, it wasn’t tethered to a movie as most superhero games are so it had the freedom to curate its own story based upon different Batman source material. That isn’t to say that all games that are movie tie ins are doomed, Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) were fun games to play that coincided with the movies, but most are really bad. The worst examples are the recent MCU games which were just blatant cash-ins. Thor: God of Thunder (2011) and Iron-Man (2008) were not only poor games, but they were also embarrassing and after these failures, they didn’t even bother making any more MCU games. Instead, the Arkham series took inspiration from various comic book stories and original ideas which definitely helped set itself apart from the crowd. Needless the say, the story was riveting from start to finish and that is in no small part due to the creative freedom that Rocksteady had at their disposal.

Furthermore, the gameplay was innovative and rock-solid, pioneering in some regards too. How many games have we seen since that use the Arkham combat system? From Shadow of Mordor to Marvel’s Spider-Man itself, Arkham Asylum invented the free-flowing, counterattack based combat system that we see so often today. Combine this with a fun and inventive use of his gadgets, interesting stealth sections (that were sadly diminished as the franchise went on in favour of a more action-orientated approach) and fun puzzles all embedded within a fascinating setting.

Lastly, the game had pure star power with its characters which subsequently led to the performances being pretty much perfect. The legendary Kevin Conroy as Batman, the famous Mark Hamill as the Joker and the iconic Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn just to name a few went a long way in selling these characters in a way that we hadn’t seen from a superhero game.

In short, Arkham Asylum and its successors absolutely nailed it, so the only question that remains is this; can anything top it?

Future Contenders

While many can argue that Insomniac’s recent Spider-Man games can be put in the same echelon as the Arkham Series, their critical acclaim doesn’t reflect this. Whilst Spider-Man: Miles Morales did score a 9 on IGN and an 85 from Metacritic, it still didn’t eclipse any of the Rocksteady’s 3 Arkham games, Origin not included of course as this was developed by WB Games Montréal.

However, with a Spider-Man sequel in the works, it has every chance of reaching those levels, especially as Venom appears to be the main villain in it, an obvious fan favourite amongst Spider-Man’s rich plethora of adversaries. As previously stated, Marvel’s Wolverine has potential too as it shares the same developer. There is a slight concern about it though as Insomniac is known for its free-flowing traversal, established by Ratchet and Clank, Sunset Overdrive and Spider-Man, something that Logan isn’t particularly known for, but we’ll have to see.

Marvel’s Midnight Suns also looks interesting and Firaxis Games have a brilliant track record especially with the X-Com series which this game looks to emulate, although it’s hard to see exactly how superheroes will transition into this mould. Another game that I’m personally looking forward to is Wonder-Woman, not because I have an affinity towards the Amazonian, but because it’s developed by Monolith Productions, the team behind the Middle Earth games and I can see this as a match made in heaven. It may play it too safe though as it did with The Lord of The Rings license, too much like the titular Arkham series and Assassin’s Creed to really stand out.

If I was to hazard a guess as to what could potentially beat Batman: Arkham Asylum and City, I would bet on either one of Insomniac’s Spider-Man, maybe even the next one or if Sucker-Punch was to ever try their hand at the Infamous series again given how amazing Ghost of Tsushima was. They have matured as developers and I think there’s a market for a non-DC or Marvel superhero game. Wonder-Woman will no doubt be good but given how the Middle Earth series was received I predict that will also just fall short in the general consensus.

It’s fair to say that the Arkham series is objectively still the king of superhero games and the absolute golden standard in its field, we’ll just have to wait and see if anything can best it!

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No nonsense foresight into the future of gaming, tech, and entertainment, even a dash of my own personal mindset from any given day.
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