Did you know Batman: Arkham Asylum holds the Guinness World Record for 'Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever'? Judging from the initial reviews for Batman: Arkham City, that's probably no longer the case.
Arkham Asylum raised the bar not only for comic book-based video games, but action adventure games in general, so when Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and developer Rocksteady announced they were making a sequel, my first thought was "Great, now they can screw it all up!" I mean, how could they possibly improve upon the formula established in the first game. The mood, the story, the characters; everything was pretty much perfect, aside from some odd architectural decisions (who puts gargoyles inside a building?), and I couldn't imagine a better game.
Apparently Rocksteady could.
Arkham Asylum has been shut down and its resident lunatics moved to the heart of Gotham City. It sounds like a terrible idea, but it gets far worse than that. Hugo Strange is in charge and rules Arkham City with a less-than-iron fist while Two-Face, Penguin and The Joker prepare for a three-way war. That's not the worst part, either -- Bruce Wayne has been arrested under highly questionable circumstances and thrown in with them. Thus the scene is set for a Batman story so full of twists and surprise appearances that it could easily be part of DC Comics' official library. Featuring a huge cast of characters from the Batman universe, some of which I wouldn't dare spoil for you, Arkham City is very nearly the ultimate Batman tribute in video game form. I say "nearly" because of a few very disappointing character omissions and moments where information is rushed out of the gate far too quickly, but overall I cannot say that the experience is a letdown. Batman fans will dig into this meaty yarn with a massive spoon and love every mouthful.
The very best of these inmates have been given the Rocksteady once-over, emerging with unlikely kinks in their iconic elements. Just as the first adventure played up Joker's skills as a deadly kind of game show host, Penguin's been transformed into a grubby east-end thug with a beer bottle ground into his face in place of a monocle, while Mr Freeze is otherworldly and tragic in his refrigerated spacesuit and Hugo Strange is hulking yet somehow frail: hypnotic in voice, but measured and occasionally even sympathetic in person.
The city is the real star, though. If the first game hinged on a calculated deconstruction of Bruce Wayne's psyche, the sequel is more concerned with excavating the past of Gotham itself -- and plotting its possible future.
However, the pace does take a little warming up to. The first two hours or so are slightly awkward, throwing you from super-villain to super-villain while you're still trying to find your feet in terms of navigation and learning Batman's abilities. The opening section can seem a little like hard work, but perhaps that's the point... your situation is somewhat dire after all. After those two hours though, things become more manageable. The frantic pace is retained but you feel as though you have enough control to get a grip on the multi events taking place at any one time. This is helped in that Rocksteady have stuck fairly tightly to the combat formula used in Arkham Asylum, bringing a welcome mix between the familiar and the fresh.
Feeling like Batman made Arkham Asylum a must-play, and Arkham City continues that tradition. I felt like I had the upper hand when I walked into a room where the enemies outnumbered me 20 to 1 because I could drop a smoke pellet, use freeze grenades to take enemies out of the game and basically kick arse. Five gunmen with hostages didn't scare me because I knew I could disappear into the shadows to string them up from gargoyles, punch through walls to take them down and glide kick them over railings.
This feeling of empowerment carries over to bosses, which is weird at first but makes sense. No boss in Arkham City really gave me a challenge. In fact, they're all a bit easy. Mr Freeze had me stumped for a while as once you use an attack on him you can't use it again, but then the Bat-computer just sent me a cheat sheet. (Although, disabling hints would've eliminated this moment.) That specific instance was no fun, but overall, the joy of Batman bosses is the journey to them and not the fight themselves. The Penguin will never challenge the World's Greatest Detective.
Once you have completed the campaign, however, Batman returns to the city to take care of his unfinished business. It's unusual for a game to take on a life of its own quite in the way Arkham City does after completion. But with the city open and the pull of the main story gone, it gives you the opportunity to really drink in Rocksteady's creation and tackle the excellent side-missions. The Riddler returns with a telling influence, scattering trophies throughout the huge map and asking you to complete puzzles, hunt out landmarks and find hidden question marks placed with devilish genius. Once you solve enough of his riddles, he will reveal the location of a hostage, trapped in a nefarious environmental puzzle. Batman will save political prisoners within Arkham City from bolshy thugs, investigate murders using forensics within detective mode, and go up against a variety of more subsidiary villains in a raft of cameos and guest appearances.
In closing, it's pleasing to say that Batman: Arkham City not only builds on the fantastic work of its predecessor, but also takes it to the next level. The open world is richly recreated and the combat and gameplay improved, while the narrative shines from start to finish. And this is not to even cover the excellent challenge rooms (including new Riddler challenges) that are playable as Batman, Catwoman and Robin, and again come with online leaderboards (you can also use modifiers to create your very own challenge rooms).
But the game's greatest triumph surely is that it makes you feel like Batman. Flying across the foetid Gotham skyline, being pulled hither and thither by an army of competing super-villains, trying to pull together some semblance of order in the chaos; its all part of a day's work for the Dark Knight, and this is as close as we will ever get to being this incredible yet troubled hero.
Considering the calibre of superhero games I've been playing lately, thank goodness.