Welcome to Arkham City. The so-called super prison: a sprawling expanse of urban misery walled off from the rest of Gotham and populated with its putrid human refuse. Crooks, gangsters, and psychopaths of every type and stripe roam the streets of this abysmal hellhole, and while they are nominally supervised and policed by (the appropriately named) Hugo Strange and his small army of private security contractors, the reality is that anarchy reigns. Inmates are free to roam the streets, doing whatever they like to whomever they like whenever they like. The only thing they are not allowed to do is leave.
There’s no getting out of Arkham City. There are no day-leave passes or parole hearings, no conjugal visits or trips out to the highway to pick up trash with a pointy stick. Once you’re in, you’re in for good. Even if you’re Batman.
Lured into the prison-city via means nefarious, the caped crusader finds himself in the unenviable position of being a lone vigilante in a vast community of criminals, many of whom he personally incarcerated. With their own territories and armies of armed thugs, super criminals like Two-Face, The Joker, and The Penguin vie for power and influence within these razor-wired walls, squabbling endlessly over turf and supplies. All things considered, Arkham City is just about the worst place in the world for Batman to be, and that of course is exactly why he’s there.
But it’s not all bad. As a kind of concentrated microcosm of Gotham proper, Arkham City is Batman’s natural habitat. With finely honed athletic prowess and an improbably versatile collection of gadgets, he stalks the rooftops and alleyways with a confident ease born of perpetual practice.
Or at least that’s what he does once you’ve mastered his many abilities and the game’s (necessarily) tricky controls. If you’re a newcomer to the Arkham universe or simply haven’t played the first game in a while, your first hour or so in Arkham City will probably be spent making clumsy mistakes and comic pratfalls as you come to grips with which buttons do what and when. Whoops! I fell off the roof. Whoops! I landed on some guy’s head. Whoops! Him and all his friends beat me to death. Nuts.
Happily, mishaps like these are seldom a source of frustration. Developer Rocksteady has carefully constructed each of the game’s early missions to teach you the basics of being Batman, and a little bit of failure is an intrinsic part of that learning experience.
Eventually (or ideally) your skills will be such that you can traverse the entirety of Arkham City without ever once touching the ground, a fleeting shadow in the moonlit sky, swooping down on thugs to deliver swift and brutal justice. WHOOSH. THUNK. Nighty night, scumbag. This is what it means to be Batman and it is the crux of Arkham City’s brilliance. More than any other superhero game – more than Arkham Asylum, more than Spiderman 2, more than Hulk: Ultimate Destruction – it makes you feel like the superhero you’re supposed to be.
Consider combat. Not being the gentlemanly sort, Batman’s enemies will typically attack en masse with whatever weapons they have: fists, pipes, knives, guns, or anything else that happens to be lying around. As such, timing is the key to victory, knowing when and how to strike, and when to hold back. Batman isn’t the type of guy who goes into a fight fists-a-swingin’ – he’s a methodical, precise, and highly-trained takedown machine. Getting the most out of his abilities means developing a sense of rhythm with attacks and counters so that eventually fights become a kind of brutal ballet in which the Dark Knight sweeps from foe to foe, gracefully dodging blows and delivering them in turn until everyone but him is left writhing on the ground.
If this sounds familiar it’s because the fundamental mechanics of combat in Arkham City are more or less identical to those in Arkham Asylum, such that players familiar with the first game should be able to get scrapping straight away without any real difficulty. Individual elements like instant takedowns and the timing of critical attacks have been refined to make it easier to rack up massive combos, and while the hardcore may balk at that, the truth is that it suits the expanded scope of Arkham City perfectly.
Brawls are bigger here: where in the first game you’d rarely see more than five or six goons on screen at once, here you’ll often be confronted with 10-15 hostiles at a time, many possessing unique defences to overcome. As the game progresses and enemies become tougher and better armed, you’ll need to constantly think on your feet and react with machine-like efficiency.
Gadgets also make a welcome return from Arkham Asylum, and play a crucial role in helping you navigate the city, take down enemies, and solve the game’s myriad puzzles. More so than the first game, Arkham City challenges you to use your gadgets and tools in creative and often unexpected ways, engendering a sense of accomplishment whenever you overcome a particularly taxing conundrum. For instance, the remote Batterang is now much more versatile, and can be combined with other gadgets and elements in the environment to achieve some pretty spectacular results.
We know that sounds vague, but the truth is that if we were to be any more specific than that we’d be spoiling one of the chief joys of playing Arkham City – the joy of discovery. The number of things there are to see and do in this expansive rain-soaked cesspool is simply staggering. In addition to the main story missions, which should take even the most skilled players at least twenty-five hours to complete, villain-specific side missions and one-off challenges are abundant and make for absorbing distractions. Riddler challenges are back, but this time they are more numerous, and much more complex. Getting your hands on those little green trophies isn’t just a matter of finding them in vents anymore: if you want them, you’re going to have to work for them by solving a diversity of devious puzzles.
One thing we found particularly remarkable about the Riddler challenges in Arkham City is that Rocksteady has somehow found a way to provide Batman with plausible motivation for solving them. In the first game you did them because… well, it’s a game, and that’s the sort of thing you do in games. But here there is actually a compelling narrative reason to pursue the Riddler’s tasks, imbuing them with an extra layer of significance that makes them that much more satisfying to solve.
This extra layer of depth extends not only to Riddler challenges, but to Arkham City as a whole. Take the villains. In the original game, villains were very much one-dimensional and defined entirely by their most obvious character traits. But in Arkham City, they possess depth and nuance that you honestly wouldn’t expect from a superhero game. They seem more human, more believable, more like people and less like cartoons. This is partly because the narrative and dialogue are more sophisticated, but also because every single one of the voice actors does a sterling job with the lines they’ve been given. Mark Hamill is predictably fantastic as The Joker, but to our reckoning the real stars are the lesser villains – Danny Jacobs’ chilling performance as the deranged serial-killer Victor Zsasz is almost Oscar worthy, as is Nolan “Nathan Drake” North’s cockney Penguin. (Seriously. It shouldn’t work, but it totally does.)
Just so there’s no confusion, let’s state it plain: Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only the best superhero game ever made, it’s one of the best games ever made, full-stop. It takes the already superlative original and (as Jebediah Springfield might say) embiggens it in every way. It’s a deeper game, more complex, more inventive, more mature. In our view it brings the caped crusader’s world to life better than any comic, movie, or television show before it. The Dark Knight Rises? Pfft. Sorry Nolan, but he’s already risen – right here in Arkham City.