The Origin Story
In many ways 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was the videogame equivalent of Batman Begins: it featured a muscular Bats fond of breaking arms, and in contrast to its predecessors it wasn’t at all rubbish.
Skip forward to now – or Friday 21 October – and Arkham City is looking to give us the full Dark Knight treatment, taking a promising foundation and expanding it into a complex and ambitious sequel.
Madness Set Loose
The set-up is stiff with world-shifting comic book logic. With ex-Arkham Warden Quincy Sharp now Mayor of Gotham, a huge chunk of the city has been fenced off to become an expanded loony bin, with Arkham’s regular line-up of supervillains thrown inside.
The expanded Arkham soon divides into warring gang factions which threaten the safety of the rest of the city, leaving Batman to swoop in and thump everyone’s heads together until they explain what the hell’s going on.
More Than Just A Man
Superbly devised gameplay was the secret behind Arkham Asylum’s ability to provide an authentic, inner-nerd thrilling Batman experience. And a key part of that was the hand-to-hand combat.
The thumping Bourne-style fighting returns, and with all the fluidity of before – Bats swoops and cracks like a gymnast. But now it also integrates easy use of gadgets, making it simple to grapple-hook goons into a lung-folding clothesline or drop small explosions into your precious combo-strings.
Something Out There In The Darkness
Perhaps even more surprisingly, the game also does stealth exceptionally well. Being anti-gun and also deeply anti-getting shot (he’s refreshingly useless in the face of armed guards) Batman’s a natural fit for videogame sneaking.
This time there’s less incentive to switch on Batman’s detective mode (the heat-mapped radar-vision has been made less powerful) but just as much hanging from beams, creeping through gutters, and knocking people the heck out.
Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?
Alongside the brutal, satisfying combat, a giant chest of tech toys are crucial to nailing the Batman feel, laying a pleasingly traditional emphasis on our hero’s detective skills.
These also return in force, with the explosive gel and lock decoder now joined by a radio descrambler and an upgrade to the zip-line which enables Bats to change direction in mid-air. Which if you think about it for too long is probably impossible, so we didn’t.
A Watchful Eye Over Gotham
The most important function of the gadgets this time, though, is giving Batman full freedom of movement. In the confines of Arkham Asylum we were teased by gliding – now in the wide open spaces of the City it comes into its own.
Combined with a grapple upgrade that enables Bats to gain aerial momentum using high-altitude objects, players can effectively fly over and around the rooftops of the city, swooping through rafters and banking through narrow alleys. The effect is amazing. The effect makes you feel like Batman.
Dancing With Devils In The Pale Moonlight
It helps that the city – even this grim, partitioned slice of it – is hugely impressive to look at. Perch on a gargoyle hitched to one of the many looming gothic towers and the skyline is a dark tumble of tenements, arcades and high rises light with an eerie glow.
The structure of the city – freely explorable from The Bowery to Amusement Mile (Crime Alley’s there too) – also changes the way you play. Arkham City is less a straight march and more an open ramble, packed with side-missions, puzzles and collectibles.
The ‘tip ‘em in’ plotting means the game is stacked with villains, and those who don’t make a physical appearance are often present in deed (the Riddler’s puzzles return, more intricate than before) or in the shape of fan-service clues.
As for the main line-up, Mark Hamill returns as his ecstatically unhinged Joker, supported by a fairly traditional Two Face, a sad ice-astronaut version of Mr Freeze, and Uncharted 3 star Nolan North as a curiously cockernee Penguin (which, somehow, works).
Sweet Selina, Theres No Meaner
It’s not just the bad guys who’ve been reinforced. As well as regular radio help from Alfred, Batman also has scratchy, love-hatey, pseudo-sexual help from Catwoman. Which, as long as it’s coming from a woman in impossibly tight trousers, is probably the best kind.
In a cheeky bit of profiteering Catwoman is only available as a paid-for download, but that’ll get you access to her unique fighting style (lots of miaows and bending) and grapple-free climbing style. And those trousers, obviously.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of Arkham City’s quality is that while it’s huge and expansive (it’ll take around twice as long to complete as Asylum) it’s also full of wonderful details. Like how Bats thunders a fist into the temple of successfully interrogated goons, or the fact that manual waypoints show up as bat-symbols in the night sky.
It’s not just bigger and better than the original, it also outdoes it when it comes to the most crucial measure of all: delivering the most authentic Batman experience possible. In that regard Arkham City is a triumph.