Arkham Asylum had only one major flaw – the game was so painstakingly, overwhelmingly, wonderfully thorough in its depiction of the Batman universe, we couldn’t imagine what was left to cover or accomplish in a sequel. The developers at Rocksteady got every element of the character right, from his combat to his gadgets to his previously neglected detective skills. They featured half a dozen of Gotham’s greatest villains, then included hidden references to nearly 30 more just as fan service. They created a setting with enough macabre detail to capture the comics’ horror, but with enough epic scope to somehow fit a Batcave, Batmobile and Batwing.
This was it. This was the perfect Batman game.
Yet from the moment we started Arkham City, all we could think was: Arkham Asylum was practice. Compared to its sequel, the “best superhero game ever” and our choice for Game of the Year 2009 seems like a tech demo, a first draft, merely a blueprint for what the perfect Batman game can actually be. This is it.
For an immediate idea of how much bigger and better Arkham City is than its already incredible predecessor, take a look at this list of the Batman villains mentioned in Arkham Asylum, but never seen. Half of those now play major roles in the sequel, in addition to return appearances by all except one of the rogue’s gallery introduced in the original. Throw in new heroes like Robin, Alfred, Vicki Vale and Talia al Ghul, as well as a bunch of surprise cameos we wouldn’t dare spoil here, and you have a cast numbering in the “holy cow, did Joel Schumacher direct this?!” range. That fear is unnecessary, however, because the game’s writers and developers have succeeded in fully developing and fully justifying every character’s place in a narrative that makes complete logical and dramatic sense. It’s really rather miraculous.
Seriously, this story is special, combining the humanity of the best Animated Series episodes, the brutal darkness of a Frank Miller comic and the confident risk-taking of a Christopher Nolan film. There are no moments as subversive as the fourth-wall break in Arkham Asylum, but there are countless moments of awe, shock and squealing fanboy glee – hell, you’ll be overpowered by all of those emotions within the first 15 minutes of the game alone. By the last 15 minutes, you may honestly choke back some tears, and not for a reason you’d ever predict or ever expect a superhero game to deliver.
Grand Theft Gotham
Of course, the most obvious upgrade in Arkham City is, well, Arkham City. At the time the original game released, a small island asylum seemed like the only possible setting for a properly done Batman experience – attempt to render the sprawling streets and skyscrapers of Gotham itself and you’d sacrifice BioShock-level detail for GTA-style size, and might as well be developing a Superman or Spider-Man game. The sequel, though, proves that assumption wrong. The asylum remains on an island of sorts – a bordered, quarantined section of Gotham City – but is at least four to five times as large as before, and if anything, more detailed.
Stand still at any point and the magnitude of both Arkham City’s epic scale and atmospheric intricacy will floor you. Endless rooftops stretching into the horizon, each with a different neon sign (Ace Chemicals, where Joker was born) or peeling billboard (“The Terror”, Clayface’s famous movie role) or deadly booby trap (left by the Riddler, no doubt). An apartment building that can be instantly recognized, not only because Selina Kyle’s cats are outside one of the windows, but because every building in the environment is unique. A gigantic carnival Ferris wheel that, when scanned with Detective mode, reveals a hidden body in each compartment. Snow falling as helicopter spotlights crisscross through the night sky and fire burns in the distant background, leftover from a battle that – at some point in the game – you fought.
Who are we kidding? You won’t stand still. While Rocksteady hasn’t given players the keys to the Batmobile yet, gliding and leaping and diving and climbing and rappelling across this expansive playground with the use of Batman’s cape and tools offers just as much exhilarating freedom as tearing across Liberty City on a motorcycle. An example Achievement / Trophy: “Jump off the tallest building and glide for one minute without touching the ground.” Yesssss.
Next page: 50 hours of gameplay!