A gluttony of content; Batman: Arkham City takes everything that made its predecessor brilliant and improves upon it. It's really not hard to recall the period before Batman: Arkham Asylum released. At the time, the video game media was embroiled in a discussion about how the promising looking licenced title couldn't possibly turn out well. Developed by unknown British studio Rocksteady and almost pushed to the background for much of its pre-release build up, Arkham Asylum hit like a jolt of lightning, stunning pretty much everyone that played it. The final product wasn't just a great Batman game, it was one of the best games of the year — pulled down only by the fact that it released during the same year as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
No longer an unknown, anticipation for Batman: Arkham City has been sky-high since its premature announcement mere months after the release of the original game. The sequel steals the formula from its predecessor but expands on it in every way, creating a captivating adventure that's both faithful to the source material its based on and as a blockbuster video game on its own terms.
What Rocksteady's created with its Arkham series is nothing short of bewildering. The combat system which underlined so much of Arkham Asylum's success is back with additional flourishes and mid-combo gadget hot-keys. For years video game designers have pledged commitment to a combat system that's both accessible and deep, but short of God Of War, only Rocksteady has come good on that promise. Combat is just one facet of Arkham City's arsenal of gameplay ideas though, and it's the title's palette of unique scenarios that make it such a triumph.
Rocksteady gives you the tools to explore and create within its world, creating an experience that forces you to assume the persona of the Batman. Perching upon gargoyles and pursuing rooms of frightened goons becomes more tantalising than ever thanks to the increased options Arkham City affords you. An electrical charge gun and smoke pellets allow you to toy with your prey more than ever, disorienting them and causing them to get reckless. The AI is smarter too though, with enemies realising you're hiding in the rafters and quickly working to disassemble your get out clause. What became somewhat formulaic in Arkham Asylum is now much more fluid and dynamic in Arkham City.
Exploration is enhanced too, purely on the basis of Arkham City's size. While Rocksteady's latest follows the blueprints of Arkham Asylum rather closely, the expanded nature of Arkham City means it's able to house a variety of sub-quests and objectives that just weren't possible in the previous game. It expands the scope of the game indefinitely, with sub-plots and dynamic missions exploring much deeper elements of Batman lore, and giving you more reason to experiment with the game's mechanics.
One side-quest finds Batman on the trail of a mass-murderer, using his detective abilities to seek out evidence and trace blood trails. Meanwhile, another quest sports the appearance of series psycho Zsasz, who tests Batman's traversal skills by forcing him to dash across Arkham City to answer a series of ringing phones before the maniac etches another strike into his on-body kill count.
Like its predecessor, Arkham City is delightfully dark and broody, inspired by the noir narratives in Batman's history rather than the plastic shark calamities of its mid-sixties comedy series. (Though there is something of a delightful nod to the infamous shark scene from Batman: The Movie.)
The narrative is perfect fodder for the manner in which Rocksteady likes to develop its campaigns. As in Arkham Asylum, the night starts off well for Bruce Wayne's alter-ego, before hitting an all-time low and sending the caped crusader off on a sprawling campaign that sees the protagonist bruised and battered as its sprints to its conclusion. One of Arkham Asylum's primary features was the manner in which Batman's suit transformed and tore over the course of its campaign, and that's back in Arkham City to equally poignant effect. You really feel the extent of Batman's sacrifice throughout the campaign, and you definitely get a much greater sense of his humanity.
The plot goes that Arkham Asylum's former warden has been elected as Gotham City's mayor, and given his background working with the district's most recognisable villains, he's decided to transform the city's slums into a kind of backstreet asylum: Arkham City. Under the watchful eye of the delightfully uneven Hugo Strange, the city soon becomes home to a turf war between Batman's most storied antagonists, with more common criminals pledging their allegiance to their most favoured psychopath.
Rocksteady does a brilliant job in developing the plot as Arkham City's campaign persists, telling stories through a whole manner of techniques. Television screens integrated into the world give you a direct link to the psychopaths, while hacked radio signals allow you to tune into the conversation of enemies. It's these little flourishes that add so much to the atmosphere and context of Arkham City's narrative, with the factions insecure in their allegiances. Furthermore, Rocksteady allows for hearsay and Chinese whispers to distort the information being spread by the lower grunts, with mix-ups and inconsistencies in the information shared giving a different spin on the game's most important plot points.
Of course, playing as Batman you have a kind of omniscient knowledge of the events occurring around you, making the hearsay even more compelling. The uneasy truces formed with villains, as well as the sheer depth of the game's cast of megalomaniac megastars, makes Arkham City a kind of gratuitous labyrinth of fan service. Undoubtedly Batman aficionados will derive the most out of the plot and encounters, but even if you're completely new to the universe of the Caped Crusader, Rocksteady handles the narrative in a manner that makes the plot cohesive even if you can't tell your Jokers from your Two-Faces.
It's not just the sheer scale of the antagonists on offer that provides Arkham City with such a compelling plot; it's also the way those foes are handled. Rocksteady proved with Arkham Asylum that it's prepared to give well-documented Batman lore its own spin, and that remains true in Arkham City. The Penguin earns new life reimagined as a thuggish East End landlord, with his character-defining monocle replaced by the bottom-end of a bottle that's been ground into his face. Mr Freeze too is portrayed as a kind of hopeless, otherworldly being, trapped within the tragedy of his refrigerated suit and defined by the love for his lost wife. The game's most prominent antagonist, Hugo Strange, shows a kind of frailty in his monosyllabic, hypnotic high-brow monologues.
The characters are brought to life through stunning art direction, outstanding animation and a general adoration for the subject matter. A variety of high-profile voice actors put in stunning performances as their alter-egos, with Mark Hamill putting everything into his interpretation of the Joker. Hamill claims that Arkham City will be his last outing as the Joker, and that will be a real shame because he really does do an outstanding job of bringing the character to life. But Hamill is not the only recognisable name in the game's cast, with Kevin Conroy putting in another stellar performance as the dry and often unemotional Batman, while Nolan North is practically unrecognisable as the harsh and gritty Penguin.
What Rocksteady does is allow you to believe in the characters, and it transfers the same care and attention to Arkham City's environment. Like Arkham Asylum, the game's sandbox becomes a character in itself, with recognisable landmarks and districts brimming with personality. The world is nuanced and varied, with Joker's 'Amusement Mile' decorated in fairy lights and balloons, while Penguin's seedy corner of the universe is appropriately understated.
Rocksteady's graphical engine is nothing short of phenomenal, with strong lighting effects adding depth and colour to the game's typically dark surroundings. The draw distance when you're perched in some of the higher points of Arkham City's district is astounding, with streetlights and skyscrapers twinkling in the distance. It's the smallest touches too — for example snow flakes will flutter in the winter air before touching Batman's cape and melting into streaks of water as they warm. The attention to detail and the sheer scale of the engine is incredible. We've been keen to criticise the Unreal Engine in the past, but with both NetherRealms' Mortal Kombat and Batman: Arkham City, Warner Bros. has found a way to push the engine beyond its usual capacities and create two games that by far exceed our expectations of the technology.
It's not just the presentation that allows you to observe the formidable production values of Batman: Arkham City. The game is so thoroughly polished and well-conceived that it easily lives up to its big budget namesake. It sounds small, but everything from the menus through to the maps and hidden unlockables exude quality, and it just makes the entire experience a delight to explore.
Perhaps one element of the game that's fallen foul to Rocksteady's ambitions is the Riddler challenges that were so memorable in Arkham Asylum. Probably the best collectibles ever to appear in a video game, the challenges had you exploring rooms searching for riddles, distorting perspectives and hunting for trophies. Collecting maps revealed each and every missing component on the map, making the challenge all about getting to the secrets rather than hunting for pixels.
But they feel watered down in Arkham City, with more than 400 trophies to collect across the world. You can tag prizes to make them easier to find once you return, but unlike Arkham Asylum we all but ignored the Riddler aspect this time around. Which is a shame, because Rocksteady built the challenge into its own mini-campaign this time around, a robust component much deeper than the side-distraction of the previous game. It's in this emphasis, however, that Rocksteady lost some of what made the treasure hunt appealing in Arkham Asylum. It's perhaps the only misstep in the entire campaign.
With a bigger environment on hand, Rocksteady's suitably beefed up Batman's traversal abilities. Now the Dark Knight is capable of diving as he glides, an ability which allows the character to increase his speed and then pull into an upward swoop. Lines and grappling hooks — which all appeared in Arkham Asylum — are improved to enhance the character's traversal abilities, allowing you to pull yourself onto the tops of buildings and structures as you glide, giving the game a kind of Just Cause-inspired flavour that makes navigating the city's enhanced size that much more dynamic.
A new compass at the head of the screen makes dealing with Arkham City that bit more manageable too, with the ability to set custom waypoints all giving the game much more of a sandbox flavour. Waypoints appear contextually in the world too, with the Bat Signal used lavishly to depict your destination.
Perhaps importantly, the emphasis on the Detective Mode has been turned down, with key elements of the HUD and environments removed when in the infrared viewpoint. It's a still a great way of inspecting targets while you pick them off in stealth, but unlike Arkham Asylum the viewpoint has been rebalanced to encourage players to use it as an additional option, not as the main method of experiencing the game.
The game could use some more direction at times, especially when you're caught backtracking in some of its more labyrinthine environments. Rooms can feel overwhelmingly complex and it can be easy to forget which way you came in while you laboriously circle around looking for an exit.
At times of frustration like these the controls can feel a bit clunky too. While Rocksteady's done an amazing job assigning an enormous variety of gadgets to the familiar DualShock controller, there are moments where you'll simply forget button combinations. Rocksteady clearly had an issue with this during focus testing, as its solution is to simply plaster up the screen with button prompts every time it thinks you're doing things wrong. It's a solid solution that totally gets the job done, but it can be counter-intuitive to the engrossing experience Rocksteady's trying to create.
It's probably worth noting that Catwoman is also a fully playable character in Batman: Arkham City. Controversially confined to Warner Bros.' online pass, Catwoman's campaign is intertwined into Batman's — and while entirely independent, it's certainly worth experiencing. While Catwoman largely mimics Batman's move set, she has a number of unique features such as the ability to climb on the roof of buildings and up walls. The integration is brilliant, and while the character's a little underplayed, the fact that you can explore Arkham City as a completely different persona (that's not simply a skin) is absolutely enormous. With her own side-quests and Riddler trophies, Catwoman feels more like an expansion pack than anything else.
Like Batman, Catwoman also has her own collection of Challenge Rooms. These largely mimic the experience of Arkham Asylum, though new linked Challenge Rooms essentially provide 'mini-campaigns' outside of the main game. There's also the option to customise the Challenge Rooms to your liking, allowing you to essentially create your own scenarios and toy with the game engine and mechanics. Rocksteady's more than willing to transform its game into a toy box — to take away the structure and allow you to experiment, and that's a real joy.
If you've played Batman: Arkham Asylum then Rocksteady's latest is unlikely to surprise you — but it's more of the same in the best possible way. Rocksteady's examined and dissected the tropes that made its predecessor so successful, and conjured up an experience that expands on it in every possible way. The variety in combat, stealth and exploration is outstanding, and it's all pieced together into a campaign that's cohesively written and wonderfully acted. But above all that — above the spectacular art direction and technical triumph — Rocksteady's managed to maintain the feel of what it means to be Batman in a dark and seedy world. That's the game's underlying genius.