When Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, it was nothing short of a revolution for superhero video games. Before, there had been a handful of great superhero games, but most of them had been arcade side-scrollers or team brawlers (Activision’s first Spider-Man game is a notable exception). Arkham Asylum, however, placed you so fully in Bruce Wayne’s combat boots that it actually felt as if you got to know the hero better just by pushing some buttons and toggling an analog stick. Not only did you battle some of the Dark Knight’s greatest villains, you also sneaked around in the shadows, stealthily taking out bad guys before they even noticed you were upon them. The mix of fighting-and-hiding was extremely addictive and felt like the reinvention of an entire genre.
At the time, it would have been ridiculous to look at Arkham Asylum and go, “Great game, but look at all that untapped potential!” After having played Arkham City, though, it’s a reasonable reaction. Almost everything that was great about the first game has been refined, perfected, and expanded to create the most immersive superhero game yet released. The most obvious example is the fact that you can actually explore the vastness of Arkham City itself. One of the joys of the original was exploring the asylum grounds, but now that a portion of Gotham has been cordoned off as one big looney bin, you can glide past skyscrapers and swing from building to building. Whenever you get frustrated with a side mission or tire of beating down thugs, you can revel in the simple pleasure of zipping around the city, an exhilarating experience in and of itself.
The problem with most open world games is that one can become too overwhelmed by choice, and what initially seemed freeing can come to seem tedious. That’s why I could never get into Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV; it felt like too much for too little. By the time Red Dead Redemption came around, though, they had realized that a strong lead with a strong plot could easily sustain numerous diversions. Amazingly, Arkham City is just as sprawling as Red Dead Redemption, if not more so (I keep stumbling upon entire sections of the game I had somehow missed). And when it comes to plot, whoo. Let me tell you, this is not a game that skips out on plot.
If you’re a fan of the comics, you could argue that story-wise, there’s too much going on in Arkham City–but come on, this is a video game, so of course every member of Batman’s rogues gallery is going to pop up at some point. The gist of it is that Bruce Wayne, who’s campaigning against the asylum spilling into his beloved city, is kidnapped by Dr. Hugo Strange, who has been appointed by Mayor Sharp as the big cheese of Arkham City. Strange reveals that he knows you’re Batman, then throws you into Arkham, leading to a thrilling opening in which you actually get to play as a shackled, plainclothes Bruce. Of course, you’re the goddamn Batman, so you soon break free and head off into the city, becoming mired deeper and deeper in a turf war between Two-Face, the Penguin, and a Joker who finds himself ailing after his transformation into a giant ‘roided-out monster at the end of Arkham Asylum.
Looking for information on Strange’s ominous Protocol 10, you track down the Joker and are injected with a sample of his blood, meaning you are both now confronted with the same death sentence. What follows is a story that becomes increasingly complex, not just in terms of narrative mechanics, but of morality, as well. For a superhero game, such a feat is miraculous. The question hanging over every great Batman/Joker story has always been, “Why doesn’t the Dark Knight just kill the Clown Prince of Crime to prevent the needless death, destruction, and mayhem that he will inevitably cause in the future?” Given that you’ve been poisoned, it is of course in your best interest to find the cure, but the game does not shy away from posing that eternal question in as haunting a fashion as possible. I am being entirely serious when I say that, if you focus mainly on the primary plot with the Joker and Strange, including later developments involving the League of Assassins, Arkham City is one of the best Batman stories anyone has ever told. Even when you take into consideration all of the various supervillains and sidequests, it’s incredibly entertaining stuff. Given that it was written by Paul Dini, who helped define the modern takes on both characters as part of the team behind Batman: The Animated Series, I guess that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
As for the gameplay, besides the aforementioned (and still awesome) gliding, you also have a remarkably fluid combat system which offers a number of different moves and counter-attacks. Smacking around hordes of goons never gets old, and the challenge missions, wherein you take on increasingly large waves of baddies, are addictive, to say the least. Detective Mode, which allows you to scan surrounding areas for evidence and to keep an eye on enemies, is just as helpful as it was in Asylum, though it’s been better integrated into regular gameplay this time around. If you buy the game brand new, you’ll get a free code for Catwoman DLC; her missions aren’t crucial to the story, but it’s fun to play as a character so much more lithe and flexible than Batman. Similarly engaging Nightwing DLC was released on November 1, with Robin DLC due November 22. As far as the game world is concerned, Rocksteady has not skimped on detail; the sheer scope of the thing is staggering. There are Easter eggs and references lurking around every corner, and I know for a fact that I’ve only scratched the surface. The graphics are beautifully rendered, making Arkham City not just a standard environment but a lively, vibrant hunk of land. Furthermore, your costume will carry with it every shot, stab, and scrape you suffer. (Which, after you’ve had so much shit beaten out of you, creates the odd experience of a cape which is little more than a shredded rag carrying you aloft whilst gliding.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the voice acting. While some of it is standard video game stuff–I’m looking at you, Grey DeLisle as Catwoman–you also have veteran voice actress Tara Strong ably replacing Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, Peter MacNicol as the Mad Hatter, and Maurice LaMarche as Mr. Freeze. Then there’s Kevin Conroy, the Batvoice, and Mark Hamill in what is reportedly his final turn as the Joker. Hamill’s nearly 20-year run as the Joker is one of the most iconic voice performances in animation history, and comes just short of tying Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight for the most indelible take on the character. If he had to go out, though, at least he’s going out on top. Arkham City features some of Hamill’s finest work, the final act in a decades-long duet with Conroy. Arkham City‘s brutally efficient gameplay and intricate storyline, bolstered by Hamill’s impassioned performance, ultimately ask not just of Batman, but of you, dear gamer: Who has the last laugh?
Batman: Arkham City is currently available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and will be available for PC on November 15 and the forthcoming Wii U some time in 2012. This review was written based on experiences with the Xbox 360 version.