Batman: Arkham City, the wonderfully realized sequel to 2009's sleeper Batman: Arkham Asylum, is a flawless return to Gotham. Simply put, it gets just about everything right.
Video game sequels are a tricky business. Follow the original too slavishly, and everyone yawns. Deviate too drastically, and the original fanatics will become the game's biggest enemies.
If the developers of Batman: Arkham City wrestled with that dilemma, it doesn't show. Arkham City is more of the same, with only cosmetic changes. Oh, but what a same it is.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was the sleeper of 2009. Easily the best superhero-themed video game ever, Arkham Asylum did everything right: top notch voice acting headlined by Mark Hamill's reprise of his animated Batman work, tremendous production values, compelling gameplay, and getting the sheer fun factor down.
Arkham Asylum also almost as a sidenote revitalized several lost genres in what were effectively mini-games: first, and foremost, the combat system was an evolved version of the old side scrolling Double Dragon type games which once dominated arcades. Second, Arkham Asylum, in the marvelous and creepy Scarecrow sequences, in which Batman had to battle inner demons, sneakily got the player to play an old school platformer updated to the modern age with great graphics and background.
Batman: Arkham City is essentially a pure sequel to Arkham Asylum. If you liked Arkham Asylum, you will like Arkham City. (If you've never played Arkham Asylum, get it and play it before tackling Arkham City.)
The main difference is scope and size: Arkham City is a much larger, and relatively wide open gaming experience.
This is great news for everyone who felt like the remarkable Arkham Asylum was over all too soon. (That would be....everyone.) But there's a cost in terms of undercutting some of drama and urgency. We're off to save the world -- but first let's run a few errands.
Although Arkham City doesn't make you worry about inventory space, the bane of many a game, any impulse towards completionism, whether collecting Riddler trophies or completing side quests, may give way to tedium. There are hundreds of Riddler trophies, and they are scattered so liberally that it's hard to feel particularly excited about finding them -- or any hope of finding them all. While we are quibbling, having played through most of the game, I can report that the Scarecrow sequences, sadly, are gone with nothing comparable to take their place.
Still, Arkham City's action whips you along and the challenges serve to keep the player busy, even though some of it is doubtless an effort to pad the game's content. One of the principal knocks on Arkham Asylum was that it lacked any meaningful replay value.
Although Arkham City has plenty of secondary content, it doesn't quite solve the problem. That said, the rich experience of the first play through will satisfy all but the most obsessive gamers.
The "challenge maps," back from Arkham Asylum, address this gap. These maps aren't for the faint of heart. A novice player should avoid them until they've completed the main storyline.
Arkham City will be studied in game design classes for how well it integrates its cut scenes with the player controlled action. It is essentially a seamless transition each time, with the quality of the animation in the cut scenes indistinguishable from the rest of the game. Even games as polished as Mass Effect 2, Deus Ex, or Red Dead Redemption struggle with some aspect of cut scenes, making Arkham City really the pride of its class.
For fans of Batman of comic book canon as opposed to video game fans, the game offers up faithful takes on old favorites like the Joker, Riddler, Two-Face and the Penguin, among others.
Arkham City makes the Batman villains come to life. When you finally defeat Penguin, for instance, there's a palpable sense of satisfaction. This guy has been taunting you for hours, killed people in front of you, but now, now justice is served. So, while there's no role playing choices for the player, you do get the satisfaction of a job well done.
The bottom line is that Batman: Arkham City is a roaring success. By marrying a strong storyline, excellent graphics, a great interface, and deceptively simple but rich gameplay, Rocksteady and Warner Brothers have created a strong contender for game of the year.
Available on Xbox 360 (the version I played), PS3, and PC.
Cartoon violence, profanity, and sometimes disturbing references to rape and other violent acts.
Disclosure: Recent FTC regulations imply that I should disclose that the game manufacturer provided me with a complimentary review copy of this game.