In the same way that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a follow-up that expertly improved upon an already solid original, so too does Arkham City build a richer and more satisfying experience on the sturdy foundation of 2009’s Arkham Asylum.
The story begins several months after the events of the first game. Arkham warden Quincy Sharp is now mayor of Gotham City and, under the influence of deranged genius Professor Hugo Strange, has erected a huge wall around a blighted section of town and turned it into a bizarre experiment in less-than-enlightened penology: Arkham City. Of course, it’s in this urban community of petty criminals, marquee villains, and unbeatable rents that lay the clues to a mystery the Caped Crusader must solve before the night is through.
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Pretty much everything that made Asylum a best-in-class game is here, only bigger and better. The footprint of the game is about five times the size of the original, and while it’s not a true “open world” (as only a fraction of the buildings can be entered), there’s an oppressive vastness to this shadow-ridden ghetto. Likewise, the almost-perfectly calibrated combat and movement systems of the first game have been further tweaked, offering new weapons (like a remote-controlled Batarang) and enhanced abilities (especially in gliding, where some nifty new moves let you fly out of the darkness like a certain winged-mammal out of hell). In addition to the basic mission (a deceptively linear progression of puzzles, boss encounters, and random mayhem), there is an array of afternoon-consuming side quests and a huge selection of traps and challenges that the Riddler has scattered throughout the city. To break up the pace, there’s the novelty of playing several game segments as Catwoman, who employs her own satisfyingly different toolbox of hurt-bringing.
Arkham City looks as good as it plays. Even limited to an appropriately dark and muted palette, the level designers manage to present environments that are sharp and filled with detail. The sound effects and vaguely Hans Zimmer-ish music are immersive and mood-enhancing. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, reprising their roles as Batman and the Joker, continue their excellent work of selling these iconic characters—and they’re matched, line for line, by the actors voicing the game’s gallery of Bat-foes (new-to-the-series Hugo Strange and Mr. Freeze, in particular).
Sure, there some aspects of the game that are a touch disappointing. Its sheer scope, with all its secondary tasks and explorable areas, sometimes detracts from the motivating urgency of the primary mission—imagine the experience if Batman were racing against a ticking clock. And just making a few more buildings available for random exploration (while replaying to complete the side quests) would expand this sometimes tantalyzingly closed-off world. But those are minor imperfections in a game that should land a motivation-packed “POW!” on the jaw of every developer working in a game category notorious for just-good-enough efforts. Arkham City offers a tense and thrilling gaming experience. And with apologies to its many fine and upstanding citizens, we hope Gotham’s crime problem only gets worse.