In a few year's time, when the dust finally begins to settle on our dearly-departed consoles, it will be time to crown the best video game of this generation.
Gears of War will be on many people's lists, as will Uncharted 2. The celebrated oeuvre of Rockstar Games is sure to get a look-in too. But there is a dark horse/knight lurking in the shadows that we think might swoop in and claim an unexpected victory. That game is Batman: Arkham City – and it really is that good.
But before we delve into what makes Arkham City great, allow us to reacquaint you with Batman's previous adventures, in classic/hackneyed 'comic recap' style....
Holy bad gameography, Batman!
Despite containing all the hallmarks of a great video game, Batman has been sadly neglected on consoles over the years.
Prior to Ahkham Asylum, the only halfway-decent adaptations we can think of are Batman: The Movie on the Commodore Amiga and Jon Ritman’s isometric puzzler for the ZX Spectrum. Neither game made particularly good use of the character, and they both came out over twenty years ago. Alas, being a Bat-loving gamer has been one long dry spell.
Batman, in living colour!
But all that changed with the release of Rocksteady Studios' Arkham Asylum in 2009. Finally, the Caped Crusader had a game that was worthy to carry his name.
The beauty of Arkham Asylum - apart from its compelling gameplay and cutting-edge graphics - was the way it successfully juggled multiple aspects of the Batman mythos. It borrowed liberally from the comics, the animated TV series and even a little of the recent movies.
It also paid homage to Batman's famed detective skills, where a lesser developer would have happily served up a straight brawler.
Game of the Year, 2009.
Well, the good news is that Batman: Arkham City improves and expands upon its predecessor in almost all areas. Everything from the game's world to the balletic combat is note-perfect. And that's before you tackle the seamlessly integrated Catwoman DLC and seemingly endless Riddler challenges. Much like Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, it is everything a sequel should be.
Previously, in Detective Comics...
Batman: Arkham City picks up around a year after the events chronicled in the first game. The escaped asylum inmates are now running rampant, with law and order imposed by the insidious Hugo Strange who is working on a mysterious project called Protocol-Ten.
In a plot partially inspired by Escape From New York, the action takes place in a sprawling prison-city that has been sealed off from the rest of Gotham. As you'd doubtlessly expect, this hive of scum and villainy is up to no good, with the comic's usual suspects carving out their own turf and agendas.
Almost tediously, it is up to Batman to solve the Protocol-Ten mystery and save the day once again. (Personally, I would have just sent Robin and spent the night watching TV in the Batcave.)
Arkham City sees the return of old faces (some worse-for-wear).
What follows is an action-packed adventure in which Batman must race around the clock to save himself and the citizens of Gotham – no matter what the cost. [A word of warning: If you're new to the franchise, it's probably worth boning up on Arkham Asylum's plot: the sequel tosses you straight into the action with barely any explanation.]
All in all, the storyline to Arkham City is suitably Bat-tastic (ahem), boasting plenty of side-missions and plot-twists to enrich the experience. Special mention must also go to some of the new villains: the dour Dr Hugo Strange and a blood-thirsty rendition of Penguin are particular highlights. But the best character of all – other than Batman, natch – is the city of Arkham itself.
Love This City
One of Batman: Ahkham City's major triumphs is the virtual world in which it takes place. The original game's claustrophobic setting has been opened up to encompass the impounded city of Ahkham -- and what a city it is.
Sheer, broody perfection.
The decaying, sleet-filled metropolis is pure gothica; at turns nightmarish and starkly beautiful. The game’s art design is reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Batman with a heavy dose of BioShock thrown in for good measure. The end result is a dark, carnivalesque labyrinth of skyscrapers and back alleys that frequently takes the breath away.
Sure, Arkham City might not be the biggest game world out there, but it's easily one of the most well-realised. If we had played this game before writing our Top Video Game Worlds feature, it probably would've topped the list.
Ka-Pow! Wham! Etc.!
Getting around in Arkham City is a cinch thanks to Batman's trusty Batclaw and gliding cape. You need to be careful though, as every corner of the landscape is crawling with hechmen. Some of the game's finest moments come from taking these hapless goons out.
Whether you choose to charge in with fists blazing or hunt from the shadows like a ninja is complely up to the player. (Just make sure to occasionally loiter before launching an attack: the dialogue exchanges between these bad guys is well-worth listening to.)
The game's free-flowing combat remains as brutally satisfying as ever.
The original game's free-flowing combat system has been given a few tweaks, but will remain warmly familiar to fans of Arkham Asylum. Stringing together combos and counters is immensely satisfying and it's now a lot easier to throw in the odd gadget-based attack. (Speaking of gadgets, the game comes with a huge arsenal of batty gizmos, including all-new weapons such as the ultra-sonic emitter, which brings a swarm of bats to your aid. Nice.)
Naturally, there is a host of additional moves, weapons and attacks to unlock, but a casual gamer can happily ignore all this and just stick to the basics. Rocksteady Studios deserves plaudits for this all-inclusive balancing act – the combat remains fun and challenging, regardless of how much strategy you invest.
Guns are best avoided with the use of a Batclaw. In real life too.
But it's not all comic book fisticuffs: as with the first game, the B-man spends much of his time solving puzzles and searching for clues. In lesser hands, these disparate gameplay styles may have felt disjointed or tacked-on, but Rocksteady Studios has managed to unite everything superbly.
As you've doubtlessly heard by now, Batman: Arkham City comes bundled with downloadable content (DLC) featuring a playable Catwoman. Rather than a standalone mission pack, the Catwoman levels weave in-and-out of the game's main narrative while you're playing. It provides a nice intermission, and helps to spice things up with some unexpected variety.
"Eyes up, fellas."
Catwoman plays differently to Batman; in addition to being a lot faster, she has her own unique roster of gadgets and attacks. When you consider that the developers could've just stuck a sexier skin over Batman and called it a day, the extra effort is laudable.
The Catwoman DLC isn't a huge component of the game (in fact, we were surprised by how short some of the missons were), but it remains an excellent and wholly gratuitous freebie. We'd happily play an entire game in Catwoman's leather boots – bring on the future DLC.
I'm the Godamned Batman!
It's come to that point in the review where we explain what's wrong with the game: and despite our earlier gushing, there are a few negatives.
Occasionally, it's possible to get lost when attempting to find an entrance to a location. This is due to the multi-tiered nature of the landscape, which doesn't really gel with Batman's radar. To be fair, we only experienced this issue a handful of times in the game, but that didn't make it any less annoying.
Now where the hell am I?"
Also, while the boss fights are thrilling and look spectacular, they are a teensy bit easy. We actually don't mind this (there's nothing we hate more than a boss who takes an absurdly long time to kill), but some players may feel let down by the lack of challenge. That said, you can always switch the game to Hard mode.
Finally, there is the character of Robin, who is a bit of a damp squib. In addition to reminding us of Chris O'Donnell (a hanging offense) he just sort of pops up randomly and doesn't really contribute anything to the plot. We suspect he was included solely to remind gamers of the upcoming Robin DLC. Tch.
Robin: AKA the Scrappy-Doo of the Batman universe.
But these are minor niggles to be sure. When push comes to shove (and shove comes to punch), Batman: Arkham City is one of the finest games of this console generation. Its place in the pantheon of gaming is assured.
Batman: Arkham City is available now on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The PC version will be released on November 15.