Honestly, there’s probably a reasonable argument to be made that Batman is just as cracked as Gotham City’s more notorious villains. This is a guy who, tormented by unresolved childhood trauma, spends his nights hanging out on shadowy eaves and lintels, engaging in risky and reckless activities, and coming face to face – but never quite managing to conquer – the monsters in the dark. Bruce Wayne calls it vigilante justice, perhaps, but Freud called it repetition compulsion.
So maybe it’s not all that surprising that he finds himself shut up in Mayor Sharp’s new free-for-all madhouse, Arkham City. And maybe it’s by some state social worker’s mandate, but re-imagined in Wayne’s mind as a crazy conspiracy involving his psychiatrist, Hugo Strange, seen here instead as a narcissistic supervillain who wants to expose Wayne’s secret alter ego, and a garish, even psychedelic rogues’ gallery of psychotic clowns, assassins, and serial killers. Maybe everything that happens is the nothing more than the self-aggrandising delusions of a borderline personality disorder, glimmers from the dissociative fugues of a little boy, weeping over the bodies of his murdered parents in a blood-spattered alley.
Maybe I’m overthinking this.
Anyway, one thing basically leads to another, and Wayne ends up on the wrong side of Arkham City’s gate. Not one to let an opportunity to bust some skulls and fight some crime pass him by, Wayne arranges to have his Batstuff dropped off and gets busy busting skulls and fighting crime. It’s all in a night’s work for Bats, and besides, what else is a man in spandex going to do out on the town?
Much like its predecessor, Arkham City is a Metroid noir mashup of action, adventure, snooping and swooping, but with less emphasis on stealth and forensic work this time around. This time around, Batman starts out with most of his gear, unlocking only a couple of additional gadgets and upgrades along the way, a change which makes sense given that most of the game’s locations are accessible from the get-go too.
The game’s presentation is virtually faultless, with Arkham City realised in the kind of sombre, complex, even oppressive detail that bad dreams are made of. Which is only appropriate, given that the place is home to some of the most authentically disturbing characters ever conceived. Gothic buttresses crowd up against looming Art Nouveau and Neo-Georgian facades and lurid carnival billboards with a nightmarish coherence, the neon signs only lighting up the perpetually falling snow.
Brawling in the sequel is, again, deceptively simple at first punch; its basic hit, evade, stun, and counter manoeuvres belying a system of tremendous elegance and style that passes competence and rewards excellence. Add quickfire Batarangs, explosives, blasts of electricity, and when you pull off a 50+ combo, it’s more like painting an exquisite portrait of pain than anything so banal as pressing buttons on a controller.
That said, however, it does feel like the game relies a little too much on close quarters combat to fill spaces (and the XP meter), with a step in just about any direction on Arkham City’s streets putting you on the business end of a gang of thugs. It’s easy enough to sort it out or make an escape, but sometimes it would be nice to get from A to B or investigate some clues or just have a look around without being shot at. Repetition isn’t gameplay, it’s just repetition, and the way enemies respawn when you’re not looking sort of undermines the game’s sense of progression, not only by expecting you to do the same thing over and over, but also to do the same thing you were doing at the start of the game over and over.
Generally, the boss battles are an improvement over Arkham Asylum’s inconsistently difficult and frustrating encounters, although overcompensating at times by being just a bit too easy, and – with only two or three significant exceptions – simply not especially clever or memorable, quickly concluded and instantly forgotten.
Similarly, the story grapples from one plot point to the next with little to no real narrative substance or credibility, often seeming instead like a series of contrived excuses to run out another in an admittedly very impressive lineup of classic Batman baddies. It’s not a terrible story by any means, mind you, but rather disappointingly superficial for the most part – until the finale, anyway, which pretty much makes up for all of those previous shortcomings with one of the most shocking finishes you’re ever going to see in a video game.
Outside of the main storyline, there are loads of side missions – some of these, like the multi-stage Victor Zsasz’s dial-M-for-murder payphone relay run, are actually real highlights in the game – as well as four hundred (four hundred!) Riddler trophies to collect. And no mere novelty prizes these, but complicated environment puzzles that even The World’s Greatest Detective will have to stop and have a hard think about. For obsessive-compulsive completionists, Batman: Arkham City is several weeks’ worth of work, at least, and for everybody else, around 30-40 hours, if you’ve got the guts to go through all the challenge maps. There’s a lot to see, do, and kick in the teeth from your zipline on the way over.
It feels like cheating to say that Batman: Arkham City is like Batman: Arkham Asylum, but bigger, better, and more badass – although this might be the best way to describe it. Its few imperfections notwithstanding, it’s still everything a Batman game should be – dark, brooding, and awesome. Up until now, it’s been hard to imagine how Rocksteady could possibly outdo themselves, but here it is.