Batman: Arkham City review: A world of difference

The 72-year-old lore of the Batman universe is about as immutable as comic book icons come. If Batman: Arkham Asylum was evidence of Rocksteady's comprehension of the franchise, then Arkham City is proof of their understanding of its quiescence.

The chiropteran hero hasn't introduced many substantial changes to his modus operandi since his last, incredibly well-received video game outing. The world's greatest detective still spends a fraction of a fraction of his time doing actual detective work, and a vast majority of his time alternating between brutalizing and terrorizing different factions of armed and unarmed goons. Sure, he's got a few new gadgets this time around, but the methods remain the same.

What's changed in Rocksteady's second stab at the timeless DC franchise is the world that surrounds Batman -- the titular prison colony Arkham City. Conceived by the foolhardy, the prisoner-run district may not be the largest open world ever explored in a game, but with an ecosystem of sidequests, challenges and secrets that blanket every square inch of the region, it might just be the densest.%Gallery-136482%

The greatest suspension of disbelief mandated by Batman: Arkham City isn't that there exists an underground crime ring of costumed supervillains -- rather, that they've been given free roam in a sizable, corded-off chunk of Gotham. It's a government-sanctioned world where everyone tries to kill everyone else, sometimes with guns, which prisoners characteristically aren't permitted to possess. Such a place shouldn't exist; which is exactly why Bruce Wayne has taken it upon himself to shut it down.

Arkham City lacks the raw acreage of a Liberty City, Stillwater or Rome, but provides much more space between its key structures than was present in Arkham Asylum. Batman zips between enemy hideouts using a satisfying system of locomotion; though your destination may occasionally look distant, it only takes a minute or two of gliding, diving to gain velocity and grappling between buildings to get just about anywhere you want to go.

Your effortless flight is impeded by thugs in the employ of the various archnemeses which wrestle for control of the landscape. Dispatching them in hand-to-hand combat requires the judicious use of the returning Freeflow system, which rewards well-aimed strikes and well-timed counters with combo boosts (that let you activate special attacks and garner extra experience). And it punishes clumsiness with ... well, death.

Foes of the armed variety usually travel in packs, and must be dispatched in a more predatorial fashion. Few curveballs are thrown into the game of perching on overhead vantage points until an opportunity to stealthily incapacitate a foe presents itself. That doesn't make it any less satisfying, of course. Few games grant you the tools to strike unbridled fear into the hearts of mere men with such implacability.

New gadgets add some variety to both proceedings, most of which have been bound to an instant-fire shortcut (usually left trigger and a face button). Batman's now able to instantly drop and detonate a squirt of explosive gel or taze an attacking foe without interrupting his combo, adding more incentive to throw some variety-spice into his pummelings.

There are plenty of sidequests to divert your attention from the campaign, the most prevalent of which being The Riddler's hidden trophies and puzzles. There are 400 in total to discover, all of which unlock concept art, character trophies or challenge maps. After accruing enough, you'll also discover the location of Riddler's nefarious, Saw-like deathtraps, and the imperiled captives within.

There's more incentive to hunt down the Riddler's leavings this time around, though their sheer volume makes the earliest part of the game -- when you don't possess the gadgets required to access them -- pretty frustrating. It takes the Metroidvania philosophy of "come back when you're properly equipped" to an inscrutable extreme, though the ability to mark out-of-reach trophies on your map helps hugely in the endgame.

Other secondary objectives make great use of the open world. One chain of quests has you racing between payphones to trace a call from the murderous Mr. Zsasz, for instance. Another tasks you with searching for clues that lead to the meticulous Deadshot. Most of these sequences progress as you move through the main campaign, ensuring that you'll always have a second helping of crimefighting on your plate.

The chapters that allow you to play as Catwoman (assuming you redeemed the one-time-use code included in Batman: Arkham City) are few and far between. Still, her contributions aren't insubstantial. She's got her own sidequests and cache of Riddler trophies to complete, and her method of navigation -- whipping between high ledges and effortlessly pouncing up walls -- is a breath of fresh air.

Not only has Rocksteady managed to compose a pitch-perfect playground for the player to explore, the studio has, once again, nailed that abstruse feeling of being Batman. It's unfortunate, then, that the team did no small amount of laurel-resting when it came to crafting Batman: Arkham City's narrative.

Nearly every villain -- and there are so many -- is a one-dimensional punching bag, and the ones that aren't shift their allegiances with inexplicable frequency. With rare exception, Batman and friends' dialogue bashes the listener with leaden cliches -- a problem which plagued Arkham Asylum, as well. To wit, nearly every statement that slips between Batman's pursed lips boils down to, "No, I believe I'll be doing the punching," or, "Today's not a good day to mess with me." (Really, though, what day is?)

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Arkham City kicks off with a dynamic, atmospheric bang, and concludes with a twist which is -- no exaggeration -- exquisitely haunting, but everything in between is something of a blur. The story seems like a series of excuses for you to encounter (and, perplexingly, do chores for) a lengthy parade of supervillains. Worse still, each leg of the journey culminates in a boss fight which, save for one clever encounter halfway through the game, tasks you with punching holes in the foe's repeating attack pattern.

Rocksteady has moved closer to perfection with its second stab at this franchise, but the movement's come in inches. The motives of Arkham City's assemblage of villainous, would-be kingpins -- not to mention the motives of the Dark Knight himself -- never quite come together to form a compelling narrative.

Still, the mechanical excellence and obsessive attention to environmental detail which surprised in Asylum have only been refined in City, and that's no easy task. Rocksteady has made the greatest Batman game ever crafted, and they've done that before. But breathing life into a staggeringly beautiful world; one which hums not only with opportunity, but ambition? That's a new trick altogether.

This review is based on a retail copy of Batman: Arkham City, provided by Warner Bros.

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