Gotham City. This crime-infested metropolis has been famously imagined and reimagined in comic books, cartoons, and films. Now, we have a new vision of Gotham, and it stands not just as one of the most unforgettable incarnations ever of the city that Batman is devoted to protecting, but as one of the most richly detailed and exciting environments ever seen in a game. Building on 2009's outstanding Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City sets you free in the intoxicating neighborhood of North Gotham, now a sealed-off superprison for the city's worst criminals. As the Caped Crusader, you struggle to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic streets, foiling the plots of supervillains and protecting the victims of those who prey on the innocent. With its atmospheric setting, thrilling movement, immensely satisfying combat, and tremendous assortment of secrets to discover, side quests to complete, and other attractions, Arkham City is a fantastic adventure game.
6340110Welcome to Arkham City.
It's winter in Gotham City, but the streets of the part of town now known as Arkham seem particularly cold. Snow falls on the criminals who roam this place, making the asphalt shimmer with reflections of the neon signs advertising shuttered shops that once upon a time bustled with business. Gotham faced a prison crisis in the wake of the events of Arkham Asylum, and certain unscrupulous characters took advantage of the situation by acquiring the run-down neighborhood of North Gotham, walling it off from the rest of the city, and tossing the criminals in there to fend for themselves. It's an inhumane and immoral operation; food and warmth are scarce, and some inmates are people whose only crime was voicing a negative opinion of Arkham City and those who run it.
But their misfortune is your gain. The area of several city blocks that makes up the superprison isn't especially vast as open worlds go, but what it lacks in scale, it more than makes up for in atmospheric detail. Arkham City is home to an old courthouse, a former police headquarters, a musty museum, a disused subway terminal, and other fascinating places. These structures, with their faded portraits, old billboards, and plentiful other features, convey a sense of history. The exceptional art design draws on 1930s art deco and makes Gotham seem like a once elegant and shining city that has fallen into darkness. It's clearly a work of imagination, but as you explore it, its richness pulls you in, and it becomes a world you can't help but believe in.
Batman has no choice but to explore the alleyways and underground tunnels of North Gotham. Within the prison's walls, Joker is dying, and the villain's schemes force the Dark Knight to help him find a cure. That quest brings Batman into contact with the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and numerous other members of Batman's rogues' gallery. Each character is represented terrifically, with plenty of nods to their histories as established in the comics, and part of the fun of progressing through the story lies in seeing what character might make an appearance next. The excellent Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and the Joker, heading up an ensemble of voice actors who never miss a beat.
Before beating up bad guys, Batman like to take a moment to do some brooding.
Also returning from Arkham Asylum is that game's accessible and satisfying combat system. At its core, it's quite simple: one button performs your attacks, while another counters enemy attacks. The combat rewards good timing, and when you get into the rhythm of battle, chaining your attacks together and turning your enemies' attacks against them, it's deeply absorbing. It's also as graceful as it is brutal, making it a joy to behold. The varied attack animations make most tussles look as if they might work as choreographed fight sequences in a movie. In response to your inputs, Batman might simultaneously counter two attackers with a single impressive move, or take advantage of a convenient surface and slam a thug's head against it. As you progress, you encounter enemies equipped with things that make taking them down more complicated. Guards with stun batons can be attacked only from behind; enemies with shields require the use of an aerial attack; and foes with body armor can be injured only with a rapid-fire punch attack called the beat down. It's especially satisfying to defeat large, diverse groups of enemies against whom you must use a variety of techniques. Zoomed-in camera angles that give you a close look at moves that finish off a battle add impact to your attacks and make your triumphs all the more rewarding.
Batman's assortment of gadgets plays a bigger role in combat than it did before. In Arkham Asylum, you could throw batarangs and keep your combo going; here, you can quickly fire off many of your wonderful toys in the heat of battle. A blast from your remote electric charge device can make an enemy involuntarily swing his hammer at surrounding thugs, and a quick placement and detonation of explosive gel can knock nearby foes off their feet. The variety of "quickfire" gadget options and other special moves that Batman has at his disposal can actually be overwhelming, and you may occasionally find yourself pressing the button combination for one gadget when you want to use another. But the game does an excellent job of easing you into the finer points of the combat system, displaying button prompts when you have a good opportunity to use a particular technique. And if you don't quite grasp a move the first time, you can go into your upgrade menu and re-enable its tutorial for a refresher. The addition of quickfire gadgets gives you a number of new options, and skilled players can benefit a great deal from the smart use of these techniques, but you never need to rely on these abilities. If you prefer to keep things simple, you can certainly get by relying primarily on your fists.
Detective mode shows you which thugs made the mistake of bringing guns to a batfight.
Of course, thugs with shields, blades, and body armor are one thing; enemies with guns are something else entirely. Batman is tough, but far from invulnerable, and when faced with such firepower, it's time for him to rely on stealth. As in Arkham Asylum, you sometimes find yourself needing to take out rooms of gun-wielding enemies, and all of Batman's techniques from that game are still every bit as fun to use. Sneak up on an enemy from behind and you can take him down silently. By hanging from a gargoyle, you can ensnare an unsuspecting enemy below with an inverted takedown. Your detective vision gives you an edge, letting you see the positions of enemies patrolling the room through walls and floors. And Batman has a few new tricks up his sleeve. When spotted, you can toss a smoke pellet, aiding your escape and possibly leading confused enemies to accidentally attack each other. And you eventually acquire a new gadget that's great fun in these situations: the disruptor, which lets you can remotely disable a thug's gun. It's especially satisfying to do so, then jump down in front of him and watch as he attempts to shoot you, and then knock his lights out. The disruptor's use is limited, so you can't overdo it, but it's a great new addition to Batman's arsenal. The excellent sound design adds tension to these stealthy standoffs, with bad guys becoming increasingly frightened as you pick off their buddies one by one.
As you win battles, you earn experience points and periodically level up, which lets you upgrade your suit, gadgets, and combat skills. These upgrades have a real impact on gameplay and create a rewarding sense of growth as you advance through the game. Purchasing the batclaw disarm move, for instance, lets you yank weapons from enemies' hands, while the critical strikes upgrade rewards precise timing in battle with more powerful attacks that let you build up to special combo moves more rapidly. There are an impressive number of upgrade options to choose from, and you'll probably still be leveling up and unlocking upgrades well after finishing the main story.