The last week in my home state of Connecticut was horrible: a nor'easter dropped 10 inches of snow on the ground, leaving a huge portion of the state without power for up to a week. People were left without light or heat, Halloween festivities were all but cancelled as a safety measure (trick or treaters and downed power lines don't mix well), and even the lucky ones like me who kept their electricity up were left without cable or internet. It was certainly the absolute low point of the past few years.
I didn't care, though, as I was too busy trying to unravel the mysteries as the Dark Knight in Batman: Arkham City, the follow up to the wildly successful Batman: Arkham Asylum that proved that Batman could work as a video game character after several failed attempts seemed to prove otherwise(Rise of Sin Tzu, anyone?). Arkham Asylum succeeded on pretty much every level in its portrayal of Batman. From its free-flowing combat to the oft-ignored detective work that Batman is capable of—he is called the World's Greatest Detective, after all—Arkham Asylum made players feel like they were behind the cowl and cape of Batman. Arkham City, somehow, manages to surpass even this gold standard, leaving everything that Arkham Asylum did right intact while opening up the game world on a staggering scale.
Arkham City is set months after the events of Arkham Asylum, with Mayor (nee Warden) Quincy Sharp rising to political power in the wake of Joker's rampage across Arkham Island, taking credit for bringing down the clown prince. Sharp, however, is merely a puppet for someone far more dangerous: the brilliant Hugo Strange, who manipulates events and people in order to wall off an entire section of Gotham City as a free-roaming prison for the former inmates of Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison. Sensing that there are greater forces at work, Bruce Wayne rallies against the opening of the newly dubbed Arkham City, only to find himself arrested and thrown behind its walls.
From there, players control a still-badass Bruce Wayne as he pummels his way free from Strange's Tyger security forces and into the hellhole that is Arkham City. Once players finally don their Batman suit, the full sense of scale and scope of Arkham City is laid before them in all of its gritty glory.
Remember Arkham Asylum's relentless sense of claustrophobia, portrayed through the rat-maze of dark, dank corridors? Arkham City almost completely does away with that, with players spending most of their time outdoors, navigating through the massive borough of Arkham City with a new gliding mechanic that allows Batman to dive, swoop and grapple across the rooftops with remarkable ease, stopping to complete missions, side quests, or solve riddles left by the returning Riddler. It's a completely different feel from Arkham Asylum, especially in the fact that Batman can respond to characters in need—even a massive prison has its victims—on the fly.
The massive upgrade in scope doesn't just apply to the environments, either. Writer Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series) has managed to find a way to pack in a sizable number of Batman's foes into the narrative without it becoming overwhelming. True, not all of the included villains are a part of the main narrative (outside of The Long Halloween, how does one craft a compelling tale involving Calendar Man?), but it's still a fun, vicious gauntlet for the Caped Crusader to run, incorporating everyone from a cockney-accented Penguin, an Aaron Eckhardt-inspired Two-Face, and even the infamous Ra's-Al-Ghul. They all serve some purpose to the narrative push, and add to the texture of the game at large with their petty turf war inside the walls of Arkham City.
Perhaps the most welcome addition is the return of Mark Hamill's Joker to the fold. While Hamill has always hit the perfect balance between fun and crazy in his portrayal of the Joker, the one he is portraying in Arkham City is truly unhinged. Dying from the overdose of Titan steroids that he took at the end of Arkham Asylum, he no longer has anything to lose and his possible swan song of a scheme is unbelievably monstrous. Like "Death in the Family" monstrous.
Finally, there's the matter of Catwoman. Not just a mere Challenge Map skin (although she is usable in those as well), she accounts for about 10% of Arkham City's extensive playtime, running through her own caper that runs parallel to Batman's. She plays remarkably different from the Dark Knight, with a far swifter combat style as well as the ability to crawl across certain ceilings to get the drop on enemies or gather her own special color-coded Riddler trophies. She feels just familiar enough to players for them to quickly settle in, but different enough that she feels unique.
We don't give out numerical scores, grades, trophies or whatnot here at FEARnet, I can easily say that Arkham City would take top marks in anything that we would give out. It manages to surpass its brilliant predecessor in virtually every way, improving in graphics, story, and gameplay. If there's one thing it's lacking, it's the element of surprise. Arkham Asylum was a surprise high water mark for Batman games, offering up a near-perfect Batman experience after years of games that missed the point; Arkham City lacks in that sense of surprising accomplishment brilliance. However, I'll take familiarity that's this fantastic any time.