I've reviewed a small multiverse's worth of superhero video games over the last few years, and up until rather recently I'd felt the need to prompt each of them with a brief, cynical disclaimer: yes, games of the "long underwear" variety have a pretty unfortunate track record, and no, that likely won't change anytime soon. But then, back in late 2009, a dark horse (or Dark Knight, if you will) slinked out from the shadows and redefined damn near everything we thought we knew about the genre. Batman: Arkham Asylum wasn't just the best comic book game of this console generation; it was one of the most pleasing pieces of wish-fulfilment entertainment on the market. It was both a veritable celebration and an essential re-imagining of the Batman mythos, and it somehow made us feel like we were Gotham's Caped Crusader, in all his baddie-brawling, grapple-gunning glory.

And thus, a new high-water mark was set for cape and cowl-clad comic book games, and we, the collective fans, anxiously awaited whatever came next for the Batman and his ghastly gallery of madcap rogues. Batman: Arkham City, Rocksteady's first open world effort, swoops in to set that mark even higher with its creation of one of the richest, most dread-inducing video game environments I've explored in some time.

The Dark Knight's much-anticipated follow-up is not only the finest game to be branded with the Batman license to date -- it's the best comic book game that I've played.

Part prison camp and part No Man's Land, the eponymous Arkham City is more or less an overstuffed, seething melting pot of Gotham's nastiest goons. The dregs of Blackgate Penitentiary have been intermixed with the lunatics loosed from the now-defunct Arkham Island, and turf wars run rampant under the oh-so-watchful eye of the prison's twisted warden, one Professor Hugo Strange. The game's gloomy tone is set in its outstanding opening moments, as Batman finds himself stranded in Arkham's dark heart, face-to-face with the absolute worst that the smouldering cesspool has to offer.

Arkham City's yarn is an astonishingly ominous affair that makes a number of bold choices with its handling of the Dark Knight and those that inhabit his Gotham, but what may be most astonishing of all is how effective those interpretations are in action. Its Hugo Strange is Arkham's unhinged overseer and would-be saviour, a madman on a mission; its Penguin a thuggish, threatening brute that barks bile through a thick Cockney twang; its sickly Joker still the same violently unpredictable Clown Prince of Crime, and a murderous obverse to Bruce Wayne's rigid, righteous vigilante.

Batman: Arkham City

The plot twists, turns, and shocks throughout, as its diverse cast of criminals haunts and taunts like a super-villainous Scared Straight program. Arkham City, as a game world, often feels hellish and hopeless in its abandoned city structures, crumbling streets, and bloodthirsty residents. But you're Batman, and you're not going down without a fight.

Next page: where does he get those wonderful toys?

The game's signature FreeFlow combat has seen several noteworthy expansions and improvements, including an increase in enemy count that can make standard throw-downs feel like all-out gang warfare. The ability to quick-deploy several of Batman's gadgets adds an extra layer on top of it -- including in the game's bounty of boss battles, which can get a little button-mash heavy -- but oh, what wonderful toys are at the Dark Knight's disposal. Handy new gizmos, like the Remote Electrical Charge and the Freeze Blast, create inspired opportunities to interact with the environment at large, and they often prove even more useful in the middle of a bloody brawl. A suite of new enemies, enemy take-downs, and WayneTech upgrades further add to the rich, rewarding combat, and clearing a room with a lengthy, seamless combo still feels like an outstanding accomplishment.

It's not all fisticuffs and flashy gadgets, though; the stealth-centric "predator" gameplay is a substantial component to Arkham City's success, and its represented incredibly well. Intelligent enemies ruthlessly hunt Batman as he slinks and sneaks through the environment in some of the game's most challenging moments, and his Detective Mode -- now resembling an "augmented reality" overlay, making it a bit less practical for those that'd refuse to turn it off -- is expertly implemented.

A selection of truly novel environmental puzzles will keep you guessing when out of enemy earshot, and it's to the game's credit how well such segments are paced. There's a real sense of progression to Arkham City in its gameplay, in its story, in the variety of its missions (the abundance of open world side-quests will keep you busy for a long, long time), and in the evolution of its pointy-eared protagonist, that really deserves to be commended.

It's tough to sum up everything that makes Arkham City work as well as it does. If Arkham Asylum was a fun-house chock-full of Batman's most famous foes with a decent dose of fan service for Dark Knight die-hards, this is a sprawling theme park that plumbs the depths of his case files. A considerable set of side-missions peppered throughout the open world, an extensive assortment of Riddler challenges, a slick side-story in Selina Kyle's playable Catwoman (the catsuit-clad seductress steals just a few hours of Batman's core campaign, but, in a curious decision, is only available if you bought the game new) and, of course, plenty of challenge maps and customizable campaigns, make Arkham City an enormously engrossing experience, and a game that Bat-fans are bound to re-visit weeks after the fact. It's a must-own, and a definite contender for the title of year's best.

Batman: Arkham City: Specs

  • Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (PC not available until November) Age rating: 15
  • Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (PC not available until November) Age rating: 15

OUR VERDICT

The Arkham Asylum sequel has a fantastic story, gorgeous graphics, a huge open world, and an insane amount of content. The button-mashing boss battles trip up the show a little, but that doesn't keep this from being the world's finest superhero game.

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