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.
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?