You can keep your Batman Begins and your The Dark Knight Returns and your Batman: Year One and your Batman: The Animated Series and your 1960s Batman: The Movie and your Superman/Batman and your All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (actually, better burn that last one; if you keep it you might read it again by accident). The Batman: Arkham games are my favourite interpretation of the Dark Knight to date.
You read that right. Despite the ridiculous number of reinterpretations, spin-offs and new beginnings; despite the ludicrous number of comics, cartoons and films… it’s the world of the Arkham games that I adore.
Both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City walk a tightrope between the the gritty realism of the Nolan films and the more fantastical elements of the more “classic” interpretations, and this is what gets me. You’ve got the brutality and the violence and the darker elements, but you’ve also got the giant super-zombie Solomon Grundy. Best of both worlds.
Arkham Asylum itself was a bit of a revelation in gameplay terms, too. Two separate playstyles – Predator and Combat – emphasised different parts of Batman’s skills, with Combat showing off his martial arts prowess as he takes on goons in close combat, while Predator shows him as the terrifying-but-vulnerable hunter hiding in the shadows, picking off armed enemies one by one. It showed off Batman as a vulnerable human, Batman as a stealthy hunter, and Batman as a master combatant.
Add all of this to a free-roaming(-ish) world with a load of gadgets, sidequests, and Metroidvania elements (with new bits of old areas becoming accessible as you upgrade the items on Bat’s utility belt) and you could even factor in Batman as a great detective. And, well, it was excellent. Clever, great fun, stuffed full of content, and absolutely true to its source material while still providing a unique spin.
Then came Arkham City. Considering how much content featured in Arkham Asylum it wasn’t hard to be skeptical: would City have a tonne of new gadgets and twists on the familiar mechanics, or would it be more of the same but in a new environment? Unbelievably, it was the former.
The vaunted freeflow combat received a few tweaks to make it, well, flow better. A load of new gadgets (and new functionality for the old ones) opened up new options in terms of area traversal, combat options, and puzzle solutions. The puzzles themselves were smarter than before with some particularly nasty death traps, and some of the Riddler trophies tested agility as much as logic. Oh, and because the setting is a walled-off subset of Gotham itself, Batman can now glide to get around far more effectively – and propelling yourself into the air with a grappling hook before swooping through the dimly lit streets never gets old.
All of this is combined, naturally, with a host of new villains culled from the pages of the comics and the various TV series. Pointing out who appears would ruin half of the fun but it’s safe to say there are some brilliant takes on familiar faces, along with the reappearance of most of the foes from Arkham Asylum. Most have legitimate reasons for fitting into the excellent plot (which is not only full of interesting twists, but also has an ending far superior to the rather duff finale of Asylum) with some battling for control of the prison city, while others chase rather more personal agendas.
And if you can’t be arsed dealing with the plot then there’s a tonne of bonus side content to occupy you, with even more villains from Batman’s rogues’ gallery cropping up. Whether it’s rushing from payphone to payphone in an attempt to track down Zsasz, or tracing a rifle shot to track down a sniper, or simply hunting down Riddler trophies and solving the puzzles he’s left for the world’s greatest detective… well, there’s a lot to do.
Outside of Arkham City itself, there’s also a triumphant (and, as you might’ve figured, expanded) version of the Challenge Mode. You can take on Combat or Predator challenges with Bats or – with the new purchase bonuses and some DLC – a slew of other characters. As before, the Predator challenges task you with taking out enemies in particular ways (stun one with a smoke bomb before knocking him out in the confusion, or take another down after surprising him by suddenly appearing in front of him) while the Combat challenges just give you successive waves of increasingly tough foes to defeat. But I said expanded. Other than the new tricks that the new gadgets offer, and the new types of foes that require new tactics, there are also modes offering different modifiers. How about having regenerating health or help out? Or maybe you’d prefer silent takedowns to be disabled, or one enemy to be temporarily invincible?
Arkham City is a true sequel to Arkham Asylum. It builds on and expands everything that made the original great, and is packed so full of stuff it’s quite possible to play it for… well, a long time. More than that, all of the systems are actually enjoyable. Case in point: I loaded this up for the first time in a few weeks last night to refresh my memory before writing this. I was there for about four hours, first tracking down Riddler trophies, and then running through the Challenge maps, and I’m going to go spend a few more hours with it shortly. Arkham City is a true sequel, yes, but that’s not all. It’s also a worthy successor, and that’s no small feat.