I've been voraciously playing Batman: Arkham City since I got my hands on it, and I'm not even halfway done with it. That's a good thing, to me: I've finished all the story missions, sure, but there's so much content there that I'll be revisiting Gotham's new prison colony for a long time, just to find and do everything that Rocksteady has put into its newest incredibly faithful Batman game.
Arkham City is, of course, a sequel to 2009's critically-acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum, which completely changed the way people view superhero games. For starters, it was actually good--like, really really good! For all intents and purposes, Arkham Asylum bounced Batman around its titular madhouse like a superhero version of Metroid, sealing off specific areas of the island until you had the right gadgets. Adding to that, it had a masterfully-executed combat system that was easy to use and reasonably challenging to master, bringing dynamic and cinematic combat to a genre filled with canned fight animation and quick-time events.
So with the destruction of Arkham Asylum in the last game, all of Arkham's prisoners, along with convicts from Blackgate Correctional Facility, have been moved to a walled-off ghetto smack in the middle of Gotham called Arkham City. The thin veneer of civilization has been ripped away in this literal No Man's Land, where the gangs are left to their own devices, and despite the giant prison walls and roving helicopters filled with mercenary guards, they are in charge. This isn't Batman on a routine patrol of Gotham, and this isn't Batman falling into Joker's plan on an otherwise routine day--Batman is going in, and he is going to work.
And go to work he does. Going through all the major names of Batman's Rogue's Gallery, I can safely say that I've pummelled almost a thousand Arkham City inmates and their associated villains, in one of the few instances where I've actually enjoyed grinding for levels to get upgrades. When you're not doing story missions, you get to grapple around Arkham City and run across the rooftops, where you'll witness all manner of random henchmen just relaxing, exercising, playing baseball, and discussing whether or not Catwoman and Poison Ivy are "friends." I always kind of figured it was Harley and Ivy, personally.
The combat system has been upgraded from the last game, allowing for multiple-opponent takedowns and counters, the ability to use most of Batman's gadgets in the middle of combat, and a whole new suite of painful techniques and skills. Batman's arsenal of moves for sneaking missions has also been beefed up, allowing you to pick hapless thugs off one by one in increasingly amusing and terrifying ways like a horror movie monster. Amusing, of course, if you're a total monster like I am and like messing with the poor henchmen.
Buy the game new and you'll get the Catwoman Bundle free, giving you access to Catwoman's story chapters (woven throughout the main narrative) and the open-world Arkham City itself, giving you access to areas and collectibles that Batman can't reach. It's worth it--it's a fun diversion from the story missions, and Catwoman's combat and controls are quite different from Batman's.
If there was one thing Arkham Asylum did poorly, it was boss fights. There were two types: either you fought dozens of guys, or you fought one or two really big opponents. Arkham City mixes things up with a massive variety of boss fights, from Mr. Freeze stalking you through the frozen ruins of a GCPD precinct to The Mad Hatter and Ra's al Ghul providing excellent replacements for the first game's trippy Scarecrow fights.
That variety extends to the actual game itself, where you've never at a loss for things to do, whether it's attacking random thugs in the street, collecting Riddler trophies, solving riddles, rescuing hostages, or tracking serial killer Zsasz by racing to ringing phones and tracing his calls. Honestly, that does kind of play against it--the story's endgame feels kind of repetitive, since I went through three or four segments of "just" sneaking through rooms full of heavily-armed guards and stealthily disposing of them. Yeah, these segments are well-made and generally fun to play, but after the sheer variety of the game's first two-thirds, it felt kind of stale.
My only other real problem with the game is Catwoman herself. You see, I've been a bit spoiled by the comics' interpretation of her, especially in the amazing run by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke, as a sly and smart international thief first and a sex symbol second. Practicality and character came first, making Catwoman a rarity in any medium: an actual strong female character. This Catwoman struts in high-heels instead of boots, her slick and practical jumpsuit is zipped halfway down, and she's caked in hilariously dark and overdone makeup. Yeah, she's a lot of fun to play, but hearing her over-the-top too-sexy dialogue and cat puns makes me roll my eyes so hard they fall out of my head. Maybe if I were thirteen I'd feel differently.
Even with these problems, Arkham City is immensely fun, and I've already started up on what is my favorite addition to the game: New Game+, which allows you to restart the game with all your gadgets and upgrades... as well as a significant spike in the game's difficulty. There won't be any cruising through the game when you're the Batman.
Batman: Arkham City is not a perfect game. It has some major missteps in its flow and characterization, and its controls and auto-targeting don't always work like they should. But it's still a really good game, and one that was worth the wait. Rocksteady has made the best Batman experience possible, and one that will keep you playing long after you've torn Arkham City's gang kingdoms down.