Batman: Arkham City is frankly absurd. During the game’s opening hour or two, you’re almost certain to stumble upon a side mission involving one of Gotham’s most indelible second-tier villains: the manic depressive serial killer Victor Zsasz. The mission itself is the kind of sandbox-only endeavour that should be utterly exasperating; its plot is lifted directly from the screenplay of Dirty Harry, and it repeatedly involves nothing more complicated than a mad dash from A to B. In anyone else’s hands this would be one of those frustrating (and sadly commonplace) instances in which smoke and mirrors are utilised, in order to disguise a bullish and empty attempt at hitting that illusory sweet spot of “40 hours” worth of gameplay content. But here, it’s an offshoot that’s utterly emblematic of the entire Arkham City experience.
Because it’s one of the first indications that Arkham City isn’t just special, it may have just set some kind of qualitative benchmark. The Zsasz mission isn’t fantastic because it’s better than everything else on the disc – it patently isn’t – but it’s fantastic because it’s a morsel that almost any other development team would’ve have treated as essentially throwaway. And yet, Rocksteady have approached it with the same degree of attention and diligent care as the central plot’s loudest beats. Zsasz’s character is fleshed out as vividly as if he was one of the main players (and all within just a few brief minutes) and the actor portraying him gives the handful of flipped-out monologues the gravitas and punch that they do, genuinely, deserve. Even if you approach Arkham City with intense trepidation and attempt to scan Gotham’s horizon for tears and shortcuts, you’re going to come up empty handed.
Sandboxes don’t traditionally offer up this level of narrative coherence, but all of the other side quests – such as a parallel hunt for a killer who may or may not be Victor Zsasz, or the periodic rescue of a ragtag band of political prisoners – have absorbing narrative arcs of their own. Even the playable Catwoman missions feel like part of a single sprawling adventure rather than their own separate thing, and one villain even spends his spare time leaving you intermittent voicemails just to wind you up; unnecessary in the grand scheme, but invaluable in roping you ever deeper into Batman’s surprisingly gloomy and oppressed mindset. In addition, your constant immersion is accommodated via one of the most invisible and comprehensive auto-save systems imaginable. Everything about Arkham City is rich, and racing through it would be the biggest crime that any gamer could commit against it.
If there is one single flaw that stands out – and there is, remarkably, just the one – it’s that Batman’s new Dive Bomb ability is never adequately explained to you. Once you’ve mastered it you can glide through the air in near-perpetuity, but one early story mission cannot be bypassed without it, which may frustrate players who aren’t naturally prone to experimentation. Some of your new toys (as well as some of your old ones) can now be used during combat completely on the fly, with invention and pizzazz dutifully rewarded with bountiful XP. Using these new tools quickly becomes mandatory on the hardest difficulty setting because enemy AI is much more astute than it ever was in Arkham Asylum; with lingering assailants always quick to adopt firearms and knives dropped by fallen comrades, and generally attacking with more force and frequency.
Enemies also behave much more unpredictably when they’re being stalked, with one popular trait involving them backing into a corner and firing wildly into the darkness; gunfire which is to be avoided as it will occasionally hit you. Firearms are more prevalent in general this time around and encounters with any number of armed gunmen are liable to result in your death. Even if you spend all of your XP points toughening Batman’s armour, two or three short bursts are enough to send you down. A couple of the Dark Knight’s new tools come in extremely handy during these situations; an exploding smoke pellet that can aid a brisk escape, and the Firearm Jammer which is capable of disabling weapons from a distance. Nevertheless, it takes so few shots to kill you that you should only ever rely on these two as a last resort.
Arkham City is to Arkham Asylum what The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. It’s darker, immeasurably more confident and sprawling, and stuffed to the gills with bright ideas and grandstanding action sequences that are designed to leave you rattled. A rollicking ride is also guaranteed even if you’re only in it for some cheap thrills, because Rocksteady are now as heroically adept at blending action scenes with the cinematics and narrative as Naughty Dog are. This is a bewilderingly complete package that was clearly meant to be savoured, and once you’ve finished it, only a rammed pre-Xmas release schedule will prevent you from leaping straight back in. The only downside is that you may be left wondering how on earth Rocksteady are ever going to top it. How good is Arkham City, precisely? It’s absurdly good.
Batman: Arkham City is due for release on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday October 21st 2011.
Watch the Batman: Arkham City launch trailer below: