Batman: Arkham City

Apologies for the delay. Blame Batman. Blame Arkham. Blame a massive sprawling game that sucks you into its world and keeps you there for nights on end. We've gone a little bit Batman crazy of late, to the extent that we're typing these words while watching Batman Returns on ITV 2+1. And to be honest, we can't wait for it to finish so we can get back to the game, which is so much better.

Tim Burton's vision of Gotham arguably has some crossover with that of Arkham City, but the world conjured up by UK developer Rocksteady is somehow darker, bleaker, nastier, and their Batman considerably cooler and harder than the one portrayed by Michael Keaton's curly-haired earnestness.

Bale out

Even the Christopher Nolan films can't compete. While two and a half hours of watching Christian Bale doing that acting thing as The Dark Knight tends to drag, a six-hour session of Arkham City seems like time well spent, time in which you fully throw yourself into the character, to the point that you begin to think like Batman. Of course the same could be said about 2009's superb Batman: Arkham Asylum, although compared to this, the original game starts to feel like a glorified tutorial.

With the asylum defunct, all of the crazies have been moved to one huge area of the city, now home to a slew of fully-fledged grotesques including The Joker, Penguin, and Mr Freeze. Some big personalities are in evidence, leading to a series of uneasy alliances, with the whole thing overseen by the sinister Hugo Strange, who happens to know Batman's darkest secret. Spoiler: he's Bruce Wayne.

It must have been tempting for Rocksteady to rest on its laurels and knock out an Arkham Asylum 2.0 with some leftover ideas, but Arkham City is so much more, fleshing out the concept into a fully interactive world that is five times the size of its prequel. Taking the open world route, there is a core story that runs through it, but it's bolstered by side missions and incidental action that makes for a highly individual experience. While Batman returns with gadgets galore, in many ways it's the city that's the star. Always shrouded in darkness under a gigantic moon, it's deeply atmospheric as you glide around picking up snippets of chatter from the scumbags below.

Fly boy

In fact you spend a huge swathe of the game gliding, which allied to the nifty grapnel gadget is the quickest way of getting around the city. It's a pair of skills that need to be mastered, as you'll sometimes be against the clock, with innocent lives at risk. As an example of the game's side missions, answering a ringing phone introduces a serial killer, who will have you chasing all over town answering phones lest he kill again. Side missions of course boost your XP, which can be used for a host of upgrades.

As for the main story, you'll come up against most of the major proponents, with boss battles that are always the right side of fair. Whenever you mess it up, it's generally your own fault, and the game provides a near perfect balance of frustration and reward. The combat has also been tweaked to make it easier to employ gadgets mid-scuffle, and the predator sections are as exquisitely tense as ever, with the detective mode again proving to be gaming's most honest way of cheating. As for the puzzles, there's a Zelda-esque level of elegance in solving them, and you are always left to think for yourself before the solution is hinted at.

Riddle me this

A devastating hybrid of RPG, action adventure, beat-'em-up and, er, flight sim, we're struggling to think of something negative to say about what is clearly one of the games of the year. If we wanted to be really fussy, we could have a go at Penguin's dodgy accent, or the fact that you have to enter a code to play as Catwoman, in a handful of largely inconsequential missions. If you buy the game second hand, you have to pay for the code (or simply ignore it).

But to be honest, we can't see that many second hand copies becoming available, as it's a game you'll want to play through again. In fact, even when it's over, it's not really over, as you can carry on and complete the side missions, as well as satisfy your OCD by collecting all the Riddler trophies, most of which now come with a devious puzzle attached. And there's also a 'new game plus’ mode, in which you can start again with all your gadgets attached, albeit against harder enemies.

Verdict

A hugely inventive experience, Batman bucks the current gaming trend in that you never once fire a gun throughout the course of the game, instead relying on ingenuity, gadgetry, and a decent right hook.

The lack of a multiplayer mode may be seen as a minus point by some, but Arkham City is proof that single player gaming is alive and well, providing a sublime challenge between gamer and designer. Tweaked to near perfection, this is marquee gaming at its very best, allied to a tight story, atmospheric setting, strong script and excellent voice acting. In the near century-long history of The Dark Knight, Batman: Arkham City sits at the very top table.



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