Living up to a fantastic debut is difficult enough, but Batman: Arkham City conclusively outshines its predecessor in every respect, not only tweaking its already fantastic combat, weapon, and control schemes for the better, but, more impressively, transplanting its action to a sprawling environment that proves even better suited for its various gameplay modes. Moving from its predecessor’s more spatially confined Arkham Prison to the titular metropolis (a glittering, snowy, spires-skylined stretch of urban sprawl where Gotham’s criminals have been relocated and left to their own devices, courtesy of nefarious Dr. Hugo Strange), Rocksteady’s sequel takes everything that made its original Caped Crusader outing exceptional and gives it room to breathe.
As before, much of the action involves surreptitiously striking unsuspecting enemies one by one from on high, and in the enormous Arkham City, the possibilities for such strategies are grippingly enhanced, as the environments are defined by numerous physical planes that provide constant tactical variety. Such diversity extends to Batman’s rivals as well, since virtually every famous (and no-so-famous) adversary appears throughout this lengthy adventure, from Frankenstein-ian Solomon Grundy and serial killer Victor Zsasz to the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and, at the center of it all, the Joker.
Each of these arch-villains is given vibrant vocal life by a uniformly excellent voice cast, and in terms of graphics, from texture detail and dynamic lighting to character detail both during gameplay and the superb cutscenes, Arkham City is as visually striking as any game released this year. Seamlessly blending the grittiness of Christopher Nolan’s films with a healthy dash of colorful comic-book cartoonishness, the game simply looks and sounds fantastic. It plays that way too, affording copious utility belt gizmos and upgradeable abilities that all operate magnificently.
Just as importantly, hand-to-hand combat remains a free-flowing, rapid-fire thrill, allowing you to assault a wide assortment of opponents with various button-combination attack and counter techniques. To swiftly and viciously take down a gang of 20 inmates, some of whom are wielding bats, guns, blades, and shields, is to experience exactly what a Batman (and superhero) game should deliver. Even if its controls require a bit too much button-mashing, Arkham City gives you so much to do, and in such a large landscape and throughout such an enormous and involved campaign, that any minor sense of repetition is overshadowed by the accuracy and excellence of its every element.
As if traversing rooftops by grappling hook while using Batman’s infrared detective mode to spy villains weren’t entertaining enough, Arkham City goes a step further—for those who buy the game new, and access the included downloadable content—by intermittently having you take control of Catwoman, whose powers are just different enough from the Dark Knight’s (she can climb upside on grated surfaces, for example) to be a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, boss battles are generally too easy by half, but from a gaggle of mostly sturdy side missions to solving the hundreds of Riddler puzzles strewn about gothic high-rises and musty subway stations (all to collect trophies), one almost never feels shortchanged.
Outside the main campaign, there are a host of Challenges, including a particularly strong new Riddler mode, that serve to help you work on various skill sets. Yet Rocksteady’s borderline-masterpiece thrives most fully during its main storyline, which—whether indulging in ass-kicking or stealth, drama or humor, one-against-many skirmishes or epic mano-a-mano showdowns with monstrous titans—delivers a 360-degree level of precision, depth, and detail (right down to hilariously needy voicemails from the Joker) that it proves, and perhaps even expands, the video-game medium’s immersive potential.