More than most superheroes, Batman is defined by his limits. And so was Arkham Asylum. In taking the Dark Knight out of Gotham, Rocksteady didn’t fulfil players’ keenest Batman fantasy – that of swooping over a corrupted city before diving to earth to dispense vigilante justice. What we got in return, however, was a Batman so flawlessly attuned to his environment that it was hard to imagine him out of it. A terrifying blend of gymnast and wrestler, Batman’s picking off, one by one, of the Joker’s quaking minions in the game’s stealth-themed rooms was an exercise in utter dominance of a tightly controlled space. His utility belt, meanwhile, bristled with a set of tools tailor-made for negotiating the asylum’s Metroid-structured interiors and occasional open areas.
But after its introduction, Arkham City places you on the highest floor of a skyscraper, with a city at your feet. The effect is very nearly disorienting, if only for the sumptuous level of detail on offer. The wintry Arkham City is a carved-up and cut-off hunk of Gotham, a glorious mix of neon and sodium, rusted metal, soot and black stone. And the structure you’re standing on, by the way, is the Ace Chemicals building: the place where a no-name hoodlum fell into a vat of chemicals and the Joker emerged. Your first objective, meanwhile, is the district courthouse where Harvey Dent was cruelly disfigured and became Two-Face. And a little distance away, as the bat flies, is the alleyway where a young Bruce Wayne watched as his mother and father were murdered.
Just as Asylum‘s madhouse setting allowed Rocksteady to bring a host of Batman’s villains together in a relatively confined space (a trick repeated here), Arkham City has allowed the studio to pick and choose landmarks from Gotham’s history in the creation of its environment. This is a city in which every street corner feels lovingly authored, visually unique and dripping with DC lore, trumping Asylum for detail and character despite the increased scale.
Two simple tweaks to Batman’s controls make that scale easily navigable. The first is an early upgrade to his grappling hook that lets you fling Batman into the air rather than pull him on to a surface. The second is a dive-bomb manoeuvre that can be used to gain height and speed. Just as Arkham Asylum‘s combat captured Batman’s devastating elegance in a scrum, Arkham City‘s flight controls offer a graceful, exhilarating freedom, tempered by just the right skill requirement to ensure that taking to the skies is always engaging.
In breaking out of the madhouse, Arkham City has also broken up the first game’s labyrinthine, Metroid and Castlevania-inspired level design. Arkham City is a less interconnected place than the asylum, with interiors that, especially in its opening hours, feel smaller and more boxed-off from one another. This has a knock-on effect on the game’s pacing. Whereas Asylum was a giant level through which Rocksteady could predict a player’s path, drip-feeding set-pieces and diversions as needed, Arkham City is a series of isolated set-pieces you swoop between at your own pace.
Eventually, however, the interiors begin to resemble meatier chunks of the first game. A chilly museum taken over by Arkham City‘s vicious cockney gangster of a Penguin is a highlight, every exhibit containing a relic of his defeated foes (with gloating narration provided by the squat villain himself, of course). And a journey beneath the city surface is an archaeological expedition beginning in abandoned subway tunnels and culminating in a rather unexpected find. Objectives crisscross the map, encouraging you to stumble across the many sidequests placed en route. These include ringing phones that send you rushing across the city before Victor Zsasz claims another victim, political prisoners that need protecting from Arkham’s less innocent inmates, and the Riddler’s protracted game of cat-and-mouse across the breadth of the city.