Gamers play as Bruce Wayne, the billionaire behind Batman's mask (for those living under a rock), and are rapidly thrown into the turned-prison Arkham City alongside Gotham's most sinister villains. I won't bore you with the underwhelming details, but it's quick to get you into the epic action.
Playing out like interactive film scenes, the un-caped hero kicks, punches and hurdles his way through a sea of overly-buff goons in a superbly smooth fighting mechanic that'll have you instantly pumped to be back in the Arkham world. You don the dark knight's robe soon after, and from here it's off to a more open, vibrant version of the noir-inspired Arkham Asylum.
While Arkham Asylum was segmented into individual maps strung together by doorways and passages that gave the game a linear feel, Arkham City opens the world up for exploration in what is closer to a Grand Theft Auto-esque RPG than the original game - and it's great. You could grapple-gun and glide your way across the two furthest points in the map in around two minutes or so, but this quest would take hours on foot. It's this gorgeous map design that makes travelling between missions and side-missions so seamless and constantly fresh, even if you're the impatient type.
The city itself looks beautiful, characterised by dark alleyways, urban blight and a sinister ambiance. Crime has defaced Gotham, and the down trodden city is one of the most complete characters in the game. There's fastidious attention to detail, presented flawlessly with realistic graphics, which all help the game springboard into what is, for the most part, rousing action.
On screen, Batman faithfully plays out every gamer's fantasy, gliding across the city, beating criminal thugs and dealing with his own traumas. Seeing the caped crusader blitz through Gotham in such style is exhilarating, and as a stand-alone game, Arkham City is undeniably exciting. However, it does struggle to meet the high benchmark set by Arkham Asylum.
Arkham City focuses on including all of the characters in the Batman universe and although it's always pleasant to see familiar faces, barely any of them have substance. Where the original focussed on a few villainsâ€”fleshing them out with intricate depth and menacing characterâ€”Arkham City relies on the star-studded shock of the Hollywood cameo. Unfortunately, the 'shock' angle doesn't raise the stakes in the storyline; in fact, it pokes jokes at apocalyptic events and makes them seem less frightening.
A few complementary Catwoman episodes are thrown in for good fun, with her character confronting a sensational dilemma that leaves jaws dropped. Otherwise she simply serves the purpose of adding to the Gotham cast and giving players more game-time after the credits role.
The combat system was already brilliant, but they've added intuitive weapon play and the ability to attack multiple enemies at once into the fighting mechanic. Working on timing more than any other strategy, the fighting is fluid, acrobatic and insanely fun, especially when you start throwing in the occasional batarang or freeze grenade mid-combo. Here, they've made a good thing even better.
Unlike the original, whose narrative was rich with the unmasking of Bruce Wayne as a man, Arkham City depends too much on its side missions to explore Batman's dark psychology. Sure they add playing time, but the truth is they take away that wonderful magic that made the first game more than just another comic book adaptation. By splitting that promise in two, you're just left with two good gaming modes instead of one exceptional game.
This new Batman didn't have to be better than the original to be a great game: it just had to be as good. But where the original carried thrilling momentum through the game's last moments, with the storyline, action and sympathy towards the dark knight collectively climaxing, this one flat lines. The rushed ending makes you feel the rest of the story deserved more, and worse yet, it leaves you feeling cheated.
Don't let the harsh words deride the game though - it's still excellent and one of the best games of the year. The only disappointment comes from the super-inflated hype you feel in the unboxing moments as you reminisce on how great Arkham Asylum was. The story might not be as poignant as the first, but the game in general is still a blockbuster if there ever was one.