‘Batman: Arkham City’ a heroic effort

Batman’s rogue’s gallery may not abandon their wicked ways anytime soon, but “Batman: Arkham Asylum” proved that even the criminally bad superhero game genre can turn over a new leaf. “Batman: Arkham City” tops this first game with massive environments to explore and enough crazed villains to fill up, well, a city.

Arkham City is a walled-off section of Gotham City where criminals are kept. The prisoners roam around doing as they please, and cops are sitting ducks in this lawless land. Batman suspects that this state of anarchy is not only being allowed by Dr. Hugo Strange, the ominous warden of Arkham City, but that it is all part of some sinister scheme, and enters the city to investigate. He soon discovers that the Joker is terminally ill from the events of the previous game, and searches for a cure for reasons I won’t spoil here.

The plot is propped up by a vibrant cast of characters, but feels scatterbrained. The game can’t decide whether the main antagonist is Hugo Strange or the Joker, and their individual plots never really coalesce into a single climax. What’s more, Strange has the (relatively) unique knowledge of Batman’s secret identity, and promises to break him psychologically throughout the game, but never really attempts to do so. Also, parents should be warned that the story is very dark, with roaming baddies casually talking about Two Face cutting people in half. This is not Adam West’s Batman.

“Batman: Arkham Asylum” shocked the gaming world when it delivered not only one of the first great superhero games, but one of the best games ever made. “Arkham City” refines the slick gameplay that made the first game a hit, while offering the player a massive, open-ended world to explore. All of the batarangs, zip lines, smoke pellets, and martial arts moves you would expect make their return. You’ll need to learn how to use all of them because enemies who need to be taken down in specific ways will often surround you. You’ll find yourself switching from smoke bombs to freeze guns to knife-disarming techniques and back instantly during a fistfight, which feels engaging and rewarding.

Each punch thrown also grants experience points that you can invest in new combat skills, such as surrounding yourself with a colony of bats to distract enemies. Catwoman slinks onto the scene as a playable character, bringing agility and new moves to several levels set apart from the main story.

“Arkham City” is roughly five times the size of the first game, and you’ll spend a lot of that time leaping from rooftop to rooftop, taking occasional breaks between missions to look for the Riddler’s hidden trophies or tackle a sidequest. “Detective mode” returns from the first game and allows you to easily see where each mission objective can be found, but it ruins the moody ambiance of Gotham city.

Each of the side missions feels urgent and important in their own right, so you may find yourself easily distracted from the main story. While the main mission should last around fifteen hours, players who want to see every cameo and collect every trophy will be calling Gotham their home for a long time. Make sure you pack some trail mix and a fresh pair of undies into that utility belt.

“Arkham City” is gorgeous. Not since “Batman: the Animated Series” has Gotham felt so fully realized. With art deco interiors and a ruined city underneath the skyscrapers cutting into the red smog of the night sky, the city at once evokes beauty and criminal seediness. An intense soundtrack rises from ominous strings to powerful heroic overtones at key points in the action and very nearly competes with some of Hans Zimmer’s compositions of the recent Batman films.

Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil reprise their roles of over twenty years as Batman and the Joker, respectively, and give a flawless performance. There’s simply not one lick of bad voice acting in the whole game. However, considering how much of the game you spend eavesdropping on them, there are too few voices spread across the many generic minions. Also, the Penguin is now inexplicably English. It’s not a bad change. In fact, it gives his voice a previously missing sinister edge that makes him seem like a more viable threat.

Even if you couldn’t care less about Batman, this is one game that shouldn’t be missed. The story might not top “Arkham Asylum’s,” but the visuals are sordid and sumptuous, the combat brutal and the massive city provides enough content to deserve your hard-earned money. So, pull out your bat-wallet and hand over some cash to pick up this game, because not even the Joker is crazy enough to pass this one by.