Fashioning a successor to the best superhero video game ever made must have been a daunting task for Rocksteady Studios, makers of 2009's dazzling Batman: Arkham Asylum. However, the English developer – a company clearly staffed by people with a profound passion for DC Comics' dark knight – has outdone itself with Batman: Arkham City.
The action is set on a free-to-roam island in the heart of Gotham City that's been transformed from a decrepit neighbourhood to a prison inhabited by the metropolis's scariest villains. Captured as alter ego Bruce Wayne, Batman is thrown into this pernicious penitentiary by its corrupt warden, a madman named Hugo Strange with an enigmatic stratagem that even the caped crusader is at a loss to grasp.
At first one can't help but fixate on the game's sleek visual veneer. This decaying urban atoll and the creepy prisoners who walk its streets are seething with grimy detail. It's a luscious, moody graphic novel come to interactive life.
However, dig a little deeper and you'll find more than just eye candy. The game contains dozens of multifaceted and conflicted characters plucked from the comic's 70-year history, including the Joker, who spends much of the game in an unsettlingly insecure mood; Mr. Freeze, who becomes Batman's reluctant ally in a fight against a warmongering Penguin; and the reticently altruistic Catwoman, whose feline antics players get to control on occasion. These personalities are so rich and well-constructed that any one of them could have been the satisfying focus of an entire game. That they've been stuffed into a single adventure without dampening their intrigue is both a feat and a treat.
Those unfamiliar with Batman's complicated past needn't worry about feeling out of their depth. While hard-core fans will salivate over the game's narrative minutiae, efficient bits of backstory dropped into the dialogue and text deliver enough information to make even those who've never picked up a comic feel as though they've known these characters their entire lives.
And it plays wonderfully. Slick combat that takes the form of beautifully cinematic brawls – which would be more than enough for most games – is just one thread in a web of diverse and compelling activities. Whether I was investigating crime scenes for ballistics and blood evidence, operating clever gadgets like the batclaw and the batarang, or silently swooping down from the shadows of gargoyles to covertly incapacitate well-armed foes, I was always left wanting more.
But the heart of the game is Batman himself, a bastion of unremitting righteousness. He's the ultimate justice seeker; a man whose power lies not in superhuman abilities but his intelligence, force of will and unshakable principles. He stands almost alone among his comic-book and video-game brethren as a protagonist who steadfastly refuses to kill his enemies and is patently incorruptible. He's the hero we all wish we had the strength to be.
Just as Batman stands symbolic for what's best in people, Batman: Arkham City represents all that's great about interactive fantasy. It's an essential play for mature gamers this fall.
Batman: Arkham City
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment