To borrow a dusty device from the SATs, consider this analogy: Batman: Arkham Asylum is to Batman Begins as Arkham City is to The Dark Knight. Sure, the comparison seems obvious, but it’s true: AA and BB each took a scythe to the flaws in previous Caped Crusader outings in games and movies. (A game where your mission is to assemble the Batmobile comes to mind in the former case; latex nipples in the latter.) And just as The Dark Knight proved itself much more ambitious by adding more villains, more grittiness, and more ruminations on what it means to be a hero, so did Arkham City. But Arkham City and The Dark Knight have something much more important in common: They’re so sublime, they render their predecessors nearly forgettable by comparison.
Where Asylum’s level design was corridor-heavy, City has expanded its scope exponentially, setting you loose in the massive titular area: a hellish maximum-security “home” for Gotham’s worst criminals. From an urban-development standpoint, it’s an awful idea, but as a potential playground where Batman can set things right, it’s fantastic. This is Rocksteady’s first open-world game, but it doesn’t feel like it at all: You’re given free rein to patrol the city from the rooftops, careen around it Pilotwings-style, or stalk your prey from the ground. When you tire of the lengthy main campaign, there are surprising alliances to forge (early on, Bane seeks Batman out, wanting a partnership); a Die Hard 3-style cat-and-mouse game with Zsasz, involving ringing payphones and hostages; and lots and lots of fights to pick. Thanks to a vastly improved combat system, which allows you to whip out those wonderful toys at a moment’s notice, it gets to the point where a 39-on-one fight isn’t just welcome, it feels fair.
Unfortunately, these diversions usually wind up being far more satisfying and exciting than the main story’s thrust, which quickly devolves into a two-pronged routine: Chase person X to location Y, or face a sudden detour to location Z when location X has an unforeseen roadblock. For example, after you break into the museum, you discover the Penguin has jammed your cryptographic sequencer, so it’s back outside to smash his jammers. It’s a little telling when the game itself keeps shoving you back outside, and understandably so: Who’s gonna stop you? You’re the Batman.