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6 December 2011

Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady)

Helen Lewis-Hasteley enjoys swooping round Gotham as a superhero.

By Helen Lewis

Batman: Arkham City

This is a funny time to be a gamer. With the PlayStation 3 nearing its fifth birthday and the Xbox 360 more than six years old, it’s impossible not to get the feeling that we’re at the fag end of the console life cycle. (Nintendo has already announced its contribution to the next generation, the Wii U.) Big studios are already beginning to weigh up whether to put out their upcoming projects on the 360 and PS3 or to hang on for their successors. And you can’t have failed to notice that there hasn’t been a great deal of high-profile original “IP” – intellectual property – in the past 18 months. This has often seemed like the year of the three: Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Saints Row: the Third, Gears of War 3.

Still, gaming sequels are not always poor imitations of their predecessors, as Grand Theft Auto IV and Portal 2 have proved. Both games came freighted with critical expectation because of their studios’ records, a fate shared by Batman: Arkham City. Made by Rocksteady, a medium-sized developer based in Highgate, north London, it follows the universally beloved Arkham Asylum (2009). That game won over critics and consumers with its intuitive combat system, macabre atmosphere and tight storyline. Even more astonishing were the – gasp! – strong acting performances, as Rocksteady brought over Kevin Conroy and Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill from the animated series to voice Batman and the Joker.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Arkham Asylum did for the Dark Knight in the game world what Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins did in the cinema: turned a campy brawler in a silly costume into a sleek, noirish, modern superhero. It’s apt, then, that this video game sequel is reminiscent of Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight: it is more expansive, more ambitious, at the expense of pacing and focus. In the first game, as in the first Nolan film, there was one arch-villain. But just as Batman’s second cinematic outing saw evil duties split between the Joker and Two-Face, in Arkham City, several villains jostle for screen time. As a consequence, none really makes a satisfying nemesis.

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The franchise has developed a little middle-aged spread in other areas, too. The map is larger, there are more side missions and Riddler challenges and you can now play a handful of episodes as Catwoman. (Inevitably, her low-cut catsuit, some frankly perverted camera angles and the henchmen’s insistence on calling her “bitch” provoked a mini-thunderclap of controversy in the days after the game was released.)

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What the sequel gets right, though, is in remembering that being Batman is supposed to be fun. One of the great joys of Arkham Asylum was playing the challenge rooms – where you have to “take out” patrolling henchmen in the swiftest way possible by sneaking round them or perching high up in the shadows to choose your moment to swoop. Here, bound within an interesting story and setting, was a gameplay mechanism that was both intuitive and endlessly varied. Arkham City repeats this trick, teasingly dialling up the difficulty with new armour, weapons, gadgets and special moves.

Yes, there are gripes. The story, sadly, isn’t quite up to the standard of the first game and I could cheerfully never hear another thug referring to the Penguin as “Mis-tah Cobblepot” in the most Dick Van Dykey accent you’ve ever heard. Neither are the boss fights particularly challenging, as they ditch the otherwise intuitive free-flowing fighting mechanic for a game of “hunt the weak spot”. But there’s still enough juice in just cruising round Gotham, gliding down and grappling up its dilapidated buildings, to make up for these quibbles.

Arkham City proves that even a variation on a very good theme will never have the impact of the original. In a market flooded with games that are more of the same, however, it at least tries to reinvent itself, bigger and better. Mostly, it succeeds.