It sounds like heresy given the game’s popularity, but I wasn’t a fan of 2009’s Arkham Asylum, which was a repetitive slog through standard videogame environments: Some Ridley Scott external piping here, some David Fincher steam over there, and you gotta have air vents. (The concept pitch for Arkham Asylum: “Metal Gear Solid with more punching.”) City expands Asylum in every direction. The new game’s basic set-up focuses on a unique civil-engineering solution to the national prison overcrowding crisis: The corrupt government fatcats at city hall have turned a few square miles of downtown Gotham into a walled prison-state. Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne is kidnapped by Arkhamites — and you know the game is going to be good when you play the first fight scene as Wayne, with your hands tied. Wayne escapes his captors and tosses on his Bat-suit.
From there, the storyline takes off in a few different directions. You explore the city, and find that different zones have been taken over by beloved Bat-villains. The cityscape detail is relentlessly pleasing. Two-Face has redecorated the courthouse, so one side is pristine and the other side is burnt; the Joker has turned an entire neighborhood into the worlds’ worst theme park ride. The story has a number of different levels that I don’t really want to spoil — it’s simultaneously a race against time and a surprisingly intricate mystery.
But one thing I do want to say — and I’ll highlight this segment with a SPOILER ALERT, just in case you want to skip ahead to the next page — is that the game’s storyline literally takes you from the heights to the depths of Arkham City. You realize that the developers are really onto something special right around the chronological midpoint of the game’s story, when Batman descends into the subterranean underworld of Arkham City and discovers an old World’s Fair exposition: The Wonder City. The design vaguely resembles the retro-futurism of BioShock or Fallout, but the pleasures of the Wonder City go beyond ambient world-building.
The main narrative of Arkham is all about internal corrosion — of Gotham City and of the poisoned, dying Joker — and the Wonder City sequence is a beautifully cynical portrait-in-miniature of the dead hopes of the past. The game’s first climax carries you to the absolute top of the city, and features a striking look down on the destruction of the game’s world from the tower at the center of Arkham City. (Like Shadow of the Colossus, this is one of those canny open-world games where you realize afterwards that the final act was hovering over you the whole time, like a terrible premonition. Also like Shadow of the Colossus, your outfit gets steadily more and more torn up as the game goes on. What can I say, I’m a sucker for SotC references.) [End spoiler alert.]