I worry that I’m talking mostly in abstract here, mainly because I don’t want to ruin too many of the game’s surprises, but I also wouldn’t want to obscure the main important thing about Arkham City: This thing is freaking fun. The combat gameplay is a nice mixture of pure button-mash attack and surprisingly in-depth strategy. When you knock out one of the game’s infinite minions, the soundtrack lets out an immensely pleasing explosion — it’s like the pistols in Sergio Leone movies, the ones that sound like cannonfire when they shoot.
Like 1000-page novels and concept albums, even the best open-world games have flaws. The puzzle gameplay isn’t too challenging; as with Arkham Asylum, most of the “crime solving” basically comes down to turning on Detective Mode and looking for bright dots. The overheard dialogue becomes repetitive pretty quickly. (Although it can be pretty funny: I actually laughed out loud when I heard one henchman ask another, “You gave your own mother a poisoned birthday cake?”)
Even the most casual Bat-fan could point out all the game’s various influences. The cinematically gritty aesthetic comes straight out of the Christopher Nolan trilogy. The story draws from several far-flung corners of the Bat-verse. The notion of Batman’s villains going to war over dystopian real estate comes from “No Man’s Land,” and the main storyline bears a slight resemblance to “Hush,” uniting the entirety of Batman’s rogues’ gallery in one big mystery.
The game’s most clear influence is Batman: The Animated Series, which was co-created by Arkham City writer Paul Dini. (Animated Series vets Kevin Conroy, as Batman, and Mark Hamill, as the Joker, return to lend gravitas and insanity.) But there are also hallucinogenic sequences that recall the work of Grant Morrison, and sci-fi subplots that tip a hat to Batman’s space era, and Mr. Zsasz is still lurking around to remind you of the early ’90s serial-killer boom.
On The No Doctor Cop Lawyer Show, Keith Staskiewicz and I argued that the key to Batman’s cultural longevity is that his particular iconography seems endlessly adaptable. He can be street brawler, a closet psychopath, a science hero, the patriarch of an ever-expanding Bat-family, and a cartoonish demi-god. The joy of Arkham City is that it somehow combines all those interpretations. Batman fights street thugs and surreal hallucinations, suffers from psychological torment and forced flirtation, flies through the air gracefully, catches a thrown chair and hurls it back. The whole time, Alfred and Oracle are arguing in your ear like a pair of disapproving parents.
You could argue that Arkham City’s storyline is arguably too overstuffed, with some villains just stopping in for a quick cutscene cameo. But the overall moment-to-moment experience is breathtaking. By the time I finished the main game, I felt like I knew the game’s world the way I knew Vice City or Red Dead Redemption’s New Austin. By its very nature, Arkham City is less epic than those games — they tell slow-emerging stories set over long months, while City is fundamentally the tale of one bad night in a bad part of town. But Batman: Arkham City remains a solid piece of videogame production that will almost constantly surprise you, and a pure injection of comic-book entertainment: gleeful villains, shady plots, big-eyed women with prominent everything, skies that are always cloudy. Addictive, curiously thoughtful, vividly realized and darkly funny, it’s a feast for comic book fans, and an expansively mythmaking new addition in the Caped Crusader canon. Grade: A-
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
Can’t get enough Batman? Check out the latest episode of EW’s new geek-weekly web-series, The No Doctor Cop Lawyer Show, where we discuss why Batman is pop culture’s best superhero. (Sorry, Martian Manhunter!)