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REVIEW

BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY

To call Arkham City an expansion pack of Arkham Asylum seems an insult to one of the best games we've played all year.

Yet for the way its structured, there's some truth in the sentiment.

Take, for instance, the lack of any tediously lengthy tutorial to bring everyone up to speed. Or the huge move set carried straight over from the original's conclusion. Maybe it's the gang and super-villain setup transplanted from remote island to inner city streets. Perhaps a story that despite the time disparity - both in-game and in real world - feels a direct continuation, and ending proper, to events that began with the Arkham Asylum breakout.

Not expansion pack then. Consider this the second act, the concluding half, the tale after the cliffhanger - Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (without the weak bits) rolled into one.

It feels (and there's argument, backed by Arkham City blueprints secreted in Arkham Asylum, and the swiftness of the sequel's first teaser trailer appearing, that this is no happy accident) as if Rocksteady took one huge game, split it in two, and spent two years polishing the second part to within an inch of its life.

We know the last part of that statement is true - this year has afforded the company something so few rarely enjoy: extended and prolonged development time to get everything right. Like Gears of War 3 though, such knowledge brings with it added pressure. There can be no misstep, no issues, no weakness. Does Rocksteady achieve those goals? If you're asking yourself that, you must have sleepwalked through the opening paragraphs.

GALLERY 1: LOCATION LOCATION

Batman: Arkham City
The new Arkham's a sprawling cityscape - prepare to loose weeks of your life exploring every inch of it.
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Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
It's got its own set of challenges though (left), while (Right) Tyger helicopters overview the action, and timed right, can be hitched for a lift, while the relocation to Gotham proper allows Rocksteady to create some fantastic interiors (right).

THE CITY OF ANGLES

City compliments the first game - tight containment turns into sprawling diversity without loosing precision, and what's new here evolves from the superb framework of before. But it's fair that even with Asylum released two years past, City is overwhelming to begin. It's bloody huge. To those who indecision comes as naturally as breathing, you might drop dead from a heart attack not even a quarter of an hour in.

But that expanse is also one of its great strengths. This cut-off chunk of Gotham-turned-urban-penitentiary offers a thriving, ugly, staggeringly packed environment, half of the secrets of which won't even be touched come the end credits.

That is, if you've a mind to follow the central narrative and avoid a compelling range of side-missions, investigations, would-be murders, and cameos that are going to have fans of the character and his world giddy with delight. If you're not a comic book reader you'll be bemused at certain reveals and hints, but there's no way you can deny the lure of optional extras that tax your complete control over Batman - be it his wits, muscle, or speed.

And it's because this is Batman that the side-quests, so prolific across the span of Arkham City, are such a draw. Sure, you're eager to make sense of the overriding mystery of the borough-sized prison and its creation, but when lives are at stake you're compelled to help, combating evil at every street corner and answering every call for help as you criss-cross the city. Rocksteady know the character - and more importantly, know the fans.

You'll spend a lot of time on rooftops, but the studio keep your ear close to the ground via an in-mask transceiver. It picks up nearby radio and local frequencies automatically, keeping you tapped into the goings-on around the city below as you swing or glide by. You'll hear chatter from guards appraising you of the street-level perceptions of the shifting territories and narrative, as well as tantalising you with names of possible villains spotted - or missing. There's an amazingly huge amount of voice-work for the gangs alone, and you rarely hear the same comments repeated ad-nauseam.

GALLERY 2: HAND-TO-HAND

Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
Detective Mode lets you prioritise targets, as well as spot any Riddler informants. Even when surrounded (middle) you'll still feel in complete control of the action, while double takedowns (right) look spectacular every single time.
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
As before clocking the last foe kicks in a slow-mo sequence, while gang Lieutenant can be stunned to accidentally knock out comrades with their weapon swings (right).
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
Detective Mode (left) lets you note any thugs with weapons, while (right) the Cryptographic Sequencer can be used to break into locked rooms, as well as tune into to local police bands and News transmissions.
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
(left) Dectective Mode is used to pinpoint a sniper location in one of the side-quests, (middle) smoke pellets disorientate enemies and allow for quick escape from gun-totting thugs, while (Right) corner cover is great for closing in on gangs.

CLEANING THE STREETS

Like Arkham Asylum you're free to soar in and put down crooks - or ignore. But you're missing half the enjoyment of the world if you do. This is a city worth exploring. You're passing by some great reveals and fun situations.

Navigation plays on the same beats as Asylum. Bat-grapple to pull you atop buildings, line-launcher to cross bottomless pits, cape spread wide to glide. It's this latter that has been tweaked brilliantly: an early-stage grapple upgrade letting you boost to a vertical point and launch off it to soar into the night. Mix with a dive-bomb manoeuvre and you can pick up speed and increased air to navigate across town. The move is is intoxicatingly cool that you'll staunchly ignore the map's fast-travel option between locations. And in a moment of simple brilliance - navigation waypoints are marked on-screen by the bat-signal projected on the clouds overhead.

But a wealth of side-quests would mean little if they were uninteresting. Good then that Rocktsteady has taken Batman's move-set and certain quests, then expanded and bettered them.

Previews already have talked about tracking a sniper by examining the bullet and using your suit's built-in tech to map an estimated trajectory back to the point of origin using Detective Mode. You'll see more of that mode used smartly in side-quests, investigating crime scenes, picking up blood trails of a killer, or simply locating a ringing pay-phone in time to avoid fatal consequences.

And for those who saw the Riddler's Challenges through to conclusion in the first game? The villain's set up a rematch, and its a dozy - collecting trophies is just the tip of the iceberg this time round, and he's not the only villain taunting Batman - though we're not going to spoil the surprise, only to say this: Rocksteady has perfectly fitted side-quest to villain, and each brings something different gameplay-wise to the fold.

DETECTIVE AND FIGHTER

Batman's well-stocked for the job of cleaning this new monstrous Arkham. Rocksteady has made good on its promise, and you begin your new adventure (mostly) equipped as you were come the ending of the first game. It raises a quandary though; while players of Asylum can happily continue their wall-breaking searches and cut straight to combat combos in the double-figures immediately, you've got to dust off the reflexes that have spent two years accumulating dust in the back rooms of your memory. As such skills will be rusty - particularly for fighting - as you struggle to remember timings. Expect a surprising degree of frustration to begin.

Familiarity is presumed here: the game offers, aside from the ground-level basics to run, jump, counter and attack, a threadbare degree of tutorial staggered across the game's opening hours, touching on gadgets only when they're needed to progress in the story. First-timers will have to work out for themselves that instructions for each are located in the WayneTech computer system that serves as central hub for everything the Dark Knight can do.

Players can toggle on-screen tutorials on and off via each individual move and gadgets sub-screen, the selection of which is staggering from the off, and raises a fair question of how much more Rocksteady can bring to an already-overflowing utility belt. You'll be surprised, and in no small way pleasurably intrigued by the new additions spread out over the game's campaign count, which strikes confidently into the double number worth of hours.

GALLERY 3: GADGETS & GIZMOS

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Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
(Left) Bat suits are heavy - making walking on ice a tense mini-game in its own right,while gangs will soon gain gadgetry to spot Batman even when he's concealed atop a handy gargoyle.
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
Bat Claw can be used to unbalance enemies, dropping their weapons and can be chained into a knock-down attack, while the line-launcher can be upgraded to allow you to sit on the wire and takedown thugs from above.

COMBAT

Yet it's in the hand-to-hand combat mechanics that you see, feel and so very much enjoy the fruits of the studio's generous development time. This is as close to flawless the genre will ever get. For a good proportion of the campaign, notably before guns are introduced into Arkham City's populace, it's possible to win your way through thug fights with countering alone.

A timed button tap for each corresponding warning icon as they appear above enemy heads and you'll block and land a counterstrike. Other than a few exceptions, counters can be cancelled midway through into another counter, as goons are rare to stand back and let you knock out a comrade.

Even then the combat system doesn't bat an eye - its completely seamless, producing a staggeringly array of different animations, for single and double takedowns, limb grabs, weapon grabs, dodges, knock-outs, leaps. The camera never misses a beat (it only let us down once during the whole campaign) panning around and above at the exact angle needed, and even this most basic of combat moves, never, ever bores.

Why so easy? Because Rocksteady has once again proved, and improved, the feeling of being the ultimate badass in any outnumbered scrap. Sure you got to learn some new moves later on as new weapons are introduced, but everyone can have fun with the system and not be overworked, while the combo system - multiplying potential XP with each diverging and diversifying attack, dropping if you repeat moves, stopping if you get hit, is there if you want a challenge. Do so, and the free-flow combat is electrifying.

There's the occasional difficulty spike, not unfairly thrown in, as escalating story moments toss you against increasingly large numbers of thugs and the odd heavy. As we mentioned of side-quests earlier, boss fights that are narrative flash-points are tailored extremely well to each villain, and despite a well-aimed fist finishing most, the content of some are so refreshingly inventive and engaging of your learned abilities that we wish heavily the same level of care was given to the equivalents in Deus Ex.

YOUR PURR-FECT COMPANION

We had a worry that Catwoman, the addition of whom as a second playable character was a surprise reveal some time ago, might cheapen the experience. Not due to the switch of perspectives, but that she'd play as a Batman with cleavage and curves. There are common moves, but she's more leather clad-Spider-Man in agility, leaps onto building sides requiring you to skitter from ledge to ledge one button press at a time to the top, and her whip-swinging distance is short-range enough that navigating gang-held rooftops requires extra precaution.

The nimble minx is injected with enough difference to make her appearances - in the main campaign, 'brief' doesn't even cover it - an engaging counterpoint to the Caped Crusader. Both share the same XP accumulation - Catwoman's unlockable upgrades a constant on the far right of the sub-menu screen - but only Selina can cling upside down to ceilings, and her slighter stature leads to faster combat sequences.

GALLERY 4: THE ROGUES

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Rocksteady's Penguin embodies Engliah Gangster spirit, while Harley Quinn is a as loveably crazy as ever.
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
Hugo Strange may be running the show, but it's Mark Hamill's take on the Joker that once again steals the show, dominating every scene he appears in.
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
Mr.Freeze's entire story-arc in the game shows the depth and conflict of Batman's foes, while Bane (Right) returns as an uneasy ally in a sub-plot/side-quest that wraps up unanswered questions from Asylum.
Batman: Arkham CityBatman: Arkham City
You may play as her, but Catwoman's got her own agenda in entering Arkham, having run-ins with other Bat-foes, while the Riddler (Right) is played fantastically well, taunting the Dark Knight in every Challenge.

UNREAL LOOKS

Unreal seems perfectly suited for etching the decaying gothic architecture of Gotham. It's murky without being muddy; there's a decent degree of colour variation amid the shadows, while flashing neon signs working as aerial signposts for high-flying superheroes. If anything, the scale makes it unlikely you'll notice the smaller details on first play-through (a second Game Plus, with increased difficulty settings to balance against your now complete kit, unlocks after completing the game the first time), but worth it when you do - be it snowdrops resting on Batman's cape, or the body of a dead rat unexplainably stretched out on a library work-bench. This feels like a city lived in and worth the time to appreciate its wares.

KNIGHT'S FALL

For those disappointed with Arkham Asylum's concluding act, satisfaction is guaranteed this time round. Arkham City's tosses in some intriguing ideas from the off, and keeps the momentum going throughout, leaving you come credits and beyond with the closure only possible of a story-rich experience. But like the previous title, even with the main story done there's still plenty to dig into with the side-missions, while Challenge Maps offer extra incentive to practice and perfect combat combos.

Arkham City repeats the same tricks of the original: crafting one of best superhero games of memory, one of the finest action-adventures of this or any generation, and while there was some expectation Rocksteady would just replicate the original's dynamic and simply expand the playground, it's managed to craft a game that takes elements from its predecessor and rebuilds them into something that feels wholly familiar yet exceedingly unique. From 2009's unexpected hit to one of 2011's masterpieces: the Dark Knight rises.

09 Gamereactor UK
9 / 10
+
Staggering in size, massive in terms of missions, quests and secrets. Combat is flawless. Story is engaging, and, one sour note aside, better than the original. Boss battles brilliant.
-
Catwoman's appearances in campaign paced oddly. Shame you have to go into sub-menus to listen to missed calls. Got to end sometime.
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