More Batman doesn't always equate to better Batman.
If you want to talk about surprises in gaming you talk about Batman: Arkham Asylum. A videogame based off a hugely popular comic and film franchise is almost certainly doomed to mediocrity, yet the then unknown Rocksteady took Batman and made him a gaming icon by pulling off the best action-adventure game in recent memory. As the direct sequel to the most pleasant surprise of 2009, Batman Arkham City has plenty to live up to, and despite a few poor design choices, Rocksteady have managed to pull it off again.
The most striking change to the Batman formula lies in the new "open-world" format, however one should not be fooled by appearances. Arkham City is in fact a large hub-world similar to Arkham Island in the last game, the difference being that Rocksteady have populated it with a plethora of extraneous activities to complement your Batman-ing experience.
The "open-world" is Arkham City's most significant issue, one the one hand it allows Rocksteady to provide Bat-fanatics with story-heavy side-missions that reveal the franchise's extensive rogues gallery, on the other hand it reduces much of denseness and focus that made Arkham Asylum so compelling. The game gates all side-content behind story missions, which means playing any side-content will show up Arkham City's false sense of urgency. Even though the story content within each of these missions is fantastic as both side-missions and fan service goes, access to it is gated behind repetitive point A to point B time-trials, mandatory collecting and exploration. This wouldn't be so much of an issue if Arkham City provided that rightful stalwart of all proper hub/open-worlds; the minimap, but instead it opts for a compass which never takes into account the fact that the city is based upon vertical levels.
Navigation of the city is made no easier by Rocksteady's decision to make many of the clutch tools that make moving around easily completely optional. For example: the grapnel boost which makes navigation a breeze can only be accessed if you complete 4 training missions, so plenty of players including myself at the time may not decide to do that first training mission and unknowingly forgo one of the best enhancements to the traversal mechanics that Arkham City provides. In fact Rocksteady assume that gamers are familiar with both the combat and traversal systems, throwing you into a combat situation immediately at the start of the game with Catwoman with little more than the explanation of "Yo Arkham Asylum right?" The rest of the game doles out new mechanics superbly, but even for an Arkham Asylum veteran like me the early stages of Arkham City were overwhelming from the get-go.
When you play Arkham City like you would its predecessor, going from story mission to story mission, then the experience is incredible. The Zelda-esque structure lends itself perfectly to the missions once again, with each scenario providing new moves, gadgets and tricks for you to use against your foes. Rocksteady also haven't forgotten "the world's greatest detective" side of things, so you get to see Batman work his deductive magic and partake in the feeling of being a genius. During the main missions it's clear that Rocksteady has delivered on their implied promise of a pitch-perfect Batman simulator.
The 2 hours worth of Catwoman missions on the other hand play like Batman-lite, the mechanics and gameplay that's so fun with Batman being neutered by Catwoman's diminished moveset. Said missions manage to bookend the game with underwhelming scenarios and tedium. It doesn't help that Rocksteady wrote about 10 lines of henchmen dialogue in these missions, almost all of them containing the word B*tch and that Catwoman herself is a dimensionless teenage fantasy sex-symbol who feels crowbarred into the plot to justify Rocksteady using her to dissuade used game purchases (as Catwoman is activated via download from the virtual store.)
The narrative itself is a delightful slow-burn, with little details trickling down as you investigate the goings-on regarding the super-villains of the city. It's fantastic hokey fun with a few surprising turns that never let you fall into a predictable groove. Admittedly, most of the twists are massive contrivances, a couple of them even descending to the realm to using a deus ex machina to move the plot forward. It feels awesome while you're playing, but once I looked back on the plot I couldn't avoid how dumb some of the plot elements were.
Unfortunately the "rogues gallery" nature of Batman means the game rarely settles on a villain to be an antagonistic force. Nolan North's rendition of Penguin almost rivals Mark Hamill's glorious Joker but you never get enough of each major villain, meaning those with prior knowledge will get more out of the characters than I did. This is to be expected in a sense because Rocksteady have such an infatuation about all things Batman that every piece of Arkham City is saturated in love for the Bat-verse to the point where a fanboy of the Dark Knight will probably explode with excitement, something that makes even a neophyte such as myself happy.
The groundwork set by Arkham Asylum has received nothing but improvement. The already superb freeflow combat has been perfected, now allowing you to mix in gadgets and special moves into your combos. Combat in Arkham City resembles an elegant ballet of pugilism with Batman effortlessly weaving in and out between henchmen with what seems like hundreds of bespoke animations blending seamlessly together, making Batman's ability to take down a group of enemies believable. The combat actively rewards the player for not button-mashing, skillful timing and situational awareness will make any gamer feel like a god, or more appropriately, like Batman. The game wisely changes things up gradually with new enemies and weapons that you will have to contend with, from beginning to end the combat feels fresh and nothing short of brilliant.
Predator mode, Batman AA's unique situational take on stealth, also returns with added toys and mechanics. The faintly ridiculous ability to swing from gargoyle to gargoyle to escape the gun-toting thugs in Arkham Asylum has been neutered, meaning you will always be mixing things up to deal with the newfound intelligence and equipment of those you are hunting. The part-puzzle, part-stealth gameplay requires a whole new set of strategic thinking which when executed well, is oh so satisfying.
The production and presentation have also been significantly improved and lacquered with pomp and circumstance. The rousing peal of the orchestra as Batman examines a new gadget is wonderful, as is Rocksteady's devotion to making every camera angle of the Dark Knight look impressive. Arkham City loses none of its predecessor's detail and severe design take on the Batman universe in the transition to the larger setting, and though everything is cast in shades of grey the city and its venues are still a delight to look at, if subject to some slow-loading textures and a general chunkiness to everything.
Both of the combat and Predator modes can been found in the challenge rooms that now have the added wrinkle that you can now play "Campaigns". These feature three challenges with different modifiers that change things up. It's a smart addition that builds on the original game's challenge rooms that allowed you to prepare for the hard and new game plus difficulty modes and also chase some highscores. Unfortunately, this content is again gated behind the Riddler secrets strewn about Arkham City and there are 400 of the damn things. There were quite a few of the same types of challenges in the last game but the number of actual puzzles and riddles is markedly less than the obscene numbers of collectible trophies that you need to progress a side-mission and get challenge rooms, this plays into the open-world to an extent because if you want to explore the wonderful world of Arkham City, you'd better like throwing batarangs to get trophies.
Make no mistake, Arkham City is a fantastic game that reaches the bar for quality action-adventuring set by Arkham Asylum. But its grandeur fails to hide the fact that this is most definitely a sequel to an almost flawless title. The moments when you're not investigating, fighting henchmen and stalking armed goons are the closest to filler than the series has come to thus far. It's a better game than its predecessor for sure, as the highs soar above any game out there, but more Batman doesn't necessarily equate to better Batman.