Bigger, Battier, and Uncut.
In 2009, Arkham Asylum reinvented the wheel not just for Comic Book license games, but third person action exploration games in general. With the fantastic blend of Rocksteady's patented free flow combat system, Metroi-like exploration based on gathering new tools and gadgets throughout the game, and a story that successfully represented a Batman comic arc in motion and brought back fan favorites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and his once and future nemesis The Joker, one almost had to wonder how the little studio that could would follow up their massive success, and if it was possible to improve on it. The answer to that second question is 'yes', mostly. The answer to the first question is by making everything bigger, more open, and spit shining pretty much every spot of polish that was already present in Asylum.
I won't be saying too much about the story of the game, since much like its predecessor, the journey is half the price of admission. The game picks up an indeterminate amount of time after the end of Arkham Asylum, following the defeat of a monsterized Joker in what was one of the less thrilling battles of that game. Quincy Sharp, the former warden of Arkham, has somehow convinced the local government of Gotham City to let him cordon off a large section of the city to turn into a huge prison complex where the inmates are left to, for better or worse, do what they want. Walls are erected, inmates transferred from both Blackgate Prison and the now decommissioned Arkham island, and of course some people point out that this might be a horrible idea. One of those people is socialite billionaire and definitely not night time do-gooder in tights, Bruce Wayne. In the opening of the game, Bruce Wayne speaks at a protest in front of the Arkham City complex, and is swiftly arrested for somewhat vague reasons and thrown into the prison city by one Doctor Hugo Strange, who doesn't just seem to have a deep part in the plans for Arkham City (citing an otherwise unexplained 'Protocol 10' he intends to enact'), but also knows that Bruce Wayne is costumed good deeder The Batman! Oh no! Bruce quickly escapes the clutches of the criminals welcoming him to the prison and dons the cape and cowl once again. The mission? Find out what Protocol 10 is and, assuming it's something typically villainous, put a stop to it.
Just like the first game, this mission will take you through a gauntlet of Batman's enemies, most of which were either completely unseen in the first title or, at best, a quick cameo. The difference this time is that you'll be chasing these colorful goons through a huge chunk of Gotham City itself, instead of a small, contained island.
And boy, does that city like to show off. Despite using the same art style and, in some cases such as Batman's model itself, the same or very similar assets as the first game, Arkham City is a noticeable step up in graphical quality. The lights are brighter, the smoke and shadows are more comic book noir than ever, and a few updates to the overall look of Unreal Engine 3 make City a game that is still, almost a decade later, a sight to behold. The character models still have that kind of chunky look they had in Asylum, and Batman still looks awkwardly top heavy, but no longer does everyone's skin seem to have a sweaty sheen to them anytime they're lit. When you glide over the rooftops of the city, which you will do a lot, it's easy to get sucked in to all the neon signs, steamy pipes and vents, and hanging gargoyles that line the streets. If the game has any one thing in spades, it's atmosphere, and it's unlikely that you'll get bored of what you're looking at as you spend several hours trekking back and forth around the environment. With this praise, I have to offer one caveat; the PC port of Arkham City is very poorly optimized for Direct X 11. You're offered some DX11 effects in the game settings, but turning them on seems to cause a noticeable hitch in frame rate, even on relatively newer machines. For this reason, I recommend turning all DX11 options off in the settings. For what it's worth, I played with them both on and off, and I really didn't notice a huge difference in graphical fidelity.
Functionally, City takes what you already know from Asylum and builds on that very solid structure. If you have recently finished the first game in the series, you'll feel snuggly and at home immediately in the scowling mask of Batman. Many of the gadgets you picked up throughout Asylum are available to you from the start of the game, eschewing the typical Metroidvania fashion of stripping you of all the goodies you got from previous games and forcing you to collect them all over again. In lieu of that, you'll be picking up a whole set of new tools in this game, and the game finds creative ways to still build on your old arsenal (such as starting with the decryption tool from the last game, but having to collect access codebanks for different types of keys before you can use the tool to open them), and you'll still use these tools not only to progress the story, but to hunt around an entire city for those oft sought after Riddler trophies if you're in to that sort of thing. The combat is as fluid and rewarding as ever, but somehow feels even faster and harder hitting now. Batman seems to fly across the room between his foes with bone crushing sounds of impact any time you land a hit. It feels visceral, and it becomes an extra challenge if and when you choose to tackle the New Game Plus mode after beating the game once, which removes all of the parry prompts from above your enemies' heads, leaving it entirely up to your ability to read attack telegraphs to know when to dodge. One, two, or even three on one, it's not that much harder, but in some of the larger encounters, it can become overwhelming trying to fend off all attackers at once without those blue spidey sense flashes to warn you.
So the heart of the game remains the same, and it's still great. So, what's new and exciting? Well, the entire exploration aspect of the experience is vastly expanded and improved upon since our last outting. While you could glide around in Asylum, it was a very limited ability that was mostly used to get the drop on enemies or avoid detection. In city, gliding will be your primary mode of transport. You now have an entire Gotham skyline to bound across, with a cool divebomb-pull up system to sustain your paths of faux flight. Nothing feels more Batman than zip lining straight from the street up to a looming rooftop, and then leaping off to glide gracefully through the alleys like a specter in the night. One thing I do recommend, that the game does not outright tell you, is to finish the Wayne AR missions (you'll see them on your map) as soon as you can. They're just a couple of relatively simple glide through the rings challenges, and they net you the Grapnel Boost upgrade, which allows you to mash on the A button when grappling to a sufficiently distant object to launch off that grapple into the cold night air for an extended glide. While it's not a critical upgrade, and the game can be completed in its entirety without it, it will make your travels across Gotham much quicker and easier when you just can't seem to get a good high vantage point to start a glide from. You can also chain those grapples, to a certain extent, to keep a more or less constant flight through the air from one side of the city to the other.
So, while clearly I could gush about this game for paragraphs (and I have), on the outset I said the question of does it improve on its predecessor is a yes, 'mostly'. This mostly is going to depend on a few things. Arkham City is a much bigger game than Asylum. For some people, this will be a positive. For some who enjoyed the constrained, somewhat linear nature of the first game, this might seem daunting. Keep your eye on your mission markers, check your map frequently, and you'll be fine. I did find occasionally it was difficult to find where some of the larger environments wanted me to go, usually coming down to a small door that I missed. The game could definitely do a little more to make those nooks and crannies a bit less hidden, but otherwise I have very few complaints.
Overall, the verdict here doesn't change much from Asylum; if you like third person action games, you'll like this game as well. And, just as before, this is multiplied by some factor if you are a genuine fan of the Bat, with this game offering just as many fun nods, winks, and outright references to well known characters and story lines as the first in the series. You'll go up against some big names in some big boss fights that are, thankfully, much more enjoyable than the climactic fights of the first time around, and likely you will enjoy every second of it.