Rocksteady Studios has thrown everything but the Batsink into the sequel to "Batman: Arkham Asylum" - and that's probably because the Caped Crusader has yet to invent one. Everything about the much-hyped "Batman: Arkham City" (Warner Bros., $59.99, for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) is bigger, bolder and crazier than its critically acclaimed predecessor.
Luckily, the gameplay in "Arkham City" is mostly the same as the original, though Batman has added many new moves and upgraded gadgets to his arsenal of fluid bone-crushing fighting skills and high-tech sleuthing abilities. As a big fan of "Arkham Asylum," I was curious to see where Rocksteady would go with its innovative rendition of the Batman mythos.
The game begins with Bruce Wayne holding a press conference to denounce Arkham City, a makeshift prison that's been erected inside an abandoned, walled-off section of Gotham City. The defiant billionaire is then himself thrown inside the big house, where he quickly dons his Dark Knight persona to deal with the supervillain population, which is much larger this time out.
Early in the story, Batman is injected with a deadly virus. He must battle against and forge alliances with his greatest adversaries to track down a cure. The game's vivid urban terrain - five times the size of Arkham Island - means Batman has more area to cover, which he can now do more swiftly by diving and catapulting off buildings with his grappling hook.
Batfans will be pleased to find his wacky gallery of rogues spread all across Arkham City: Two-Face is holed up in an old courthouse, Penguin is nesting in a decrepit museum, the Joker is up to his old tricks in an impromptu steel mill funhouse and Mr. Freeze is chilling out inside a police forensics lab. Several other baddies are lurking within Arkham City's shadows, too.
Catwoman has fittingly clawed her way into the series as a playable character in four chapters that are smartly woven into the game's main storyline. The anti-heroine's feline-inspired moves are slicker and smoother than bulky Batman's attacks, which make for a delightful contrast that isn't too distracting. If anything, the inclusion of Catwoman left me purring for more.
The Riddler returns in an expanded role. He's again left mementos across Arkham City for Batman - and Catwoman - to unlock through intricate challenges. They're more difficult to nab this time, and the stakes are higher because Riddler has locked up several hostages in deadly traps that he seemed inspired to build after watching one too many of those "Saw" films.
I was initially leery about Riddler's dramatic transformation from silly quizmaster to Jigsaw-like mastermind. However, his ongoing, mind-numbing pursuits provided some of the most stimulating gameplay in "Arkham City." It's a shame that Riddler's puzzles - and most of the game's other side missions - weren't tied more closely to the game's main narrative.
As for the plot, it seems subtly didn't transfer from "Arkham Asylum" with all those supervillains. The story by Paul Dini, a veteran writer from various "Batman" animated TV series, isn't nearly as compellingly cerebral as Dini's work on "Arkham Asylum," which served as a riveting interactive psychological study of one of pop culture's most fascinating superheroes.
If the dark mood of "Arkham Asylum" resembled the richness of "The Dark Knight" on the big screen, then the sheer increase of zany over-the-top antics in "Arkham City" make this adventure feel more like one of the Joel Schumacher films instead of a Christopher Nolan one. (For example, at one point in the game, Batman punches a shark. Yes, an actual shark.)
Batman's more complex fighting moves, tricked-out new toys and expanded flight controls force a steeper learning curve at the beginning of the game, and alternating among punching, dodging, disarming, jumping and gadgeteering during Batman's epic brawls with hordes of henchmen might prove too frustrating for more casual gamers.
Still, I can't deny that "Arkham City" is a respectable follow-up to one of the best superhero games ever released. Much like its predecessor, "Arkham City" achieves something that Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Christian Bale just couldn't do, and that's make you feel what it's like to really be the Batman. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.