The Dark Knight returns to a video-game format in Batman: Arkham City (Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated Teen, $59.99), a sequel to the 2009 award-winning, third-person adventure.
A solo player takes control of Bob Kane's vigilante as he uses his finest combat, stealth and detective skills to stop a rogue's gallery of thugs, gangsters and criminal masterminds.
What's the story: (Compiled from game and press release materials) Following the closure of Arkham Asylum and Blackgate prison, Gotham's new mayor, Quincy Sharp orders the relocation of all inmates to Arkham City — a sprawling new super-prison five times bigger than Arkham Island and enclosing a wide variety of industrial districts.
When Arkham City warden Hugo Strange kidnaps Bruce Wayne and dumps him into the massive prison, the inmates get more than they bargained for — the Batman is now on the prowl and ready to clean up the growing menace within the walled-off portion of his beloved Gotham City.
Play the role: Control the mighty Caped Crusader (with a George Clooney chin) as he freely explores, from the ground and through the sky, such locales as Ace Chemicals, Solomon Wayne Courthouse, the old Gotham City Police Department and the Iceberg Lounge while fighting through hordes of maniacal minions to get his gloved hands on some legendary arch enemies.
Those premiere bad guys, plucked from his 72-year comic book history include Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, Solomon Grundy, Poison Ivy, Bane, Calendar Man, Black Mask, Mad Hatter and Clayface.
As our hero works through a story, while a player feels stuck in an “Escape from New York” sequel, he gets help from trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth and Oracle (using radio communications) and travels in the city by performing such incredible feats as catching a ride on a helicopter, using his Line Launcher to zip between two points and gliding from building to building with a cape that looks like a living entity.
In addition to unraveling the plot, loaded with one heck of a finale by the way, a player can conquer more than 400 Riddler Challenges scattered in environments and eventually tackle side missions including Augmented Reality tests to hone skills, rescuing Vicki Vale, and an informational encounter with Bane. Most all of the extra work pays off in weapons and combat upgrades.
Get to the action: With a player constantly refining his carefully timed button mashing skills, this mix of close-quarters, free-flowing, hand-to-hand combat combines with stealth maneuvers to make for a violent ballet of combination attacks.
Once again, Batman's Utility Belt is also packed with “those wonderful toys” such as a smoke pellet to confuse thugs, a Quickfire Batarang (or even a remote controlled version), Batclaw (to grab enemies and objects), Remote Electric Charge (shock thugs and magnetize objects), Cryptographic Sequencer (hack doors and crack radio signals), Disrupter (neutralize weapons) and freeze grenades.
When Batman is not attacking he can liberally use a Detective Mode (a sophisticated infrared scanner in his cowl) to assess any hostile location — refined down to seeing through walls, identifying armed enemies, measuring smoke density, examining evidence and analyzing blood samples.
Violent encounters: Batman's slick moves leads to a variety of brutal tactics that include head butts, elbows to the nose, slamming heads to concrete, slaps to the eardrums, sleeper holds, kicks to the gut, punches to the chops, flying kicks to the head, grabbing and tossing an enemy over a ledge, leg choking thugs, smashing and grabbing bad guys through walls and windows and even inverted takedowns (drop down from above, pull an inmate up and leave him tied and hanging by his feet).
The action continues to get more outrageous as the hero finds himself against hordes of criminals and security teams (”49 hostiles detected,” are you kidding me?), packing pistols, bats, machine guns, sniper rifles, machetes and other deadly weapons.
However, let's remember, this is a game starring a super hero ready to save innocents (from political prisoners to Gotham's finest) while dispatching his brand of justice, so the takedown of this scum is more than warranted.
Teens will find the often insane combat an energetic release while adults will be mesmerized by the somber beauty of the often non-stop, onscreen brutality with only an occasional drop of blood seen.
Memorable moments: An opening confrontation between Catwoman, Two Face and Batman; whenever Joker laughs; first time I grabbed two criminals from behind and knocked their heads together; grappling to the edge of a building gargoyle, flipping over and perching on top; viewing a Batman with a glowing red sheen as he works his way through the smelting chamber of the Sionis Steel Mill; an encounter with Jaws; the bat signal in the cloudy sky hovering over the massive Wayne Enterprises building; seeing a bloodied cut on the thigh of the Batsuit; and using an Enigma machine to solve Riddler conundrums.
Pixel-popping scale: 9.7 out of 10. The overall design looks like the John Bolton-painted, comic-book, mini-series from 1995, Batman: Man-Bat come to life. It's that gorgeous throughout.
Each villain is a model marvel. Be it the Joker's rotting face from an unlucky encounter with a toxin, the smashed monocle on the Penguin to the absolute monstrous size of undead, Frankenstein-like behemoth Solomon Grundy, it will leave comic-book geeks with their jaws in a permanently dropped position.
Also, every foot of Arkham City is meticulously crafted (down to snow falling on bags of garbage and grungy amusement park balloons), standing out as a foreboding entity set against the bright backdrop of downtown Gotham.
Rocksteady's team of developers devotion to the Batman mythos is obvious with minutia such as stuffed Joker's Jackals, references to Sarah Essen Gordon (the Police Commissioner's murdered wife) and an abundance of agitated bats appearing after every success.
Extras and unlockables: The package includes a code to unlock missions featuring the Princess of Plunder, Catwoman. She's quite a sexy sight (with a design obviously culled from artist Jim Lee's work) and her attacks include some slick acrobatics, use of a whip and other weapons such as bolas and caltrops. Don't fear if you rent the game and can't re-use the code to access her levels. Her exploits do not directly impact the main story.
Also, look for character dossiers in the WayneTech database (that include extended bios and fact nuggets such as character's first appearances in comic books and even voicemail messages from the Joker) and find character trophies to look at 360-degree views of some awesome heroes and villains.
Finally, a set of challenge rooms involve combat (beat waves of enemies) and predator (sneakily take down a room full of armed foes) trials collecting points to win medals
Read all about it: Wisely, DC Comics' offered a six-issue mini-series bridging the story between the last and latest game, aptly titled Batman: Arkham City. Buy the trade paperback ($22.99) to get the full series, the five, digital chapters, and appreciate a story by the Emmy and Eisner Award winning co-creator of Harley Quinn, Paul Dini.
Star power: The voice of Batman in many animated series and video games over the last 20 years, actor Kevin Conroy, is back to really bring the vocal growl to the Caped Crusader.
Better yet, actor Mark Hamill returns as the voice of the Joker, and serves up plenty of scenery-chewing moments as a player watches the decent of the already crazed Clown Prince of Crime further down the path of madness.
Now, top it all off with a story by comics and cartoon veteran Paul Dini for hours and hours of fun.
What's it worth: With a history of playing a gantlet of superb video games over the past two decades, I am still blown away by Batman: Arkham City. Not only will this incredible interactive cinematic experience resonate for a long time with fans of the Dark Knight, but also gamers, movie-lovers and superhero worshippers enamored by the exploits of a pop-culture icon.
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