Other costumed heroes come and go, but as the sales of millions and millions of comics, video games and movie tickets can attest, there's really nobody quite like Batman. He's the Caped Crusader. He's a hero who's been imagined and reimagined countless times but who always jumps unhesitatingly into the fray against slavering maniacs and drug-fueled madmen—without a single superpower.
All this impassioned good guy has is a brilliant detective's mind, a perfectly tuned set of fighting skills, the determined will of 20 men and, oh, a few hundred million dollars worth of high-tech gadgetry. Wrap that all up in a pointy-eared cowl and about 300 pounds of muscle and armor, though, and you definitely wouldn't want to see this guy hurtling at you out of the night sky.
And hurtle he does in WB Games' newest title, Batman: Arkham City. This is a sprawling shadow-drenched adventure that's particularly well-made and set in perhaps the most lavishly detailed and distinctly memorable environment ever created for Bruce Wayne's alter ego.
Cozying Up to the Crazies
This version of the Bat's tale centers on an old run-down section of Gotham that's been cleared out, walled off and renamed Arkham City, in the wake of the explosive closing events gamers experienced while playing Batman: Arkham Asylum. It seems there's just no place left to contain all of Gotham's supervillains, so the supercreepy and power-hungry Dr. Hugo Strange convinces Gotham's leaders to put all the thugs from Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison into a partitioned mini-city of their own.
Well, as you might expect, things quickly begin going wrong. But by the time people start complaining, Dr. Strange has amassed so much power that anyone who objects to Arkham City's inhumane insanity ends up being snatched and tossed in with full-out crazies like the Joker and Two-Face.
Which has a tendency to quickly quiet the criticism.
Time to don the stylish black-caped armor and permanent scowl of the Dark Knight and find a way into Arkham City. Protecting the innocent and bringing a bit of order to the superprison's wintery, chaos-filled streets is your first challenge. But you also have to try to save a poisoned Joker. Why not just let him die? Well, because if that happens, he's gonna take a whole lotta others with him. And don't forget to foil an ominous power plot dreamed up by Dr. Strange, a scheme known only as Protocol 10.
All of that has to be done amidst the dystopian rubble of old subways, an abandoned police headquarters, a dilapidated courthouse, an ancient steel mill and other such "attractions" in this wide-open world that feels equally rich and directionless at first swoop. Every rooftop and alleyway appears to contain some mini-mystery worth solving or some endangered innocent in need of saving. Add inevitable encounters with the icy Mr. Freeze, the gigantic Solomon Grundy, the deceptive Catwoman and the ancient assassin Ra's al Ghul, and the game becomes both immersive and daunting.
Dark Bat Corners
Gadgets at your disposal include a Detective Mode vision device that helps highlight a loose grate here or an unnoticed bullet hole there. It also helps you spy high perches from which you can grab a criminal or a weak wall perfect for crashing through. The Batarang, of course, can be tossed to thwack an unwitting miscreant as easily as it can be used to trigger an unreachable button. And your flexible cape can snap into a wing-like stiffness to help in soaring from one building to another.
Clearly, Batman: Arkham City is built for battle. Kicks, punches, thumps and flying bullets are ever present. The combat system starts with only one button for defense and one for attack. And though it layers on other combos and timing challenges as you go, mashing those two buttons alone could probably get most players through. The resulting martial arts-based battling is both impressive and brutal as you dispense dozens of rib-crushing counters. Batman may have determined that he won't kill, but he's never minded breaking a few bones. So arms, legs, ribs and faces repeatedly snap, crack and pop as they feel the force of his booming armored fist.
And the bad guys like Penguin and Joker never took the "no killing" pledge. They and their gangs never hesitate to shoot a captured cop in the back or plant a sharp knife in an innocent's midsection. They never said they'd be civil either. While Batman is determined and unflappable, the street-packing gang members and thuggish masses are all too ready to screech out their surprise or anger with language that includes "d‑‑n", "h‑‑‑", "b‑‑ch", "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard."
These are the kinds of things that end up swinging back around like a badly thrown Batarang and hitting gamers in the head. You won't see raw sexuality or spraying blood and gore in Arkham City. But you are forced to walk through a room strung with hanging corpses and see swords jammed through someone's chest. You swim through some dark spirituality, too, and deal with drinking something called "blood of the demon." (This substance heals wounds and inflicts visions of spirit-filled battles.) You hear a thug discussing his affection for porn and growling, "Catwoman sure is hot. Oooh, I'd love to get me a piece 'o her." And you get an eyeful of Catwoman's and Harley Quinn's overemphasized (and sometimes bared) curves.