From Joel Schumacher’s baffling Bat-Nipples through to the 60s thwack-tastic TV series, there’s an inherent struggle between the relatable realism of The Dark Knight and the comic book campery of a superhero that spends his day dressed up as a giant Bat.
And while Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of the Bat-franchise excels on countless levels, Rocksteady’s increasingly incredible Arkham video game franchise manages to top it in one pivotal way – gritty and dark, visceral and brutal, yet still faithful to the comic book cartoonishness that birthed it, it straddles the line between the two effortlessly.
Case in point, Batman’s own rather literal ‘jumping the shark’ moment – a much mocked scene from the 1966 movie in which Adam West shook off a flying shark with nothing some handy Shark Repellant Bat Spray – is endearingly embraced half way through Arkham City’s main mission. Warily tip-toeing your way across some precariously thin ice, you’re suddenly attacked by a giant shark – which you repel using nothing but the awesomeness of your Bat fists.
After a tense, gruesome chase through Arkham’s bleak cityscape, it’s a moment both ludicrous and silly – but not only does it not jar, it makes you feel utterly, brilliantly bad-ass. I repeat – BATMAN JUST PUNCHED A SHARK IN THE FACE.
And you can’t really imagine Nolan being able to spin that one anytime soon.
But I – rather wafflingly – digress.
Rocksteady’s original Caped Crusade snagged awards (including BAFTA’s none-too-shabby Game of the Year) and adulation galore – and for good reason. Somehow they’ve managed to top the ‘Best Bat game ever made’ with an adventure that’s more engrossing, better plotted, lovingly designed, stuffed full of countless Easter Eggs, and home to some of the most satisfying combat this side of God of War.
Showing an amnesiac ambivalence to the events of the first game, Arkham’s Mayor Sharp has created its own prison district overflowing with crazy criminals right in the heart of town. Inevitably, Bruce Wayne is kidnapped by Hugo Strange, dropped into the heart of the chaos, and embarks on a city-wide quest to reinstate a little order, by way of pretty much every Bat enemy and supporting character going.
Almost immediately you’re back in the shoes (and well-worn firsts) of Batman, as he’s attacked from all angles and all sides. The combat is still supremely simple but effortlessly layered, with a number of enhancements and Level Ups allowing you to perfect the countless free-flowing, balletic and eternally satisfying punch-ups. From generic goons to weaponised psychos and enormous boss enemies, you’re consistently forced to analyse and then react to each unique fight like you actually are Batman.
That extends to the newly fleshed out Detective Mode, which comes with a whole host of new gadgets to geek out about, and an analytical approach that once again makes you really feel like the World’s Greatest Detective.
While the core story and side-missions will keep you entertained for weeks, Rocksteady have excelled themselves with the wealth and diversity of the extras. Concept art and 3D character models are all fine and dandy, but the real sell is the ability to play Challenge Maps and certain missions as completely different characters – from Robin and Nightwing to Catwoman (all of whom come with their own distinct moves), comic fans are guaranteed to be in nerd nirvana until the inevitable threequel.
Bigger, bolder and supremely polished, Batman: Arkham City manages to embrace both the down and dirty darkness of his cinematic cousin, whilst retaining the fun flippancy of its comic book heritage and – most importantly of all – somehow lives up to, and then surpass, expectations.
Batman: Arkham City is out now and available on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.