Two years ago, Batman: Arkham Asylum revolutionized the idea of the franchise game by being immensely enjoyable instead of just a quick cash-grab.
But for all its glory, Arkham Asylum was a little cramped, being about, well, Arkham Asylum. There's only so much you can do with one sanitarium, after all. The rest of Gotham City was left to cutscenes and furtive glances out barred windows, and like the asylum's inmates, players were left to wonder what it would be like to be on the other side of the fence.
The Batman mythos is nothing if not consistent, though, and so Batman: Arkham City, Arkham Asylum's newly minted sequel, shows us that life on the outside isn't so different.
Of course, that might have to do with the fact that Gotham City's keepers are absolutely batty themselves. Having somehow managed to parley the events of Arkham Asylum into an upswell of public support, Gotham Mayor Quincy Sharp (yes, the former inept Arkham warden) and Professor Hugo Strange (yes, the psychiatrist-meets-Henry Kissinger supervillain) decide to wall off a significant portion of Gotham City itself and let Gotham's criminals roam free within, turning Gotham's less opulent boroughs into a comic-book reenactment of Lord of the Flies.
Batman obviously isn't impressed by the idea (nor by the Blackwater-esque "private security" forces who have replaced the Gotham City Police). He gets political, attempting to rally public dissent as Bruce Wayne. Naturally, Wayne's arrest and immediate imprisonment in Arkham City follow, and things get back to punchy, stealthy normal soon after.
Arkham City tears the roof off Arkham Asylum and gives it a good shake, presenting from start to finish a world that is fundamentally broken. It's the perfect environment for zipping around between rooftops on your way to find a nice group of miscreants and get your Dark Knight on all over them.
It is beautiful because Arkham City is ugly. It's a necrotic, rotting city on the verge of total collapse, being hustled along to its demise by a several-sided gang war. When a starving thug complains about having to eat dog food to survive through a night grown unnaturally cold through some mad scientist's whim, you can't help but believe him. (You still beat him senseless, but you believe him.)
But Arkham City has a problem: Arkham Asylum. Arkham City is better than its predecessor, inasmuch as not dropping the ball on opening up the world and getting the scenery right can make a game better. But it needed to be more than that to properly step out from Asylum's shadow.
You can't get a proper feel for Arkham Asylum without understanding why it made such a splash. It was never merely "good" or "great," or even a mere game-of-the-year contender. It was both good in and of itself and leagues better than a huge majority of the licensed games of the past few decades.
That kind of thing gives a franchise momentum, and sadly, it's a momentum that Arkham City seems to lack. Arkham City is very much just Arkham Asylum with a larger, more open map structure and a protagonist-appropriate way to traverse said map. By itself that's a whole lot, but when measured in context, Arkham City may stand head and shoulders above the pack, but it just barely peeks over Asylum.
Don't get me wrong: Arkham City has precious few missteps of its own. Rocksteady didn't turn out to be the developers who magically figured out how to create an open-world game without losing the stronger story framework of a linear game, and none of the supervillains except the Joker get nearly enough attention. But all in all, it's a blast from start to finish, and one of the few games this year that had me coming back even after finishing all the main content to just coast around the city and see what I could see.
It's just not the blast that Arkham Asylum was, and while it doesn't necessarily need to be, part of me wishes that Arkham City did less resting on its Bat-Laurels and more knocking my Bat-Socks off.