Welcome to the jungle
It has been a year and some change since Arkham Asylum was torn from the firm yet deranged grip of a clown gone bad, and things have changed drastically. No longer content with what little security the asylum was able to offer, the fine voters of Gotham elected former warden Quincy Sharp to handle this situation. You see, Quincy has a plan to solve the criminal problem in Gotham, mostly by turning part of the city into the go-to destination for all criminals, be they super-villian or Joe-schmo mugger. North Gotham is turned into a super prison, a place where once you are thrown in, you are unlikely to ever come out.
Not all is well with this plan though. Mysterious doctor Hugo Strange is brought in to head the institution. Rather than relying on the men and women of the Gotham City Police Department to secure the prison, he has brought in a group of private contractors known as TYGER. And while they man the walls with high-grade military weaponry and patrol the air above with gunsips, the inmates are, for lack of a better term, running the asylum. When you bring the entire bevy of Batman villians to the same party you know things aren't going to be peaceful, and in no surprise to anyone, they aren't.
The introduction to this game hits a lot harder and faster than its predecessor, a common theme throughout its entirety. You start as Bruce Wayne (spoiler: He is Batman), showing up to the outer gates of Arkham City to bring attention the bloody gang war that is rapidly escalating on the streets inside. Things quickly go bad though, as Wayne is arrested along with several other politicos and brought inside. Put at the mercy of Dr. Strange, he quickly learns that his greatest secret is, well, on the fast track to not being a secret. So begins the darkest night for the Dark Knight.
As much material as there may seem to be absorbed right away, the game delivers you into the experience very swiftly. In fact, from the time you actually start the game to being freely released on Arkham City is around 5 minutes (you can add a minute or two if you have the Catwoman DLC) without forcing you down a directly linear path. If you didn't play Arkham Asylum this serves as an introduction to basic combat and movement, if you did then this serves as a quick refersher.
Speaking of combat, the mechanics have been vastly improved from Asylum. Presented in a very cinematic form, it is not only very easy to pick up but rather engaging. Yes, most fights can be won by simply flipping from enemy to enemy and landing combos, but that isn't very Batman, now is it? In a short matter of time, you will be diving off of a tall building into a large group of enemies, throwing batarangs (which can now be used to knock out an enemy as well as stun them), batclaw slamming (awesome additon), electrocuting, freezing, and all other manners of Battacking (trademarked) in a single combo flow thanks to some excellent controller mapping. Yet, if that is not your style, you are still free to lurk in the shadows, isolating enemies and picking them off stealthily.
Movement has also been improved from Asylum. Both the Line Launcher and Grappel Gun return, and there are some training style misssions to help familiarize you with some new features, which upon completion rewards you with an awesome upgrade for the Grappel Gun. You can make it from one side of the city to the other, and never set your feet down. By the time you wrap up training, you will be near expert at fast movement, by the time you complete the Riddler Challenges, you'll have no equal.
Enemies have also been worked on and improved. You have your standard baddies, with nothing more than two meaty fists, as well as some that come with knives, guns, shock sticks, armor, and ballistic shields. Some will pick up loose items to throw at you (which you can throw back with a swift counter). They have also learned to deal with your hiding places, checking floor grates if an unconcious enemy is found near one, and destroying gargoyles/ledges if they believe you are attacking from them. Some enemies come equipped with backpack jammers, which disrupt detective mode until they are neutralized, while others have infared goggles to scan hiding places, though there is an upgrade available which makes the goggles near useless.
The Riddler has returned as well, now sporting 400 or so challenges. You will scour the city for green question marks (red ones for Catwoman) and scanning various things to solve riddles. There are some physical challenges as well, though I'm not quite sure the Riddler really cares how many times you tripped an opponent by sliding into them. These are not the same simple puzzles from Asylum though where trophies were protected by you simply not having the correct item. Some of these take some real thought and can get frustrating until you figure the solution out. As you collect more trophies and solve more riddles you will be invited into Riddler rooms, which will test the depth of your gadget knowledge. To put it simply, in Asylum, Riddler simpy wanted to annoy you, in Arkham City, he is actually trying to kill you, and heads up, he'll succeed a few times.
Challenge mode is back with a vengance, with plenty of medals to earn, and plenty of chances to display just how Batman you really are. Noticeably added this time, and much wanted in the last game, is a New Game + mode, which will allow you start with all your gadgets and upgrades in exchange for taking away attack indicators and providing much harder and more varied groups of enemies. There are plenty of unlockables and extras to read and view, which help to flesh out the story and explain some parts that perhaps were not broached directly. Visually and audio wise, this game is beautiful. It includes a 3D option, but due to my lack of a 3D TV, I cannot comment on that.
There are a few gripes however. Boss fights, while improved and definitely harder than in Arkham Asylum, still fall into the habit of forcing patterned combat. Enemies have a habit of repeating the same phrases over and over, and while there is an occasional change to reflect the events of the main story, it grows static after a while. A few side quests, though fun, wind up being little more than scanning a few locations to bring forth a villian, who you may not even fight. A few of these though seem to be obvious moves to set up a third installment, which if I had a guess, is likely to be set in Bloodhaven.
My biggest issue though is the Catwoman DLC. If it is installed before you start the game, it is integrated into the story. If not, you can go back and play it seperately. It only amounts to 4 levels though, none of which are more than a couple minutes and a swift fight. I didn't find her to be anywhere near as fun to play with as the Bat, and honestly it serves little more purpose than to explain the occasional Catwoman sighting. Admittedly, it is free with a new purchase, and therefore worth installing, but I don't know if I could honestly recommend the DLC to a person who bought the game used.
Issues aside, Batman: Arkham City is a solid game, likely to eat a good chunk of your life. It is fun and enveloping, with a great story powering it along, and does an excellent job of actually putting you into Batman's shoes. It is such a vast improvement on its predecessor that it is nearly unbelievable, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this game in discussion for "Game of the Decade" in 8-9 years. This game, should be the benchmark to which all other sequels are held, for a long, long time.
Review based on XBox 360 version with installed Catwoman DLC.