Here's the problem with sequels: bigger is pretty much the only answer. How many games take the sprawl of an original and pare it down to something clean and streamlined and pure? We've seen it again and again this year – Portal 2 took the brilliant simplicity of its original and blew it up, if not in gigantic ways, then in ways that certainly diluted the pureness of the original game; Uncharted 3's solution to the problem of justifying three Uncharted games in four years was to blow everything up louder and make every explosion more fiery. And whoda thunk it? Arkham City does the same thing too.
This is a game that is under constant threat of being crushed by its bloat. Instead of the relatively small and contained area of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City opens up like an Assassin's Creed game, meaning that you have the whole sprawl of a miniature city to run through. Instead of a couple of main villains plotting a relatively straightforward scheme, Arkham City throws no less than twenty major and minor villains together into one "plot" that remains fairly inscrutable until the final few chapters; and Batman's array of weapons basically just gets bigger and bigger throughout the game, so much so that your d-pad directional menu will have more options than buttons. Were Rocksteady afraid that gamers would revolt if the game didn't get bigger?
Because while pretty much all of the additions smack of overcompensating, the core of Arkham City is just as good, just as polished, and just as compelling as Arkham Asylum, while, of course, the same problems carry over – you don't make a game as critically adored and commercially successful as Arkham Asylum and go about changing much, which leads to the core gameplay feeling just as simultaneously awesome and frustrating.
Let's start with the awesome: Arkham City is still a brilliant combination of beat-em-up, Metroid-style adventure and stealth game. Everything is super fluid and makes the player feel like a genuine super hero – the difficulty is balanced so well that even if you die a whole bunch of times (like I did), you still feel this air of supremacy over the variety of mooks you encounter that fits in with the overall superhero style. I mean, lots of games make you feel like a superhero, but it at least makes sense for a Batman game to make you feel like one. And Rocksteady showed some design cajones by not following the trending video game instinct to take exploration and the occasional feeling of being lost out of the equation – especially when the environmental design is so good and so evocative.
I want to say this right now for fear of sullying it with the criticisms that are going to follow: this really is one of the best games of the year, and certainly one of the most enjoyable. Heck, there are maybe more problems with Arkham City than in any other action adventure game this year, but they're problems that really only affect the non-gameplay segments (for the most part), and that's in stark contrast with most every other big budget HD game this entire generation. If you're fucking up things like storytelling and character design and still having pretty great gameplay, that's ultimately quite an accomplishment in this era.
And that's not to say that those "periphery" elements aren't also pretty great a lot of the time. The voice acting is just as brilliant this time around, with the added benefit of some of the actors really growing into their roles. Kevin Conroy, who plays Batman, seems much less mechanical in Arkham City (even though he plays Batman in the animated series, I guess video games were something a little different for him), and Mark Hamill delivers the pre-eminent voice acting performance in video games with his Joker, a contradiction of malicious jokiness and stone-faced seriousness. Those elements are, of course, built into the character (and Hamill's version doesn't have any of the nihilistic psychoticism of Heath Ledger's big screen version), but Hamill gives a completely engrossing and commanding performance, again. He is the Joker.
It's too bad that the visualization of the Joker can't quite match the voice behind it. Like Arkham Asylum, every single character choice seems to have been the wrong one, with characters looking outlandish and realistic at the same time, leading to a real case of cognitive dissonance for the player. These are games that are great at creating mood and tone, but terrible at sticking to a style, and that's just as true of Arkham City. I also don't need another lingering shot of digitized boobs again in my entire life.
And so thoroughly does Hamill's Joker dominate the game that the litany of Batman universe villains and rogues all can't help but pale in comparison. The main problem is, again, that there's way too many of them. I could list every character in the game but, seriously, wouldn't that be boring for you? Well, it's just as boring in the game because there's no central focus. It's the same problem that Spiderman 3 faced, but somehow multiplied. Now, to be fair, there is a plot-related reason that all of these villains are in one mega-prison, but one can't help but feel that it's, again, that "bigger is better" mentality.
That plot! Man, it goes all over the place. The plot eventually settles down into a "kill 'em all" scenario that has Batman trying to keep Arkham City from getting demolished by Hugo Strange, but there's the TITAN formula and Talia al Ghul and Mr. Freeze's wife and, and, and…
Fuck it. Ignore all that stuff. Ignore the over-busy mechanics and the less-than-convincing character design and the messy plot and the messy world and focus, dammit, focus on the gameplay. Because it's still fun to feel like you're cheating the system. It's still fun to traipse around in the dark and to beat up nincompoops. It's never that intellectually challenging or that risky, and it's bloated, but hell, so few games even get the gameplay right, and Arkham City manages to do that in spades. Ignore the complicated DLC schemes, ignore the twenty minutes of credits for various marketing managers at the end. Put it out of your mind and play Arkham City.