I loved Batman: Arkham Asylum so much that I was kind of afraid of Batman: Arkham City. I worried that the stars wouldn't align to produce a game as good as the original, or that the game would just recycle the original without offering us anything new or surprising. I'm happy to say I was wrong on both counts. Batman: Arkham City is not only as good as the original - it's also not the same game.
After the previous game, Arkham Asylum's warden has been elected mayor of Gotham and decided to repurpose the city's slums as a sort of super prison. Predictably, the idea goes horribly wrong and Batman finds himself fighting to restore order as the Joker, Penguin and Two-Face battle it out for control of Gotham's streets and underworld. Numerous members of Batman's rogues' gallery put in an appearance as well, sometimes even acting as unexpected allies. I won't spoil any of the plot details, but the script, written by Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series, is a first rate Batman story that hits all the right notes and only fails as it begins to pile on the climaxes towards the end.
The first big change is the setting. If you liked the open feel of Arkham Asylum, you'll love the wide-open spaces of Arkham City. Like Spider-Man, Batman has always been an undeniably urban superhero, whose setting is as much a part of his identity as his mask and cape. It's great that Arkham City finally lets him sit on top of skyscrapers and stealthily slink down the alleys. The designers might be faulted for only exploring one general tone or mood in Gotham, but the engaging story and the endless visual details keep it from seeming like a caricature.
Movement is a big part of what I like about this game. No game since Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 has made it as enjoyable to get from one end of the city to the other. Batman's able to glide from rooftop to rooftop and even use a power dive to take more direct control over his flight this time around. Better still, the grapple gun comes with an ability to launch yourself directly into the air from your grapple points, so you essentially move from one end of the city to the other without ever having to use your legs. It's an amazing feeling and it lets you appreciate the artistic design of the game as well as plan out the attacks on those poor earth-bound slobs below. Nothing makes you feel as much like Batman as when you find yourself crouching on top of a gargoyle and planning how to take out five armed thugs guarding the museum entrance.
The game world isn't quite as open or dynamic as the worlds of Assassin's Creed or Grand Theft Auto, but there's still enough sideline content to keep you from feeling like you're just running from one main story sequence to another. Better still, they all fit Batman's character. You're either scouring the city for the Riddler's puzzles, tracking down Zsasz before he can kill more victims, or helping Mr. Freeze find his wayward wife. Some of these sideline missions are off by themselves, but most have at least a single thread connecting them to the larger story. The diversity is nice because it allows you to take a break from the more involved missions and just focus on a smaller, more limited objective. I was a bit disappointed that most missions are isolated inside the various buildings. The few missions that take you out into the streets and rooftops of Gotham not only give you more tactical options, but also really drive home the feeling that you're Batman.