Is Batman: Arkham City up to the challenge?
Batman: Arkham Asylum was a tight, lean adventure that revolved around the intimate, quasi-Victorian setting of an ominous Gothic mansion, and its brilliant conceit gave British developer Rocksteady the perfect reason to have the Dark Knight forced into a medley of confrontations with some of his most iconic foes.
Outside of its pitch-perfect single-player campaign, however, Arkham Asylum's challenge rooms also made their own impact, and rightly so; Rocksteady even made four exclusive challenge maps the headline feature of the Arkham Asylum Game of the Year Edition.
Here the narrative trappings were neatly lopped off, leaving nothing but the game's raw mechanics, eased into existence by the durable Unreal Engine. While a trussed up arena format would work to the detriment of some titles - Borderlands' Mad Moxxi DLC and BioShock 2's underwhelming Protector Trials spring immediately to mind - Batman's scrappy and accessible combat, coupled with his empowering stealth tools, positively flourished in the limelight.
It's particularly good news, then, that the Challenge Rooms make a splendid reappearance in Arkham City, with Rocksteady exhibiting a rooftop combat arena as part of its gamescom 2011 demo.
The first thing you notice is the new system of buffs and debuffs. Similar to tweaking your options for a round of Firefight in Halo: Reach, Batman: Arkham City gives you a set of options to either help or hinder you in combat. Make life more difficult for yourself by removing the icons that warn of enemy attacks and you'll get a fat numerical bonus, but opt for extra health and you'll have to suffer a score penalty.
High scores are very much the order of the day, so this begs the all-important question: do you make your enemies easier to defeat and hope that other score bonuses - such as not taking damage - offset the losses?
Whatever you choose (I just dived straight in) you'll be greeted by the immediately recognisable streams of henchmen, spaced out over multiple rounds. The trick is, as ever, to take them all down with poise and panache rather than by smashing buttons.
Batman still packs a punch, being able to dispatch most goons in three or four of his meaty blows, but it's immediately noticeable how much work has been put into his gorgeous animations since Arkham Asylum. This instantly gives combat an increased sense of visual flair, and a new focus on environmental takedowns (either with expert planning or some handy luck) means the game's balletic system of attacks and counters is even more appetising than before.
Enhancing the combat are some new tricks, including double takedowns - a treat that worked wonders for Ubisoft in Assassin's Creed, and one that works equally as well for Rocksteady here - and the ability to work into a flurry of quick punches on certain enemies when stunned, each deadly jab swelling your combo chain.
It's also now possible to dodge the attacks of knife-wielding enemies, and while I found the timing on this a bit tricky it was immeasurably satisfying watching Batman weave around the violent slashes before launching into a counter of his own.
While it is unlikely players will want to hop into Arkham City's Challenge Rooms before tackling the main campaign, it's abundantly clear that Rocksteady has taken the time to expand and refine the mechanics of its bonus arenas alongside the main game.
Batman: Arkham City will be released for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on October 21.