Batman: Arkham Asylum's success hinged on the fact it would have been an outstanding game even without the undeniable force of its iconic source material. Instead of wheeling out the Dark Knight to distract from ropey construction and weary mechanics, as is so often the case, developer Rocksteady used the character to enhance and intensify the core experience.
For follow-up sequel Batman: Arkham City, however, tactful and intelligent use of the stoic hero is now expectation rather than pleasant surprise. But Rocksteady manages to unexpectedly delight once again by using a wider sample of the Batman universe and adding layers to its swelling chunk of Gotham city. If that's not enough to put a Joker-size grin on your face, it also lets you punch hapless goons really hard.
The sturdy foundations laid by the excellent Arkham Asylum haven't been reinvented, but every corner of the game somehow finds itself broadened and yet more focused, ensuring it can bear the weight of a loftier and more developed structure. Batman is now swifter and more dangerous, the villains more noteworthy and numerous, and the intricate world is more playful, varied and detailed.
Arkham City's first hour re-introduces the environment Rocksteady has both created and inherited, yet its familiar core now feels like a whole new world; the gothic interiors of the asylum have found themselves inverted into a neon sprawl of gaudy lights, dilapidated buildings, and steel fencing. Arkham City develops and juggles open space as beautifully as it does crevices and corridors, creating a lengthy single-player campaign that manages, after delivering a striking and unexpected opening, to toy with your expectations throughout.
Unafraid of employing some classic dramatic techniques, the oversized penitentiary is introduced by (almost literally) pulling up the stage curtain in a stunning vignette. Arkham City is a state-sanctioned prison, run by little-known villain Hugo Strange, which incarcerates political refugee and thug alike. Built on the decaying foundations of an unwanted chunk of Gotham city, it's a boxed-in no man's land peppered with a good chunk of Batman's most notable foes - including Two-Face, the Riddler and the Joker, the latter's psychotic coos and giggles still voiced pitch-perfectly by Mark Hamill.
It's a joy in motion. The major change is one of scale, and while the city's scope is tiny compared to some of its contemporaries it manages to remain a lean and taut adventure throughout. Traversal is divine, requiring you to mix gliding and grappling while weaving across the air for extra momentum - though you do look a teeny-tiny bit like you're hang gliding while smashed. The potential for physics-defying movements is quickly established, but it's not for a couple of hours of practice that the extent of your airborne freedom is actually realised.