To say that Batman: Arkham City is the best licensed game of all time is like saying Oreos are the best chocolate-and-cream sandwich cookies; sure, it's praise, but it's meaningless praise given the competition. A more impressive feat is that outside of the comics and graphic novels, Batman: Arkham City is the single best representation of the Batman property ever created.
A veritable who's who of Batman history, Arkham City manages to weave in just about every major Batman character, from Alfred to Zsasz. The main storyline focuses on Batman's fight to take down Arkham City from the inside out, all while dealing with the ever-present Joker threat. The tightly constructed narrative moves seamlessly from story beat to story beat, villain to villain, as it builds to a satisfying and surprising finale. It helps that every member of the voice acting cast is pitch perfect, from the brilliant psychotic lunacy of Mark Hamill's Joker to the gravelly snarl of Kevin Conroy's Batman.
The real star of the show, however, is Arkham City, the walled-off penal colony that serves as the game's setting and expansive hubworld. Arkham City's faded art deco splendor and gritty industrial slums come together to uniquely capture the seedy, noir soul of Gotham. This carefully selected cross-section of toppled landmarks, burned‑out tenements, and rusty factories provides the perfect backdrop for Batman to do the usual Batman things.
Batman danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. And won.
And that's the true triumph of Batman: Arkham City—never before has Batman felt more like Batman. The caped crusader effortlessly grapples and glides his way around the city, flits from shadowy rooftops to darkened alleys, and makes full use of an impressive array of gadgets and utilities in his quest to clean up the rugged streets of Arkham City. Traversal is faster than ever as Batman literally flies across the city, and the open nature of Arkham City's world lets you smoothly transition from exploration, to stealth, to straightforward fisticuffs.
The free-flowing combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum makes a triumphant return in Arkham City, and with significant improvements. The core concept is still a two-button, timing-based system, focusing on strikes and counters and quickly moving from one target to the next. This go 'round, however, Batman has brought all his toys to the party. His utility belt is overflowing with handy gadgets which he can quick fire in the middle of combat without even breaking his combo.
Adding to the dynamic feel of both the fighting and the city at large is Nvidia's PhysX engine. Batman's cape clings and flutters realistically, dust and fog swirl around the legs of back alley thugs, leaves and trash float around the dilapidated streets, and shards of shattered glass and rock litter the broken pavement. The additions are subtle, but add significant atmosphere to an already detailed world.
Thanks to Nvidia's PhysX, the terrified look on this thug's face is hidden by a leaf, as guest star Catwoman kicks his skull in.
And yes, even without PhysX, Batman: Arkham City is simply a phenomenal-looking game. The power of the PC is in full effect here; crisp hi-res textures and expansive draw distance ensure immersion even when viewing the entire city while gliding on high. Unfortunately, the game's performance takes a serious nosedive when DirectX 11 functions are enabled. While the game can run smoothly for stretches in DX11 mode, the frame rate will randomly, and fairly frequently, plummet to 5fps or lower, ultimately making the game unplayable. It's a shame too, as the DirectX 11 features look particularly nice, significantly enhancing the look of cloth and skin textures, and making characters appear decidedly less flat and plasticky than in DX9 mode.
There are a handful of other niggling technical issues, as well. The game's keyboard and mouse controls, thankfully, are not among them. The layout takes a bit of getting used to—this game uses a ton of buttons, thanks to 12 gadgets and several combat combo buttons—but feels better than a gamepad in the long run. The annoyance is simply that control settings cannot be changed when the game is running. In fact, no game settings can be changed once the game is launched—they can only be changed through the launcher application, before the game boots. Also, while we encountered no catastrophic errors, the game does take fairly long to boot, and we had several crashes with GFWL, forcing us to exit the program and restart.
Minor technical shortcomings aside, the PC version of Batman: Arkham City is clearly the definitive version of the definitive Batman experience. While it's a shame that the month delay between console and PC wasn't enough time to iron out all the kinks, the PC version still controls the best, runs the best, looks the best, and will provide you with the best Batman experience money can buy.