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.

The game’s combat has been refined but not substantially changed. The standard rhythm-based flow and unique counter system works as well here as it did in Arkham Asylum. It’s still as good a system as any for giving you a sense of control over the general direction of the combat without burdening you with an overabundance of controls. Dropping down into the middle of a large group of enemies and then punching and kicking your way through them emphasizes the heroic dimension of Batman. The animations are fluid and the contacts feel like they have real substance behind them. Once you get fancy and start throwing in unique takedowns and counters, you’ll begin to feel like even more of a badass. Toss in any of 12 different gadgets, most of which have some direct combat application, and it gets even more intense. You might use a freeze grenade to immobilize an enemy, or drop an explosive that you detonate remotely once you’ve moved to another part of the battle. You might also decide to call in a wave of bats to disorient your foes. There’s a lot to choose from here and, given the variety of enemies and bosses you’ll face, it’s worth trying every trick at least once.

Stealth can often be just as fun as combat. It’s hard to imagine Batman passing up the opportunity to beat a few criminals into submission, but occasionally, you’ll find yourself with the opportunity to bypass guards and continue on to take out bigger prey. But if you can pass by undetected, odds are you can also have a little fun. Sneaking up behind enemies and performing silent takedowns or hanging inverted from gargoyles and scooping up any bad guys who walk below you are some of the game’s greatest joys. The detective vision, which allows you to see through walls (and which I found more plausible than last time), helps you maintain awareness of your enemies’ positions as you skulk through air vents and behind walls. It’s a particularly important approach for Catwoman, who lacks some of the power of Batman’s gadgets.

For all that it gets right, there are a few things I didn’t like about Batman: Arkham City. For one, the main story feels a bit rushed at the end. The revelations and twists pile on each other so quickly that you begin to realize you’ve never really been entirely sure who the main villain of the game is supposed to be. Is it Strange? The Joker? Ra’s? Even the final villain you fight at the end comes as sort of a surprise. Trying to sort out who’s who and who’s death is fake or not leaves little room for the player to really appreciate (or even notice) the clever mystery at the heart of the story. I was also a little sad that there’s just not enough detective work for this Dark Knight. He’ll get into a couple of CSI-style forensics sequences, but none of them really challenge the brain.

The gadgets, though tons of fun, are a bit distracting. By the end of the game, Batman has 12 different gadgets, most of which can be used in combat, and a variety of different takedowns and combos. Getting off the freeze grenades and batarangs is usually no problem, but trying to swap out the gadgets in combat just ends up being more confusing than helpful. In the end, simply sticking with the usual strikes and counters is more reliable than rifling through your utility belt trying to come up with something clever.

I’m still a bit conflicted about holding Catwoman out as DLC. Her story essentially kicks off and closes the entire campaign, and fills in a few additional details towards the middle. If you don’t experience that, you’ll still have a good time, but you won’t enjoy it as much as you would if you’d played with her all along. Even those who do get the code from buying a new copy of the game might miss out on how important her story elements are if they don’t download the extra content right away.

Bottom Line: An action-heavy realization of what makes Batman such a compelling hero, complete with a fascinating world, a smart story and loads of rewards for exploring it all.

Recommendation: Play it.

[rating=4.5]

Steve Butts suspects Batman would trade it all just have his mom and dad back.

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the 360 version of the game.

Game: Batman: Arkham City
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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