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Batman Arkham City

The Xbox 360 box art for the excellent Batman: Arkham City.

Sometimes reviewers can't see the forest for the trees. When I finished Batman: Arkham City, I immediately cataloged what I thought it did wrong. It tossed in too many villains and didn't flesh them out, it clearly tried to replicate the Scarecrow stuff from the first game and didn't do it as well, and Batman still moves a bit stiffly when simply walking around. When I formed the list, I found myself disappointed with the game. But the days rolled on and I couldn't stop playing -- in fact, I only wanted to play more. The hundreds of things Batman: Arkham City nails outweighed my nitpicky problems. I realized Batman: Arkham City is a brilliant game.

If you've missed the roughly 1.4 million stories on IGN, Batman: Arkham City picks up months after the events of Asylum. Former Arkham warden Quincy Sharp now reigns as the mayor of Gotham City, and he's moved the bad guys from Blackgate Prison and the inmates from Arkham Asylum to a cordoned off area in the heart of Gotham. This is Arkham City, Dr. Hugo Strange runs it, and Batman's job is to see what the hell is going on inside. It's an interesting story that starts with one of the best openings in modern games. After two years of dreaming about where this sequel would go, Batman: Arkham City delivered and hooked me. That can be said for most of the game.

Fans of the Batman: Arkham Asylum will immediately be at home in Arkham City as developer Rocksteady took the core gameplay, refined it, and polished it. You brawl with one button, counter with another and leap when you feel like it. Batman's got a slew of new counter attacks -- including the ability to take out several attacking enemies at once -- and the ability to use nearly every gadget in battle with a hot key system. Even though the system can seem simple (that's if you ignore the combos and multipliers) the diversity in the attacks and battles keeps it interesting. I wanted to engage bad guys instead of sneaking past them. Maybe it was the promise of more experience points and the upgrades they unlocked, but it probably had more to do with wanting to see Batman dislocate another elbow.

Rocksteady kept me on my toes by peppering in special enemies. Guys with stun rods, armored outfits and broken bottles all have to be dealt with in very specific ways. I needed to assess threats and engage situations like Batman would. I don't know if I can express how awesome that makes a comic nerd like me feel; after years of hypothesizing how Batman would beat Character X, I now have to do it to survive.

Feeling like Batman made Arkham Asylum a must-play, and Arkham City continues that tradition. I felt like I had the upper hand when I walked into a room where the enemies outnumbered me 20 to 1 because I could drop a smoke pellet, use freeze grenades to take enemies out of the game and basically kick ass. Five gunmen with hostages didn't scare me because I knew I could disappear into the shadows to string them up from gargoyles, punch through walls to take them down and glide kick them over railings.

This feeling of empowerment carries over to bosses, which is weird at first but makes sense. No boss in Arkham City really gave me a challenge. In fact, they're all a bit easy. Mr. Freeze had me stumped for a while as once you use an attack on him you can't use it again, but then the Bat-computer just sent me a cheat sheet. (Although, disabling hints would've eliminated this moment.) That specific instance was no fun, but overall, the joy of Batman bosses is the journey to them and not the fight themselves. The Penguin will never challenge the World's Greatest Detective.

Arkham City isn't an open world like Liberty City; it's more like a hub world with a bunch of dungeons like The Legend of Zelda or a bigger version of Batman: Arkham Asylum. You can't go into every building, but as you explore, you're going to find you're kept from discovering some of the 400-some Riddler Challenges until you double back with new gadgets. As you unlock the game's dozen side missions, you have to search nooks and crannies for murder victims and political prisoners in distress.

If being Batman sounds good to you, expect to play this game twice and have the second time feel light years better than the first. New Game Plus unlocks after your first runthrough of Arkham City, and it carries over all your gadgets and shares your Riddler Challenge data. It also doesn't erase your original game's progress – it lives in its own section of your save. Historically, I despise playing games more than once. I know what's around the next corner, so where's the fun in it? Well, I adored Batman: Arkham City's New Game Plus. The difficulty is amped up, the enemies are more diverse from the get go, and the reversal indicators are turned off.

New Game Plus takes the training wheels off and forces you to be Batman. When Batman enters a fight, he knows how to win; he just needs to execute his plan. That's you in this mode. You already know what's coming, you just need to execute your 45-hit combo, dodge explosives and save the day. This left me feeling more like Batman than ever before.

Challenges rooms return and have been given an update since the days of Arkham Asylum. There are a dozen combat challenge maps (take out the four waves of bad guys) and a dozen Invisible Predator challenges (sneak around and silently eliminate all the bad guys) and each comes with three medals to earn. All that is standard, but Arkham City offers up Riddler Campaigns. These link three challenges together and apply gameplay modifiers like low health, time limits and so on. There's even an option to make your own Bat-exams. These challenges mainly serve to point out how slow my version of Batman is, but I'm glad they're here. They help hone my skills and provide leaderboards to chase and keep me playing.

Catwoman Conundrum

Leading up to Batman: Arkham City, Rocksteady talked a lot about the Catwoman missions in the game -- that 10 percent of Arkham City was all about Selina Kyle. Well, it turns out that content isn't included on the disc. If you buy the game new, it comes with a one-time use code to download the Catwoman content. Used copies will most likely have the code snatched up and you'll need to buy the DLC off Xbox Live or the PlayStation Store.

If I can give you some advice, download and install the Catwoman missions before starting the game. Her four story missions, inserted throughout Batman: Arkham City, are a fun (albeit simple) change of pace, and literally change the opening of the game. I downloaded her stuff after beating the game the first time, and the integrated Catwoman stuff during my New Game Plus playthrough was way more enjoyable than just tackling her missions off the main menu. This is downloadable content that expands the mythos of the game as you're playing it. It explains events that are happening off camera.

Outside of the four missions, the Catwoman DLC gives you challenge maps for the feline and the ability to get the special Catwoman Riddler Trophies in Arkham City.

Batman: Arkham City isn't perfect, but listing the little things I didn't like gets in the way of all the stuff I adored. The voice acting, the challenges, the amazing opening, the unbelievable ending and the feeling of being the Dark Knight -- these are the things that standout looking back. I've beaten this thing twice and still want to call in sick and chase Riddler Trophies.

Batman: Arkham City isn't just better than Batman: Arkham Asylum, it's better than most games on the market.

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