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The boss battles are better than they were in the first game. There, I answered your biggest question about Batman: Arkham City. The only thing holding back the 2009 sleeper hit Arkham Asylum was its collection of really underwhelming boss encounters. The fact that City fixes that problem is reason enough to like it. There are plenty of other reasons, though.
The titular Arkham City, a walled-off section of Gotham, is the new home for the city's most dangerous criminals. Heavily-armed mercenaries watch the walls and patrol the skies on attack helicopters. However, as long as criminals don't try to escape, they're free to do whatever they want. The result is that Arkham City is a hive of unlawful activity. In other words, it's the perfect place for Batman to dispense justice.
The setting is a rich canvas for a Batman tale. The relative freedom that all of the supervillains in Arkham City possess allows them to be their "true selves." Mr. Freeze is trying to cure his wife Nora, Penguin and Two-Face are fighting for territory, Poison Ivy is tending to her plants, and so on. The fact that these characters are battling each other as much as they're battling Batman makes the world feel a bit more genuine. This is the Gotham of the comic books.
Batman feels more like himself, too. He appears to have a lot more dialogue; he negotiates, threatens and interrogates rather than simply attacking. His conversations with his friends and foes hint at events that took place well before the game started. You come away from the game with a better understanding of who Batman (and Bruce Wayne) is. You'll probably feel the urge to check out the comics, too.
Arkham City is said to be five times larger than Asylum. I didn't break out the measuring tape to test the claim but it's certainly a much larger game world. It's not just empty space, either. In addition to minor diversions like random gangs of thugs and hidden Riddler trophies, there are also story-driven side missions to discover. The Riddler trophies, by the way, unlock standalone challenge maps that test your combat or stealth skills and let you compete online via leaderboards. There is a wide range worth of meaningful, optional content to tackle in this city.
Though the game world is sizable, it's pretty easy to get around. Batman can quickly bounce from building to building with his grappling hook or zipline. He can also glide through the air with his cape. The only time navigating the world becomes annoying is when you find yourself indoors. The maps aren't very detailed and you'll spend a lot of time backtracking and looking around at ceilings to find some hidden ledge. On a few occasions, you'll have to head into the subway below the city and the lack of a quick exit from these tunnels makes the game's pace slow to a crawl.
Still, it's hard to get bored in the game world because it's full of people to fight. Combat in the game plays out in two ways: hand-to-hand brawls or stealthy "invisible predator" sequences. If your opponents have guns and/or are holding hostages, you'll be doing the latter. Batman isn't very durable and will die from a few gunshots so you need to quietly take down armed foes. The brawls, meanwhile, are fast-paced button-mashing segments in which you fend off large groups of enemies with combos, gadgets, and counter moves.
The brawling and stealth will feel a little too familiar in the opening hours if you've played Asylum. However, they soon evolve past what you experienced in the first game. Both the stealth and brawling stay fresh throughout the campaign due to the numerous curveballs the developers throw at you. In the case of the hand-to-hand fights, you're always encountering new enemy types that require different tactics. For example, an enemy wearing body armor needs to be stunned before you can get in close to deal some damage. With the stealth segments, you'll encounter enemies with radar jammers or thermal goggles that make it harder for you to stay unseen. You're constantly being forced to learn and adapt.
You could argue that there's a third pillar to the gameplay: the investigations. With a press of a button, Batman can enter Detective Mode. It's a visual display that turns the world into a bluish haze with characters and crucial objects highlighted in a different color. It's handy for keeping track of enemies on stealth segments but you also use it on occasion to analyze areas. In one early scene, for example, Batman needs to determine where a gunshot came from.
Batman is, among other things, a detective so I like the idea of these investigations. However, they require zero thought. You bring up Detective Mode, find the highlighted object (like a bullet hole in a window), center the camera on it, and voila. Batman scans it with his Bat-computer and you get a new objective to run off to. You're just following bread crumbs - or drops of blood, in one case - rather than performing any sort of analysis. These parts of the game would work better if they had a puzzle element to them. Right now, the game's detective work just feels half-baked. They forgot to add a challenging element to it. It's the only returning aspect of the Asylum that wasn't improved in the sequel.
Fortunately, as I mentioned before, the boss fights have improved. They're epic, larger-than-life battles that test some combination of your brawling, platforming, stealth, and puzzle skills. Yep, puzzle. The initial challenge in many of the boss encounters is finding out how to hurt the villain or avoid their attacks. A couple of the fights can get repetitive but the boss' abilities evolve to some degree over the course of the fight to keep you on your toes. One boss (I won't mention the name due to spoilers) throws a wall of blades at Batman. Later on in the fight, he'll start throwing two at a time. It's not a huge change but it's enough to keep you from sleepwalking. Boss fights are supposed to be the high point of the game and they deliver on that front.
Arkham City really makes you feel like Batman, stalking through the shadows and striking fear into the hearts of Gotham's scum. I wish the developers found a way to make his detective work more engaging to the player but every other aspect of the Dark Knight experience is a blast. City is the standard by which all other super hero video games will be measured.
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
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