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Batman: Arkham City
Graphics: 9.2
Gameplay: 9.7
Sound: 9.6
Control: 9.4
Replay Value: 9.5
Rating: 9.5

Typically, the autumn is loaded with pre-holiday blockbusters, many of which pull down high review scores and are in the eventual running for Game of the Year. As of right now, we have a frontrunner for the prestigious award: it’s Rocksteady’s amazing Batman: Arkham City, which expands upon the winning formula from Arkham Asylum, gives us an open, exquisitely detailed world, just about every villain one could hope to encounter, and that beautifully refined combat mechanic that never gets old. Wow.

Although I won’t say this is the best graphical production of the year (thus far, that goes to RAGE in my estimation), Arkham City will still take your breath away. It’s probably larger than you expected, and the designers painstakingly crafted just about every nook and cranny of the expansive, intimidating environment. Character design is excellent (despite a somewhat unrealistic, plastic-y look), and the wonderfully fluid animations and ridiculously sharp effects are a pleasure to behold. It’s sweeping, epic and almost painfully immersive.

The sound is even more accomplished, as the deep, resonating orchestral soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment for our butt-kicking and general exploration, and the voiceover work is tremendous. This counts for extra given the sheer number of characters, each with very distinctive personalities. Mark Hamill as The Joker is fantastic, Nolan North as The Penguin is awesome, Corey Burton as Hugo Strange excels, and Grey DeLisle as Catwoman is…seductive. I just wish the music was a little more prominent, it's so good that we want more.

First and foremost, if you were a fan of Arkham Asylum, there’s almost no doubt in my mind that you will adore Arkham City. That free-flowing fighting system is back and better than ever, we get more gadgets and more abilities, and the detective mode has been reduced in terms of prominence, although it still works extremely well. The control, responsiveness, and freedom are the biggest highlights and the combination is highly addicting. You could play all afternoon and most of the evening and come out smiling.

Get More:, Batman: Arkham City - Launch Trailer, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

At the start of your new adventure, Bruce Wayne is faced with a city under siege; just about every sadistic wacko on the planet descended upon the metropolis after Arkham Asylum inmates spilled onto the streets. At first, Wayne tries to run for office to help with the threat but it isn’t long before he has to don his suit and go to work. That’s when the greatness kicks in: the added exploration we didn’t have in 2009’s production, and an absurd amount of stuff to do. And you know, I have to make a comparison.

Surprisingly, I was immediately reminded of the inFamous games. We have two superheros that move about the city; one uses a supernatural ability while the other uses hi-tech tools, but the feel is very similar. We can run around the rooftops or drop down to take down groups of baddies to earn experience, and we use that experience to purchase upgrades in various categories. In Arkham City, that’s the Batsuit, Combat, Gadgets, and yes, you can even get upgrades for Catwoman (provided you get the code).

Quick side note- I highly recommend you use that code for Catwoman right off the bat. She’s actually the first character you use – if only briefly – before the story shifts to Batman, so take advantage. Besides, who wants to miss out on a whole other character to upgrade and enhance? You'll also be missing out on one sultry, swaying, surprisingly deadly vixen...she's great fun to use.

Getting back to it, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Rocksteady was influenced by Sucker Punch, as the similarities are obvious. However, if there’s one element that stands out, it’s the combat; as Cole, it felt more like a third-person shooter while the melee fighting was simpler. As Batman, it really is all about the hand-to-hand combat, although you can still use gadgets. And it’s like nothing else you’ve seen or played, with the exception of Arkham Asylum; it’s fast, intuitive, well-designed, and oh so satisfying. It’s one of the best mechanics of the generation.

Sure, one can claim you could button-mash your way to success, but that’s doing the system a grave disservice. While it’s not like God of War or an action-oriented game that relies upon multiple-button combinations, Batman primarily strikes with the Square button. He can also select gadgets to use in battle with the directional pad, and countering is a blast. When you see blue lightning bolts over a foe’s head, it means he’s about to strike. Just press Triangle and watch the fun.

You can string together consecutive strikes when battling a group – which is often – simply by maneuvering with the left analog stick, and special abilities can be executed with the face buttons. For instance, Batman can summon a swarm of bats to assist in combat just by pressing the Square and X button at once. Pressing Square and Triangle will have him attempt a Special Takedown. When hit, the screen will blur and darken, and you’ll know it’s time to either redouble your efforts or start dodging.

Get More:, Batman: Arkham City - E3 2011: Catwoman Trailer, PC Games, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

It never lets you down, although I must add that the camera isn’t always perfect. As was the case with Arkham City, I still think we’re too close to Batman and enemies lurking just outside our field of vision can prove problematic. It actually encourages some button-mashing because you can’t see everything as well as you’d like. But it seems less of an issue out in the open streets, and that’s a plus. This leads me to the open-ended, freedom-based aspect of this new game, which is just plain sweet.

There’s always something to do. Always. There are Riddler Trophies (and corresponding puzzles) to solve, phone calls to answer (I won’t give anything away here), and various side-quests that often feature familiar faces from the Batman universe. You can conquer challenges to earn new upgrades, and Rocksteady did a great job implementing the grappling and gliding in a very large area. There’s plenty of variety and a distinct sense of accomplishment goes along with every completed mission, whether it be primary or secondary.

There are only a few very minor issues. For instance, because grappling points are often close together, you might not grapple to the exact location you originally intended. Then there are grapple points that actually don’t work; you can sail to the location, only to find that Batman actually can’t fit or stand, so he just falls. I also think the glide mechanic is just a bit touchy, and again, the camera isn’t always spot-on. But besides that, you will be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with this superbly presented, excellently acted, sublime adventure.

Batman: Arkham City gives us an atmosphere we won’t soon forget, and an environment that is just begging to be explored and conquered. The control and responsiveness is perfect, the open-ended exploration is immersive as all hell, the stunning visual display and on-point voice performances are gigantic highlights, and the combat mechanic is second-to-none.  It'll keep you riveted for hours and hours. It isn’t perfect, as there are a few minor although obvious problems involving the camera, grappling, and gliding. But those will melt into the background of the infinitely appealing Arkham City.

Enjoy it.

The Good: Beautifully detailed, stunning environment. Great music and some fantastic voices. An incomparable, free-flowing combat mechanic. Exploration is addictive. Control and overall gameplay mechanics are reliable and accessible. The most diverse, deadliest Batman ever. Huge amount of content.

The Bad: Camera still sits too close. Grappling isn’t a perfect system, and gliding is a tad touchy.

The Ugly: “Two-Face’s ‘other’ side…but it’s countered by Catwoman’s allure, so who cares?”

10/18/2011   Ben Dutka