Despite this review’s headline, Batman: Arkham City confirms a train of thought that originated when I saw Batman Begins: It’s not just a superhero action game, it’s also an inverse-horror game. Consider this situation: Four buddies hanging out in what can be considered a haunted steel mill. They talk about mundane things like what they did earlier that day, or their bets on which local community leader-type person will ultimately gain control of the area. In the tradition of horror movies, they stupidly split up. One of them hears a strange whooshing noise and runs off to investigate. One glimpses the quick movement of shadow around the corner. Then things get weirder.

At this point, random machines start turning; their guns suddenly jam up for no apparent reason; mines prematurely detonate; and walls suddenly explode. Amid all of these jump scares, the guys start disappearing. The one who ran to investigate the random sound gets found strung up above. The one who walked too close to a weak wall gets caught in said wall’s explosive collapse. The third one panics, fires his gun only to see it has been rendered ineffective, and while running to get a new firearm, finds himself locked in a sleeper hold. The last fellow thinks he’s clever by using his thermal imaging goggles to look up and around, but even he succumbs to sheer terror when he sees a man-sized bat in front — followed by smoke appearing all around him, his gun getting yanked away. And when the smoke clears, he doesn’t see that the shadowy man is about to land on him feet-first with full force.

Click the image above to check out all Batman Arkham City screens.

The terror of the Batman isn’t confined to moments of stealthy predation; simple and straightforward melee combat also displays just how scary he is to other people. Arkham City lets you create the sort of whispered urban legend that starts with, “Remember when twelve guys tried to take down the Batman?” You can then embellish that tale with descriptions of how freakin’ fast Batman is — that is, how he seems to effortlessly vault from victim to victim. How he can be in the middle of delivering a savage beatdown to an armored foe, and still quickly counter someone attempting a cheap shot from behind. Or how he tases the one guy with the sledgehammer who then wildly swings it around as a reflex to hit everyone else. It’s you, the player, who makes it so that when some thug tosses a chair towards Batman, he simply swats it away before turning his attention to someone else.

Okay, okay, Arkham City isn’t just about controlling Batman to scare a bunch of convicts. Like Batman: Arkham Asylum before it, it’s a season’s worth of Batman: The Animated Series pressed into a nine-to-20-hour story (other reviewers who only followed the story from point A-to-B-to-C without side missions have finished in eight or nine hours; I finished the story plus some of the sidequests in about 15 myself). This time, the confines of the Asylum have been expanded to some slums that are renovated into a closed off miniature city — think Vatican City within Rome — and is populated with criminals and mercenaries who keep said criminals in check. Batman enters Arkham City with a little over 10 hours before the activation of something called “Protocol 10″ and has to figure out what Protocol 10 is while dealing with the various villains who are engaged in an open turf war. Like its predecessor, the game’s story unfolds over a single night and manages to utilize a whole lot of Batman villains in a mostly logical — rather than fan-servicey — manner. Leave it to Batman: The Animated Series guru Paul Dini to provide a script that smoothly integrates the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and Hugo Strange into the main script, along with some crazy twists and turns that eclipse those of the previous game. The only real fault in the story comes from a really random digression into a mysterious underground city that feels a bit too BioShock-y for my tastes.

Click the image above to check out all Batman Arkham City screens.

A lot of Arkham City can be summarized as, “like Arkham Asylum, but better.” The overall structure still switches back and forth between stealthily taking out a roomful of guys and flat-out melee combat. The game world is bigger, and to compensate, the gliding mechanic has also been improved. The world feels a bit less Metroid and more like Zelda in that there is a large world full of enemies and dungeons to adventure in. There are still combat challenge maps to test your melee knowhow, but there are now additional challenge modes that allow for special modifiers to increase your score, as well as a flat-out custom combat challenge mode.

Batman’s trademark gadgets have been tweaked. The remote-controlled batarang can slow down and can also maintain an electric charge; not only can you change direction when using the line launcher, but you can also deploy it and treat it like a makeshift tightrope as well, and so on. Then there are wholly new gadgets, like a disruptor that can jam weapons and detonate mines, or the Remote Electric Charge that can tase foes and activate unpowered machinery for puzzles. In a refreshing change of pace for the genre, not only does Batman start out with access to most of his gear, it’s never taken away.

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The combat is still based around a few simple button presses — attack, stun, counter — but through a combination of things like unlockable button combos, quick-use inventory items, and distinct enemy types that require varied tactics, the combat blossoms from simple button-masher into a deep system with a lot of subtle tools and mechanics. I had quite the epiphany about the depth of this mechanic as I played: while the game trains you to use a certain type of attack for guys brandishing shields, I decided to try using my “disarm and destroy weapons” skill. Said skill appears to be meant for guns or blunt objects, but to my surprise, when I tried it on a shielded dude, Batman punched his fist through the shield’s view hole, grabbed the whole thing, and crumpled it altogether. So, a ProTip: A shield counts as a weapon that can be disarmed and destroyed.

Arkham City remedies one of Arkham Asylum’s few weaknesses, the bosses, at least for the most part. Arkham Asylum established the villain Bane as a boss battle and proceeded to copy that formula through several successive encounters that differed mostly through palette-swapping. While there were some other boss fights, they didn’t offer nearly enough variety; even the final showdown against the Joker borrowed from the Bane/Titan playbook. It’s therefore refreshing how the boss fights in Arkham City actually have variety. Some are pure combat trials, while others pull from the Zelda playbook in utilizing a recently acquired gadget. And while I won’t spoil who it’s against, there is one fantastic boss battle that calls for Batman to continually adjust tactics and use nearly every gadget and stealth maneuver in his arsenal — I actually wish that all of Arkham City’s boss battles called for such imaginative use of your tools and abilities. My main quibble is with the choice of last boss; it’s an improvement over Titan Joker, but upon completion, I feel as though I lived through a boss fight, but not the boss fight. That is, I’m honestly surprised when the ending cinematic starts playing, as the boss was not what I expected as the final encounter.

Click the image above to check out all Batman Arkham City screens.

However, the most noteworthy addition to Arkham City is the wealth of side missions. While the game still offers Riddler-themed collectibles, there are now multi-stage side missions focused on specific characters that each utilize different gameplay mechanics. One mission has you racing towards ringing telephones to then trace a call via the Batcomputer. Another has you examining crime scenes via Detective Vision to reconstruct a contract hit. Yet another calls for tracking down a kidnap victim. While not all of these side missions are winners (the “beat up criminals who are beating up political prisoners” type seems a bit too mission-by-assembly-line, while the augmented reality training missions lose their effectiveness and motivation once you collect the initial completion reward), the majority of them are great enough for me to tell other developers, “this is how you do side activities in a game.”

I’m also not the biggest fan of how the game handles Catwoman. As a playable character, she’s actually quite excellent: She has her own moveset, combat mechanics, and a separate storyline that complements the main game. She provides an interesting perspective on the campaign. My complaint is that she’s locked behind a sort of Online Pass addition, where new Arkham City purchases come with a one-use token to download the Catwoman gameplay. The game works perfectly fine without her (she still appears in cut-scenes, and I finished the game the first time without redeeming the token), but it was also annoying to see “Play Catwoman” prominently on my main menu; and to see either Catwoman-specific collectibles, or opportunities to switch to Catwoman for a change of pace without actually being able to use them. Once I redeemed the token, I saw that her gameplay had been integrated into the storytelling as well — having the Catwoman content active actually changes the beginning of the game. Again, while the game and story is fully “complete” without Catwoman, it still irks me to see how well integrated she is but that an obstacle (paywall when buying used, or even lack of Internet so that you can’t activate her) prevents every Arkham City player from experiencing it.

Arkham City has some slight imperfections; besides the aforementioned issues, I have other minor complaints like the way Detective Vision remains necessary for stealth sequences because the enemies tend to blend into the dark color palette, as well as the questionable character design (poor Harley Quinn), and the somewhat drab visual design of Arkham City itself. Nevertheless, it remains a superlative superhero game overall. The richness of content — by which I mean the campaign, the challenge maps, the Catwoman episodes, and the New Game Plus which offers an extra-hard difficulty that lets you guide your upgraded Batman through a re-balanced version of the campaign — along with the general improvements already puts Arkham City on my short list. The experience of having Batman glide through the air; seeing the screen light up with incidental and contextual dialogue, multiple objective markers, and trophies to collect; and then finally diving into a pack of schmucks is a simple yet enjoyable experience. Controlling Batman as he completely terrorizes his victims, whether via the invisible predator gameplay or the brutal combat, is an experience rivaled by few others. From its memorable Bourne Identity-esque opening to its shocking ending, Batman: Arkham City secures its place as my favorite superhero game since Freedom Force.

By Thierry Nguyen