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Call it fate, but “Batman Arkham City” had it’s release date SQUARELY on my birthday. I of course pre-ordered it and said “screw exams”, pulling an all night study session compounded with hours of flying around Arkham City. Sure, could I have gotten higher than an 84, 93 and 93 on my exams? Yes, but it was worth it to be able to punch a slew of Batman villains repeatedly in their stupid, ugly faces.

I’ll get this out of the way first: Arkham City is exponentially better than Arkham Asylum. The idea of an open world for Batman to run around in rather than just a building immediately makes Arkham Asylum look like child’s play. The fact that Arkham City has beat out it’s predecessor which won game of the year is not to be taken lightly.

The entire idea is that Arkham City is a “prison city” where all the inmates have free reign as long as they stay inside its walls. It becomes apparent that the chaos ensuing is inhumane and as usual Batman needs to stop whatever nonsense is being perpetrated by the gangs of the city.

Barring the “true” open world games such as Oblivion and Fallout, Arkham Asylum is probably one of the best open world games ever created . . . standing perhaps a nose higher than Assassin’s Creed and head and shoulders above GTA IV (yeah I said it). It immediately has a distinct advantage over most games by allowing Batman to rappel, stand on, walk on, or hang from pretty much any ledge/structure in the city. It holds a further advantage over games like Assassin’s Creed because you can fight other people than your “targets” or their bodyguards. In Assassin’s Creed, you could pretty much only kill guards for fun before the entire town chased you down and fights were actually reasonably sparse to come by. Arkham City is overrun by gangs. Do you know what that means? There’s groups of baddies wherever you go just waiting to have a perfectly flat surface where their face used to be.

And the baddies finally come in a better variety now. You could pretty much count the variety of enemies in Arkham Asylum on one hand: grunts, psychos with knives, grunts with guns, and bosses who would charge into a wall and stun themselves. Now Arkham City didn’t exactly open up the candy jar on this one, but there’s a slew of new enemies who add a lot of variety to the mix. There’s baddies with knives who require a specific type of dodge move, baddies who can poof themselves to a different location, baddies with thermal imaging kits that can locate batman on top of a gargoyle, and the list actually goes on for a while. The great thing is that this variety extends to all the bosses as well.

I mean, each boss requires a different strategy . . . no I'm being serious! There are bosses who require a lot of running and strategic bombardment with gadgets, there are bosses who needed to be rushed down in order to be effective against, and there are bosses whom  you have to attack indirectly. Honestly, I actually looked forward to the boss fights in this game.

With that comes a revamped combat system. In Arkham Asylum, the combat was just a glorified rhythm game: “X, X, X, X . . . Y when an enemy announces his attack . . . X, X, X . . . “. Your special moves really didn’t need to be used and were more of a handicap than help when it came to fighting large groups of people. In Arkham City however, the enemy varietes are so great that special moves are ESSENTIAL. Don’t have time to aerial attack a shielded opponent during your combo? Use Y+B after a x5 combo to instantly incapacitate him. You have over 3 opponents down and want to down them instantly to even the odds? There’s a special move that instantly incapacitates grounded opponents for you after a certain combo meter.

Instead the environment always being so . . . . asylum-ish . . . the city does offer a great variety of environments. Don’t get me wrong: They’re all damp, moist, and in desperate need of some renovation but they’re at least DIFFERENT. From Penguin’s iceberg lounge, the creepy museum or the derelict subway station, each environment is it’s own unique brand of creepiness.

The plot steps up in a big way; the final conflict raises the stakes in a way that “Titan poisoning Gotham” never really could. An entire city under fire definitely tugs at my heartstrings more than an asylum secreting poison.

There aren’t even things I “dislike” about this game. There are just things that could use improvement.

First off, the game sometimes slows down when Batman leaves the open world of Arkham City and instead moves indoors. Don’t get me wrong, the levels are sprawling and detailed but in certain places (especially underground levels) the navigation is a little difficult. Because so much of Arkham Asylum took place IN the asylum, the maps were constructed very well and it was never a problem finding out where Batman had to go next. In Arkham City, finding your objective is never that hard . . . it’s finding your way back that becomes a problem. The levels are beautiful and deep, with multiple ways to and from a certain objective in a room. Finding the one blown wall or door you came through can sometimes be difficult however, and there were more than a few instances where I was gritting my teeth in frustration as I circled a room for the third time trying to find the place where I came in through.

Second, there is a gadget whose short cut is double tapping the Right Trigger (or R2 for you PS3 fans). The problem is that Batman’s crouch function is also mapped to the same button and there is a noticeable delay (even with a wired controller) between pressing Right Trigger and Batman crouching. There are numerous instances when I meant to crouch and accidentally used my gadget instead . . . which was a serious issue when I was attempting to silently take down a thug and instead ended up smacking him with my gadget.

Third, people complain that the villains are spread thin and I’m going to try my best to sympathize with them. It’s true, there are around five major villains who make their appearance during Batman’s foray through Arkham City and only maybe two are given major screen time. As a guy who knows a lot about the Batman universe and owns a dozen of his graphic novels, the villains not getting screen time never bothered me because I had all the background knowledge I needed. For a gamer whose Batman knowledge is confined to the two Christopher Nolan movies however . . . I can understand being frustrated by watching a baddie who was hyped for the majority of the game never getting their due.

And finally . . . the dialogue. Even people who’ve only seen the Batman movies knows that the dialogue from he and the villains is absolutely classic; it’s full of deep philosophy and innuendos that reveal the very duality of Batman’s role as a defender of Gotham. In both Arkham games however, the dialogue sounds like it was written by Michael Bay; some cheesy and cliche babble placed only to fill the gap between action sequences. It’s really a let down to see the deepest and most well characterized hero in comic book history trade face-palm worthy one liners with an equally dim witted foe.

That being said, Batman: Arkham City is damn near perfect. Many people thought the same thing after Arkham Asylum: when are we going to be able to save the entire city instead of just the Asylum. Rocksteady rose to the challenge and delivered with a game which is probably front runner for Game of the Year right now.

Your move Modern Warfare 3.