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Batman: Arkham City Review [GO]
October 27th, 2011 by Dan

Batman Arkham City

The Joker looks pretty gnarly in this game. (Picture used courtesy gamesweasel)

There may be spoilers ahead. Tread carefully.

Growing up in Florida confers all kinds of benefits to the aquatic athlete that you almost take for granted. Outdoor swimming, for one. I never swam indoors once during my years as a high school swimmer. Sure, things got cold in the winter, but we just heated our pools up a little and tried not to hang out on the pool deck.

We also had the ability to have practice on the beach once a month. Our beach swims were tiring slogs and I really loathed them. We’d start at one point of the beach, Coach would yell (she always yelled) out a stopping point about a mile up the shore, and we’d get swimming and run back. The change of pace was always lost on me. I only dug it for the volleyball game afterward, really. It all just seemed muddled and unfocused and like a waste of a Saturday morning. In the pool we had lanes, regimented practice sets, and direction. I may not have had as much fun watching the same landmark go by for two hours, but I always felt like I was getting something out of it.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here…

Why does the myth of the open world game persist? Diluting your narrative does not make it sharper or more impactful. Arkham City was swinging for the fences with its story. I don’t see how you can refute that, given how it ends, but the path to get there is just…not as fun.

Rocksteady Studios had a certifiably great game on their hands with Arkham Asylum. Reviewers familiar with the comics loved the game because it allowed players to feel like they were Batman. Does futzing around the city completing side quests unrelated to the main story make you feel more or less than Batman? I like the sidequests, but they were so disconnected and brief feeling that I actually didn’t like doing them. Does that make sense? The way they’re not integrated detracts from their execution.

I’m gonna tie in the beginning: It’s like swimming in the ocean versus swimming in a pool. I may have more freedom, but the bucking waves and the looseness of the experience means I derive less use from it. The very fact that I preferred the volleyball game, our sidequest, so to speak, to the practice itself further strengthens the metaphor. The main story is not as satisfying as it could be.

Batman is focused and doesn’t fuck around. He gets things done. He wrecks fools who get in his way. Batman doesn’t futz around looking for Riddler trophies when helicopters are destroying the city. It’s that annoying ludonarrative dissonance thing rearing its ugly head again. In fact, I was just talking about this in the comments section of a blog post on Ambient Challenge about Red Dead Redemption. What it came down to was that I think the only modern game to be intelligent about this while reveling in its stupidity is Dead Rising.

How reviled was the clock of Dead Rising? I’ll tell you what, I loved it. I never bucked against it. You know what a time limit creates? Tension. It also limits freedom. I bet that’s what people were griping about. In Dead Rising things happen at certain times. If you’re not there, you miss it and the story is over. In Arkham City you have X hours until Protocol 10 is enacted. I’m 99% sure that you can just bullshit around until those X hours are done and nothing happens. Hours don’t “pass” until you hit certain story markers. By trying to be everything to every player, Arkham City loses out on the immediacy of Arkham Asylum. You could just hang out in AA and look for Riddler trophies, but the sense of momentum remained. In between story missions in AC momentum dies.

Rocksteady should be justifiably happy with their gliding mechanics. They’re truly brilliant and lots of fun. If you told me that the developers weren’t thinking about Super Mario World when they created the “dive bomb into gliding” mechanic, I would call you a liar. There’s no way that’s not true. It just works and I can see why they’d want to show off just flying around the city looking for stuff. I just wish (for Arkham Asylum too) that they left the side mission stuff off until after the game.

“Batman, you’ve saved the day!”

“Thanks, I’m gonna go home and take a –”

“Oh no! Batman, there are side quests and Riddler trophies to find! Go back into the city!”

“Dammit…”

Much better. What it doesn’t do is keep you playing the “main mission” long enough to prevent selling the game used the same week. If you’re distracted, it takes longer, I guess, but with the new DLC paradigm, do developers really have to keep trying to shoehorn in sidequests when there are pressing matters to attend to! They might claim that gamers resent being corralled down a narrow path and told what to do. I made this point in my FF XIII review, but choice is an illusion in 99% of the games out there. Many of them are far more linear than you care to believe. Instead of trying to have everything and executing to a passable degree on all fronts, why not segregate a game like I’m advocating? I think it makes more sense if you want a cohesive experience.

Arkham City remains much better executed when it comes to their combat mechanics. Just like the last game, fighting as Batman feels like controlling a superhero. He bounces between targets, has an almost psychic notion of who’s attacking him from where, and, when executed well, he never gets touched. Completing a fight like that makes you feel like a real man. It’s all crunch contact and smooth transition. Batman is a dream to control.

Well, almost. I can’t say I understand why they still feel the need to have a button dedicated to running. We have analog sticks, for Christ’s sake! When we want to run, we will hold said stick in the furthest possible position. Devoting a button to running is a 16-bit contrivance. I hate having Batman move like he’s on a determined, if not leisurely stroll if I’m not holding a button down. It’s downright ridiculous.

If it sounds like I don’t love Arkham City it’s because, well, I don’t love Arkham City. The game itself should be an absolute joy to play. Instead it’s just fun. Now, fun is fine, mind you, but fun is not greatness. I like playing Arkham City, I just wish it stuck to its lanes a little more.


2 Responses  
  • Min writes:
    October 27th, 201119:09at

    I would argue that one of key motivations for an open world is that you get to be and become whoever you want to be/become. The option to get sidetracked is there, just like it’s probably there for the “real” Batman. And there’s nothing stopping you from being the determined and focused Batman who skips all sidequests until the problem at hand is solved.

    I do agree with you though, about the benefits of having a clock(like in Dead Rising). It’s a simple game mechanic that developers almost never seem to use, even though it adds exactly what most developers would want in their game:

    -Strong Risk vs Rewards dynamics
    -Immersion(A sense of urgency)
    -Replayability
    -Significant impact from player choices

    When I make my game, there will definitely be a clock. And it will be brutal.

    • Dan writes:
      October 27th, 201119:12at

      The thing with a Batman game is that you’re supposed to be Batman. His character really isn’t up for interpretation…or it’s not supposed to be. I guess you’ve got to make concessions for player agency.

      There’s also the moment where Batman wants to go off and do a sidequest during the main story (saving his “girlfriend” of sorts), but Oracle and Alfred don’t let him because he’s got a responsibility to save the people of Gotham (I’m not kidding). After that speech you’re able to just bullshit around and do whatever you want, just the same as any other point in the game. It’s jarringly stupid.


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