Batman: Arkham City

Can I pick on Batman: Arkham City a bit?  I know it was up for being game of the year with a number of different publications, but a little game called Skyrim had to go and ruin its chances of claiming the top spot.  I completed it a couple of weekends ago.  I can see how it would strike a chord with many gamers – there’s an intersection between gaming and comics that is not insignificant, and there was enough popular enthusiasm surrounding the franchise based on the Dark Knight trilogy that it could resonate with audiences that may not be fans of the comics, or really even just casual fans of the Batman franchise.  It was the right game, at the right time.  I count myself among the “casual” category of Batman fan, and this game has the capacity to scratch the itch of wanting to be the Batman.  You can be that Batman, and Batman around real hard.

The problem I see with the formula though is that if you’re not that interested in Batman, or the surrounding universe, then there just isn’t a whole lot of weight to the game.  Ostensibly there’s an open world, a leveling system, gadgets/weapons, and a skill tree.  What effect do these features have on the game?  They make you a “better” Batman, in a very generic sense.  But there isn’t any sense that your progress and decisions hold any weight with how you play the game – it merely provides a body of game content and a sense of satisfaction in being a completionist.  But these are qualities that make a good game better, not qualities that make a game good in the first place.  But it’s not like Rocksteady Studios didn’t have a good foundation to work with.  What exactly is the problem then?

Arkham City takes a good idea and adds content to it without any process of refining the original idea.  Batman lurks, and brawls.  Those are the two high level verbs that the game puts in front of you.  Batman doesn’t really stand a chance against armed goons, and brawls with the odds against him.  So he lurks.  Much of the game presents you with rooms to clear where the puzzle is determining how to shift the odds in your favor.  How can you pick off goons, one at a time and incapacitate them without drawing attention to yourself.  It can be a very entertaining process, as well as a very frustrating one.  The system is not as refined as those found in the Metal Gear Solid series.  MGS provides a variety of very clever systems for understanding enemy positioning and awareness.  And while Arkham City’s detective view is cool and flashy, it doesn’t necessarily provide all that much insight into the situation in front of you.  It’s a threat assessment tool.  Things get to be frustrating though when you find yourself repeatedly clearing a room because you are found out too early to take on a goon party head-on.  It’s not entirely clear how you’re detected in many cases, and that makes it difficult to learn and get better.  As a result, subsequent rooms that are more complicated just become a bigger chore.

What was also irritating was the fact that while it is a bedrock principle that Batman will not kill, or seriously injure (excluding brain trauma) anyone, it is a secondary principle that Batman must assault everyone who stands in the way.  I’m sure he has plenty of issues to work out, but having to facilitate his need to clobber everyone along the way instead of simply using stealth to get past them just struck me as stupid.  Of course, there are times where there’s not pretense of stealth at all, which is fine but also presents its own problems.  Many times, you’ll find yourself in an Adam West era Bat-brawl, and you just have to punch everyone out.  This is also another basic system that initially executes very well.  But it goes from being a neat and easy way to choreograph a great looking fight to being like one of those cartoons where the fight is obscured with a cloud of dust.  You’re just flailing around trying to stay one step ahead of a dozen other people.  This becomes frustrating when special enemy types are introduced.  Each requires a special combo to begin to defeat them.  There are a dozen guys attacking you though, so crowd control is utilized in the loosest sense, and there are few options for changing the parameters of the fight to favor you.  It’s just another idea that wasn’t scaled correctly to be applied to a full game.

My last complaint ties back into your level of enthusiasm for the Batman franchise.  And that is that the sheer number of characters that are introduced as being important to the story makes little sense other than to provide some surface level fan-service.  I found it tough to identify any one villain that was driving the story forward.  There are at least three that have their own goals that contend for top villain, and none of them really succeed at filling the role.  Batman follows no appreciable story arc, and more often the story just serves to reinforce Batman’s established traits.  Furthermore, there are far too many supporting characters whose relationship with Batman or the core villains are confusing even to the characters in the game.  It’s boring in other words.  But that’s not really a problem so long as it stays out of the way of the game itself.  But when comparing the pacing of the game to the pacing of the story, I would have to say that story pacing takes precedence over the game, which is too bad.  I’m sure that the time and effort put into giving Killer Croc a cameo could have been better used in developing the core game mechanics further.

All in all, it’s not a bad game.  Just an underwhelming one that you might expect more from for a game of the year contender.  But these complaints really only matter to those who either don’t care about Batman in the first place, or who enjoy the idea of just running around pretending to be Batman more than just enjoying the game on its own merits.  It’s definitely the best be-the-Batman simulator out there so far.  Maybe the studio in charge of the next Arkham sequel could just spend some more time emulating some of which Hideo Kojima accomplished with the MGS series.


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