Thursday, 10 November 2011

Batman: Arkham City - Skyscrapers and Shark Bait

 This article can also be found at the Yorker.
It's an easy sell to produce something 'for the fans'. More so than just milking a character or series within video games, games about other 'fandoms' brings in consumers who wouldn't otherwise be gaming enthusiasts. What better series to capitalise on that than Batman - a franchise existing since 1939 and with a dozen retellings and alternate universes.
Rocksteady's previous effort, Batman: Arkham Asylum was praised for making a title that paid honest attention to the source material - having new interpretations of Batman and his adversaries, while not going wildly off-base. The art style was suitably 'comic book' in nature, and there was a ton of trivia and minutiae to keep the hardcore nerds happy.

On the other hand, the play experience was repetitive, and although it took notes from Metroid and the modern Castlevanias (where progress is defined by finding new tools to unlock barricades seen earlier in the adventure), the implementations lacked charm. Arkham City, on the other hand, goes to lengths to fix the flaws of its predecessor, while still retaining the action and tone. For that goal, Arkham City definitely succeeds.

The main thing to notice is the change in setting - Batman is no longer limited to bouncing around a small prison complex - a whole section of Gotham City has been sectioned off to hold prison inmates and those from the asylum (justified in a lame and ultimately ignorable plot point - who cares why, you get to glide past skyscrapers dramatically). A handful of the main villains take the opportunity to start turf wars - taking in to account locations from the mythos that will mean little to anyone but die-hards.

Batman is initially imprisoned within the city as Bruce Wayne in a plot by Professor Strange to get rid of him for good. The narrative then flicks between Batman finding a way into Strange's headquarters, and dealing with the Joker in a sub-plot - genetics-altering steroids used by the Joker in the first game have taken their toll, and through a blood transfusion, forces Batman to find a cure before they both perish.

Mechanically, this means that the city acts as a 'hub world', connecting the buildings that Batman needs to visit to find items or beat up villains to progress the plot. It's within these buildings that the similarities to the first game are at their clearest, but as I played I became very strongly reminded of the Legend of Zelda games. Each building acts as a dungeon where Batman discovers a new item or skill, uses that new ability almost exclusively to finish the dungeon, with a boss fight at the end. To fit this formula, some of the tasks and boss fights become rather contrived, and ultimately don't seem to 'fit' in tone.

Indeed, while there are a lot of references to the Batman animated series I'd seen sporadically as a kid (many voice actors are the same, for a start), with some scrutiny, Arkham City felt more like the Nolan movies rather than the nostalgia they were hoping for. The way that Batman is entirely emotionless at all times (including in cutscenes, when being beaten up, and when being eaten by a shark); that the ridiculous and none-too-interesting plot is delivered entirely seriously; and the clinical, PDA-style interface made the whole package rather un-Batman to someone like me.

The main plotline is short - Roughly 25% of the game's completion count - and between (and during) dungeons there are a myriad of Riddler Trophies that unlock challenge missions, along with sidequests that are more demanding of your skills than the story, featuring and fleshing out villains that don't appear in the main plotline. I could live with the game being more linear if it meant that Riddler, Two-Face, and others could be directly worked into the story.
On top of that, there's additional content featuring Catwoman - her fighting style differs heavily to Batman's, but she gets very little play time. Then again, her presence is so skeezy (a character who's only dialogue consists of feline puns and innuendo is rather hard to put up with; saying nothing of how often the enemy dialogue gets... rape-y when you play as her), you won't mind seeing less of her.

The combat is where Arkham City improves the most over the prequel. Taking on the 'mash the attack and counter-attack buttons' system the first game had, Arkham City lets you use your gadgets during battle. Every item that you can use in the field has an effect in battle, an idea both actually Batman-esque and letting the battles become a bit more nuanced - later fights eventually force you to stop attacking blindly. A boss mid-way through the game (I won't spoil whom) revolves around using your arsenal and the scenery to get through the foe's defences, with no method working twice, and is by far the high-point of the game.

Arkham City achieves what it sets out to do - beat the pants off of its predecessor and gives the fans the callbacks and references they yearn for. If I was more of a Batman fan, my experience would be a lot more positive; but in my eyes Batman: Arkham City is a solidly built blockbuster title that's just a little too derivative and unfocused. I never though I could be not nerdy enough to appreciate something...
Batman: Arkham City is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC (PS3 version reviewed)

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