Batman: Arkham City (PS3)

I went into a local Gamestop and preordered Skyrim a few months ago.  The kid at the checkout counter asked if I also wanted to preorder this game.  His words, not mine here: “It’s going to be the most incredibly awesome game of the year.”  (FYI: I waited until it was marked down after Christmas)

The most anticipated game of 2011?  Game of the year?  Hardly.  Although Arkham City delivers in the key feature that distinguishes it from most other franchise game tie-ins (not being completely terrible), this game falls flat in some key areas.  Critically, I haven’t played 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, so this is a fresh look for me.

Environment/Art Design

There is some added baggage here on top of the normal art design decisions from the fact that the developers are piggybacking off a well-established and beloved franchise.  The biggest influence from character modeling standpoint seems to be the most recent film iteration by Chris Nolan.  Clearly that’s where the score has been inspired from.  Two-Face looks burned up rather than mutated.  Batman’s eyes light up blue when entering “detective mode” like at the end of the Dark Knight, and most other villains have a dingy and grimy feel to them like the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker.  It seems Arkham City lacks a capable dry cleaner.  And that’s a good thing; it injects an element of realism that makes Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman more inspiring and heroic than than campy.  That being said, some of the designs seem to skew from this view of the Batman universe.  In particular, the rendering for Bain seems to be cartoony and thrown together.  Whereas Batman at a distance looks like it could be a real actor, Bain towers at something  like 12 feet tall, complete with unnaturally angular muscles (bad rendering) that periodically emit a green glow.  Somebody wasn’t on board with this in the art department.   Small holes here can be forgiven though.  I would also note that voice acting is spot on, although it is bit weird to have a Batman who looks like Christian Bale sound like Batman: the Animated Series.

Another important character is, of course, Arkham City itself.  As far as a sandbox game goes, Arkham City really falls short in this area.  There really isn’t anything to do in Arkham City other than some uninteresting and tedious missions.  The city itself is full of hostiles.  If Batman finds himself on a city street, he will instantly be swarmed with a bunch of thugs and inmates.  But, on the street level, there’s not much else.   This is a hollow city, although the cold and gloomy exterior seems to be ripped from the Gotham we’re all used to seeing.  Now the point of Arkham City is to be a big prison, but honestly the whole premise feels like a cop-out to doing an actual free roam Batman game.  The city is filled with walls that can be blasted open with explosives, or trophies that can be unlocked with some careful batarang skills, but ultimately collecting a bunch of green question marks is just boring.  The area of exploration, although filled with little nooks and hidden trophies, isn’t as big as it could be.  There are bonus missions that can be picked up along the way, but these don’t really seem to be that different than moving on the with story.  Bottom line, Arkham City just doesn’t feel like a city.

As far as story goes, I was also expecting a lot more.  You start out in a predicament where the main antagonist, Hugo Strange, knows Batman’s secret identity and seemingly has Bruce Wayne cornered.    This is a promising start.  The secret identity is that which protects Batman’s friends and family from danger.  From this first five minutes of the game, the story goes absolutely nowhere.  Sure you’ll encounter more villains and allies as you play, but there this initial piece of foundation in the story is left hanging.  Is there a reason Strange has a special vendetta for Batman or Bruce Wayne?  We’ll never know.  It’s entirely possible he’s just a dick.  I have absolutely no idea why he hates Batman.  It’s inexcusable that I don’t know why.  Six hours and a contrived and unnecessary fight with Mr. Freeze later, and we’re back to the beginning.  Strange’s big master plan is another missed opportunity.  I had hopes that after seeing how intricate the characters and interactions could be in the more recent Batman movies, that this wave of maturity would carry over to other aspects of this franchise.  I can’t say that that is the case here.

Gameplay

This is a third-person, 3D action game, with some elements of stealth, exploration, and puzzle-solving.  You’ll use all three during the main story and also in sidequests.  Batman does a decent job at all three of these main roles, but the game itself feels derivative and fails to clearly identify which of the three it is most.  It’s not good enough at any of the three roles to make it particularly memorable as well.

First off, the action!  A fantastic job has been done with making the combat system appear fluid and make Batman look, well, like Batman.  If they ever make a Matrix game, surely some of the programmers who worked on Arkham City should be involved.  It LOOKS very good.  The general layout of most of the combat encounters in the game is this; you jump down in the middle of 20 guys and then you have to dance around them until they are all knocked out.  All enemies, even the lowly guy in a prison uniform with a bat, have a lot of health, so beating down on one necessarily exposes you to being hit by another.  You constantly need to attack, vault, and counterattack in a balanced manner to avoid getting beat on.  The premise is the same as it is in most other third person action games, for some reason your guy is much faster than everyone else.  Although this game isn’t extremely difficult, even a very simple encounter with a bunch of thugs can kill you off if you’re not paying attention.  The way that Batman moves, and how time slows a little really is something to be admired.  The problem with this aspect of the game is that  it fundamentally doesn’t change that much.  At the beginning you’ll be forced to beat up like eight guys.  Then twelve, then fifteen.  It just feels the same every time.  Later, you’ll encounter henchmen with guns, shields, and stun batons, which is where the stealth aspects of the game come in.  Batman of course has an enviable arsenal of gadgets as well.  Still, the beat down system envisioned eventually feels repetitive.

Stealth and exploration are the other two areas of the game.  Both borrow extensively from other titles.  For example, when opening a vent grate, the player is asked to tap the “X” button on the controller.  Channeling God of War here, where the button pressing matched the on screen action and made the simple task of opening a door into a mythical feat of strength.  This was a great way to engage the player in God of War and it still works here, although it’s used sparingly.  Moving around Arkham is done mostly through using a grapple gun and gliding however.  Both are pretty darn good.  The gliding system can be enjoyable, in particular in that it allows for some level of control over speed and descent.  Grappling of course is a signature Batman move, but it’s also a Tenchu signature move.  I’m not griping here, but there is just a lack of real distinctiveness in this game.  The stealth aspects are decent.  Generally you need to hide in a position of power where you can pull a person over a ledge or tie them up, or sneak up behind them an take them out silently.  The objective is to always beat up all the guys though.  You can’t sneak past, but must knock them out, so you’re left fighting the last few that are still up on their feet anyway.  Additional puzzles are added with gadgets, like throwing a remote controlled boomerang to disable a generator, or creating a raft out of an ice grenade, that are a pleasant break from the action.  Extras and sidequests, aside from adding to the playtime, also serve to boost experience in the game.  The added experience system is redundant though, there are not enough upgrades or customization possible to make this a meaningful addition to the game.  Ideally if you want a customization system in a game, the most important aspect needs to be some sort of scarcity.  There doesn’t seem to be any here, unless you count not being interested enough to want to put the time into doing the sidequests as scarcity.

Closing

I think realistically this is a 8 game.  I know there has been an overwhelming surge of praise for it, but it just sort of feels flat to me.

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