I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
There are some tropes and play mechanics in games that are intrinsically "gamey." Collection quests, high score boards, QTE's, and so on. Often this isn't an issue. Nobody begrudges complicated scoring mechanics in a Shoot-Em-Up game, that is what they are all about. Other times they are more problematic...
"Altair, it is of vital importance that you assassinate the corrupt Merchant King who is starving the people of our land. But first collect 8 hidden flags, pick 3 pockets, and beat my best time racing across these roof tops."
Sometimes the narrative of a game and the elements that make it a game clash. Taking you out of the story and destroying all the suspension of disbelief you might have had - possibly even making the gamey elements feel tacked on or shallow.
When a development team spends millions of dollars on top-end CGI cinematics, professional voice actors, painfully detailed photo-real environments, and a carefully constructed 20 hour story, to me it seems a little bit wasteful to shatter that illusion with a gimmicky collection quest.
I find that in many games these days, there is a certain tension between the narrative of the game and the actual elements that the player interacts with. Go too far to try and stay consistent with what is shown in cut scenes and dialogue and you end up with a glorified movie like Heavy Rain. But at the same time it can be jarring when the action of a game doesn't match at all with the setting or atmosphere presented in the narrative.
Enter Batman: Arkham City. This is a game that I thought had an excellent balance between presenting it's story, character, and franchise accurately, while keeping a lot of video game red meat in there. Managing to fold gamey elements into the narrative structure of the game, Arkham City is chock-a-block with really video gamey stuff that never interferes with the illusion of being the Dark Knight.
Remember the old Batman games? The 16-bit beat-em-ups on the Genesis and SNES where you would run through levels just like Shinobi or Final Fight and pound on random thugs until one of them got lucky and killed the Batman? Yeah they sucked.
Combat has always been a problem in Batman games. In the cannon, Batman is a badass skilled in literally hundreds of martial arts, equipped with a plethora of gadgets, and is known to take on ridiculous numbers of hoods at the same time and come out on top as a matter of course.
Translating that into a video game has some difficulties. Some are aesthetic. How do you make him such a badass without making the game too easy? How do you make it that it's not galling when Batman is beaten? Others are pragmatic. How do you represent and control so many skills and abilities at once?
Arkham City handled it flawlessly by, counter-intuitively, making combat really freaking gamey.
Building on the free-flow combat system introduced in Arkham Asylum, combat in Arkham City is based entirely around fighting large groups of enemies, building up a combo counter, and countering enemy attacks to avoid both damage and combo interruption.
It is extremely gamey. Batman's strikes gets progressively faster and more damaging as the combo-count builds. After a few hits he gets access to powerful take-down moves that will reset (for all purposes) the counter in exchange for instantly taking out a thug or permanently breaking a weapon, or other special move. If you let the count get even higher without using one of those techniques, Bat's will go into a "free-flow state" where he gains ridiculous speed and suped up versions of his gadgets.
This is such amazing system for a Batman game. Off the hop, Batman can't just waltz into a large group of gangsters and beat them half to death without breaking a sweat, you need to start slow – so enemies have a chance to be threatening and you have to pay attention to what you are doing. But once he gets going, he becomes The Goddamn Batman we known and love, snapping arms like toothpicks and tossing out Batarangs like they were rice at a wedding.
There are these lovely spikes and payoffs mid-combat that let the player see something very cool and effective, but resets the combat so you don't just plow right through the entire group. Awesome system.
THAT'S IT! I'm breaking all your toys now. Are you happy with yourselves?
The two different usages of the combo-count serve as a fun risk-to-reward choice, which is always a mechanic I enjoy. Do you build a small combo and take out a troublesome crook? Maybe you just want to get that annoying as hell stun-gun they keep zapping you with out of the fight – removing a dangerous weapon may be more valuable than just taking someone out.
Or do you build that combo till you get to the focus state? Try to ride that powered-up mode as long as possible or toss out a super version of the freeze grenade that will stick everyone to the ground? It keeps the combat a lot more interesting than just swinging away until everyone is unconscious.
Something that annoyed me about the game at first was that Batman can't block. Not traditionally anyway. Rather than having a button you can hold down to defend yourself, Arkham City works on a system of manual counter-attacks.
When you see some criminal scum creep up on Batman with a baseball bat, a quick tap of the counter-button will snatch the slugger out of the air and use it to bean the offending thug. Batman can even counter multiple assailants at once, catching one punk's sloppy kick and swinging him into two other fools. Pretty darn sweet move to bust out in the middle of a pitched fight!
It took me a little while to come around to it, but I think it is a good system. Certainly makes defence more interesting and satisfying than just holding block all-day. But more than that, it also serves to show off more of Batman's prowess.
By using a bunch of small canned counter animations, we get to see Bats do all kinds of cool things (flipping dudes into each other, smacking heads together, grabbing a knife out of someones hand, ect) that would have been difficult to map to specific commands. It gives the player the feeling that they are in control of a martial arts master, when really the controls for Arkham City are fairly simple.
After all that good design stuff, combat in Arkham City just has a very satisfying pace and flow to it once you get it down. It just feels FUN. Maybe this should be expected, Arkham Asylum was originally envisioned as a weird rhythm game with a structure similar to Rock Band after all. But the marriage of very gamey elements with highly stylized and cannon appropriate animations really work to make something that is fun to play and watch.
Part and parcel of the combat, I think the enemies should be recognized for being very compelling, while still very gamey underneath the surface.
The thugs in Arkham City have to be taken on according to what kind of weapon they have. Different weapon, different tactic. Knife guys have to be dodged several times in a row to stay cut free. You can't attack a guard with a electric baton face-to-face without getting a shock. Guys with riot shields will break your combo (and fist) if you hit them, and so on.
The mechanics are unapologetically gamey in actualization. Essentially layering a puzzle element onto the typical brawling. You can't just mash attack to get past a diverse group of goons - the various weapons force you to approach each encounter with at least a modest amount of thought if you don't want to constantly drop your combo or eat damage.
They might even get cheeky and add a Riddler informant in the midst, a guy you want to leave till last so you can interrogate him, adding another meta-layer to the fight. This can be especially tricky if the snitch happens to be armoured or wielding an annoying weapon – takes a lot of mental juggling to keep track of all the factors in a big fight.
Sadly you can't choke the ever living shit out of every mook and leave them tethered to a gargoyle 30 feet above the ground. Sigh, maybe in the next one...
Despite the gameyness of the system at work, it's presentation is fairly justifiable. It makes a certain kind of sense that Batman can't just haul off and punch metal shields all day or that dudes in padded armour can shrug off normal hits. The predator rooms however are a tad more artificial.
The predator rooms are probably the Arkham's series best use of the Batman vibe. These are rooms where Batman must stealthly take the enemy out one at a time without being seen for some reason – usually because the goons are heavily armed or have hostages that must be saved. Everyone and his brother loves these parts. Stealth sections can sometimes drag in games, but in Arkham they are the highlight. There is nothing more satisfying than sweeping through a room like a shadow and watching the panic spread among the dwindling criminals.
But for all the thrill, the predator rooms in Arkham City get pretty gamey. This may only be more noticeable in NG+ where the enemies are more numerous and equipped with a larger variety of tools, but the gameyness is definitely afoot.
Further into the game and especially in NG+, the enemies will start tossing more and more curve-balls into the mix. Guys with thermal goggles that can scan high vantage points to blow your position, making your typical gargoyle inhospitable. Some might be wearing jamming kits that block the use of the highly useful detective vision. Others will start laying down mines, which can be a curse or a blessing depending on how creative you get. A few clowns may stick right next to a hostage and refuse to wander, or maybe one guy on a high vantage balcony happens to be a Riddler snitch, making it hard to work while leaving him for last.
I really enjoyed these curve-balls. They feel believable enough – it makes sense that the gangsters would eventually get wise to Batman's tricks and start trying to find ways to counter him out – even if they are a tad specific. But to their credit, the gimmick mooks force you to take on the rooms in a variety of ways without relying on the same tricks through the entire game. At the same time, none of the gimmicks are individual game-breakers. Batman has a tool or ability to cancel out each of these counters and retake the upper hand with the right strategy. The gimmicks do a great job of mixing up gameplay without suddenly making Batman seem weak or outplayed.
Speaking of the gadgets and tools, they are also subject to some arbitrary gameyness. Apparently that utility belt comes with some pretty funky limitations.
You only get one sonic batarang that can be used to instantly take out a mook per room, so you have to make it count. The smoke pellet can be used as a one time get-out-of-jail-free card if you are spotted, or you can toss it into the enemies midst for confusion, sacrificing your safety-net for an offensive surprise. The disruptor can be used to either detonate mines placed by the enemies or remotely jam their weapons, but only twice – so you have to decide what is more trouble, the guns or the mines (for super swag points, save it for deactivating the last thug's gun than just drop down in front of him and watch his heart rate climb when his gun jams.)
Oh I see, he only has room for one smoke pellet because he has to make room for gauze and sewing thread. Makes sense.
Do these limitations on the gadgets make a lot of sense? Well if you read the item descriptions they toss in some techno-gibberish to try and justify it, but no, they really don't. It's transparently a gameplay thing, and for obvious reasons. Predator rooms would be pretty boring if it was just a matter of hucking sonic batarangs from a gargoyle after all.
But do they intrude on the believability of the scenario? Not as much as you might think. While it is kinda gamey that you can only use the same tool once or twice per room, with the sheer number of gadgets at your disposal and the variety of ways to take on each predator room you probably won't even notice.
I think that is a really strong design choice. Arkham City's combat and predator rooms are designed to prevent you from overly crutching on one or two effective tactics. But instead of watering down what Batman or his items can do, they implemented a few gamey elements and limitations here and there to spice things up. Batman's gadgets and martial abilities are all super useful, but they have to be used in concert with each other to be at their most effective, and that is pretty damn Batman.
Detective mode could just as easily been called "the-testing-team-thought-predator-rooms-were-too-hard-mode."
I kid, but I think there is an element of truth in there. The Arkham games feature dark, visually noisy areas, with complicated 3D geometry to navigate in, where they expect you to pick off darkly coloured thugs that blend in with the surroundings. If you try to go through without using detective mode at all you're likely to run into a few surprise parties (and by surprise parties I mean bullets).
The X-ray vision of detective mode and the useful HUD elements that inform you of enemy weapons and points of interest are extremely handy for planning out your attack and knowing how to best evade the enemy. As a gameplay element, detective vision is a very good thing.
Where it gets interesting to me is how they used it to enhance the narrative elements of the games as well. Detective vision lets Batman do some actual detective work for the first time in a Batman game. While it may all run off of C.S.I style forensic magic (analyzing trace elements, tracking bullet trajectories back to their source, ect) it does let you feel like a scientific smarty-pants, which is a part of Batman's personality that gets glazed over in most games. Some of the side missions that made use of detective vision, like tracking down Deadshot, were a highlight of the game to me.
Ok, so maybe solving crimes in Arkham City doesn't make you a genius. Still more fun than L.A Noire.
I would be curious to see what came first in the development process to make detective vision what it is. The desire to add detective elements, or as a response to play testing difficult predator rooms? It is likely that they managed to use the very gamey element of X-ray-HUD-vision to satisfy both goals. Pretty clever!
Riddler's Collection Quest
I've said it before, but I think the Riddler's collection quest is one of the best takes out there on a element of games I often loath.
To me, collection quests are usually very lame. A transparent way to tack a few extra hours onto the length of the game, or a ploy to sell strategy guides. The trophies and riddles you need to collect in Arkham City could have very easily fallen into the same trap, but a few key differences made the collection quest actually fun and satisfying to complete.
I have talked about the mechanics that make the Riddler's challenge work before, so I won't over labour it. Suffice to say, the ability to tag uncollectable trophies with detective vision for later, the opportunity to shake down Riddler snitches for locations, and the sheer imagination and variety of puzzles to solve make it one of the most satisfying collection quests I've ever done.
What really helps make it pop though is the way they hooked it into the story. Near the start of the game, Riddler invades an area you previously made a safehouse of sorts and takes a number of hostages. He takes great glee in discribing to you how he has hidden them away in various deathtraps and plans to kill them if you can't rise to his challenge. As you collect his trophies and puzzles, he starts disclosing their locations and you get a chance to save them and ultimately track Eddie down to his hideout and deliver some sweet justice punching.
Eddie wants to play a game.
It was a really good move. Throwing hostages into the mix adds some relevancy to the collection quest other than achievement points and gamer OCD. The fact that you get to rescue the hostages out of some really fun deathtraps and converse with the surprisingly amusing Riddler while you do it is the icing on the cake. You are motivated to do the collection quest in a way that is meaningful to the character, and rewarded with exciting gameplay rather than just meaningless points (oh don't worry, you still get achievements for it.)
The comic history of the franchise really helps here. Unlike a lot of games where the collection quest is either hand-waved away as completely arbitrary (Tiki statutes in Vice City) or given some incredibly lame justification (flags in Assassin's Creed 1), the scattered trophies and riddles of Arkham City actually make a bit of sense. It is entirely within Nigma's character and methods to set-up a bunch of dickbag challenges to test the Dark Knight.
Sure, the scope of his riddles may be a bit unrealistic (just how many giant pressure pads can one guy and his hired help set up in a open air prison without getting shot or mugged?) but it isn't especially glaring. The player is already taking a leap believing the setting (said open air prison in the middle of a city) and the premise (man dressed as giant bat is the biggest badass in the world) so excusing the improbability of some of Riddler's stashes isn't too hard.
Arkham City is a video game's video game - but it hides it well. Underneath that super polished high-budget exterior and thick gritty atmosphere are some of the most fundamental gameplay elements we've come to expect from games. You have combo-counters, arbitrary rules, anti-frustration measures, collectables, all very standard stuff. But it never especially nags at the player or takes you out of the gameworld.
If there was one thing that really makes Arkham the best comic book franchise games ever made it is that successful marriage of licence and game. Neither narrative or game are ignored in favour of the other, instead they work together to make the raise each other up. It is a fantastic design and I hope to see future developers follow in Rockseady's lead.