Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Games Review: Batman: Arkham City

Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum was one of those games that had a lot to prove and more than managed it. Superhero games generally, and certainly Batman games (Telltales' Lego Batman aside) have a deservedly poor reputation, and a game that not only managed to simply good, but also capture the world and feel of being the Caped Crusader in a focused, kinetic and downright fun game. 

So the inevitable sequel arrives, promising more. More villains, more story, more locations. Holy Feature Creep, Batman! Sequels generally go in one of two directions - make the same game again (hello Uncharted 3!) or make large-scale changes and risk breaking a successful formula. Arkham City attempts to split the difference, bring some  pretty big changes on the one hand, and staying true to a successful formula on the other.

 Firstly, what they've kept. Well in headline news, you get to keep pretty much all the gadgets you ended Arkham Asylum with, bar a couple, which is rather nice and pretty unusual for games that generally seem obsessed with taking toys off you as soon as you get used to them. Also intact - in fact improved - is the free-flow combat system, limited on buttons but all in the timing, making the crunching melee fights feel kinetic and interesting, except for the occasionally frustrating moment when the various special-attack mobs manage to team up and lock you in a corner. Mostly these mob fights get tough because of numbers, not hit points, and the ability to wade joyously into 10 goons and dish out some street justice is one of the major dirty pleasures of the game. 



They've also kept and refined the "predator" rooms, giving luckless goons night vision that can see into the gloom and pick you out, and scramblers that interfere with your bat-vision goggles, as well as a brighter AI behavior that includes the habit of shooting off the gargoyles if they catch you hanging around on one. That, and the odd climbing/exploring/detectiving sections rotate merrily as you go through the game, never seeming to let you get stuck with one sort of gameplay for too long. And whilst we are on good news - the open world is fantastically realised, a crumbling, walled-off part of Gotham now turned to a giant prison, allowing you to perch on rooftops and swing silently across alleyways and down roads like...well, like Batman. 

The other big change up is the story - whereas Arkham Asylum had a pretty focused, to the point storyline that only really got interrupted for the (fantastic) Scarecrow sections, Arkham City's is more bloated, pushing you largely from one villain cameo to the other and whilst it's not badly done, after a while I ended up  playing "which batvillian will turn up next?!". In the end, I have to concede some of them are a lot less random than it at first appears, but doesn't negate the sense of overload half-way through the game. And Mark Hamil's Joker is such a star, voice wise, I did miss him at times in the middle run. 

Gee, I dunno Bats, why don't I get a better part? 
Speaking of the villains, much has been written elsewhere about the treatment of the female characters in Arkham City. And yes, you know what? It is a problem. Not a huge, game spoiling one, but a consistantly dull note in an otherwise sparkling game. Lets start with Harley. Harley Quinn is not a strong woman, she's a woman infantalised by an abusive partner, and sure, she's always been ditzy comic relief, but she's also tragic and broken, and dangerous. And in Arkham Asylum she's a boss in her own right, but here she's underwritten and the constant, constant thug dialogue about when/if the Joker buys it, what they're going do to her - well that really got on my nerves. And it's not like it would have been hard to fix with a couple of scenes of Harley asserting herself as top henchlady. With violence. 

At least Selina mostly gets a better time of it. Catwoman has always felt right as a sexually aggressive character, using her looks and voice as part of her arsenal, to keep people off balance, as well as the general cat motif. So her slinking around with her backside in air, and top whose zip appears to be stuck half-way is certainly no worse than any other version of the character, and the voice-work has a nice undertone of menace to the sultry purr with is again, very cat-like. And you get to play her, so there is the satisfaction of the scratching the face off the one-note goons after hearing another one of these "i likes a girl with spirit" sort of dialogue snatches. She's also fun to play - there's not enough of the Catwoman sections and they feel different to playing as Bats, so I could certainly have spent more time with the character. 

Stupid Zip, stuck again! 
The weakest part of Arkham Asylum was the boss fights, and whilst they are better here, they're still a little patchy, being very much "find pattern, repeat" sort of fights, except where they are simply "throw lots of goons at you" but generally they are better balanced and more varied, with less controller-biting frustration. Oddly another weak point this time around was the Riddler puzzles, which I really went for in the earlier game, and this time they're far more fiddly and less exploration based, it seemed and therefore less fun, and felt more like a time sink. And there was certainly nothing as brilliantly mind-bending as the Scarecrow sections although a couple of bosses riffed off it to less effect. 

So in conclusion I can't say anything other than I really enjoyed Arkham City, and the niggles are minor in the face of a wonderfully expansive, fun and immersive game. It hits the big notes when it needs to, and certainly never felt bored - in fact I got to the final boss and thought "wait! you can't finish yet, I still have things to do!", which is a sign that even after playing it through I still wasn't close to being bored of it, so I went straight back in to clear up some of the subquests, because Justice Never Sleeps....