Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Becoming Batman: My Initial thoughts on 'Arkham City'

So it's now a week and a half since Arkham City was released here in Ireland.

It's safe to say that my anticipation for this game was probably almost as intense as the kind of anticipation I've had for actual Batman movies; such was the extraordinary power of what this game promised. The overwhelmingly positive reviews only served to pump me up even more, as it became abundantly clear that not only was this going to be the greatest superhero game ever, but one of the greatest videogames ever.

So what do I think?

Frankly, the game and the overall experience is outstanding. But the story is very silly.

Let's look at what I really, really liked about the game. First and foremost, the combat is back with a vengeance. The last game's combat was incredible and possibly the best combat system I've ever experienced in a videogame. I never felt more like Batman than when I was battering hordes of henchmen with crippling slow-motion moves. This game has a similar policy of not just throwing endless waves of the same kind of enemies at you. Many enemies wear body armour, carry shields or brandish knives or broken bottles at Batman, meaning that the player has to think on the move about what the best move is, in order to defeat the enemy, just like Batman does. I do have a few minor complaints in so far as the camera has been pulled back in this outing, so it's arguably not as spectacular. Also, when Batman ranks up enough of a combo, he goes into 'Critical Strike' mode, much like the last game. However, in this game, the screen goes all weird and shimmery when this happens, seemingly to add to the pulse-pounding experience which is somewhat distracting. In addition to this, streaks of red fly in Batman's wake; compared to the streaks of black which existed in the previous game.

Ultimately though, the combat is just even better than in the last game. While some of the visceral larger-than-lifeness of the experience might be a little bit dissipated, the actual system itself is greatly improved. Batman can use all of his gadgets in fights now, leading to some really badass moments. It certainly takes a bit of practice, but when you pull it off, it's awesome. The best thing I can possibly say about the combat is that if you were really awesome at fighting in the last game, you will effortlessly carry over and expand your skills even more. It's a perfect 'sequelisation' of the system.

Another awesome aspect of the game is how Batman moves around Arkham City. It was also going to be a problem having the non-superpowered Dark Knight climbing around a free-roaming city where Superman can fly and Spider-Man can swing on webs. This game has come up with a really clever and exciting method, where Batman can combine his grappling gun and his glider-cape to maximise his momentum and soar through the skies, like...well...a bat. If you remember the scene in The Dark Knight set in Hong Kong where Batman infiltrates a heavily-secure building, you'll know what this kind of thing is like. And you use this for the whole game. It's really, really awesome and it's a huge step up from the last game.

Honestly, the gliding alone is almost a reason to buy the game. It's that much fun.

The side-missions are pretty terrific too, and make a lot more use of Batman's detective skills. The Riddler is back and you have to find his Riddler trophies all over the city, as well as solve his sight-gag riddles. Finding Riddler trophies isn't as simple as just going to random spots in the city and picking up a small icon. Often you have to figure out puzzles or use your gadgets to get at the trophy. This can get really frustrating, but it's a good kind of frustration. The fact that I was sitting on the bus yesterday trying to figure out some of his riddles when I wasn't even playing the game speaks volumes about how much this game really makes you feel like you are Batman. I'd go as far as to say that the way these games use the Riddler is possibly the definitive depiction of the character.

One of the main criticisms of the last Arkham game was that in spite of the efforts of Animated Series scribe Paul Dini, the story was really a bit of a let-down. After promising something that seemed like it was going to be something larger-than-life and intensely creepy, the plot basically amounted to Joker turning himself into a monster and threatening to break a few helicopters.

This new game is probably worse in that regard. The story starts off strongly enough, but takes a huge dive in the final few acts, where the final reveal was aggressively predictable, shallow and just lazy. I don't want to completely give anything away, but needless to say, much of of the eerie warnings from Hugo Strange in the trailers leading up to the game ("Tonight...it will end, where it began!") don't even really make any sense. For the first time playing a Batman game, I really wanted to take all of the missions and characters and settings and just structure a different, more imaginative plot than the one used. Luckily, the voice-acting is tremendous, possibly better than the last game and Kevin Conroy is gloriously back on top-form as Batman himself, forever cementing himself as the definitive Dark Knight for all-time. I still can't believe how lucky Batman fans are to have the greatest Batman actor appear in the definitive Batman simulation.

If you can ignore the bizarre plot of the game however, I simply can't recommend this game enough. It's an outstanding videogame in its own right, but it's just the definitive Batman experience. The game rises above its insistence not to use any of Batman's vehicles and the gliding is so exciting that you end up being grateful that you don't have to drive some car around, when you can do this instead. The combat is elevated to the point of dizzy, dumbfounding brilliance and all of the wonderful stealth and detective elements from the last game are expanded and developed excellently.

Please buy this game.

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