Monday, October 24, 2011

Millionaire in Costume Acts like Dick, Punches Clowns - News at Eleven

Here's a game that's near and dear to the select audience that loved both the first game and the comics that it's cribbing from - Batman: Arkham City.  It power dived into stores here in the United States on the 18th of October, trailing a wake of ragdolling critics hellbent on singing its praises loud and proud.  According to the only source of factual information on the internet, besides Cat and I of course, it sold roughly infinity trillion copies in the UK.  This information is incredibly useful for us, though I'm not entirely sure why.  Last, but not least, its aggregate score on aggregate scoring site Metacritic is hilariously high, averaging in the 95s across both platforms.

Now that's great and all, you may be telling yourself, but this isn't anything near a review of the game, just some background information that you looked up on Wikipedia.  And sure enough, you are an eagle-eyed and no-nonsense prince, dear reader.  I feel it's important to give you some background from other sources, so you can take what I say, compare it to others, and form your own opinions.  This is in no way meant to become the be-all, end-all review for anyone, just the half-formed touchy-feely bullshit of one guy and his Breath of Fire avatar.

Welcome to Arkham City
For those of you who aren't familiar with the conceit of Arkham City, it follows up some time after the disastrous events of Rocksteady's first Batman game, Arkham Asylum.  Dr. Hugo Strange, who is some kind of psychotic psychologist and/or psychiatrist, has basically: walled off a section of Gotham City; filled it with popular asylum-goers, prisoners, and basically anyone he doesn't like; and left them to their own devices with little food, no heat, and all the random shit they can find lying around to smash each other in the face so hard.  In a shocking twist of events, this turns out poorly for reasons unknown, leading to a bunch of themed goon areas under the employ of a huge cross-section of Batman's primary rogue gallery: Penguin, Two-Face, Joker, Riddler, etc.  Batman ends up inside through no fault of his own in the opening minutes and proceeds to run around, punching and headbutting everything he can find in the face until this whole "inmates running the asylum" thing resolves itself.

Batman and Samus, Sitting in a Tree
While I'd like to segue brilliantly into combat from that last sentence, we need to have a flashback to Arkham Asylum's core conceit first.  Namely, AA is very much set up in the easily-recognized style of Metroid and Metroidvania games - lots of fairly small areas with tons of secrets, alternate paths, and locked doors you bounce around until you've collected all the gadgets you need to unlock everything.  There tends to be a fair degree of back-tracking, but you're always rewarded in some way for each instance, making it a lot less boring than lesser games with the same layout.

The reason I mention this, other than to waste your time, is because Arkham City eschews this tightly plotted style for a sprawling sandbox filled with all kinds of in-jokes, references, and respawning assholes intent on ruining your day as you throw batarangs at giant question marks to unlock concept art.  There are a few inside areas, mostly villain-important lairs, but you'll find yourself largely flitting along in the air like a giant sine wave on your quest to fly all over Arkham City for numerous sidequests.

This is actually my first criticism of the game, and it's completely at odds with basically everyone else.  I vastly preferred the style of the first game for many reasons, the first of which is that Arkham City feels kind of weirdly disjointed.  The size of the map has a lot to do with it, since the villain-stew story of the first game was just as fractured.  AC has a huge city, all the more places to hide riddles and side-quests obviously, which makes travel a lot more time-consuming and distracting.  Second, all the frequently interesting, if sometimes hilarious, side-quests are hampered by being essentially random events in the world instead of having a linear plot take you through their areas.  It makes doing them a chore, finding them a chore, and spreads them out a little too much to keep them fresh in your mind, especially when you're trying to juggle whichever gaggle of villains you're currently dealing with in the main arc.

In spite of these niggles, travel around the game's world is actually incredibly fun, employing your sometimes-spotty-at-picking-the-right-ledge bat-grapnel, your increasingly torn yet nevertheless still flight capable bat-cape for gliding and power diving, and the quickly unlocked grapnel boost for speed and height from which to glide.  You can also just run around like a doofus, ruining everyone's day by gracefully breaking their faces in the beautiful dance of combat.

It's Batman!  Get Him!
There we are, a much better segue into Batman's art of combat.  Full disclosure: I am absolutely terrible at Rocksteady Batman games in the combat sense.  I don't have the required patience, reflexes, or sense of rhythm it asks for, and as a result I end up dying horribly a couple times only to clear a room without damage the second time.

For anyone who hasn't played Arkham Asylum, I invite you to go play that game first because it's still an amazing, well-polished game about a sociopathic millionaire and his hatred of people in clown makeup.  Combat works mostly like a game of reactions, timing your regular punches and special moves in between spinning your cape around and countering people trying to smack you upside your silly head.  The first game had a couple of special attack types, requiring different strategies to deal with, but was mostly straight forward.

Arkham City is Asylum++.  Everything about the first game returns, bigger and better, while adding a crapload more mechanics to confuse me.  You can now quickfire five gadgets in combat, there's more unique enemy types, and you get a bunch of special attacks and counter attacks, and more gadgets, and more enemies at once, and more in-depth counters, and more ways to initiate combat, and...

The thing is that even though it's way too complex for me to even begin aiming for a PERFECT FREEFLOW COMBO (which is everything in his arsenal in one gigantic uninterrupted orgy of limb-breaking) and I'm horrible at it, the combat is just so darned fun.  When everything works out, it's a beautiful thing to behold and even more impressive for the person who's controlling it.  AC has a nearly perfect curve of enemy element introduction as well, starting with regular thugs and working you through knives, stun batons, shields, guns, big guys, armor, and swords as the game progresses.

The other side of combat, aptly titled "Not Combat" or "Predator", is much the same as the first game.  Hide in the shadows, choke people out, throw some batarangs, don't get caught.  There's actually very little change from Asylum's predator modes, other than the main game never setting bombs on your "Get Out of Jail Free" gargoyles.  Predator is still my favorite part of the game, which makes it a shame there seems to be a lot more of the punching dudes, which I suck at.

That Is Seriously the Worst Disguise
Speaking of suck, let's take a quick gander at sidequests!  In short, they don't really suck.  Some of them, as mentioned before, are a little haphazard and random in their encounters.  Others are as simple as wander around blowing up stuff marked on the map.  The one thread tying them all together, though, is fan service.  Want to see one of Batman's villains but they didn't see fit to toss them into the main plot all willy-nilly?  Chances are that there's a sidequest that has little to do with anything lying around just so you can meet them face-to-face!  Being side arcs, there is usually no characterization for the villain du jour and they're all pretty short.  Granted, so is the cameo-heavy main plot, but it's nice to mix things up with some detective mode or talking with Oracle.  There's also one mission that had me rolling on the floor laughing at the end, which I'm pretty sure isn't the tone this grimdark game was looking for.

The sole sidequest that isn't a quickie one-shot is also the only returning one from Asylum: The Riddler.  Still obsessed with leaving green ? trophies everywhere, The Riddler's mission spans the entire game and probably then some, depending on how dedicated you are to finding all FOUR HUNDRED of his trophies, riddles (read: take a picture of something), and random things you can batrang to death (including cameras, balloons, and penguins).  These are still fun as hell, though some are a little bit of a pain, but I do have to level a little criticism towards their overemphasis on Batman's ancillary lore.  To whit, there are riddles I had no idea the answer to at first, because I'm not really a Batman fan.  Stuff like remembering who Aaron Cash is, or Maxie Zeus, or The Falcone Family.  Luckily, it's all possible due to a new mechanic that lets you find Riddler's goons, ask them for information, and then punch them really hard.

Sorry To Disappoint You Boys. It's Just Little Ol' Me
At last we reach the section I was looking forward to the least, despite its importance.  Frankly speaking, Arkham City is bizarrely degenerate in one category: sexism.

Now, I don't feel like arguing with people over this but it needs to be said.  Despite leaps forward in mostly every other category, except with regards to its sprawling map, Arkham City is as juvenile and disgusting towards women as the medium it's cribbing from.  I guess that is kind of laudable, in a way.  From Catwoman's idiotic zipper to Harley's new and even more moronic costume (bonus points for being confrontational about it, Rocksteady) and the constant "bitch" and overt sexual threats aimed only at female characters, Arkham City seems to wallow in boring, trite sexism for reasons unknown to me.  Call it whatever you like: realism or verisimilitude in a game based on themed and costumed idiots breaking clown limbs; me trying to be offended by disgustingly backwards garbage; not a problem because "I'm a guy and of course rape isn't a problem".  Don't care, probably won't waste time debating with you.

It's stupid and hurts this game for a lot of people, including me, which sucks because of how great the rest is.  If you're really curious about a more detailed breakdown of this, check Film Crit Hulk or any one of the numerous other blogs who've exhaustively detailed this nonsense.

Bite-Sized Summary of Salient Points
Arkham City is a fantastic game.  It improves on virtually every aspect of the last game.  There are two major criticisms I have with it: a disjointed cameo-heavy story lacking in characterization for mostly everyone, and its repugnant treatment of occasionally-strong-in-the-source female characters.

8.5/10 - Highly Recommended

Explanation for Score: 10 - 0.25 for Style Change - 0.25 for Plot - 1 for sexism.

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