I’m a year late and a couple months short. I know, I know.
But I guess with the constant discounts, pretty much any gamer these days has an unplayed Steam games list, courtesy of their estimation of available time being somewhat greedier than reality.
Having -just- bought LEGO Lord of the Rings and played it up to the Balrog, for whatever twisted reason my mind decided that -now- would be a great time to finally get around to playing Batman: Arkham City.
So that’s what I’ve been up to the last couple of days while taking an extended break from Guild Wars 2.
(I see the end of Jan patch has hit, so that’s a good reason to jump back in the next few days to check things out. More thoughts on that later once I get the lay of the land again.)
I don’t want to write a review of Arkham City here – the metacritic scores don’t lie in that it’s generally agreed by most to be a very good, solid game.
I’ve spent around 26 hours in game, finished up the main storyline and most side missions but 3-4 and am currently methodically cleaning up the riddler puzzles left all over the place.
A couple are quite difficult and have been left for a later time, possibly to be looked up with a guide for a suggested strategy/optimal path, though how much help that’s going to be when muscular coordination is probably the main issue is still unknown.
I understand there’s a hard mode, as well as a New Game Plus mode for both normal and hard difficulties, but frankly, having seen it once before, it’s unlikely I’ll sit through it again. I already found normal difficulty quite challenging, a bit of a surprise since I recall having an easier time of it playing through Arkham Asylum. Either they jacked difficulty up across the board for the sequel, or I’ve lost the rhythm and timing of how to fight like Batman.
What struck me as the most surprising, and inspired this post, was how I kept thinking: maybe ‘sandbox’ ain’t that great, after all.
Let me try to explain. The thought requires some careful dissection.
It’s natural that I would end up comparing the first game, Arkham Asylum, with its sequel, Arkham City, while playing through it.
One of the things that captivated me MOST about Arkham Asylum was how phenomenally immersed I was in Batman’s world. I was Batman. Prowling around the asylum. In stealth mode smashing up thugs before they saw me. In straight beat ’em up fights when I felt like it.
And the story never let up. It was a linear storytelling sort of game.
It’s the Spec Ops: The Line or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare type of deal. You have a map level or two – everywhere else is sneakily blocked off until later, you’ve got to go to those areas and trigger the next bit of story and have the next plot twist arrive, all the way to the end, pretty much. After which, you get to play achievement clean up if you so wish by going over all the maps with a fine tooth comb and all your gadgets to collect whatever trophy bruhaha you desire.
In Arkham City, that feeling is somewhat… dispersed.
It’s not that there isn’t a main storyline filled with plot twists and interesting developments. There is. And it’s a good one.
It’s just… that I end up as distracted as a gerbil with ADD while running about the purported ‘sandbox’ of Arkham City (in the vein of sandboxes like GtA and its ilk.)
Instead of being focused on being Batman and singlemindedly following my goal of pursuing the heinous villain pulling the strings behind it all, I end up as Batman juggling phone calls from people as diverse as the Joker, Zsasz and Oracle, while stopping any street crimes I see, and those damn thugs just hit me so I’ll hit them back, and ooh, detective vision just showed me a camera so I better batarang it, and that shiny tripet of joker balloons, and there’s a Riddler trophy over there so let me stop to solve it because that’s one less to be back for later, and I’m really close to this TITAN barrel so I may as well make a short detour, dammit, that fucker SHOT me! Glide off, sneak back, silent takedown and take that, two bit thug. Some other guy is calling for help now – hang on, where was I again in the main storyline?
I mean, I understand that it’s nice to have that sort of freeform play experience where you get to make your own choices of what to do.
But in Arkham City, I don’t know if it’s just not that well done a sandbox, or if we’re just trying to kid ourselves because narratively, Batman is going to do it all anyway, right?
There’s no real choice per se, only the choice of what order to do it in. Batman doesn’t fail and have to live with the consequences. He doesn’t kill, the end. Or wind up with a hostage accidentally killed. He succeeds, full stop, or it’s game over, replay or quit the game. Ie. a more evolved form of the manual save/reload.
At most, you have the choice of incompletion. Perhaps I won’t be arsed to keep gliding about the city looking for assaults in progress to progress the little side mission bar until it’s done.
Yet, we as gamers can’t really seem to handle choices with consequences either. In other games, like Witcher and Mass Effect or what not, when faced with what seems to be an indelible choice that’s going to affect the storyline one way or the other, what’s the thing we most often do? Google it. Check the guide that tells you exactly what happens down either path, and pick the one whose plot you like best, or whose shiny reward is the most optimal (depending on your player personality and how important the game makes the reward.)
Which sometimes makes me think that linear story games have an elegant finality about them. I -finish- a lot more linear story games, and feel good about clearly finishing them. Bioshock, Portal, Heavy Rain, World in Conflict, whatever.
I’m still not ‘done’ with Assassin’s Creed (I’m way backward, I know), Prototype, a number of GtA variants, Saints Row 2, Red Dead Redemption and stuff like that. I haven’t picked them up in years, so I probably won’t get back to them any time soon either.
Perhaps it’s just the Achiever part of me conflicting with everything else, I see a shiny icon on the minimap or the radar and I may as well check it out, or pick it up, or do whatever it is to pick up the shiny because it is there. And there are usually 404 or 606 of these tiny tasks to do.
Ironically, I never complete all of them either because the Explorer part of me is howling in fury by the 264th shiny and will sneakily divert my attention to the next shiny new game I haven’t played yet. The Achiever, who is somewhat simpleminded as these things go, promptly gets distracted by the next game’s 2 of 99 shinies.
Still, it’s a small nitpick in what is ultimately a good game – that I’m not as immersed in the Batman role, thanks to my metagame mind always counting and planning the next ‘task’ to hit.
A part of it could very well be the level design. I can’t walk six feet without stumbling across a green question mark. And that fact is even pointed out in some of the thug dialogue.
The city itself is not as varied as it could be. Or maybe one just spends too much time in the air above it.
It’s a dark, dismal, depressing, gothic prison with leaning buildings and lots of convenient gargoyles for Batman to grapple on to. I would have loved some really tall commercial skyscrapers like we see in the background but never get to ascend.
There are no pedestrians, no innocent passerbys to avoid, just thug after thug of one sort of another, and the harmless innocent NPC labeled ‘political prisoner.’
What is the point of immersion if it doesn’t even feel like a city to begin with? Just a concentration camp full of criminals to beat up?
Immersion is easier in Bethesda games like Skyrim, Morrowind, or even Fallout 3. There’s more of a sense of world, and it’s your own character you created so choices feel more meaningfully significant.
I did like the Catwoman ‘choice’ at the ending of her section though. I stood for a long time at the door to purported freedom and riches, feeling Catwoman’s conflict and eventually thought, well, what would Selina Kyle really do? And sighed, sashayed over to the ‘save Batman’ door, mourning the soon-to-be lost shiny stuff and headed out.
I hear the game will actually end there and show the dismal consequences of the other choice, before giving you a chance to retry and pick the ‘correct’ one. Which, of course, sounds a bit cheap on first hearing, but if you think of it as a automated save/load feature, then it’s not so bad. You could, of course, end the game there, but if you want to see the end of the Batman story then yeah, restart away.
I almost thought we’d get to make THE ultimate choice of Batman at the ending of Arkham City. (I’m speaking in a roundabout fashion to avoid too many spoilers for those who are even further behind on their games than me. Probably not that many.)
The cutscene that took away that choice was somewhat disappointing. Narratively just, perhaps. But rather convenient.
I honestly wonder what difference it would have made if we did get to make the choice. If we chose to let Batman cross over that single line, ‘don’t kill’ and do it, why not? It’ll taint him into villainhood, sure, but what a fantastic thing to think and talk about, and the ending cutscene would still be the same.
And if we chose to offer mercy and spare the villain’s life in the end, ie. what true Batman would do, THEN show us the cutscene that takes the choice out of our hands.
That would have been fantastically poignant, methinks.
I can only guess that future sequels might have been hard to plan for if Batman made that kind of irrevocable decision at the end of only game 2.