The Games of Christmas '11: Day 13
A malodorous creature
Did you know that when he's not delivering presents or selling Coca-Cola, Father Christmas actually spends his days in cocktail bars enjoying the good life, the old rapscallion? Why, he's even been known to frequent the racetracks and beaches of Monaco in the company of young starlets. That's his reward for picking a job where he only has to pull on the costume once a year. But not everyone has it so easy. Let's take a peek inside door number thirteen.
It's Batman: Arkham City!
Alec: I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I will not snark, I will not snark, I will snark.
It is far too easy to snark about Arkham City, given how wretchedly it realises its female characters and attitudes towards them, its all-over-the-place dialogue, how it shoots its own dramatic urgency in the foot by constantly screaming for attention in a thousand different ways and why there's a man made of magic clay. But I snark from affection - I've often found that I'm more inclined to moan a greater length about games I like a lot than about games I think are awful. When something gets under your skin, into your head, it's a jolt when it fails in some regard. Like a lover, you like it, you trust it and you want to spend all your time with it, so when it does something that seems out of character with your perception of it, it's a shock. And you protest.
Arkham City swallowed me up right from the off, giving me a gaming place I wanted to be in, somewhere that treated my eyes, the more compulsive aspects of my nature and slick, lavish attempt to repackage the entire latter-day Batman ethos in a way that made something like sense. Yeah, City wasn't as tight as Arkham, but that's because it brought so damn much under its wing, and without being overwhelming or even tokenistic. For the majority of Batman's villains, it thought about the conceptual challenges they presented to Brucie-boy, rather than just being more big muscly guys to hit. Often, that entailed someone other than Batman being in danger - see the Mr Zsasz, Hush and Deadshot missions- thus reasserting that he was, after all, a hero, rather than just a guy in a fetish suit beating up morons.
It wasn't about a final fight against these guys - they could never, after all, be the equal of Batman in the brawling stakes - but about the chase. Second-guessing them, trailing them, finding them, stopping them. Superhero games are so often only about the panels where people try to knock each other unconscious, but Arkham City manages to be the other 28-odd pages of your average issue of Detective Comics too. The more openly fantastical enemies clunked a bit, because they didn't have the same creeping horror of racing to stop the evil that men do, but when it worked it really worked.
I suspect it's also the most thrilling and rewarding movement I've experienced in a game this year. The batrope, the cape glide and their various upgrades: these became second-nature so quickly, being both so much a part of the character and a thoughtful use of his environment. When I played Assassin's Creed: Revelations shortly after Arkham City, I felt so slow and constrictive. By proving that the rules of open urban worlds can be broken without being plain silly - hello, Prototype - Arkham City lays a fearsome black guantlet in front of anyone else attempting an action game in that kind of setting. It doesn't really deserve my snark, but if I do snark it's because I'm so impressed by everything else it does.
Jim: Superhero games exist in a weird bracket where they have to do some of the stuff that superheroes do, within both the constraints of what videogames can do, and within the constraints of what the original fiction says the hero can do. Batman: Arkham City is that process, that working with limits to create something maximalist, and builds something fresh and thrilling on familiar foundations. (For an example of this process not working quite right, you just have to look at Relic's Space Marine.)
As such, it seems like Arkham City is the best superhero game so far. It piles on the fiction, but never forgets to also explore (and ultimately pile on) the possible game mechanics, too. Batman is a superb target for this kind of design, because he's /just a man/, and most of what he's able to do depends on mechanical devices, which can be translated quite satisfactorily into the game world.
And what a world! The hub city of Arkham City is ludicrous and evocative. While not exactly doing the living world illusion that other city-based games dwell on, it provides scope for exploration, sight-seeing, and personal missions of hunting and acrobatics. It's brilliantly conceived, an architectural mess in the way that the older East Coast caricature cities of the comics, and one that allows you, asks you even, to dwell on darkened rooftops and brood on your batmanness.
Fundamentally, Batman is all about superb design. Everything piles up to create one of those games that you feel melded into. You don't notice how well half the stuff works, which means you do notice it again when you contrast it with other games. And that means that in some ways Batman is too slick. It's the design of equivalent of getting into a luxury car. You immediately notice how much better the quality is than in the cars you normally ride around it but, ultimately, when things pick up pace, you don't really notice how fast you are going. In Arkham City's case, it's pretty damned fast.
No, hang on, wrong Batman.
OK. Let’s try this. "SWEAR TO ME!"
Nope. Still not it.
How about, “It’s the car right? Chicks love the car.”
It’s definitely not that one.
In many ways, this is the Batman of the animated series, except you have the power to control him, and there’s extra violence and grit thrown in. Whether or not the latter choices are a good thing or not is up for debate but I’d certainly much rather pretend to be Batman than just watch him going about the grim business of crime-bashing.
My only real quibble with Arkham City is that it seems to embrace the silliness of its comic book origins but then, like the Bat himself, too often refuses to break into a smile. I quite enjoyed the story, preposterous as it was, particularly because Rocksteady were willing to make Gotham their own, with events reshaping the city’s geography and plenty of characters overtaken by them. But the gangs of extras shouting clumsy threats fail to be either particularly threatening, silly or interesting. I wouldn't mind which of the three it was! As it is though, they’re essentially just punching bags. That’s a shame because the city compound itself is a fascinating place that too easily becomes little more than a backdrop for fisticuffs.
But, my, what fisticuffs they are. The freeflow combat system just feels right. Casually strolling into the midst of a large group of enemies and waiting for an unfortunate knucklehead to pluck up the courage and swing a punch still entertains me and I’ve played the game far more than is probably sensible. The first counter of every fight, which should always come before Batman launches an attack of his own, is immensely satisfying. Stringing together combos from there until every thug in the vicinity is sleeping off an excessive bout on the bat-brew. By which I mean they are unconscious having been repeatedly punched in the brain.
The controls, both during combat and exploration, are so intuitive it's easy to gloss over how good they are. It doesn’t take long to have Bruce swinging across the city like Spiderman and the streets soon become unnecessary. It’s a cinch to traverse using rooftops alone; in fact, it’s sometimes a case of gliding through the air, swooping and grappling, hardly pausing to think. That it’s so simple to navigate the city and to then transition into a street fight against an entire gang of miscreants is easy to take for granted because it all feels so natural.
This is a game about being a man who has made himself a hero. Reaching this point may have been a struggle but all the acrobatic assaults and intellectual investigations are effortless now. It's simply what he does and therefore it has to be simple to do it. There’s a fluidity to the game and that's an essential part of the appeal; it runs through the tightness of the controls and the flow of the missions themselves. Arkham City is a noisy place and there are sometimes too many distractions but while the game slips up occasionally in its mixed and messy tone, it rarely drops the baton in terms of the actual objectives it offers.
I think it’s fair to say that Rocksteady get Batman even if the writing does fall down at times. They know what makes him fun and what makes him interesting, whether it’s the demons of his past or the self-sacrificial stubbornness on display for much of Arkham City. I look forward to seeing what they put him through next, although part of me would like to see how they’d tackle a different hero. Arkham City was far more than refinement but next time out I’d like to be as surprised as I was by that first night in the asylum.