We haven't had a good old Objection at Kotaku Australia for a while now, so when Dylan Burns, founder of Pixel Hunt, came a-knockin' with the idea of discussing Batman: Arkham City, one of my favourite games of last year I quickly said yes. Apparently Dylan wasn't too enamoured with the game!
DYLAN: After taking some time to consider my top games of last year, rumination invariably shifted to the biggest disappointments. For me, it came down to three titles: Brink, Rage and Batman: Arkham City. The latter stood out as a surprise because I loved Arkham Asylum and had been on the edge of my seat for the sequel.
Yet as I played, the realisation that there was something not right became stronger and in the end I sat staring at the credits roll feeling empty. My reviewer gaze could look at Arkham City and see that it ticked all the 'high-score boxes', but on a personal level I was left wanting. There are several issues that I have with the game, which we’ll talk about, but first I’d like to know: did you love Arkham City, Mark?
MARK: I think Batman: Arkham City had some of the best pacing I've ever seen in an open world game. I knocked it over in a single weekend, and I'm far from a 'marathon' kind of guy. So yes, I would say that I loved Batman: Arkham City.
Now that I think back, it's tough to put a finger on precisely why I loved it. Probably just the fact that all the various sections of the game felt so seamlessly put together, to the point where I didn't dread doing anything, and enjoyed every aspect of the game equally. That combined with the fact the story is nicely spelled out, and actually engaging, probably accounts for why I could bring myself to continually play the game for hours on end, when I usually get fatigued and jump on Facebook instead!
What were some of your issues with the game?
DYLAN: Ironically, pacing. To me, the game never reached that plateau moment when you felt like the tutorial phase was behind you and the confident exploration phase had started. It was simply a ten hour tutorial, with new moves, gadgets, combos and quick-fire options constantly stuffed down my throat until the credits were rolling and I was left thinking ‘Is that it?’.
This is related to my other major beef, the clash between systems. Quite a few times I found the game overlapping between an active side mission, the main mission and whatever situational-goon-AI was whipped into action. Trying to follow the trail of a Deadshot murder victim would all too often get interrupted by a time-sensitive phone call from Zsasz, upon which some patrolling bufoon would invariably spot you and call twenty of his fellow beefcakes over to bash and shoot at you. Then the Joker would call… I know that part of Batman’s job description is to be beleaguered by duty, but at times Arkham City just gets comical.
MARK: I think we talked about this before — on your very own PixelCast to be precise — and I actually agreed with you at the time. I was roughly three hours into the game and it felt as though I was playing nothing but tutorial, to the point where I was learning a new skill each minute without any time to internalise all the cool techniques I was learning at an all too rapid pace.
For a while it all felt a little overwhelming.
But eventually, particularly with the combat, I sort of just decided that it was impossible to try and capitalise on all the skills I was being taught and learned to use only what was required to progress. So I very rarely used, say, all the quick button thingmies — I stuck to counters, take downs, and stealthy stuff.
Of course there are aspects of Batman's arsenal you have to use in order to progress, but so much of it is extraneous and style driven — it's there to give you the opportunity to add variety, but you don't necessarily have to use them...
TL;DR — I sort of just gave up and played the game!
DYLAN: I probably should have done the same, yet the structure of the game – particularly the menu option of some quite deep challenges – had me feeling like I was expected to master (or at least get okay at) the new techniques being shown.
Another point that was brought up when I co-reviewed the game was how the enemy AI in Arkham City was more starkly demarcated than in Arkham Asylum. The gaming environments were very distinctly separated into ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, as were the ways in which the enemies reacted and could be approached. The stealthy, distract-and-pick-them-off approach worked quite well during the inside missions, yet when roaming the city such learned and favoured techniques would become useless as the AI was set to ‘mob’ mode, ignoring efforts to draw individuals away. Admittedly, it was possible to stealth outside, but it was much more hands on. This had the effect of making the game feel less integrated than its predecessor. Combine this with overly complicated, at times frustrating, combat (a deliberate padding out of game spaces) and I found myself feeling distinctly empty as I played.
MARK: I think if we were to agree on something, it would definitely be with regards to Arkham City's 'outside' gaming environment, and the idea of Arkham City being a quasi open world game. As I mentioned above, the 'outside' world did feel a bit extraneous. No doubt Rocksteady made this design decision because it didn't want to rest on its laurels, wanted to push the series forward, etc — but Arkham City did lose a lot in that transition from tightly designed spaces to open world environments.
The subtlety of combat was definitely one casualty. As you mentioned, the cat and mouse games that are preserved in the 'inside' sections are null and void 'outside', but to me the greatest loss was the way in which Arkham Asylum forced you to use a variety of different ways to traverse the game's environment. In Arkham City it was just a case of bat-hooking your way across the city to the next 'inside' section.
And the open world itself just didn't feel all that well developed. Unlike, say Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption, I could never imagine myself loading up Batman: Arkham City just to 'mess around' in the world. I'd definitely need a purpose or some sort of tangible goal in order to play Arkham City.
That's kind of why it fails as an 'open world' game.
But, I think it is important to note that the existence of Batman: Arkham City does work on one specific level: it really gives you the chance to feel like Batman. When you think of Batman, you think of the Dark Knight prowling the rooftops of the city, attacking goons from on high, before swooping to the safety of the looming skyscrapers above.
More than anything, that's why I think Rocksteady decided to create Arkham City as an 'open world' space the player could navigate — and in that sense it does work.
DYLAN: Both games are great Batman simulators, and I’m not saying that I didn’t have fun in that role, but I question whether Arkham City was the best game that could have followed from Asylum. The first game balanced perfectly the unfolding level design with the right amount of villains, side stories and main exposition. In comparison, City is a whirlwind ride that treats some quite complex villains as little more than sideways considerations - while the city becomes a vast, monotonous canvas on which to paint hundreds of Riddler trophies (a side pursuit I loved in Asylum but pretty much ignored in City). Positioning Joker as a counterweight for Hugo Strange’s machinations was cool and all, but it still felt like a wasted premise by the end of the game. Given the kitchen-sink approach, I can’t help but think that Rocksteady painted itself into a corner.
Perhaps I’m not a dedicated enough Batman fan to appreciate the game’s subtleties, yet several deep seated fans that I’ve talked to have had a similar vacant reaction to Arkham City. If nothing else, I think that the game has made me realise that even an extremely well made title, one that ticks all the boxes of a critical blockbuster, can still under-deliver on a personal level, when expectations don’t meet with a developer’s output.
What are your thoughts? Did Batman: Arkham City deserve its near-universal praise? Let us know in the comments below.