Objection! A Tale Of Two Arkham Cities

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!

Be sure to check out Pixel Hunt, and listen to the Pixel Cast -- especially when I'm a guest on it!

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.


Comments

    I agree with your observation that the controls and action didn't translate to the "open world". I also agree that the game under-delivered for Batfans as per my Reader Review, published last year and the following piece:

    http://bitmob.com/articles/high-horse-audit-2011-most-disappointing-game-of-the-year

    Batman: Arkham City may have been a good game, but particularly with regards to the story, it felt so empty afterwards.

    YOU PUT BATMAN IN THE SAME CATEGORY AS RAGE AND BRINK!? I AM LITERALLY BLIND WITH RAGE RIGHT NOW. FORGIVE ANY TYPOS, I'M TOUCH TYPING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE I AM SO ANGRY.

      If I send you some olives will it subside? :P They were my biggest disappointments. I didn't mean that they were lumped together quality wise.

      if you typed "I am on the BRINK of RAGE" instead I think your point would have held much more validity :)

    I loved it, but shied well away from 100%ing it in the end. Blasted through the story and about 14% of the side missions, and had an incredible time. I think too much more and I would have tired of it, though.

    I don't know I never had any problems with the more fancy controls, it didn't feel tutorially to me at all, I abused the quick-fire gadgets all the time, makes the bigger brawls way easier.
    I loved flying about the city, almost as much as I enjoyed swinging about Manhattan in Spider-man 2, but all those gods damned riddler trophies, there were too many, I got them all sure but it was exhausting and not fun like it was in the last game.

    Arkham Asylum did everything so well but Arkham City felt like exactly the same thing but in a bigger environment.

    It was still an excellent game, I played it to death and with the amount of crappy games out there it almost feels criminal to make a complaint about a good one, but it just didn't pull me in quite as much as the original.

    Having said that, if they bring out some mission based single player DLC (none of this challenge map stuff) I will be all over that if it's not overpriced.

    Arkham City was all about being the goddamn Batman.

    That means a bit of the stealthy take-downs, a bit of the BIFF POW BAM! and a bit of the Batclawing your way around Gotham. Then there's also the whole "World's Greatest Detective" schtick.

    In terms of just straight up delivering on that experience, Arkham City nails it.

    With the constant tutorials, I just felt like it was a case of "hey look, a new toy!" And it didn't seem like a distraction or hindrance.

    With the inside areas, it felt like how Batman would tackle being in an enclosed space with those enemies. Same with the outside ones.

    You have to treat them completely different because the environment is different and if you're Batman, you adapt the environment.

      Here here! My sentiments exactly.

    I think Arkham city wasn't meant to be a true open world/sandbox game but a step from what AA was. Eventually when they come with a third game it will be set in gotham and it will have the strength of open world/sandbox gameplay with a good paced story that is focused.

    Everyone click on the podcast mark was a guest on and skip to 2.57

      Bwahahahahahahhahahahahahahhaaaaaaaaaaaaa

      OBJECTION!

    You know why I think Arkham City fails as a sandbox?

    You're too detached from the action. There's nothing to interact with. You're soaring around, the only people ion the world are there for you to beat up, and all they did is spawn in the same places and have mundane conversations. Near everything is tied to moving the story forward, and what isn't quite litterally feels like ticking boxes. You find the riddler trophies, stop a half dzen street crimes. It doesn't feel like a living world. As a playground for Batman, it's excellently constructed. Wonderful design choices. But once the game is finished, there's nothing to DO. You really have this lingering feeling that it's time for Batman to pack up his batgear and just go home.

    However, I think think Arkham City was an important stepping stone to the inevitable full-scale Gotham-centric game. Arkham City was a great game, don't get me wrong. I just hope it's serving as a practical test-bed for the next big thing, which will really amaze us.

      I'm really hoping that the next generation of consoles will have the grunt to allow us to have a full Gotham City filled with pedestrians and cars, day/night cycles, the Batmobile/Batwing as options (but not the focus, I don't want it to be GTA:Batman) criminals with daily routines and so much stuff to do.

      It might be possible on current gen systems considering what has been achieved with GTAIV but I want them to go crazy without limitations!

      I'm still playing this game and it doesn't feel as much like a sandbox but more like a Zelda where you have a big hub world some major dungeons (the Police Station, the Museum etc) and a tonne of sidequests (a huge amount if you count all the riddles).

      So yeah not open world with missions like GTA or AC but rather a Zelda style adventure game with the veneer of an open world

    I felt no incentive to collect all the Riddler trophies this time... it just felt like there were too many...

    I liked Arkham City, but it felt like less of a game than Asylum... I know there was more in it, but it just felt like a 'more for the sake of having more' senario.
    Maybe it wasn't as magical because I already knew how good Asylum was, so I couldn't be surprised to the same extent... but there it is.

      And the gadgets... too many gadgets, I didn't end up using half of them outside of the specific story instance where you needed them.

    These are the things I was thinking. You mind-reading monsters.
    Something just didn't feel "right" as you played through - a big part of it has to do with the story. They tried so hard to keep the plot a mystery as you played through you eventually lost sight of why you were doing anything. The atmosphere was good, but didn't reach the heights of Arkham Asylum - some bits were great like the Penguin's lair or the Industrial district, but too often it just felt like a dank city rather than the dark gothic madness of Arkham Asylum.
    It was fun to play and I enjoyed finishing it, but as others have said I'm probably not going to collect all the trophies - it's just too damn much. The lack of indoor areas also detracted from the tactical nature of Arkham Asylum - I would have liked to have seen more set-pieces.

    Still a great game and better than most, but my expectations were not met.

    I'm inclined to agree that it was a bit of a let down. Arkham Asylum was a fun and SOLID game. Arkham City was fun but far from solid. As others said, it felt like "more for the sake of more" all the new stuff being tacked on rather than seamlessly integrated. There was little substance and the poor usage of classic villains like Two Face and Penguin annoyed me. I think Rocksteady tried to take too many steps forward with this game and as a result it was a less than stellar experience. It also didn't help my situation that I played on the PC version that was heavily delayed for no reason at all. It still has major framerate issues.

    SPOILER TIME

    What's up with wonder tower after finishing the game? Still having to go in via the side entrance, the turrets are still active...Rocksteady should have had Bats disable all that stuff so one could dive from the top of the tower and fly across Arkham at a tremendous height.

    Oh and just like AA, the end of The Riddler quest was really dull.

    I'm about halfway through at the moment, and while I'm loving it I don't think it's as good as Arkham City. Mostly because they've just stuffed too much in.

    There are too many new combat moves. The benefit of many of the new tools is negligible, as there's really no strategic difference between pausing an enemy with a cape stun, electricity gun or even the ice grenade (though that does last longer). The effective and fun scissors-paper-rock of AA's combat has been lost somewhat under the noise (AA is probably my favourite combat implementation of any game thus far).

    There are too many distracting side missions. Until I was reading this I completely forgot that there even was a Deadshot side mission.

    There are too many characters. Hugo Strange really doesn't feel like an overarching bad guy in the same way that Joker did (if, indeed, he is the overarching bad guy... like I said, I'm only halfway through and he just showed up once at the beginning and since then has been an occasional voice over the coms unit).

    I feel a little aimless. At this stage in the game I'm really not sure what my overarching goal is, besides "punch everyone in the city in the face".

    Arkham City just feels like it needed some culling to make it feel like a tight experience, where every single piece was necessary.

    I'm still loving it, but AA was so good that it made me a "gamer" again after a long period of just tinkering with games for a few minutes at a time. AC, on the other hand, is kind of reminding me why I stopped playing games. Too much cruft to get through in search of the core goodness.

    Blasphemy! Arkham City was fantastic some start to finish!

    I loved that there was no plateau feeling after a tutorial; it felt a little... realistic? The other alternatives are to give you all of the gadgets at the beginning, which would certainly be overwhelming, or to cut down on all the gadgets, and I found that in my New Game Plus that doing combos with all gadgets was fun and visually stimulating.

    I agree a bit about the story: Protocol 10 was a huge letdown, but the end of the Joker storyline I felt made up for the Hugo Strange story.

    The side missions were awesome, but I needed to look at a walkthrough for the Identity Thief mission and it took me two phone calls from Zsazs to realise I had to move the tracker on screen to find him. Maybe I'm daft, but still.

    As for Riddler, I loved the whole quest. I do understand, though, why the last room may have been seen as a letdown (easier than the Riddler rooms, very short).

    I loved the game, and I loved that it, in my opinion, did everything Arkham Asylum did just as well, and at some times better (the boss fights!), while adding the whole new dimension of sandbox gameplay that didn't feel tacked on.

    What I want in the next one is something I feel hadn't been done in AA and AC, but is an integral part of Batman: fear. Criminal shouldn't want to face the shadow that has taken down 10 of their well-armed compadres. Intimidation. Batman isn't just a strong guy with a lot of gadgets, he's a myth, a rumour.

    I played through the first one twice, getting all the riddler trophies the second time. But i didn't even feel like going back and doing the side missions for this one. The open world felt too dense and chaotic. The level design didn't really work on the street level and just flying over everything made half the city feel pointless.

    The open world felt so disorganized. From the previews i thought that the area would be made up of distinct factions that you'd unlock as you went or something. I can't remember anything about the city, there's just not enough variation to make anything stand out.

    The game was killer, but it' the little things that left me feeling empty.
    Why is it when I kick a baddy on the edge of a rooftop/bridge/edge he doesn't fall off, he just bounces off of some invisible shield.
    The little things make the big things more believable and intense.
    But I agree that this is just a stepping stone from AA to the next phase, and as that it delivers.

    Oh man, I couldn't disagree with the "too many gadgets" criticism less.
    Having 100%'d the main story quest, I loaded up "New Game+", and every single one of those gadgets becomes essential. I never used the freeze grenades the first time through, but once you don't have the crutch of the counter-signals, those bombs become essential.
    Mixing up the different quick-fire gadgets becomes second nature once you've memorized them - admittedly I didn't have them down the first time through, but now, having sunk a good 80 hours into the game, I don't really think, I batclaw.
    I understand that some people have their issues, but for me the only issue is having to wait another couple of years before pplaying something this excellent again. Batman: Gotham City, you're already on my must-have list.

      *Couldn't disagree with the "too many gadgets" criticism more".
      Oops.

    Haters gonna hate.

    For the expectation from Asylum and what it delivered in story and gameplay, City knocked it outta the park. It's unique in so many innovative ways. Some people are never pleased.

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