This Place Is A Prison

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a brilliant game. It’s the rare title that’s overflowing not just with action and puzzles but an overwhelming sense of place. Not only did it completely nail the tone of a Batman comic (or the much-loved 90s animated series), but it truly made the setting a character in the narrative. The Arkham estate was just as threatening and foreboding as The Joker or Killer Croc – because we were stuck there, it might have been even more threatening.

I finished the game, riddles and all, in a long weekend. I haven’t done that in years, and I was hungry for more.

I mention this so you know how much I wanted to love the sequel, Batman: Arkham City. But I don’t, and it’s completely because of the setting.

In our Arkham City discussion on the Conference Call, Shawn Andrich called the game the perfect sequel “on paper.” It’s got more of everything: More bat-gadgets, more villains, more of the Riddler’s OCD on display. His theory – and I know I’ll regret trying to quote him – is that more of the same gameplay mechanics isn’t always a good thing. He found the FreeFlow combat system more stale this go-around, something I personally attribute to his machine-like mastery over the brawling in the first game.

I want to agree with him (don’t tell him that), but having three different variations of Batarangs or four different combo options at my disposal while beating down thugs never got on my nerves. More missions? Distracting, but I imagine that’s what it’s like to be the Detective. Don’t worry, political prisoner, I’ll save you from a mugging as soon as I tag this Riddler trophy.

Instead, it all comes back to the city itself. Arkham Asylum in the comics is an ever-present force, but never well defined. Grant Morrison’s landmark graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, comes closest to pinning down the feel of Gotham’s nuthouse, but what it really shows is a clear picture of the insanity contained within. Because Arkham Asylum the game is loosely based on the graphic novel, it gets the best of both worlds. Asylum put the feeling of the comic into tangible dimensions, then dropped you head-first into the space.

What was always a plot point in Detective Comics is now well and truly fleshed out. I wanted to explore its nooks and crannies, finding references to Amadeus Arkham or the horrors those walls have contained over its imaginary history. There’s a lot of mood in that game, and mood is hard to pull off.

Arkham City, in contrast, has you exploring Gotham’s repurposed slums. Again, on paper, that should be amazing – There’s the theater Bruce Wayne left with his parents when Joe Chill shot them down! – but the urban sprawl often feels generic as you’re soaring over it. Apart from the Monarch Theater, there are few recognizable spots in Arkham City, and the game does little to build them up as more than a setting for another 20-on-1 combat encounter.

The problem is that Arkham City, as a setting, has no character of its own. It’s a setting that’s designed to give you a jungle gym to play in, but it’s not integral to the plot. The construction and setup of the open-sky prison in Gotham’s slums is barely set up in the game itself, and aside from making allusions that it’s a “bad thing,” none of the game’s named characters seem all that eager to leave. You’ll often hear petty thugs complaining that they miss their high-def televisions or Facebook statuses on your handy-dandy Bat-Radio as you launch yourself across rooftops, but the game never shows you that it’d be hard to actually leave.

In fact, midway through the game you find that Robin, the boy wonder and ever-present sidekick, can somehow leave and enter as he pleases. That continuity gaff alone makes the “impenetrable prison” seem more like a myth, and certainly doesn’t give it an ever-present character. I’m only in Arkham City because the game needs to put me somewhere.

Unlike exploring the halls of Arkham Asylum, I feel like I’m grappling and soaring over Liberty City. Even with all the new villains included, it feels like Arkham City left out its most important antagonist: the setting in which you’re trapped.

Also, and it’s a small point, but come on. Someone convinced the people of Gotham to turn half their city into an open-air prison? Even for comics, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But I digress.

Having now finished the game, I don’t feel the same draw to find all of Riddler’s secrets, a game mechanic that I loved in the first game. I don’t care enough to track down Deadshot’s clues or wait around for the mysterious stranger – who totally isn’t mysterious if you’ve read Knightfall – to show up while I’m failing AR challenges. I’ve come to the conclusion of the story, watched how Rocksteady tied the threads of plot together, and I feel done. It was fun while it lasted, but I can’t see myself cleaning up the streets all over again.

Unlike Batman at the end, I’m ready to leave Arkham City to its own devices, letting the thugs and criminals and freaks tear themselves apart instead of scouring the streets for a way to save it from itself.

Which makes me a really crummy Caped Crusader.

Comments

hbi2k wrote:
CheezePavilion wrote:

Is there a difference between glamorizing something and normalizing something? I'm not sure myself, but it's something worth pondering.

There's also the issue that I'm not sure I really want realism in my games. What I want is something you said: "in service of the aesthetic they were pursuing." It could come down to something subjective, but I don't want to fight sexism in video games. I spend way too much time thinking about sexism already for someone without tenure as it is. It makes things more realistic in a bad way.

See, this I get. I don't agree, but it's subjective, so I don't have to. It's just that there's a difference between saying "I don't enjoy this because sexism isn't something I want to be confronted with in my leisure time" and, "this is wrong because it glamorizes / normalizes / is complacent with / is itself an example of sexism." So I apologize if you've been saying the former and I've been lumping you in with those saying the latter.

I think I'm saying both.

wordsmythe wrote:
DSGamer wrote:

I keep imaging a conversation like this taking place about movies or books.

"Did that artist / director really need to use that language? He could have found a different way to make that character unsympathetic."

We call that "getting a BA in English."

Yeah, exactly; I was going to bring up The Celluloid Closet or suggest googling "final girl' and "feminism."

CheezePavilion wrote:

I think I'm saying both.

Oh. Well, you're only half wrong then. (-:

Ugh. I'm sorry, that all-caps, Hulk-smash style of writing just isn't pleasant to read. It would be cute in 140-character chunks in a gag Twitter account perhaps, but as a full-length blog... not so much. I'm sure s/he raises many salient and well-thought-out points, and I'd be happy to take them under consideration just as soon as s/he decides to formulate them in a reader-friendly manner.

All I'm saying is that if a bunch of convicts don't threaten to stick something up the batcave at some point, the game is therefore sexist in its 'realism' and no one should ever buy it and if you enjoyed it you're a bad person and god kills a kitten everytime you yawn. That's all.

They perhaps would not threaten to stick anything up Batman's cave; it's not realistic. He's a man, y'know, as opposed to a bitch.

hbi2k wrote:

Ugh. I'm sorry, that all-caps, Hulk-smash style of writing just isn't pleasant to read. It would be cute in 140-character chunks in a gag Twitter account perhaps,

I suppose you are talking about ZODIAC MF.

CheezePavilion wrote:

All I'm saying is that if a bunch of convicts don't threaten to stick something up the batcave at some point, the game is therefore sexist in its 'realism' and no one should ever buy it and if you enjoyed it you're a bad person and god kills a kitten everytime you yawn. That's all.

Well, that's only fair. All I've been saying is that anyone who thinks the word "bitch" is offensive is a bleeding heart pinko Nazi apologist.

Also for the record I'm fairly sure the bad guys do occasionally threaten to put their weapons where the sun don't shine. So there's that.

Sinkwater wrote:
hbi2k wrote:

Ugh. I'm sorry, that all-caps, Hulk-smash style of writing just isn't pleasant to read. It would be cute in 140-character chunks in a gag Twitter account perhaps,

I suppose you are talking about ZODIAC MF.

or Feminist Hulk.

Feminist Hulk and Grammar Hulk are some of the best accounts on Twitter.

Cory, I'm with you. Asylum was a proper Metroid game -- breezy combat, individual room puzzles, light backtracking, a very well-defined environment that isn't exactly 'open' and isn't exactly linear either. There were 0 parts of Asylum that struck me as generic.

Arkham City, by competing with Assassin's Creed and a number of open world games, comes up a little short in comparison.

"This town needs an enema!"

Well, I'm officially in the "meh" category on this game. I said this earlier.

Naive Me wrote:

Conversely I love this game. Precisely because I can roam the city and do what I please. I think that actually validates your point. Since I'm basically saying that the game, not the overall environment is what I like best. You're saying you miss the environment as a character of sorts.

The above is true except when the game takes away your ability to roam the city or approach a battle with 30 thugs tactically and are instead forced to mash buttons. I thought it was cool to drop in on bad guys and take them down with stealth and creativity. The part before you enter the theater is amazing. It requires a great amount of skill and planning. Then as soon as I entered the theater it became button mashing like crazy. Hated it. I'm done with the game. Done as in I completed the game and done as in no need to go back.

I'm not sure I'm following how you feel the game ever "forced" you to mash buttons. There are parts where you can't really use stealth, sure, but there are still varied tactics you can use to ensure success in combat. You can wade into a group and play reactively by just countering everything they throw at you, use gadgets and crowd control moves to keep the fight down to two or three guys at a time, build up your combo and cherry-pick the most dangerous targets to go after with instant takedown moves, dodge around to use positioning to your advantage, or a combination of any or all of the above, and none of which I'd characterize as "button mashing."

TL;DR version: You're playing it wrong! (-:

When you're surrounded by 30 guys and the closest thing to evading you can do is to jump then all that's left is battling 30 guys by hand. It's hard to draw a gadget quick enough and so it turns into button mashing. Timed button mashing but still button mashing. Also notice that I mostly singled out the last battle.

DSGamer:

The key "problem" with Batman combat is that hitting most anything after a certain time will result in good things - hence the reason for why you can button mash. It has a limited "punishment" return on bad button presses. Batman AA's style might be better in that respect, though I haven't played enough AA to be sure.

DSGamer wrote:

When you're surrounded by 30 guys and the closest thing to evading you can do is to jump then all that's left is battling 30 guys by hand. It's hard to draw a gadget quick enough and so it turns into button mashing. Timed button mashing but still button mashing. Also notice that I mostly singled out the last battle.

LarryC wrote:

DSGamer:

The key "problem" with Batman combat is that hitting most anything after a certain time will result in good things - hence the reason for why you can button mash. It has a limited "punishment" return on bad button presses. Batman AA's style might be better in that respect, though I haven't played enough AA to be sure.

These statements seem rather at odds with one another. DSGamer complains that there's no time to draw a gadget quickly enough to avoid getting hit mid-draw in certain situations; Larry complains that there's not enough punishment for a bad button press.

That IS the punishment for a bad button press. If you use the grapple gun when an enemy's about to punch you, you get punched in the face.

Batman has multiple techniques to dispatch enemies, all of which are appropriate for different situations. If you're in a room with 30 dudes, guess what? It's time to use crowd control techniques to get that down to a more manageable size, or else use counters to deal with incoming attacks as they happen. The game would be just as boring if it were nothing but wide-open spaces where you could isolate dudes and pick them off at your leisure as if it were nothing but rooms crowded with dudes and no room to maneuver.

That's what's so brilliant about the game: variety.

I think part of my original puzzlement was a matter of phrasing. By definition, timed button mashing is not button mashing. "Mashing" implies just randomly hitting buttons with no regard for which button is pressed or the timing of the presses. If by "button mashing" you mean "applying skill to press the correct buttons in the correct sequence with the correct timing to achieve the desired result," then, dude, ALL gaming is button mashing. By that definition, TYPING is button mashing.

All I know is I just finished 3 hours with Dark Souls and enjoyed the combat there more than in the that last boss battle. Yes there is variety, but only if you can get away from enemies long enough to equip a different weapon.

By "equip a different weapon," are you talking about selecting it with the D-Pad? Because if you're doing that instead of using the Quick Gadget system, it's no wonder you're frustrated at the difficulty of using gadgets in combat.

hbi2k wrote:

By "equip a different weapon," are you talking about selecting it with the D-Pad? Because if you're doing that instead of using the Quick Gadget system, it's no wonder you're frustrated at the difficulty of using gadgets in combat.

I am speaking of that, yes. Never saw a better way to do it. Either way the lack of verticality in those situations is extremely frustrating, regardless of if I missed something.

You can use all of the gadgets in combat with basic button combos, usually LT and a face button. LT+Y is the batclaw, LT+B is the electric gun, etc. There are tutorial pop-ups for these button combos, but there's not a real tutorial for them, per se, in the same way there isn't a real tutorial for the combat at all.

I'm curious: were you using the two-button combat powers like Instant Takedown (Y+B after you hit a combo of 8 or more)? The Bat Swarm ability (X+A) can be incredibly useful for getting breathing room in crowded fights.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

I'm curious: were you using the two-button combat powers like Instant Takedown (Y+B after you hit a combo of 8 or more)? The Bat Swarm ability (X+A) can be incredibly useful for getting breathing room in crowded fights.

I was using those. Yes. In a room of 30 people and no ability to get to high ground and get to creative it's still just brawling.

This is "just" brawling the way filet mignon is "just" a slice of dead cow. (-:

I think I understand your objection now. You didn't like having to brawl without an option to escape and approach in alternative ways. I think where hbi2k and I were hanging up was that we don't really view the brawling as button mashing, which is how you described it. Your issue is with the fact that it was a straight-up brawl with no other options.

Spoiler:

How did you feel about Penguin's gladiator match? It's also a straight-up brawl against thirty enemies with no means to escape, retreat, or approach from a different angle. Did you dislike that fight as intensely? If not, why not?

ClockworkHouse wrote:

I think I understand your objection now. You didn't like having to brawl without an option to escape and approach in alternative ways. I think where hbi2k and I were hanging up was that we don't really view the brawling as button mashing, which is how you described it. Your issue is with the fact that it was a straight-up brawl with no other options.

Spoiler:

How did you feel about Penguin's gladiator match? It's also a straight-up brawl against thirty enemies with no means to escape, retreat, or approach from a different angle. Did you dislike that fight as intensely? If not, why not?

Yes. I did. I hated that. Here's the difference.

Spoiler:

#1 - The ending boss had that whole nonsense where he dies like 3 separate times and comes back to life. Like the ridiculous boss battle at the end of Mass Effect.

#2 - Right before that ending boss battle I had methodically picked off snipers flying around the city as Batman. I was being The Batman. Swooping in, taking guys away, disabling guns and generally fighting tactically. To have that tonally shift to a giant brawl was disappointing and predictable. I would have preferred to enter the movie theater and have it end in a cut scene. Literally. I don't need the climax that game developers seem to think we all need.

4xis.black wrote:

They perhaps would not threaten to stick anything up Batman's cave; it's not realistic. He's a man, y'know, as opposed to a bitch.

That was one of the funniest things the henchmen told Batman in Arkham Asylum when grabbing a pipe. They left it out from Arkham City?

hbi2k wrote:

Larry, I really think you ought to try some of the challenge rooms for yourself before you pass judgment. Trust me, Strike Strike Counter will NOT fly if you want to try and gold-medal the combat challenge rooms.

Or even for survival in Shock and Awe. Without combos and gadgets there's no chance in beating Shock and Awe Extreme.