Monday, 31 October 2011

Arkham City - I'm Batman ... again!

Batman may be DC's biggest brand, but even with the plethora of gadgets at his disposal, it took the caped crusader a long time to make a video game which was actually fun to play.

His breakthrough game was Arkham Asylum, a game which grasped the fact that it wasn't enough to feature the character and rely on die-hard comic fans buying it. When moving into a new medium like video games, the gameplay has to be fun and absorbing in its own right; the fact that the main character also appears in a dozen different comic titles should be almost irrelevant. Or at least the icing on - rather than the whole of - the cake.

Arkham Asylum did that. Sure, a lot of us bought it because it was a Batman game. But a lot of other gamers bought it even though they'd never read a Batman comic. Just as non-comic audiences went to see Nolan's The Dark Knight because they'd heard it was a good film, so gamers bought Arkham Asylum because they heard it was a good game.

The problem with a runaway success, however, is how to follow it up. As Bioware found with Dragon Age, there are a lot of expectations on a sequel and if the game is in any way inferior, the backlash can be bitter and - thanks to the internet - voluble. So, how does Arkham City compare to its predecessor?

Story

Unless you've been hibernating in your own Batcave for the last few months, you've probably read about this already. In short, however, a portion of Gotham City has been fenced off and turned into a huge "open plan" asylum, overseen by Hugo Strange. Various factions led by a wide assortment of Batman's classic foes vie for supremacy or simply pursue personal agendas, while the Joker still has plans for the titan formula which featured in the main plot of the first game. What this scenario provides, therefore, is a logical extension of the first game and a significantly larger game area. Exactly what you'd want from a sequel!

Gameplay

Again, Arkham City follows the tried and trusted sequel formula. Most of the gadgets Batman had at his disposal by the end of Arkham Asylum are gifted to you very near the beginning of the game. From the start, therefore, the game feels familiar. As the story progresses, however, he acquires more gadgets, providing new ways to navigate the city, combat villains and tackle the Riddler's many devious puzzles. And this time, the puzzles are more diverse and more , well ... puzzling!

Indeed, "more" seems to have been the watchword for the designers. There are more buildings to explore, more streets to clean up, and the villains provide more side quests, enabling them to break out of the "blink-and-you-miss-'em" cameos to which most of them were relegated in Arkham Asylum. Batman's decoder gadget is used in a wider variety of ways and its use seems less random and more logical.

Playable Characters

For most of the game, you play - not surprisingly - as Batman. And, as with the first game, Arkham City really does make you feel as if you are in the pointy boots of the world's greatest detective and martial arts expert. If you download the Robin add-on pack, you can also play as Tim Drake (the third Robin) but, since I haven't, I'm not sure how much of the story mode is actually playable as the Boy Wonder. Sorry.

The main game, however, does enable you to play a small number of levels as Catwoman. Again these levels have to be downloaded, but the game currently comes with a code enabling you to download them for free.

The most surprising thing about the Catwoman levels, perhaps, is how well they work. Introducing a new playable character can be a risky move for a game which features an instantly recognisable lead character. Both Lara Croft and Solid Snake have tried it in the past and were widely criticised for it. In this case, however, playing as Catwoman actually leaves you wishing she featured in even more missions than the small number she does.

The reason it works, I think, is because the developers and designers have given her a complete set of customised moves without requiring the player to learn a whole new set of button-mashing combos. Her attack button is the same as Batman's attack button, but the attacks she performs when you press it are different. The button to launch Batman to the top of a building is the same as the button to launch Selina, but - where Batman will respond by firing a grapple - Catwoman will pounce, climbing the side of the building with effortless feline ease. Despite the potential disaster that a new playable character can inflict on a game, the introduction of Catwoman in Arkham City may well be one of its greatest innovations.

And the bad?

So, does the game have any flaws? Well, I haven't finished playing the whole game yet but, so far, I've only found one. For the most part, gliding over the Gotham rooftops is a joy, but in one respect I found it a source of considerable frustration. To move quickly while gliding, it is necessary to alternate between dive-bombing and rising. This is essential to complete certain sequences of the game but, if you have the flight controls inverted (as I did), the manoeuvre simply fails to work. This is incredibly frustrating and, since it's impossible to progress without it, I began to think I'd have to give up on the game all together. And, judging from the internet forums, I'm not alone in having hit this particular brick wall.

Fortunately, I eventually discovered that the problem can be solved quite simply, by resetting the flight controls so they aren't inverted. A small adjustment when you know about it, but one which is flagged nowhere and which really shouldn't have been necessary.

Conclusion

If you've already played Arkham Asylum, you don't need me to tell you to buy this game. You'll have had it on pre-order for the past six months and, unless you've got your flight controls inverted (in which case you'll still be stuck on that damned gliding level!), I imagine you'll have already played far more of it than I have. If, on the other hand, you are still undecided, I can't recommend this game highly enough.

If you're not a comics fan it doesn't matter. This is an action-packed video game with an absorbing story line and a slew of puzzles which will really get you scratching your head. Plus, if you are a comics fan, this is the nearest you'll get to being the Big Bad Bat, without actually draping a cape around your shoulders and patrolling your city's seedy underbelly after dark!

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