Friday, January 15, 2016

Dancing about Architecture: Arkham City (GOTY)

This is the second game in the "Arkham" series, released in 2011. Primarily, you play Batman in third person, swooping around the scenery, solving relatively simple puzzles, and getting in a whole bunch of fights. The Game of the Year addition collects most of the DLC in one place, unlocking several other playable characters; Catwoman becomes part of the main storyline in this addition, providing a prologue and a couple of later episodes.

And, yes, the fights are amusing. And you have a lot of "marvelous toys" to play with -- batarangs and smoke bombs and so forth (no Batmobile in this one) -- but really the high point of the game is swooping around the city, gliding silently into alleys or grappling-line upwards to perch on a gargoyle.

And what a city. The back-story to the game is that Gotham City, failing to keep their increasing crowd of colorful, powerful, and generally psychotic baddies behind the bars of any traditional prison or inane asylum, has chosen to wall off part of their equivalent of Manhattan Isle and let the crazies run loose (and hopefully, one gathers, kill each other off.)

So basically it's Escape from New York, only without Snake Plisken. Okay, ridiculous idea from any kind of legal basis, penologically, financially, or even practically. I mean, really -- if Hannibal Lector style restraints can't keep a character like the Joker down, how does a high wall and some guards with guns do it?

And what is this supposed bit of low-value real-estate? One that has police headquarters (well, the cop shop is often in some part of town no-one else wants), a decaying amusement park/district (shades of Coney Island), some waterfront, a nice old theater, the courthouse where the premier District Attorney of Gotham tried some of his famous cases, a massive natural history museum, a lovely sprawling subway entrance/mall in Crystal Palace style art nouveau...

So, really, the old part of town, the one-time center before the outside investors moved in and the big financial buildings and multinational headquarters moved in. Central Boston with the old State House. Old Philly. "The City" in London. Basically, the kind of historic district even a financially desperate metropolis would be loathe to lose.

Older buildings, brownstone and brick, tall narrow windows, heavy cornices and plenty of gargoyles. Some massive statuary, too, but not taken to the extremes of the Tim Burton films. And it is all littered, half-abandoned, some boarded up, lots rusted...and add to this barricades and other modifications made in the course of the ongoing gang wars.

Several of the major figures in Batman's rogue's gallery have set up little empires and they are waging a violent turf war. But this, too, as atmospheric as it is, begs all sorts of questions. Are any of these characters, from Two-Face down to the Penguin, going to let someone else set the rules? Let outside society set the rules? Hell with entertaining their captors with a self-imposed cage match, these are the kinds of people who would team up to break out. And maybe the game designers did mean for this to come across as lobsters trying to escape a pot by climbing over each other, but it doesn't read that way in game. It reads as if many of these major figures in Batman's history are content to play king of an artificially constricted hill.

Oh, and when you leave the rainy rooftops and perch-handy cornices you discover the street layout makes no sense at all. Blind alleys, meandering streets...even the barricades and the giant wall and the broken bit of freeway (very Oakland post Loma Prieta) aren't enough to make the street layout rational. In fact, once you've been down to street level a few times, a lot of the allure of the setting wears off; you realize that these are mostly empty facades and for all the seeming size and variety of the place there's really nothing more you are going to see.



So the basic plot works out as a whole set of fetch quests/boss battles. You end up visiting the same sites multiple times, as you go across town to get something (and fight the owner for it) then back to try to deliver it (and fight against the not-unexpected betrayal by the person you fetched it for.)

Like Snake, Batman is early on cursed with one of those medical conditions with a handy countdown timer, and is working as much as anything else to save his own life. The details, of course, make no sense biologically. Basically, the Joker took Titan Serum in the last game, and the side effects are poisoning him -- he hasn't long to live. So he injects Batman with his tainted blood, which gives Batman (despite his larger, more robust physique) exactly as long to live. And to rub it in, Joker makes anonymous donations to the blood supply of several of Gotham's hospitals, putting upwards of thirty thousand patients in the same dire straights.

These people never met Paracelsus. This is practically homeopathic (except that the weaker dose is exactly, down to the minute, as efficacious as the stronger.) Indeed, Batman gets a temporary cure from Ra's al Gul (partially answering how he can be fighting and grapple-swinging like he is if he is supposed to be a few minutes from croaking) but at the climax the Joker -- an un-athletic bantam-weight with a pre-existing medical condition -- very nearly out-survives him.

Which leads us to one of the odder moments; at the conclusion of the main story-line a sombre Batman carries the dead body of the Joker out and lays him almost reverentially on the hood of a police car. This sequence is so much "elegy for the honored dead" it's amazing they resisted the urge to stage a Pieta pose as part of it. I guess we sort of forgot Batman's one-time lover Talia, Ra's al Gul himself, a number of slain cops and medical people, and several thousand dead crooks thanks to Protocol Ten. Plus any number of living but brutalized people Batman personally delivered concussions, compound fractures, and a strong need for reconstructive surgery to during the course of the game.



Fighting is both simple and deep. A very nice touch is that it is (barely) possible to complete the game doing nothing but button-mashing. The novice is not penalized by not being able to see through to the end, instead, what rewards the expert player is better action, more balletic moves and more interesting options. Batman can fight very well if you have the skill to bring it out, and that is its own reward. The game's answer to heath is simple; you don't gain back any health during a fight, but you get it all back as soon as the field is cleared. This means you have to be relatively careful to counter blows and use stealth around well-armed opponents, because you can't just duck around a corner to recoup or drink a handy Bat-potion to heal up.

One downside to unlocking Catwoman as a playable character is that she is so much quicker. After fighting with her, Batman feels like a muscle-bound tank. And after watching Selina's slinky walk, he sort of looks like he is in need of a Bat-Laxative.

On the other hand, he does have the grapple gun, and a cape to glide on, and a lot of gadgets. In the mode of many modern games, several of the gadgets are necessary to move in certain special places; sometimes you need to make a hole with explosive gel in order to proceed, for instance. Or there is the only thing that stumped me enough to look for help online; to cross an underground river you toss a freeze grenade to make a temporary ice-floe which you can perch on.

There are both elite mooks and boss battles, with the most difficult fights being those that combine both. All of the above require special techniques to take down; you can't just hit them. The most difficult pure boss battle in this sense is Mister Freeze, who needs to be stunned before you can approach him and do damage. And he learns from each encounter; if you manage to stun him for a moment by activating one of the handy electromagnets just standing around the room (just go with it), on recovery he methodically freezes the rest of them, ensuring they can no longer be used against him.

The game is decent about informing you what you need to do. The two strongest errors here are ones I've seen before; first is an inability to name anything either properly or even consistently; you simply have to figure out that "Control Room" and "Monitor Bay" both refer to the same thing, and both of those mean the place that looked like a receptionist's desk. The second is more annoying; it is the way the game will prompt you insistently about the wrong part of the problem. Aka "I need to get to the Control Room," the Batman mutters to himself. "The other key must be in the Control Room. The clue to this mystery is in the Control Room." Yeah, I got that the "Control Room" is where I'm supposed to be, game -- my problem is figuring out which damned room you intended that to be!



Estimate for completing the main campaign is a mere twenty-five hours for the average player. Other campaign material adds another ten hours or so. Then there's the usual garbage of collectables; various "Riddler Puzzles" which you basically solve for raw points. Really, the major replay is to hone your combat and try to get higher combo scores, as well as trying out more inventive fighting methods.

And maybe fly around the city a bit, stopping on a gargoyle or two to brood in the rain. Because isn't that what you came to the game for in the first place?

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