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Review Postmortem – Batman: Arkham City

I know that I’ve been talking a lot of Batman lately, but I had a few things to get off of my mind before closing the book on Bruce and company. Also, it’s Friday and I need something to write about, mostly that first one though.

I won’t lie, the Arkham City review was one of the hardest reviews I’ve written in a long time. Typically reviews that swing to either end of the scale are easy to write, it’s the ones in the middle that give pause. Sometimes it’s just a matter of articulating what it is about the game that doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s the need to reconcile your feelings with a silly score. Sometimes games that get middle of the road scores are, frankly, kind of boring, so trying to get your interest level up enough to write something is a challenge. Really good games and really bad games typically bring out intense emotions so it’s easy to get one’s fire up and write about it. This was definitely the case with Arkham City, as I absolutely loved the game, but still I had problems.

What made the Arkham City review hard for me was the feeling of responsibility…

As game reviewers, we already have a responsibility to a number of different parties. First, we have a responsibility to our readers to provide as accurate a review as possible. Second, we have a responsibility to the game, and by extension the game’s creators to be as impartial and thorough as possible. Finally, we have a responsibility to whoever is paying us for the review to do the best job we can in the time allotted. In this case though, I also felt like I had a responsibility to Batman.

Originally, I wasn’t scheduled to do this review. As it was a game that I was really looking forward to, I didn’t want to have to review it due to the time constraints that go along with a review. Unfortunately Todd’s pre-Batman assignment ran long and others were busy. When Bill approached me about it, he told me that he wanted someone with a knowledge of the Batman lore and canon doing the review, which makes sense. Unfortunately, that comment made it pretty much impossible to say no as I can’t tell him that I’m not that guy when I have a friggin’ Batman tattoo on my right shoulder.

In Michael’s post about Arkham City, he mentioned that he felt bad for the reviewer who had to rush through the game in order to get a review on his or her editor’s desk. I’m here to tell you that I agree with that statement 100% as that’s exactly what I did. Now, this is not due to some external constraint. Bill is very generous with the time he gives us to do reviews and I was under no pressure to get the review finished when I did, but given that the game had already been reviewed by pretty much everyone by the time I started it, I wanted to make sure I got the review done as quickly as possible. I also knew that once I was finished with the story, I could then take on things like the Riddler trophies and the various challenge maps at my own pace, something I was really looking forward to.

Is playing this game’s story start to finish the best way to play it, I don’t think so. Does that make my review as accurate as it could be? Probably not, and I do regret that I didn’t tell myself to relax and be a little more flexible with how I approached the game’s story, but at the same time, if you marathon a game’s story and love it, and then have a bunch of cool side quests once you’re done, it’s not that hard to assume that completing the side quests within the framework of the larger story would be equally if not more satisfying. My own natural curiosity and lack of focus in open world games did cause me to complete some side quests, get some trophies and do the necessary AR training to obtain the super grapple boost, so I don’t feel like I was completely ignorant to the side quests. I do think I could have better served the game though by calming the frak down and not placing an arbitrary deadline on myself. I didn’t do myself any favors either as I found the experience to be somewhat stressful, but I try to keep it in perspective. If the biggest stressor in your life is that you have to finish your super awesome Batman game in a short period of time, well, consider yourself lucky.

Once I was finished with the game, I had a really difficult time figuring out how to approach the review. One of the benefits of being late to the review party, for me any way, is the flexibility to take a different approach to a game’s review. Again, this is one of my quirks as a reviewer. There’s nothing that says I can’t do the same thing with a launch day review, but at the same time, launch day reviews usually have time constraints on them, and I tend to be less creative when pressed for time than more creative. So I knew that I didn’t just want to write what everyone else had already written, that the game was great, because I didn’t think that added anything to the conversation surrounding the game. Honestly, when I read Tom Chick’s review, which is a great review by the way, it cemented in me the need to approach this differently. One of the things I love about Tom’s writing is that he always approaches games from a different angle, and I felt that his review, while good, was more of a typical “this game is great and here’s why” kind of review.

What was missing from Tom’s review is exactly what Bill wanted from our review, namely the perspective of someone who knew a lot about Batman. I wouldn’t consider myself the biggest Batman geek in the world, but I know my way around the Batcave and I still have the Dark Knight returns TPB that I bought almost 25 years ago. It certainly helped that the animated movie version of Batman: Year One came out on the same day as Arkham City and I had watched not only it, but the extras that came with it, extras that featured a number of Batman’s creators, past and present, talking about Batman and the impact of Frank Miller’s work on the character.

See, a big part of what Frank Miller brought to Batman was the characterization of Gotham City. Metropolis may be a nicer place to live, but I always thought it was kind of bland, same as Keystone City and Coast City and all of the other fake cities that DC made for their heroes. In a way, it makes sense. Bruce Wayne has all of the money in the world. He has no need to stick around in Gotham, especially with no family ties. He stays though, because the city needs him. Becoming Batman was necessary, not just to prevent future tragedies like the one that took his parents’ lives, but also to save his city. Gotham City. That idea was rattling around in my head as I was playing the game, and as I played through the story and came to the ultimate motivations behind the villains, it was pretty obvious that placing the game in Arkham City was as much a story based decision as it was a chance to expand on the game’s mechanics.

So, with that in mind I started the review and man, did it take a long time. Reviews usually don’t take me a lot of time but this one felt like it took forever. Make that FOREVER. I knew what I wanted so say, sort of , but I just couldn’t get my head around how to articulate it. Then, once I thought I was done I realized that a) my word count was waaaaaay too low and b) I hadn’t really talked about how the game was as a game. I mean, it’s great and all to talk about how well the game is as a piece of Batman’s greater universe, but many people just want to punch bad guys in the nuts, so all of this blathering about proper Batman characterization is somewhat useless. So I went back to the drawing board, added some bits here, fleshed out some stuff there and ended up with something I was somewhat happy with. I still think I could have done a better job of balancing the game stuff with the Batman stuff, but I tell myself that Bill wanted the POV of a Batman fan, so best to give the bossman what he wants.

When I sent the review to Bill, I also sent it to Todd because I honestly thought I had gone off the deep end of the Batman pool and written something more at home on some DC comics Batman discussion board and not on a mass market games review site. Todd thought it was good though, so I figured it was ok as is. Granted, given Todd’s deep and bitter hatred of me, he could have been saying that just to screw me over, but that’s always a risk when dealing with Todd, so ignored it and moved on.

In the end, people liked it, so I guess I did my job. I wish I could approach every game the way I approached this one, and that being able to think about how a game relates to a larger landscape wasn’t due to having a deep affection for that larger landscape. There are far better writers than me who do this kind of thing with every review they write and this one damn near exhausted me. I’m going to try and use what I learned from writing this review and apply it to other ones, but doing that makes me feel like Calvin after witnessing the fireflies. I don’t even know which muscle to flex.

Any way, that’s enough navel gazing for one day, and probably enough Batman talk for several. Next week you can look forward to a thousand words on what Nathan Drake’s half-tucked shirt means in relation to developing third world economies.

A Love Letter to Arkham City

I thought that I was going to write a full, No High Scores review of Batman: Arkham City but as I played through the first five or six hours, I realized that doing so was kind of pointless. By now, you’ve undoubtedly read through some of the effusive praise that has met Rocksteady’s follow-up to Arkham Asylum- itself a widely and rightfully acclaimed AAA blockbuster. Even notorious contrarian Tom Chick gave the game a perfect score. Regardless of whatever you’ve read about it, you’re likely either playing the game or are going to because it’s simply that kind of must-play title that demands attention, sells through the roof, and is the subject of many gamer conversations into the near future. And if you like video games and care at all about where they are in 2011 and where they should be going in the future, then you have to play this game. It is that elusive Empire Strikes Back-level sequel. Arkham Asylum was simply Rocksteady clearing its throat.

Oh sure, I could rhapsodize about how Rocksteady likely understands the Batman character better than Chris Nolan and recant again how great the voice acting, art direction, writing, and brawling mechanics are. I could go on and on about the architecture of Arkham City and how intricate details, suggestions of stories and histories, are mortared right into the very brick of the place. I’d be able to write a full essay on the subtle and overt references the game makes to German expressionist cinema, gothic horror, No Man’s Land and Escape from New York.

Do you really want me to rattle off a list of the tremendous villains you’ll meet over the course of the game and to prattle on about how the new game is deeper, richer and far more expansive than its predecessor? Is it really necessary for me to pontificate that the game brings forward some of the best mechanics and ideas from Metal Gear, Assassin’s Creed, Bionic Commando, and Metroid, and that the content is so abundant that it’s practically overwhelming. But you probably know that already. I mean, seriously- do you really need me to tell you at this point that Catwoman and Robin are in the game- and you can play as them?

If we held our Game of the Year balloting at Gameshark today, I would unquestionably tick the box next to “Arkham City”. It’s a stunning, masterfully conceived and constructed piece of entertainment software and it is absolutely among the best and most significant games released in the history of the medium. It’s also one of those cases where the mainstream is right on the money, and the news today that the game has sold two million copies in a week means that there are a lot of folks playing and enjoying a masterpiece. Hype isn’t always wrong, and sometimes the big-budget blockbuster blows the entire indie scene out of the water.

But the fact that the game is so great, blah blah blah, isn’t very interesting at this point. What’s more interesting to me is that it is everything that an AAA, well-funded, well-marketed, and expensively produced video game should be. There’s nothing lazy, half-assed, or sloppy about it. There is no crap multiplayer added to appease some exec that wanted to see it on a bullet list of features. It’s a game made with a tremendous passion not only for the subject matter, characters, and setting but also for video games and their potential to tell stories and involve players directly in the events and outcomes described. This isn’t a game where you passively watch cinematics or follow a scripted path between story beats. Rocksteady doesn’t want you to just play their game and watch their story unfold, they want you to become Batman in it. It’s immersion of the highest level.

The number of different activities you get to do as Batman is staggering, dwarfing any of the caped crusading in the previous game. Hacking. Listening in on thugs for clues. Gliding. Conducting detective work. Interrogating the Riddler’s henchmen. Chatting with Zsasz on a payphone. Exploring abandoned subway tunnels. Rescuing wrongly imprisoned political prisoners. Tracing the trajectory of a sniper shot fired by Deadshot. The game makes other AAA titles seem empty and sparse by comparison, its density is at once thrilling and intimidating.

It’s also a game that is an artifact forged by a creative team dedicated to outdoing themselves and pushing further than they did in the last game. You can almost feel how emboldened Rocksteady has become after Arkham Asylum. There’s a confidence in everything this game does that is simply incredible to witness. There’s nothing tentative, and even the new gameplay elements such as the more open world structure, a host of new gadgets, and expanded combat techniques are handled effortlessly. Everything is immaculately directed, expertly framed, and there’s almost nothing in the game that feels compromised or second best. The worldbuilding in particular is among the best I’ve ever seen, with a unified, expansive vision that makes Rapture look quaint by comparision.

If you really want to, you can pick out minor details to bitch about like how the Unreal Engine still struggles with Batman’s cape from time to time. But to that, I’d have to ask you why you were focusing on that instead of the snowflakes caught in the cape. Yeah, it’s a little silly that Batman feels like he’s got to train himself in the middle of a mission to literally jump through hoops, but I’ll be damned if I’m not climbing back up that crane and trying again and again until I get it right. The only serious complaint is that if you don’t like Batman then some of this game’s greatness is diminished. But what kind of weirdo doesn’t like Batman? Oh, Joker. Joker doesn’t like Batman. Who’s side are you on anyway?

I suppose this really is a review of Arkham City after a fashion, but I’ve yet to finish it and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s the kind of game where you are constantly afraid that you’re going to miss something- not because you might need it, but because you want to see everything that it has to show you. I’ve spent more time looking around the Museum than I have on the story progression there. I’m taking my time with this game and savoring every minute of it. I feel sorry for the writers that rushed through the game to get the launch day review on their editors’ desks. If you feel that I need to see the end credits before I can pass critical judgment on this game’s accomplishments, then just regard this as an extended love letter to a game that I am completely, almost irrationally smitten with.

Love letters don’t end in letter grades or numerical quantification of criticism. But if you insist, A+, 10, 100, *****.

Occupy Wall Street meets Animal Crossing

I just came back from an incredible vacation in the wild west (National parks! Mountain biking! Crazy hikes! Horses!), and look here, the Occupy Wall Street protesting has spread like wildfire.

So much so that one awesome blogger on STFU conservative compared the cause with trying to pay off debt in Animal Crossing – the infamously adorable Gamecube game where you converse with animal friends, collect fun items to decorate your house, and face mind-numbing toil to pay off said dwelling.

From the post:

“Animal Crossing was probably the first time I really understood the concept of not just debt, but being crushed by debt.”

“When you first move in to your town, you’re given a house by the local merchant Tom Nook (the raccoon on the right). It isn’t until you’ve already moved in that he reveals to you that you’re indebted to him for 100,000 bells (the game’s currency) and he forces you to work in his store as an indentured servant. After a few days (literal. days.) worth of doing delivery work, you’re freed from your servitude but not from your debt. Thank goodness Tom Nook didn’t charge interest or your in-game circumstances would be that much more dire.

You do a bunch of random gathering to gain up money to pay back your loan and just when you think you’re finally free from the crushing weight of Tom Nook’s thumb… he adds a second story onto your house! And the cycle of debt begins again.”

At first, the post struck me as funny – then I realized that Joe totally has a point. Animal Crossing was actually one of my most-played GC games next to Wind Waker and Metroid Prime – I actually ended up paying off my McMansion and getting my statue erected in town (I suppose you could see this as the equivalent to “beating” the game), but yeah – it was actually a ton of work. I fished and fished and fished that damned river for weeks on end. Metaphor for real life? Yeah, I can see it.

And Now, Some Arkham City Advice

No High Scores

Here is some advice for you if you plan on entering Arkham City any time soon. Ready? Ok, here goes. Be prepared to hear the following two phrases to the point where you want to throat punch your speakers:

Augmented reality training activated
Augmented reality training failed.

See, Batman is such a driven perfectionist that he’s not willing to just give himself a new gadget. Oh no, he has to prove to himself that he’s worthy of making his own life easier as he goes about kicking criminals in their tender parts. Early on into Arkham City you will be given the option of taking on four augmented reality courses which consist of green rings that you have to glide through. Once you complete the first four you’re given the super bat grapple boost thingy. It’s basically a rocket booster for your zip line, allowing you to finish a zip line trip with a boost of power that propels you into the air and lets you glide to cover additional ground. It’s awesome and it makes traveling through the city much easier.

What do you get for completing the last four courses? An achievement, or a trophy. That’s it. But, and this is important, don’t let that keep you from doing them. They are extremely frustrating and extremely annoying but here’s why you should do them.

Batman doesn’t give up. Not ever.

Broken back, dead sidekicks, getting shot with the Anti-Life equation and hurled back through time, none of this stopped him. A bunch of neon green rings shouldn’t stop you either.

Kelleys Island Time

Every year we go to Kelleys Island (Lake Erie) to relax, unwind, do some camping and generally chill. Usually we travel to Kelleys in June but this year that couldn’t happen so we rescheduled for what is Halloween weekend on the island (as well as my daughter’s birthday weekend). We are renting a house, taking the dogs, bringing some day camp gear, a box of boardgames, and enough marshmallows and chocolate to make smores for everyone who is still there this time of year.

As vacations go this rates very high on the Abner Scale of Relaxation.

So — I’ll be gone Thursday through Sunday and I leave you in the capable hands of …oh boy.