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Endings: A Descent

Batman Arkham City

Last week my second 360 core model died the death. The first suffered the dreaded red ring of death. This one caught the lesser known but equally terminal error 74. Thankfully it was under guarantee so I got my money back and trade up to a slim model. The guy behind the counter gleefully recounted the tale of one regular customer who’d been through 13 of the old models before the slims arrived. Shame on you Microsoft.

There are three things I’m annoyed about after trading up. The first is that I didn’t have The Last of Us on my radar and get a PS3 instead. The most serious is the loud “ping” noise the console makes when you turn it on or open the tray with the console buttons. It’s loud enough to wake my kids up, so now I have to turn on the console with the remote and make sure I have the disc I want to play already in there before bedtime. I’m amazed gaming parents the world over haven’t registered screaming outrage over this.

The final issue is the save games that I lost. Yes, I could have got a transfer cable but that’s additional expense. A save about half-way through Bioshock was a minor annoyance because I didn’t care all that much for the game. Somewhat more dispiriting was the loss of a three-quarter done save of Arkham Asylum, a game I wouldn’t rave over but was certainly enjoying.

So I will now never see the end of Arkham Asylum. And what struck me, the more I dwelt on it, was the fact that I didn’t particularly care. I’d had fun with the game but after maybe ten hours with it, I was actually pretty much done. I was going through the motions just to see the story, which wasn’t enormously compelling in the first place, conclude. And the sudden removal of that pressure turned out to be something of a relief.

It wasn’t so long ago that this idea was complete anathema to me. If I liked a game, I was damn well going to play it until it was finished just to get my money’s worth out of it. I pursued this goal doggedly even when the arrival of children seriously curtailed my gaming time.

I can recall in my one and only JTS podcast appearance (damn you, global time differences) relating the tale of how I replayed and replayed and replayed the notorious Meat Circus level of Psychonauts well beyond the point of enjoyment and well into the realm of fury and frustration. I felt compelled to overcome the challenge simply because it was there.

psychonauts

It’s a bit like staying with a film you’re really not enjoying until it’s done, except that it takes much longer to complete a game than it does a film. So while psychologically it might be the same, in reality it’s far more tedious and damaging.

And it bears repeating that, in spite of what repeated consumption of highly cinematic AAA titles might make us feel, videogames are not films. What differentiates them is the degree of interactivity and challenge that a game can give, making you feel part and parcel of the story rather than passively consuming it.

And that differentiator is key. Film started out like theatre, but evolved into its own art form when pioneers began to think about what it could do differently, and exploited those differences to make great movies. Games, whatever they share with cinema, are no different. What makes a great game great isn’t in the cinematics, it’s in the dialogue between the choices and actions of the player and the game.

So if the story isn’t the ultimate arbiter of the quality of a game, why do so many of us feel the need to unreel the whole thing to the bitter end in order to feel we’ve properly finished a game. Surely the correct measure is the point at which we’ve become bored with the play mechanics.

When viewed through this prism a lot of other slightly troubling things melt away. It explains, for instance, why people carry on playing games even when they’ve finished them, whether it’s a replay on a harder difficulty setting, installing a mod, or just carrying on with goal-free experimentation in sandbox games.

It also throws into stark relief one of the ongoing issues with cinema-style games which is only going to get worse with the next generation. For a long time I’ve felt there was life in the AAA model going forward simply because there was so much cinematic space unexplored. Even the most thought provoking games at the moment are pathetically immature compared with the artistry of the best movies. And Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again that tired old formulas can remain surprisingly entertaining if delivered with enough flair and skill.

But my increasing disinterest in games for the sake of their plot alone suggests this isn’t going to be enough. The interactivity with the unfolding story that a game allows us is hugely powerful, and it strips storytellers of some of the most effective tools they have for engaging the audience. The challenge that’s integral to that interactivity has to be there too, properly integrated, and it’s here that AAA games are increasingly failing to provide innovation.

The mobile model that’s been eating chunks out of consoles in recent years is precisely the opposite. It doesn’t lack in terms of mechanical creativity, but I find the lack of narrative and detail, of old-fashioned art, means many titles have terrifyingly short shelf-lives. What we need is for the next generation of consoles and PC games to grow and mature in both mechanics and cinematics, and perhaps most importantly of all to master that strange gray space that unites the two.

The forced ending to my time with Arkham Asylum has actually started to feel like a lifted weight. I can finally lay to rest the nagging ghosts of many other games that I almost played to completion but, for one reason or another, had to abandon. I just hope that it isn’t the seeds of an excuse to abandon the narrative appeal of games in their entirety.

Injustice: Gods Among Us in Review

calendar man 4-15 injustice shot 2NetherRealm’s 2011 reboot of Mortal Kombat was an unexpected hit- not to mention one of my favorite games of that year- yet the follow up, Injustice: Gods Among Us has still managed to surprise me and in some ways it’s the superior game. Following on from Kombat ’11, it’s a brutal one-on-one fighting game that manages to pull off that very tricky balance between technical, skill-based gameplay and populist accessibility. It’s packed to bursting with (get this) single player content and of course a great roster of fighters including some of the biggest names in the DC Comics universe. That’s right, this is the game that will finally let you put to rest the question, “who would win in a fight between Harley Quinn and Doomsday?”Unlike Capcom’s Marvel vs. Capcom series, which absolutely wallows in colorful, hyperkinetic absurdity, Injustice is a gritty comic book concept where the characters have to take some kind of Kryptonian pills to withstand being stabbed, shot in the face, punched into orbit, and run over by the Batmobile. And it’s also one of those preposterous alternate universe deals, where Superman is a bad guy in another world. It’s every bit as ridiculous as watching Spider-Man and Okami duking it out, but a much greater attention to framing story and Machiavellian subtext creates an at times awkward atmosphere that juxtaposes the grim with the laughable. Speaking as a comics fan that has long outgrown the whole “endarkening” of the medium that occurred in the late 80s and on through the 1990s, I am somewhat disappointed that it’s not a brighter, more heroic game in a Silver Age vein. Everything is dour- Superman even kills Lois Lane and their unborn baby in the storyline..

But there again, this is a game made by the guys that made Mortal Kombat (and the execrable Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, for that matter) so it stands to follow that this was never going to be a Batman: The Brave and the Bold style title, and there’s nary a place in the game for Plastic Man at all. It feels very much like a mostly bloodless Mortal Kombat apart from the removal of the block button and there aren’t any fatalities or X-ray attacks. They’ve played fast and loose with the formula and have come up with some fun, exciting innovations like a mid-battle power meter wager and ridiculously interactive, destructible environments with multiple areas that I think make Injustice a very strong competitor in what has, in this console generation, become a very crowded genre spoiled by riches.

The mechanics are rock solid, with easy combos and tight timing. The fighters are almost all exciting (apart from Killer Frost) with unique styles and signature attacks. Aquaman is a freaking beast. Normal humans like Catwoman and Joker don’t seem to have any difficulty taking down the more Olympian characters, let alone Superman. This is where the more “realistic”, gritty atmosphere is at odds with the content. But it’s grousing, because when you’re a DC fan and you fire up this game, you’re going to be grinning ear to ear the whole time- regardless of the incredibly ugly, overwrought costumes in which they’ve dressed these classic characters (and Killer Frost).

The first thing I did was to go into the single battles and do pretty much every fight you want to see out of the box. Batman versus Superman, that’s a no brainer as is said Dark Knight versus Joker. Superman versus Doomsday and then against Lex Luthor. Green Lantern contra Sinestro. Nightwing versus Catwoman, why not? Then you just get silly with Green Arrow up against his hard travelin’ buddy Hal Jordan, Bane squaring off against Solomon Grundy, or with Harley and Joker having a lover’s quarrel. These first fights- nerding out while breaking in the game’s mechanics and discovering the depth of what it has to offer- were hugely fun. Likewise, the story mode is an absolute blast to play through, even though the writing is god awful and the scenario is like a bad DC Comics summertime crossover event. It’s much like the Mortal Kombat campaign, shifting you between characters and perspectives to tell an actual story beyond “beat these ten guys and then the boss”.

But you want ladders? They got ladders in tons of different mutations with different selections, parameters, and modifications. There is also an analogue of the wonderful challenge tower from Mortal Kombat, a series of often hilarious, frequently difficult mini-challenges that never fail to surprise or excite. It’s also an area of the game where even more DC fan service shows up, including a lot of non-combatant characters. Full tutorials and training are available, and there is a lovely option to show tagged moves from the move list during the game. The developers wanted you to enjoy the game, not be daunted by it.

But if you do want to be daunted, make your way to multiplayer. It’s the usual shark tank. I go on, die a few times, and go back to the single player game. There’s so much of it, and I find it so much more rewarding than nameless, faceless versus matches. That said, if you’ve got some comics and/or fighting game buddies, this game is a couch rocker for sure.

There are a lot of little things I don’t like, but they’re mostly nerdy nitpicks. I can’t stand some of the character models, Wonder Woman in particular. Batman, at least in my experience, kind of sucks. Some of the special attacks lose their spectacle after the 20th or 30th time you’ve seen the fairly lengthy animation. The roster is an easy target, even though it’s stacked with 24 mostly great characters (and Killer Frost). Any DC fan could probably rattle off a list of 20 or so characters that are criminally or sinfully missing- my list would be topped off by Mr. Miracle, Darkseid, Professor Pyg, Ra’s Al Ghul, and John Constantine- but there’s also the promise of DLC characters. But I have a huge problem with paid DLC fighters, hailing as I do from days when you simply unlocked characters by playing a complete-out-of-the-box game. I would advise anyone to consider whether this is a practice you want to support or not by voting against such practices by not buying the season’s pass or whatever else they digitally hawk as add-ons. There’s enough here to enjoy without spending another dollar, unless you’re just a huge Lobo fan. God help you.

Marketing schemes aside, Injustice is a tremendous fighting game with huge play value even for the solo player- and you don’t even need a fight stick to get the most out of it. Comics fans will love the match-ups, attention to detail, and extensive fan service. Fighting game fans will love the tight mechanics, robust mechanics, and innovative concepts. Everybody will love experiencing such a well designed, feature-packed game with virtually endless gameplay.

Cracked LCD- Batman: The Gotham City Strategy Game in Review

batman

Regardless of the quality of the gameplay and design, Wizkids’ new Batman: The Gotham City Strategy game fails to meet expectations on a fundamental level. As the first-ever serious attempt at a Batman-themed hobby title and as an example of the typically problematic superhero theme, expectations were high- especially from this lifelong Batman fanatic. When I opened the box and saw that the illustrations were the exact same ones that you see on coloring books, party favors, or lunchboxes at the dollar store and not anything based on the actual comics, my heart sank. Looking past the high quality Heroclix figures of Batman, Joker, Penguin, Killer Croc and Two Face, I was profoundly disappointed to see a card titled “Harley Quinn” that had…a picture of Joker on it- the same picture that is on all of his upgrade cards. I mean, seriously. Couldn’t they get somebody to draw a picture of a laughing gas canister?

One of the results of the cheap, repetitive party favor artwork used in lieu of authentic comic book penciling is that the game falls well short of being the tabletop analog to the licensing grand slams that were Rocksteady’s Batman video games. Unlike those brilliant games, which dug deep into the Batman canon and presented a mature, fan friendly but mainstream-accessible version of the classic characters and setting, the Batman board game feels like a very, very high level take on it with almost no connection to any bona fide comics material. This is Batman as a bland, corporate mascot concept with the only buy-in being the notion of classic Batman villains committing crimes in Gotham City while Batman runs around thwarting their madcap schemes. Further, the game acts like the Christopher Nolan films never happened, and I think that is a mistake if it’s gunning for a wider audience.

I’m hitting the artwork and production design hard because this is a comic book game and simply having bad drawings of characters drawn much better elsewhere and slapping a comics lettering font on the components doesn’t hack it when you’re trying to make a convincing attempt at putting superheroes in a tabletop game. This is a ground floor, foundational failure and it’s especially disappointing that Wizkids, with their long and successful history of licensing comic book characters, couldn’t do better with visually presenting the property.

With that bit of ugliness out of the way, the nuts and bolts of the game are actually pretty decent. It’s a light, very easy to play hybrid that melds area control Eurogame mechanics with a distinct “dudes on a map” feel, paired up with some fun PVP and a mutually controlled Batman that acts as a spoiler. That’s right, there’s no arguing about who gets to be Batman. Everybody gets to be Batman. Smart move.

I’m especially pleased that designer Paolo Mori made another smart move and eschewed the usual superhero game pattern established by Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd (1982) and carried on through Marvel Heroes and others. Instead of having villains commit crimes on a city map and tasking the players with resolving them, this game puts the players in control of the villains. I like this idea, especially for a Batman game since his rogues’ gallery is the best in the business, bar none. I’m not quite sure why Mr. Mori (or the Wizkids suits) would pick Killer Croc over Catwoman, who doesn’t bother to show up at all. But neither do Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, or any of the other members of the Bat-family.

The idea is that the players use their villain’s figure and a small handful of way-out-of-scale henchmen figures and some “threat” markers to control areas of Gotham City. Each turn, a player plays an action card that provides one of two different income types (money and information) to whoever controls a specific part of town. Control is based on whoever has the most henchmen and threats or whoever has their figure there. The second part of the card is an action which may feature prerequisites such as controlling a pair of areas or a certain number of pieces in one.

The kicker is that some cards also have the Bat signal which heralds a mandatory action by the Caped Crusader, which means that the players have some control over when Batman decides to make the rounds. It’s not total control, because he may decide to pop up in one of your own areas to fight your villain figure or clean out the threat tokens present. Batman has his own click base and can level up over the course of the game, increasing his crime-fighting capabilities. He’s a real threat to the bad guys, and I think the game really captures the idea of Batman watching over the city, striking out of nowhere, and returning to the Batcave.

The villains also level up, and that is the ultimate goal of the game. Each villain’s click dial has a series of goals that include things like controlling a number of areas or having a specified amount of money. When the villain upgrades, he may unlock a special ability card thematically tied to the villain like Penguin’s trick umbrellas or Two-Face’s coin. The goal of the game is for a player to level their villain all the way up the dial to level ten, giving the game an interesting development curve and sense of escalation.

I like how it all works together, in general. The dice combat is fun. The resource management is a little convoluted but working out when to spend your information to move in on a territory and invade it or save it for an upgrade make for some simple but significant decisions. The upgrades increase the thematic feel as the villains become more detailed, and the presence- not just the activity- of Batman feels right.

This is a game with just a couple of pages of rules, which usually means two things. One is that the game is very easy to learn and approachable. The other is that there are invariably rules clarifications, uncertainties, and vagaries. I haven’t seen anything particularly egregious, but there have been a few times when I wished the rules were actually a little more thorough. It doesn’t help that there is a touch of sloppiness to the design, with its multi-tiered area control triage and multiple resources.

With four potential players, it’s also troubling that the game doesn’t feel quite right with a full table and not just because it’s 30 minutes a player. It runs long, with players struggling to get into position to hit the upgrade checkpoints against three other players doing the same, knocking each other down at every opportunity. I like the three player game quite a bit more, but the two player game feels like it is missing friction. So it may be best to regard Batman as a three player game, which puts it into a certain niche that may make it a more valuable proposition for some players.

I’m looking at the box sitting next to me and although I like the game, I think it’s fun and it does have a measurable amount of Batman flavor, I can’t help but feel that this is a case where so much potential was squandered. This could have been THE Batman game. It needed to be that ultimate expression, not a good but not great game that doesn’t leave a particular mark other than it’s slightly better than most other superhero titles that we’ve seen over recent years. I don’t think it would be hard for even a casual fan to look over the game and notice missed opportunities or to furrow their brow over the presentation that doesn’t speak to the current interpretations of Batman- or any of the most popular ones over the past 70 years that the character has been around. The inspiration seems not to be in the Batman of Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Timm/Dini, or even Bob Kane. It seems to be coming from the notion of Batman as a party favor mascot rather than as a cultural icon and I think that is terribly unfortunate.

Silver Age Prequel for Rocksteady’s Batman Franchise, Will Feature JLA!

News is making the rounds today via Variety that Rocksteady Studio is apparently working on its next game, a prequel to Arkham Asylum and Arkham City that will be set during comics’ Silver Age- the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently the story will detail Batman’s first round with Joker and the Justice League of America will be introduced. Seems Warner Brothers wants to get the JLA into the public consciousness to prepare the way for a film.

Don’t trip on that there on the floor. It’s my jaw.

This has the potential to be the Greatest Video Game of All Time. Both Arkham games rank very, very highly on my list, and the thought of these game makers getting their hands on Silver Age characters and storylines makes me weak in the knees. There’s so much potential here, so many directions this can go. I’m really hoping that they do something brave (and bold) and do something lighter and more in tune with the kinds of stories and characterizations from the period. I mean, this is a game that could have both Rainbow Batman and Bat-Mite in it.

We’ll find out how Aquaman fits into all this sometime in 2014.

Outrageous!

The Lego Games of 2012: Batman 2 and Lord of the Rings

One of the more notable surprises for me at E3 this year was just how incredibly good Lego Batman 2 looked – and not in a “for a Lego” game kind of way. This new trailer doesn’t offer much of a peak at the game, but it does show the new voice work and, as much as I liked the “Legoeese” of the previous games, it looks like it’ll add some dimensions those other games lacked. However, there’s a lot more to this one, and the upcoming Lord of the Rings game, than some solid voice work…

So, Lego Batman 2. It’s got a full range of DC Superheroes, but then you probably new, at least, about characters like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash all making an appearance. Executive Producer Ames Kirshen, however, told me the game would have “dozens and dozens” more of DC’s both well and lesser known characters. When I started going through the list of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, etc. he merely smiled and said he wasn’t allowed to say more.

He was willing to tell me, however, that the game, despite all these characters being available, does still center around Batman, with the Bat Cave remaining the home base for all that you do. Taking a page from Arkham City, the game lets you travel, with relative freedom, throughout Gotham City, with numbers on the main map indicating progressive mission points you can tackle.

I didn’t see a lot of the game’s characters in action, but I did get a good long look at The Flash, and hot damn was that cool. The Flash is a tricky one. How do you make a character superfast without making him impossible for the player to control? They got it done. The Flash looks amazing on screen and has just enough precision control to make his speed powers effective. Likewise, flying around with Superman to the tune of the John Williams score playing in the background gave me a great big geek smile.

Make no mistake, this looks like a joyous DC superhero game, not just a Lego game with DC super heroes in it. It’s coming out in a week, so if I’m wrong, there’ll be plenty of chances for you to all call me stupid.

The other Lego game on display was the Lord of the Rings game. I didn’t get as good a look at this one as I’d of liked (no hands-on time), but per Publishing Producer David Abrams, this is another fully voiced game and the overriding goal is to pay homage to the films. (As a fan of the books, who thought only the first film truly nailed the spirit of the story, I was rather put off by this, but I recognize I’m in the minority there.)

What really stood out here, however, wasn’t the attention to detail brought to Lego-izing this iconic setting (though it’s considerable), but the number of RPG-lite wrinkles they’re adding to usual Lego model. Characters will have small inventories to manage, a fully explorable and unlockable “hub environment” for Middle Earth, upgradeable items and weapons, and quests to solve. One such example I was given included the need for the party to make a fire, something only Samwise Gamgee can do and something he can only do if he’s got a tinderbox in his possession.

There’s also some new twists to co-op play, including the ability for characters to go into completely separate, but concurrent, questlines when the story demands it. The example I saw took place in the mines of Moria where Gadalf battles the balrog in freefall on one side of the screen while the party escapes on the other. It looked well-implemented and these games have already come a long way with using the split-screen effect to make sure co-op players aren’t driving each other crazy moving in opposite directions. (There are times I dread it when Ana and Kyle boot up Star Wars or Indiana Jones.)

I asked Abrams if adding all these new wrinkles risked making it a little too hard for younger audience to get into, while not being enough to bring in more dedicated RPG players, and he said the team is working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen and the game remains just as accessible as the rest of the Lego game family.

Would I play these games if I didn’t have kids? Certainly, I wouldn’t see myself playing The Lord of the Rings solo if it weren’t for the fact that my progeny adore the games (and liked me reading The Hobbit), but Batman 2 looks cool in a way that makes me want to play it, not as a parent-child bonding experience, but as a gamer.