Friday, November 15, 2013

Best Batman: Comparing Arkham Asylum and Arkham City

If you actively read the stuff I produce for various sites, you will probably have noticed a theme with my recent writings. I have been gushing over the latest Humble Bundle and using it has a platform to branch into a discussion about the Batman games developed by Rocksteady. I won’t pound this issue any more past saying that if you haven’t played these games yet, support charity and pick them up through Humble Bundle… Now! Okay, with that out of the way, and Batman still on the brain, I figured today would be as good a day as any to compare and discuss Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.

I won’t really go into a full-fledged review of the respective games, suffice it to say that they are both great in their own right and deserving of your precious gaming time. Instead, I am going to break down a few of the shared gameplay aspects and discuss how each one takes a different approach to varying effect. I will do my best to avoid major spoilers but make no guarantees (personally I don’t feel that much can be spoiled anyways; these games are about atmosphere, not freaky plot twists).

The plot for both games starts abruptly but I feel that Arkham Asylum sells the whole thing a bit better. I had a much less difficult time grasping that Batman wanted to escort the freshly captured Joker to Arkham Asylum then being suddenly thrown into Arkham City for reasons that still aren’t clear to me. It doesn’t help in City that Hugo Strange isn’t one of the more well-known (read appeared in major films) villains of the Batman universe.  From this intro, Arkham Asylum weaves a pretty tight tale that, with a few minor concessions, presents a reasonable account for why Batman is going to have to take on a rogue’s gallery in a single night. I think that City does a good enough job past the intro as well, but this is in part due to the prison city setting.

While Asylum has the edge in for the introduction, City makes up this ground in the conclusion. The final act of Asylum, quite frankly, falls flat and eschews one of the main draws of Joker as a foil to Batman. Joker can’t beat Batman in a straight fight and generally relies on cunning and intellect for his criminal endeavours. Asylum instead opts to throw this out the window for a canned boss fight that feels unsatisfying. Making matters worse, once Joker is dealt with, the whole thing ends with numerous plot holes left unfilled. What about Titan? What about the escaped convicts? What about all the dead innocents? These questions and others are left unresolved. Not to ruin anything, City, on the other hand, picks up steam as the game moves forward. It borders on ridiculous at times but ultimately ends without resorting to gimmicks. Sure there are a few plot holes, but they are nowhere near as gaping as the first game.

World and Ambiance
So much of what makes Batman an intriguing character is the world that he resides in. Gotham has a seedy underbelly rife with criminals and Batman frequently skirts the line of what is morally tolerable. Both games do an admirable job of conveying a dirty, crime ridden locale where atrocities are committed by both sides of the law. I personally preferred Asylum’s setting as it provided logical opportunities to have Joker pop in and taunt Batman. The whole ordeal helped to convey just how insane Joker is and how frustrating a foe he can be. Further, the interior corridors create a sense of claustrophobia which deftly increased the suspense. With one notable exception, the mounting dread throughout the plot of Asylum was done without the need for cheap scare tactics and drove the action convincingly.

City opts for a more open world and admirably succeeds in making it feel alive (even if it’s the type of life that you don’t want to meet in a dark alley). The open air and high vistas visually presented Batman as overlooking the city, occasionally swooping in to deal with some thugs. I often had the feeling that Batman could remove himself at any time from the situation with his grappling hook and consequently City failed to create a rising tension. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I felt it contributed to making Batman feel a bit more durable than he is usually depicted. That said, I found myself feeling compelled to explore the larger area of City following the main story and was delighted to find all manner of nooks and crannies hidden away as a treat for the adventurous.

One of the most highly praised aspects of the Rocksteady Batman games is its simple but rewarding free flowing combat. Fluid animations impress as Batman dispatches a seemingly overwhelming gang of minions with suitably brutal strikes of justice. Between the two games, not much changed in terms of the base mechanics but City added in a few extra gadgets. In order to keep the difficulty in check with these new goodies, Batman is forced to take on a few different foe types and in larger numbers at a time. There is no two ways about it, the combat in City is more complex, more frenetic, and more satisfying than Asylum. The feeling of taking on twenty guys and once and emerging unscathed after successfully linking 50 strikes in a row is unbeatable. Conversely, I felt that Asylum downplayed the combat (at least until the final act) and rewarded players for avoiding it.

Being Batman
As thrilling as the combat in City is, it definitely didn't have me feeling like Batman; taking on a horde of baddies in a straight-up fight is just not his style. Also, the few moments where City did force me to take a stealthy stalker approach could usually be reduced to combat sequences through the use of some bat-devices (namely the weapon disruptor). Asylum always kept enemies to a more realistic number and was much more demanding during stealth sequences. There were numerous times in Asylum that I felt like I was striking fear in my enemies as I picked them off one by one from the shadows. Also, the absence of some gadgets forced this sequences as intended; less freedom but more Bat-like.

In both games you are required to navigate between places (Batman isn't one for sitting around while the world crumbles). Grapple hooking my way through the world was really fun but felt more like Spider-Man web slinging than anything else. Yes, Batman has a grappling hook. No, he doesn't use it to swing from building to building as a primary mode of transportation. While my complaints about the grappling hook are present in Asylum, it was less front and center and the opportunities to swing from point to point were infrequent. The most efficient way to get around in City was to chain use the grappling hook and never let Batman's feet touch the ground. I don't think I have ever seen Batman do this outside of these games. I understand the concession for solid gameplay but still feel it's worth mentioning.

A short point here as I applaud Rocksteady for embracing Batman as a detective and the moments where the pacing slowed to investigate for clues were generally well placed. Many superhero games forget critical character details like this in order to focus entirely on action but in doing so reduce the complexities of the hero. None of the detective moments in either game are particularly difficult but they go a long way to fitting the comic book Batman into the video game medium.

Batman is awesome. He doesn't rely on superhuman powers to get the job done and is one of the most iconic superheroes because of it. Rocksteady have created two masterpieces in a genre (superhero games) that is typically known for its lackluster titles. Both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City use the same base to different effect. Asylum is a bit more true to the Batman canon and relies on establishing a rising tension. City cranks the adrenaline level and gives players a bit more freedom at the cost of Bat-lore. Which game you prefer is a matter of opinion and no answer is wrong.