Is Escape Really What You’ll be Seeking from the Arkham Asylum?

September 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

If nothing else, Batman: Arkham Asylum will remind you exactly what’s made Batman such a timeless character. It’s not just the gadgets, or the stealth, or even his sheer combat ability, but a combination of this and more, brought together more seamlessly than most non-licensed games manage.

It rarely feels like it, but Arkham Asylum is an open world game. Set on the island containing its namesake, the plot revolves around the most famous of Batman villians, the Joker, as he attempts to destroy Gotham. Although you never have more than one location to get to at a time, the game rarely feels like it’s forcing you down a single path. Between the island’s buildings the scope of options you have to get from A to B is large, and it’s this coupled with the changing geometry of the game’s environments, that ensures that although you may retread a section of ground many times, it never feels too similar.

On paper the combat should fall in to this trap of repetition. You’re not given the option of different approaches in the case of unarmed guards and your combat moves are limited, but these sections – where you’ll be quickly spotted and surrounded by unarmed enemies – leave you confident you’ve just experienced some of the best close quarters combat this generation. In theory it sounds positively dull, revolving around one attack, one stun, one evade, and one counter button, but these fights don’t rely on their difficulty to provide enjoyment, but instead the score counter ticking up top of the screen.

High scores, which result in an XP bonus at the battle’s end, come from chaining moves together in an unbroken combo. You’ll very soon find yourself leaping from enemy to enemy, knocking each of them down before moving on to the next in one fluid motion. Getting hit, or missing an attack, will break your chain, making it important that you keep your eye on any other opponents in the area if you want to rack up a bigger combo, which will in turn increase the ferocity of the moves the Dark Knight performs.

Although Batman may be unstoppable against unarmed thugs, he’s much less resistant to bullets. Rather than making you feel vulnerable on the occasions you’re brought up against armed foes, the game manages to do the opposite, capitalising on the stealth abilities of this superhero predator.

You’re so powerful, that at the game’s outset it almost feel like cheating to make use of the gargoyles conveniently placed around the room to rappel up to and observe from. Once perched above the room, it’s easy to use the game’s bat-vision to locate enemies (even through walls) and work out how best to take them down silently.

The game knows this though, and later on will remove these life-saving perches, forcing you to completely rethink how to approach each takedown. There are so many tactics at your disposal that it’s hard to ever approach an encounter the same way twice. Even when you’ve got a plan worked out, the game will tease you with what appears to be an easy kill, which always seems possible, and can evoke such glee when you manage to pull it off.

It might be tempting to storm quickly through the game – if you were to do so you’d still enjoy yourself hugely – but some of the game’s best moments come from your own exploration, when you’ll quickly realise how much detail there is in this world. There’s the obligatory trophies to be found in easily seen, but difficultly reached locations, and then a little closer to the beaten track you’ll come across audio recordings of the game’s many villians, filling in their backstory bit by bit.

Then there’s the riddles, the most interesting ‘collectables.’ Upon entering each location you’ll be presented with a clue, the solution to which will be some object, or collection of objects in the environment. Aside from boosting your intellectual ego whenever you successfully solve one, these clues highlight just how much depth there is in the level design. As an example, in the cell block a notice popped up instructing me to find something ‘chilling’. Looking around I soon came across a cell covered in ice. Mr Freeze was nowhere to be found, but just knowing the developers took the time to make reference to him exemplifies how enamoured the whole game is with the Batman lore.

Each discovery, as well as a host of other actions, will next you XP points to spend on a host of either essential or unappealing upgrades. Some, like the ability to quickly take down enemies walking below your gargoyle perch feel like they deserved a place in your abilities list from the get go, and others, like the remote-controlled batarang do nothing to entice you to purchase them. Aside from the health upgrades the system feels tacked on, and doesn’t offer much incentive to anyone but the 100% completest.

It’s easy to forget, not due to its own merits but the quality of the overall package, that Batman’s story manages to do some very interesting things with the mythology of the character. The Scarecrow’s boss sections present some particularly innovative storytelling, and the rest of the game manages to weave an enthralling tale through the game, even if it can at times fall into comic-book cliché.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is simply an amazing package. It offers everything a Batman game should do, and manages to stitch it all together with all the care and attention the source material could ever need. There’s enough in here for a couple of playthroughs, and the option to replay the game’s best bits from the main menu means returning to Arkham Asylum needn’t be a lengthy trip, even though that’s what it deserves.


The ‘Powerless’ Consumer

September 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

It’s normally with a mixture of condescension and derision that internet petitions are talked about. “Oh look,” a podcast host will say, “the forum kids are angry about something, isn’t that just hilarious?” Of coures it doesn’t help their cause that these petitions are normally very pointless in nature, complaining about exclusives going multi-platform or the art style a game seems to be taking.

Nevertheless these acts of defiance can be important. Recently a large amount of gamers on Neogaf discussed whether they should boycott the Xbox Live Arcade release of Shadow Complex, because of its association with Orson Scott Card, the anti-gay marriage author of the game’s backstory. The community argued whether it was morally right to give your money to a company that paid money to a man who’s beliefs many disagree with.

For the purposes of this discussion it’s not important which side of the argument you stand – though from the sales of the game it’s quite clear which side many chose — but instead where you stand on arguments such as this in general. It is your right as consumers to spend your money on whatever you please, but equally this choice carries with it responsibility. This responsibility is what many people would love to deny that they have.

The problem with any action such as this is that the only language these large companies really listen to is that of money. If their profits drop over an issue, then you can be sure they’re going to do something about it. However, with the type of industry the video gaming one is, there really isn’t a whole lot of choice in the grand scheme of things.

If a certain supermarket chooses to act immoraly then there are a number of other places I can go to to do my shopping. If a sports clothing company exploits its foreign workers then I have the choice to go and buy another product that for all intents and purposes is exactly the same.

If I disagree with Diablo 3’s art style, where is my alternative product? I have no choice here; if I want a Diablo experience then I’m forced to buy Blizzard’s product. If I don’t want to miss out, I’m going to have to go against my principals regarding rainbows.

The industry into which we pour our money is predominantly one run by very large, very rich companies. How can we possibly hope to make a difference?

You could start by choosing a reasonable fight. Shadow Complex? Fair game. Complaining about Devil May Cry 4 going to the 360? Not so much.

Next you’ll want to band together. This isn’t going to be a David and Goliath fight, there’s no chance you’re going to win on your own. You’re ability to pick up followers should also give you an idea of how meaningful your argument is.

The next step is the hardest one. You’re going to have to miss out on something, in the hope that you’ll benefit in the long run. It’s not going to be easy, you’ll have to put up with a lot of jealousy, but again, if your fight is a good one, it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Finally sit back, and wait for the sales figures to be released. If they’re below expectations, then great! Unfortunately they probably won’t be. Gamers it seems, would rather not go without.

That’s not really a bad thing though, all it means is that we as people are passionate about our hobby. We shouldn’t feel too bad about folding under this pressure.

So who needs to change their ways? The companies themselves could listen more to their fans, who in turn could avoid making a stink over other, less important, matters. They may slightly increase their costs in the process, but in our current political climate it’s clear that acting in your own interests the whole time is going to leave you high and dry sooner or later.

Weirdly enough, I think gaming journalists could do a lot more to help. These people have the privilege of a large podium to stand on, and people who look up and listen to them. Instead of dismissing the latest petition, or cry to arms, maybe they could do more to promote the cause, instead of quashing it instantly as many of them do.

You might claim that games should just be ‘fun,’ and I agree with you, but the truth is that this is a massive industry now, with a large amount of power contained within. We as consumers have a moral duty, no matter how small, and we need to use the power we have. Like it or not, games are no longer ‘just games.’

Courtney Love, Activision, and a whole lot of Self Righteousness

September 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

There was a period in my life when all I listened to was Nirvana. Blame it on teenage angst, or simply the friends I had at the time, but whatever the reason, I still looked up at Kurt Cobain as an idol. He was to me the perfect rockstar, ostensibly running from fame at every turn, writing – admittedly pop – songs filled with his pain and despair, and an inspiration to an entire generation of people.

In short, I’m a bit of a Nirvana fanboy, which might surprise you when you hear my views on this whole Guitar Hero 5 scandal.

In case you haven’t heard, the story so far is thus.

Shortly after Guitar Hero 5’s release videos started popping up on YouTube of Kurt Cobain – former front man of grunge band Nirvana – performing songs in the game that were not his own. These songs were not only not by Nirvana themselves, but were also by bands with an image as far away from Nirvana as you can possibly get. Kurt Cobain, as most people know, killed himself in 1994, which raises the important question: is this use of his likeness an insult to his memory?

Courtney Love, formerly Cobain’s wife, certainly seems to think so. Very quickly her Twitter page exploded with her publicly promising to sue Activision for what they’ve done. Activision have responded by saying how consensual, and importantly, legal, the use of Kurt’s likeness is.

The first problem here is just how self righteous Love is being. After all, as his former spouse, she must have a very big say in business deals relating to her late husband’s likeness. To claim now that she’s unhappy with how this has panned out is absurd, especially if Activision’s claim that she collaborated with them on his character design is to be believed.

It’s also obvious that it’s going to be in a document somewhere exactly how the likeness rights are going to be used, complete with Courtney Love’s signature at the bottom. Let’s not forget, Activision are a huge company, with a likely huge legal department. Errors that could get them sued are simply not going to be allowed to be made, if they were then the company wouldn’t be as successful as they are.

There are many out there who believe, quite rightly, that this issue is a moral rather than a legal one. Would Kurt Cobain, had been alive today, have approved of such a deal? I’d really love to believe that he wouldn’t, but over the years I’ve seen so many rockstars who had formerly held such anti-establishment views, bow down and do anything for a paycheck. Jonny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, advertises Country Life butter. Iggy Pop is the frontman for Swift Cover car insurance. My point? Times change, people grow up, and as a result their views about ‘selling out’ change with them.

Regardless of whether Kurt would, or would not, want to have his likeness used in this way today, the fact remains that during his life he ‘sold out’ plenty. Nirvana’s first single, ‘Love Buzz’ wasn’t a big hit, and so a half hour after delivering the recording to a local radio station, during which time no one rang in to request the song, Kurt phoned up the radio station himself and requested it. Cobain, or at least a part of him, wanted to be famous, even if publicly this was something he claimed to loath.

I agree that the use of his image in the game is less than ideal, even a little insulting, but the legal objections to it are none existent, and the moral one’s a little dubious. To save face many people, me included, would hope that Activision choose to lock his image to Nirvana-specific songs, but if they don’t, you shouldn’t think that anyone else is in the right. I hate to say it, but it’s just business.

Let’s Review Infamous!

September 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

You can see it in his eyes, that lingering, longing look towards that ledge that’s just out of your way. You didn’t want to land on it this time, this time the floor’s your aim, but that doesn’t matter to protagonist Cole. He’s drawn to it, like a fly to honey, and without meaning to you find yourself stuck to yet another building edge. You tell him to drop down, but he’s got another surface in his sights…

The free running – or parkour as some would have you call it – is simultaneously both one of Infamous’s strongest and weakest points. The pros of the system are easy to see, it animates well, feels intuitive for most of the game, and is forgiving enough to avoid you falling to street level too often. These very things that make it so easy to use however, also cause it’s problems. Cole, our electrically charged superhero, is incapable of falling past anything he could conceivably climb. You’ll be pleading with him, begging him, just to drop down to street level, but he has other plans, stopping at nothing to try and keep himself in the air.

Though it can cause such a problem at times, these occasions are few and far between. For the most part it’s up you’ll be wanting to go, and not down, and thus the fact that he’ll lovingly attach himself to surfaces is a helpful feature. Perhaps if a button could have been included to put him in this Spiderman mode, or better yet, one to turn his fingers to butter, the game’s biggest issue could be avoided.

After all, the rest of the game is a solid open world adventure which for the most part avoids the problems that so many other titles in the genre have. Missions are hugely varied, rarely falling into repetitive territory, indeed it’s only in the obligatory side missions that you’ll see scenarios repeated, and even then it doesn’t cheapen the experience.

It’s about here that a reviewer would normally describe the typical mission, but in this case it’s difficult to come up with one, by virtue of just how much variation the game manages to squeeze in. Suffice to say throughout the course of your adventure you’ll shoot down aircraft, act as a turret for hospital bound busses, and climb seemingly insurmountable towers, all whilst attacking, and being attacked by, hordes of enemies.

It’s clear that avoiding repetition was a high priority in developer Sucker Punch’s offices. Enemies across the game’s three architecturally distinct islands each have a unique aesthetic to them, and each different army – for lack of a better term – will contain enemies unique to it. As an example the Dustmen, the trash bag wearing hobos from one island, will send small insect robots to attack you, whereas the formerly drug dealing Reapers from the first island will have amongst their ranks enemies with a devastating wave attack that forces you to vary up your battle tactics.

Even the city’s citizen’s don’t repeat themselves as much as you’d expect, indeed it’s only when you force your way through a large chunk of side missions in one go that you’ll notice similar looking NPC’s at all. In my playthrough I didn’t even notice any repeated voice work, which is surprising when there’s so much of it, partly because of the game’s karma system.

Yes, there’s a morality system in Infamous, but it’s prominence makes it important to pay attention to. You’re choices about whether to save citizens or let them fight amongst themselves, take more power for yourself, or even let those close to you survive at the expense of the city’s inhabitants, will not just affect the story, and the powers available to you, but also just how people react to you whilst you’re out and about in the city.

If you choose to use your powers responsibly people will thank you, and take you’re picture as you run around. If you choose to harvest downed civilians rather than save them then people will react less favourably, throwing stones at you or calling out insults. It’s a feature that gives your decisions weight, and can make you feel that much more heroic for making the right choice, even if these decisions are presented as excruciatingly simple ‘do this or do this’ situations where the right and wrong path is spelled out to you as clearly as possible.

It’s hard to attack the game for this though, seeing as its inspiration comes not from the morally ambiguous anti-hero- of modern comics, but from the black and white morality of older stories. The game’s presentation is very representative of this, each cutscene is a lovingly created comic book style animation, oozing cool at every turn, and never failing to pique this old comic-book nerd’s nostalgia.

What we have here is one of the most solid super-hero games this side of the latest Batman release. Some points might make you curse the guided nature of the control scheme but for the most part you’ll find that it’s working with you rather than against you in your quest for justice (or world domination of course).

1984 the MMO: Social Experiments in Online Gaming

September 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

What if someone sat down to make an MMO that had a real political message about the way our countries are run, rather than just providing a world for people to quest in.

I had an argument a while back with Suzie Hunt from the site Girls Don’t Game, about whether GTA would make a good MMO game. The important thing to take from this is her argument, which was that this hypothetical GTA MMO would be a very negative place to spend the amounts of time usually associated with MMO play. Her argument got me thinking, do these virtual world’s we live in really need to be nice places to play in?

It’s pretty fair to say that most MMO worlds are utopian. Sure there might be vast battles raging, and the occasional racist comment from someone, but these battles serve to make the game world more interesting to inhabit, never posing much of a threat to the players, and the racist comments come from people that won’t exist in the world for much longer. There’s never really any danger to players aside from losing a little XP every now and again, but this is a good thing in most games, because punishing the player wouldn’t serve any purpose.

The closest MMO to this at the moment is Eve Online, where the developers have chosen to take a back seat to the game’s story, and just let it play out. There’s very little policing going on in that game, and the result is that there’s real tangible danger to existing in the Eve universe. Players can choose to run banks, set up companies providing assassinations, or just run guilds. Some very interesting stories have come out of the game as a result. Interestingly though, the game’s politics still revolve around democracy and a free market like most of the world today.

Some of the greatest pieces of literature of all time have revolved around societies that have completely fallen apart, where a totalitarian government seek to use every means at their disposal to control the population. Books like 1984 or A Handmaid’s Tale are interesting not because of the stories they tell about the people in these worlds, but because of the world they inhabit, and how this can serve as a warning to us in our everyday lives.

I’d love to see a developer create an MMO world that’s not pleasant to inhabit, that makes it’s players feel like they’re in constant danger from the government. It would have far more power than any one of these books ever written, and might just challenge people’s views on issues such as ID cards when they see the potential of where an increase in government control can lead.

The most difficult prospect facing anyone developing this idea further is creating this kind of world which people willingly inhabit even with all this danger. There’s no use making a game so unpleasant that people don’t want to spend time with it, such a game would be useless. As a result it makes sense for the player’s objective in such a world to revolve around rebellion, about trying to make the world a better place.

Perhaps you give a player the objective of getting some leaked documents – which show the government for what it really is – across town. You might give them the option of going on foot, but keeping out of the authorities line of sight. Maybe you allow them the use of an underground network of other rebels, but only if they’ve gotten themselves into this group previously. Maybe you give them a weapon, just to see them fail.

Potentially the most interesting thing you can do with such a setup is turning players into spies for the government. A common theme among books like 1984 is how it turns every stranger into a potential enemy that could destroy you at any moment. Accomplishing this in a game could have huge implications for how players interact with one another. Maybe you reward players who correctly identify and report other players working for the rebellion. How much harder would completing a quest be knowing that any one of the players walking the street might be following you?

Games have a unique place as a medium that can create an entire virtual world for people to inhabit. Thus far the worlds created haven’t deviated much from utopia’s, but there’s a real potential there to make the world play a much more central part in the experience, and maybe get across an important message at the same time.

Oh No! Gaming is Dying!

September 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

I have already regaled you with too many stories of my childhood. Consider it a trademark of mine. That way I get to be as unoriginal as I like.

When I was a young ‘un, I didn’t enjoy the same games as my friends. My tool of choice for sabotaging my fingers’ natural development was a keyboard rather than a gamepad. Growing up in a Nintendo-free household meant that I missed out on all the child-oriented games I should have been playing, and instead frittered away all my free time on glorious titles like Descent II and Prince of Persia.

Not that I regret it, mind you. It gives me an outlook that most people I know don’t share. You get a lot of people (read: everyone) who moan about PC games changing for the worse or the better or sideways or whatever, but I don’t think that’s right. Sure, there are different trends now than there were ten or twenty years ago, but that’s all they are. Trends. Reality being tinted brown or green or whatever in games like Gears or Fallout is a passing experiment, just like bullet time, stealth sections or (apparently) local multiplayer. No; I don’t think games have changed that much in their base elements, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

It’s us. We have changed. The real issue here is the attitude people are now taking towards games.

Once, we didn’t think too much about video games. Art style, control systems and political ideology didn’t warrant a place in our magazines, or in the arcades. It was a completely untapped medium. No company struggled to come up with interesting ideas, or agonised over whose controls they might be ripping off if they did this or that. Gaming was a massive, untouched world full of promise, and people struck gold with every other step they took. Naturally, this couldn’t last forever, and that’s okay! It’s an inevitable process that any medium must go through. We simply find it difficult to put in context because all other current artistic media went through this phase a long-ass time ago.

Look at film, for example. Compared to fine art, music and literature, film is a mere child of a medium. However, we were not around to witness film in its first years. People were happy to watch anything: people strolling along a boardwalk, a balloon inflating or simply a man reading aloud a favourite book. Eventually, catalysed by invention and technological progress, people began to expect more. They wanted a story, an illusion or some sort of hook to attract them to these spectacles. After a while, the feature film was born, and cinema took off faster than most anyone could have anticipated.

Are you starting to see the parallels here?

We moved from innovative, small projects to massive, story-driven epics. We started to really take advantage of the entire sphere of human knowledge in the creation of these setpieces. Anything was fair game: history, biography, imagined futures and fantastical worlds were all borne from the minds of our finest screenwriters. The same applies to these early stages of gaming. Our pong and spacewars were the equivalent of those boardwalk recordings. We progressed, and created more and more complex games with incredible feats of technology. The creation of the first three-dimensional environment within a computer was an advancement not just of this niche entertainment form, but of the whole of humanity. Without it, no space travel, no radiotherapy and no human genome project. And all through this, the ideas still did not run dry. Nothing had been overdone, so everything was original. Each game provided a new, thrilling experience.

This is no longer so. The industry appears to produce more and more games, with fewer and fewer original ideas to power them. We see sequel after tie-in after rhythm game and complain that games were better before this or that came along. People come up with the most ridiculous scapegoats. Halo was blamed for corrupting the First Person Shooter with its stripped-down and enjoyable gameplay, but no-one seems to remember how stale the genre was becoming by that point. It was successful because it was different. Any influx of new ideas is a progress, regardless of whether or not they’re good ones. Just ask Darwin.

It’s a common misconception that all old games were good. They weren’t. We only think this because the shit ones were forgotten completely. There will always be bad games, and the gaps between truly good ones will always be painfully large. Give it ten years and not even the developers will remember The Witcher or Wii Sports Resort. They will be forever banished to the corners of obscure 4chan nostalgia threads, never to be loved again. The idea well isn’t really drying up. It just looks that way from where we’re standing because the well of repetition is overflowing and drowning us in ULTIMATE FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP. As long as we have the entire sphere of human knowledge, experience and creativity at our fingertips then our literature, our art and our games will always have the potential for greatness.

And those with genuine creativity will always find a way to get their creations out there. Rest assured, until the nukes start dropping and killing us all, there will always be someone with an awesome idea for a video game.

Love and cuddles,


P.S. I have been away for some time so I had to release the bullshit in one go. Next week: an actual review!

Where’s the Welcome Party for the Next Generation?

September 7, 2009 § 1 Comment

I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking forward to the next console generation.

I’ve just invested in a new high definition television, some decent headphones, and I’m now in the process of weighing up whether a 360 purchase is in order. In short, I’m spending enough money as it is.

These funds have a feeling of a good investment though. I’m not just buying entertainment that’s diminishing over time, I’m getting something that’s only going to get better with the addition of new firmware and system updates possible for the first time on our internet-enabled consoles.

But Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo could undo my satisfaction instantly by announcing the next generation. They’re not going to any time soon, the simple economics of the situation simply wouldn’t allow for that, but I’d bet good money that it’s certain to happen at some point in the future.

It’s not just consumers who’re not ready for the next generation. Developers have been making serious progress making games for the three current consoles for some time, which has the benefit of cheaper production costs, shorter development cycles, and above all, better games.

As a generation goes on the quality of games improves tenfold. A clear example is the GTA series, where just in terms of their physical map the games have tripled in size. Graphical fidelity is another indicator, just compare the two screenshots below from the original Timesplitters (a PS2 launch title, pictured left) and Timesplitters 3 (still on PS2, but released in 2005, right).

Ultimately the ignition key rests in the hands of the console makers themselves, but it’s hard to see how they’d actually benefit from a new generation. Aside from the fact that no one would buy it, anyone who did wouldn’t really make any of the manufacturers – aside from Nintendo – any money by virtue of a new console’s price being less than what it costs to make.

So maybe in the long run we’d get better looking games in a new generation, but this makes them more costly to develop, and this money needs to be gotten from somewhere. Games can either get shorter, or they can get more expensive, and as we’ve seen from the move into the current-gen, both can very easily happen.

I’m not trying to be overly negative about the future, if I am it’s only because of how happy I am with the present. Look at the games we have today. Don’t they look amazing? Are you honestly sitting there thinking about how you’d willingly pay for a new console to see these games look better?

The current generation completely fills my gaming needs. I have realistic graphics, internet capabilities, downloadable games, and achievements, and I’m happy with this amount. I can’t think of anything a new generation of consoles could offer me to make me happy to spend my money what with the amount of features they can add with software updates.

So what’s going to make you willingly shell out on a new console aside from every major developer on the planet leaving your current one in the dust?

Where Am I?

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