Here at Kaedrin, we pride ourselves on being timely. Well, not so much. Especially when it comes to video games, where I’m a cheap bastard and only buy games after they’ve fallen in price (usually a year or more after original release). Cases in point:
- Batman: Arkham Asylum – It’s an unwritten (ok, well, probably written many times) rule in the video game world that games based on existing properties from other mediums generally suck. Like, hardcore suck. Like, worst games ever suck. This happens for a variety of reasons. Usually the games are only made because the suits know they’re guaranteed to sell a bunch of games to people who love the existing property. Or, more likely, friends and family of the fan. They know the fan likes video games, and they know he/she likes the property, so they naturally figure that game would interest the person. As such, the budgets are usually low on these games. And they’re often released as a tie-in with some big happening in the existing property’s universe (i.e. the movie release, the start of season 5, etc…), so production schedules are very constrained. All of this usually yields a game that is poorly conceived, plays jankily, and is full of bugs. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all been disappointed by the results. Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s claim to fame is that it’s a game based on Batman that doesn’t actually suck. And it doesn’t! It’s actually pretty damn good.
It’s not perfect. There are a few really obvious complaints about the game, notably “detective mode”, which activates Batman’s special vision where enemies and points of interest are highlighted. This is a neat idea, but it also means that you end up playing the game mostly in that mode. Which is fine, but it also means you’re missing out on some excellent production design and artwork in the game. Which, by the way, is probably the best thing about the game. I’ve never read the comic books, but I’m a big fan of the Animated Series from the 90s, and this game takes place in that universe (notably featuring a lot of the voice talent from that show, though many character designs have been updated), albeit a slightly darker and more grim version (to be expected, given that the game isn’t quite as cartoonish). The atmosphere of the game, which takes place entirely on the grounds of Arkham Asylum, is absolutely wonderful, and many of the video game tropes that are present in this game (i.e. the Riddler challenge) give you tons of background on the history and lore of the Batman world. You pick up audio interviews with escaped super-criminals, biographies of other villains, and so on. This sort of “collecting” is usually trite and boring in other games, but here it’s actually kinda fun to see what you can find.
Gameplay consists of a mixture of brawling and stealth, with the occasional platforming and (usually optional) puzzle thrown in for variety. The brawling is fun and deceptively simple. At first, it seems like all you do is mash the square button over and over again, which does work pretty well. But there’s also the ability to dodge, and if you chain together enough hits, you get some additional moves. I find it lacking the balance of something like the God of War games, in which combat is simple to learn but hard to master. The stealth sections are better, but again, I found myself relying on the same maneuvers over and over again. As with the combat, I didn’t really gain a full appreciation for the stealth sections until I started playing the Challenge Mode (which essentially forces you to do alternative takedowns). The Challenge Mode of the game (basically just bite-sized fighting or stealth sections of the game that are independent of story) is actually much more fun here than it is in most games, and as I just said, it helped me gain a better feeling for the complexity of both the fighting and the stealth aspects.
The platforming and puzzles are pretty straightforward stuff, though I do really enjoy Batman’s trademark grappling gun thingy that allows him to climb and fly and stuff. I was also a big fan of the Riddler’s little question mark puzzles (which I didn’t understand at all for a while, but once I understood the concept, I had great fun trying to line that stuff up…) The story of the game is also straightforward – the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum and all the prisoners and super-criminals are free! There’s some hokum about a Titan Formula that turns people into hulking monsters. For the most part, it’s just an excuse to stalk the Asylum and fight super-villains. The boss battles are middling. I enjoyed the Scarecrow sections, but I didn’t care for the Killer Croc area. The final boss battle was fine.
Ultimately, a very good game. And, of course, I played this about 2 years after it came out, right when the sequel, Arkham City, came out. It’s apparently quite popular, and I think I did like Arkham Asylum enough that I might check out the sequel… in a year or so!
- Killzone 3 – Much like its predecessor, this is a generally competent first-person shooter with some odd deficiencies. The control scheme is strangely different than any other shooter (and it has some really weird consequences, as demonstrated by this hilarious tutorial on how to us the Sniper Rifle…) and the story is filled with stereotypical tough-guy bravado and cliched dialogue. There might be a minor improvement on that front, but it’s still not particularly good. There’s also a minor improvement in the visual design, with some actual variety here instead of the typical gun-metal color palette of these games (there’s snow levels and a brightly colored jungle level too). The game is slightly easier than the previous installment too, but I count that as a good thing because the last game got really frustrating at points.
As with the previous game, I found myself surprised again at how fun the multi-player is… Oh, sure, I still suck at it, but the way this series packages the multi-player modes together in one big match actually makes it much easier to come up to speed with the game, as it gives you time to get to know various maps (instead of constantly switching you around). You get some more variety from the beginning in terms of your available weapons and character classes, but it still works well. I actually really enjoy the multi-player mode and will probably continue to play it for a while (a rarity for me). Ultimately, this game isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s worth playing. I get the feeling that Sony rushed this one out to be a showcase for their 3D technology (something that I didn’t use and wouldn’t really want to use anyway).
- Ico – Originally made for the PS2, this was re-released in HD for the PS3 (in a collection with the same developer’s Shadow of the Colossus). It’s a sorta minimalist environmental puzzle game following a boy who is rescuing some girl from strange shadow monsters. I’m only about an hour into the game, but it’s quite interesting so far. And it looks great. It’s still a little dated looking, but it’s definitely nice looking (games like this on the PS2 had a kinda vaseline filter on the screen that made everything blurry looking, but this is very clear).
I’ve actually played Shadow of the Colossus before, and the games both share a certain aesthetic and gameplay design. Unfortunately, since it’s a previous-generation game, you have to deal with annoying save points and replay various aspects of the game (a major pet peeve of mine – the only reason it’s acceptable here is that it’s an old game). So far, though, I think I’m enjoying myself more with this game. The puzzles aren’t quite as obtuse, and I’m usually able to figure them out without any help. I’ll hold off on any other judgments until I finish the game, but so far, I can see why this game is popular with critics (and is often cited as an example of “video games as art”). Not sure it would go over too well with the CoD/Madden crowd, but whatever. I’m enjoying it… and I’m probably about to go play so more.
There are definitely a lot of games out there that I’m interested in playing, including the next Batman game and the next Team Ico game (which should be coming out soon). I haven’t been playing games that much this year, and I don’t see that changing too much – I’m generally happy with picking up games a year after they come out. That should keep me busy for a while!