Monday, October 1, 2012

Why Arkham City Left Us Underwhelmed

Note: This post contains plenty of spoilers for the game Batman Arkham City, so if you don't want it spoiled, it's really not safe to ready any of it!

Diana and I played Arkham City over the weekend, and while we thought it was a good game, we didn't think it was a great game. I know that this is contrary to the opinion of most of the gaming world, and I don't think it's a case of "We're right, everyone else is wrong", so I thought it would be worth gathering my thoughts on why we were left a bit disappointed. I'd love to hear insights from others to explain things we might have misunderstood or that might help us look at it differently.

First let me be clear that we are not comic book or superhero fans. Most people probably approach a game like Arkham City, or a movie like The Avengers, with the thought, "I hope they finally do justice to my beloved characters/story/etc". However, for us we tend to approach from the opposite side of things: "I hope they've made a movie/game that appeals to a person who is not already a fan of this character."

I think Arkham City is probably a pretty good game if you're a Batman fan, but if your not, I don't think it's going to make you one. It certainly didn't for us. Keep in mind that we played Arkham Asylum previously, and again we thought it was good but not great. Overall I think I liked that game more that Arkham City, but I was concerned that the various things that bothered me with it would exist in Arkham City too, and that's why we haven't played the game until now.

The superhero genre

One major issue is about the very nature of the superhero genre. We're not at all fans of it! Some superhero stories work better than others, but on the whole, it always tends to feel a bit silly and juvenile to me. When I say juvenile, I don't mean that only a child should enjoy it, but rather that it tends to have an outlook on the world and the nature of good and evil that is closer to how a child views the world than a mature adult.

Vigilantism in itself isn't a problem. Going out and dealing with petty criminals because law enforcement isn't doing it can be a reasonable concept to work with. But no one wants to watch Batman or Superman or Spiderman just beat up purse snatchers constantly. So instead comics need to invent supervillians and criminal masterminds that are challenge for them, and more entertaining for the reader. Superheroes only work in a world where the biggest problem is supervillians.

But this is far removed from the real world. Major problems can rarely be boiled down to a single evil figure. They're usually much more complicated than that. But even when you can identify individuals who can pull a lot of strings on their own, they tend to be boring people in business suits that occupy a lot of legal grey area, rather than someone like, say, Hitler. Having Batman walk into a Goldman Sachs boardroom and punch Lloyd Blankfein in the face isn't going to be a very satisfying story, and it doesn't restore the pension funds that his company helped to wipe out in the global financial crisis, so there's no real sense of justice. Beating up the heads of Union Carbide over the Bhopal gas leak disaster doesn't really feel like it actually achieves justice.

Being nonlethal

I get particularly bothered by Batman not using guns or other highly effective weapons to take down criminals. In the context of a game like Arkham City where he is frequently having to deal with multiple enemies who all have guns and are actively trying to kill him, it just feels silly to have him try to take them out one by one with his fists and other nonlethal means. Action bubbles in the game need to be set up carefully to allow this to be a viable tactic, and this becomes obvious and as a result it bothers me and pulls me out of the game. I end up thinking, "Wow, lucky this room has all of these convenient high perches for Batman to sit on, otherwise he'd be screwed."

It also doesn't make much sense from a legal point of view. In reality, if Bruce Wayne were ever caught and exposed, he would be going to jail for the rest of his life for the thousands of assaults he's committed and various other laws he's broken. The fact that he doesn't kill people isn't going to help much. And when he constantly leaves supervillains alive knowing that they're going to become free again, and that they will then go and kill others shows a reckless disregard for those inevitable victims that makes him almost culpable for their deaths. In a world where violent insane people cannot be successfully imprisoned, letting them live is reckless and irresponsible.

General issues with the game world

Back to the game itself. We were excited by the concept of having an open world to explore, since we both tend to be big fans of open world games. However, in the case of Arkham City, the world was very samey and uninteresting, and exploration didn't seem to be much of a reward for its own sake. Everything was just dark and run down, and there's nothing really interesting to find, or at least if there is, we didn't come across it. Sure, there's Riddler puzzles, but a really good open world will be a joy to travel around just to see the sights. And excellent ones, like Fallout 3 and Skyrim reward exploration by having all sorts of interesting quests to come across, people to meet, and locations with enough detail that you can piece together a story of what happened there in the past. I didn't get any of this from Arkham City.

I also found navigation to often be tedious, particularly on timed challenges. When gliding around and using the grapple to propel Batman I would sometimes end up heading in the wrong direction and having to try and correct it before slamming into something. It reminded me of the original Assassin's Creed, where you felt like you were fighting the controls too much.


The puzzles in the game were generally quite good and I enjoyed that element of the gameplay. However, they did a bad job of introducing all of the different gadgets. Unless you played linearly through the first few story missions without exploring you weren't introduced to each gadget, and without playing the previous game you would not easily know it was there. I got caught early on in a Riddler puzzle that had me stuck in a closed room, until I realized that I had explosive gel already and could use it to blow open the floor.

The other problem is that you start with a bunch of gadgets, but you then also get other ones during the game. This means, though, that when you encounter something like a Riddler puzzle, you can waste a lot of time trying to figure out if you just can't work the puzzle out, or if you don't yet have the magic gadget required to solve it. It's bad design for a game with puzzles to not make it clear if you're in a position to solve that puzzle or not.

General Gameplay

 The gameplay is mostly good and I understand why people enjoy it. There is good use of gadgets and detective mode is very cool. The melee system is good, but I found fighting got dull and repetitive after a while. They introduced some new weapons and enemy behaviours as the game progressed, but it just wasn't enough to keep me interested. Having recently played Sleeping Dogs, I think we were spoiled by what is probably a similar but better melee system. But Sleeping Dogs also had the advantage of both melee and gun based combat, with the game very nicely transitioning from mostly melee in the first half to mostly guns towards the end, which kept the fighting interesting.

The checkpoint system tended to bug me a bit, particularly when you'd traverse a large part of the open world to reach a location for the next objective, but then get killed fighting enemies before you can get into the objective. This would then require you to re-traverse the world all over again. It was particularly annoying as Catwoman, who generally took longer to travel large distances.

I also found it annoying when you finished at a location (usually with a boss fight of some sort), and then it wasn't clear where you had to go next to get out. Had a new exit opened up nearby, or did you have to do a whole lot of backtracking? Both of those cases happened at various times, and in general I found myself consulting the internet more often than I would have liked to figure out where to go next without wasting a bunch of time because I didn't stumble across the one linear option the game had decided on.


Overall I found the AI to be good but unremarkable. Since I play a lot of AAA titles I tend to have a pretty high bar for a game to do something with the AI to impress me, and I can't think of anything that really stood out in this game. All the enemy readabilities were fairly nicely done and you could get a good sense of what they were thinking, but again this should be considered standard for a AAA title.

I was disappointed by the lack of group behaviour. Enemies would communicate with each other, but their behaviours were all pretty independent, other than spacing out nicely around you during melee combat. I blame this mainly on the gameplay constraints imposed by Batman's limited combat abilities (in the gunplay sections). Batman can generally only take on armed opponents by singling them out one at a time, so in these action bubbles, while it would make a lot more sense for them to stick together and cover each other, they tend to just go patrolling on their own even when they know Batman is there, like teenagers in a bad horror movie.


In the end, I think it was various aspects of the story that disengaged me from the game the most. Batman seemed to make bafflingly stupid decisions that just made me stop caring about the story at all. It sometimes felt like he was the main character from Memento, not remembering what had just happened 2 minutes before hand. I'll briefly list the ones that bugged me the most:
  • He leaves Harvey Dent hanging in the courthouse in the beginning to get rescued by his buddies, so Catwoman ends up having to deal with him again later on. Why not at least lock him in the empty cell in the very basement of that building? (of course he should just kill him, but we've been over that already)
  • Repeatedly helping and sparing the life of the Joker despite the constant threat he presents.
  • Hearing a big sob story from Mr Freeze and agreeing to go and rescue his wife literally seconds after having Freeze turn on him and try his hardest to kill him. Batman appears to have bipolar disorder the way he switches between being friends and enemies with some of these characters.
  • Not becoming the head of the League of Shadows, which could have let him discover earlier that they were behind everything, and would also allow him, as head of the organization, to stop them and thus remove them as a threat. Other than wiping them all out (which he won't do because he doesn't kill), what better way to remove their threat than by becoming their leader? Not to mention having the added possibility of near immortality, something that might be just slightly handy in Batman's line of work!

Final Thoughts

This review is far more negative sounding than I would have liked, since for the most part I enjoyed the game. I guess I wanted to point out all of these issues because there is such high praise for this game everywhere else and so I didn't really need to go over the positive points so much. In the end I mainly want to explain why I think that Arkham City is still just a game for fans, and I don't believe it's the transcendent gaming experience that will please everyone, which is what many people have tried to claim. Hopefully I've made a reasonable case for that, and not just come across as a hater!


  1. For the most part I agree with you. The only thing I can say is that the combat system, in my ever so humble opinion, is this game's saving grace. I love the fact that you can counter attack as many attacks that come at you.

    Having said that, I haven't played sleeping dogs.

    Oh I guess I had one more thing actually, it relates to the juvenile outlook on the world that superhero stories generally have. Perhaps this is a discussion for elsewhere, but for most adults who still read comics, I think that outlook is supposed to subconsciously appeal to them at an almost basic/primitive level... Or maybe that's just me.

    1. To be fair, Sleeping Dogs came out well after Arkham City and is clearly influenced by it. But of course that doesn't really help someone like me who played them in the reverse order!

  2. In their talk at the Vienna Game/AI conference, they began by admitting that they had next to no AI tech - but pointed out their AI has nonetheless won awards. I think you highlight the right angle here - they treat AI as gameplay and animation, rather than anything more sophisticated, and for a game with these design constraints, that's probably wise.