Saturday, November 5, 2011

Let's Be Critical About Arkham City and Uncharted 3.

Recent weeks have seen the launch of two of the biggest videogames of the year: the long anticipated Batman: Arkham City, and even more recently Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Both are reviewing exceptionally well, attaining perfect, or near-perfect scores, especially from mainstream review sites. There's a lot of pressure on creators for their triple A title to review high (and its been reported that in some workplaces scores have been linked to salary and job), and I've heard many a reviewer claim that there's equal pressure on them to keep scores high. It's quite the statement to give games like these anything less than a 9/10 - for some of these publishers an 8 is unbearable.

I've played through both games now, and they are certainly among the best of the year, and there's no denying that they're great fun to play and have a superior polish. I thoroughly enjoyed both games, and they each have many killer moments, and yet I'm kind of dissatisfied to see that the criticism is pretty light. It's not my intention to nitpick but, to be honest, as good as these games are, they still have their share of empty moments, unengaging game-play and unsatisfying storytelling. Have you ever felt that? That moment where you're playing a game and thinking, "I know this is the big new thing - and everyone's raving about it - so why aren't I enjoying playing it right now?" It's almost taboo to talk about it!

But join me after the jump and we'll do just that! (SPOILERS ahead!)

Arkham City is my favourite of the two, and it does the best possible thing that a sequel can do - it completely opens up and expands upon the original and gives you new ways to play. Being free to zip around the city is a triumph and it makes for a much grander and more enjoyable game. So why does the claustrophobic steel mill section suck so much ass?

It's the perfect example of what I'm getting at here. You're advancing through cluttered pipes and large expanses of water and you have only one method of travel available to you (because Batman don't swim, yo!) - you have to freeze an ice platform in the water, jump on to it, and then grapple one of the many mysterious gold rings that inexplicably line the walls, and press a button repeatedly to drag you and the platform towards it like a raft. And I've got to ask: why? 

It's a problem for a number of reasons:

- It's not challenging. You know exactly what you have to do because you've done it before. The rings are very obvious and exist only for this purpose (and if they're not obvious enough, simply turn on "detective mode" and they will glow like the Eye of Sauron). You're doing the same combination of moves again and again.

- It's your only option. If you want to advance then you have to do this. There's no way around it. You can't fly, or crawl across the ceiling, or find an alternate route. It strips you of all the other fun things that you can do as Batman - everything you were enjoying is taken away for you for this mandatory test of your resolve. 

- And worst of all, it's not fun. You don't feel like a superhero. You don't feel like you're accomplishing anything. It's pure filler. You've been given clear instructions on what to do and you just have to continue doing it.

Similar moments occur in Uncharted 3. There's a point where you're throwing lit torches into braziers to clear away spiders while platforming. Your in-game companion tells you exactly what to do, the screen prompts you with instructions, and you do it. Again. And again. And again. It's not challenging, and it's not especially fun once you've done it once. All of your own play-style and decision making is removed and once again I'm just pressing buttons in the order I've been asked to. I'm not even under threat - I can take my time.

The linear, scripted nature of these huge cinematic games is constantly a problem in this regard. In Uncharted 3 huge, exciting and visually stunning things are happening around me all the time - and it is thrilling - but what am I, as a player, actually contributing? I mean, gameplay what am I doing? What events can I influence? Virtually nothing!

Take the climbing for example. There's some beautiful scenery that Drake gets to climb around - and I probably spend at least 10 - 15% of my overall game time climbing, but is it a challenge? I'm never really in danger of falling. It's usually very clear where I'm supposed to be going. So all I'm doing in these breath-takingly beautiful sequences is pushing the thumbstick towards the next ledge and pressing a single button to jump. On screen Drake grunts and groans, and sways dangerously, ledges collapse underneath him and he desperately clings for life at the last minute before heaving himself back up - but I'm not doing any of it. I'm watching it but I'm still just pressing that same button. 

Does the storytelling get in the way?

Uncharted 3 has a few extended sequences which are all about storytelling and not really about gameplay. You'll play young Drake looking around a museum. Yes, it eventually (after much gazing into cabinets, and cut-scenes) leads to an impressive roof-top chase, and it does advance the story, and make it more like an interactive movie - it's fun for a first time. But how re-playable is it? Will I be looking forward to walking through the museum a second time? The same goes for the atmospheric desert sequences. They're engaging as a first-timer because you're eager to learn where it's all going, but in later play-throughs you're daunted by the knowledge that you will have to slowly and aimlessly lurch through about six unskippable desert levels where you have zero influence on events.

I find that in both Batman and Uncharted the storytelling actually directly contradicts the gameplay. In Arkham City, Batman is poisoned by the Joker and time is against him. As a player I am constantly reminded that Batman will die very soon if the cure is not found, and every mission is presented with a sense of dire urgency. Quick Batman! Rush over here and do this thing or you will die! Yet this storyline directly conflicts with the sandbox style gameplay and the many side missions. 

I found myself constantly conflicted - because the main story is telling me that time is of the essence and I must do this mission immediately - while at the same time presenting me with far less urgent deviations like visiting Bane or tracking down a sniper. Which am I supposed to do? Am I in peril or not? If I'm truly dying in a couple of hours, should I be screwing around on this rooftop trying to score a Riddler trophy? I can either enjoy everything the world has to offer and ignore the thrust of the story, or go along with the story and miss half the game. The game only really gets this right during the Mad Hatter side mission because it lures you into by thinking that you've found a cure. It meshes well with the story and acts as a nice surprise. 

Uncharted's story conflicts remind you of the limitations of the game. There's an iconic set piece where a castle in France is engulfed in fire and you have to escape as it collapses around you. It's visually stunning and the fire creates a real sense of danger and urgency, but then the game still insists on funnelling you into closed off rooms where you have drawn-out shoot-outs with enemies. Your means of escape (a collapsed roof or wall) will only miraculously trigger when the enemies are defeated. It's an example of a scene where it's all gameplay mechanic at expense of the story, because why the hell are the bad guys still shooting at you when they're trapped in here too? Why are you staying in the room with no visible escape? And the urgency is suddenly gone because you can duck and cover and take your time to dispatch the enemies at your own pace - so the idea of the building collapsing around you vanishes along with the tension. The immersion is gone and you're playing a game again. And repeating a task that you've done many times before.

Weirdly though, Uncharted has another similar sequence - this time with a sinking ship - which manages to solve some of these issues. The props (and cover) move around as the boat capsizes, creating a dynamic environment that you constantly have to readjust to, and the room fills up with very realistic water. If you take too long dispatching the bad guys then you'll be crushed by a wave, and it forces you to think on your feet and act decisively and with precision. It's a far better scene, although there's still no explanation as to why the enemies would risk their own lives to stick around and shoot at you - especially when you're already in peril - rather than get the hell out of there themselves. If we're going for cinematic gameplay then I'd much rather have seen that point where the enemies get spooked and start running and screaming for their own lives and add to the chaos. 

I draw no real conclusion here, in fact part of me wonders if we, as avid gamers, are so used to the mechanics that we're just seeing all the games. These criticisms are most likely less about the shortfalls of these particular games, but rather shortfalls of games in general. Have we reached a ceiling we're waiting for the next thing to do? I want to reiterate that both of the games mentioned are easily among my favourites of the year, and I could list ten times as many things that DO work, but in light of all the recent praise, I thought this would make for the more interesting discussion.

What do you think? Do you have concerns? Or disagree completely? What works or doesn't work for you?


  1. "Quick Batman you must got the formula from the Joker"

    "Hang on I've almost got this riddler trophy with my remote batarang... FFFFFFFFFFF, ok one more go"

    Ha seriously. That's a good point. I'd say that's a lot like film making. Where you fail if the audience disconnects and are reminded that they are in a cinema watching a movie. In this case with a movie game reminding people that they are playing a game.

    That said there's games like Metal Gear who revel in the meta. Making jokes about how you are playing a game but also using that to tell a story. Like Metal gear 4 where Snake has to crawl down this hallway filled with radiation by you rapidly pushing a button. Snake struggles to not die and you the player are getting super tired as well (clever mr Kojima!).

    I think my favourite games that balance the movie and game aspect are inFamous, Psychonauts and Heavy Rain. Metal Gear and Earthbound 2 are probably my favourites at balancing story and making fun of you playing a videogame but also engaging you with it.

  2. I agree with both your criticisms about batman, although it doesn't really take away from the game too much (well, the pull the raft through water bit gets old pretty quick). I followed the story because I thought I'd die if I didn't and thus finished the main plot at 43% completion. But then batman has some line like "there's still a lot of work to be done here" or whatever and I figure sure NOW I can visit bane or see what those undercover cops were so excited about....I can relax and it's just another weeknight for batman after the main plot, but it's still epic just being batman. It WOULD have helped me if I was a higher level and had more stuff unlocked before "winning" the game though....

  3. Whats funny is I've felt more pressure to complete the game from Dr. Strange counting down to when Project Mayhem will commence (or whatever its called) as opposed to the Joker main plot. I've gone off and completed side quests left and right because they seem to come up more often than not and how can the reporter being molested in the alley next door not cause me to stop and assist?

    What I have found is that if you focus on the main plot before the side quests it gets that much tougher. Trying to complete the Bane and Zaz quests respectively, I am at a point of completing them right as the Joker has armed his men with sniper rifles. So trying to sneak around is that much more difficult since the Titan containers (and Zaz's lair) are under heavy sniper fire.

    its story comes across as confusing in the sense of "what did I miss" because it'll start referring to things that have happened outside the game and in the graphic novel that was apparently released prior to the game. By no means a game or story breaker, but annoying all the same.

    Also - Fuck the museum. I am scarred shitless to go in the aquarium everytime because of the damn shark. If they are going to include that in the game, the least they could do is provide you with a can of shark repellant.

  4. I think it's a problem though with Batman that the virus is always a false urgency anyway. There's no real time limit. You can gallivant around on the rooftops as much as you like and you're never in danger of dying. So that plot is there presumably to raise the stakes and create tension, but the game never actually commits to that - because it doesn't affect the outcome either way.

    What it does do amazingly well is the Catwoman fake-out ending. (Spoilers) In the Catwoman storyline you have to choose to help Batman or leave with the loot, and if you leave with the loot the credits roll and you're convinced for about a minute that you've prematurely ended your game. Then it goes into rewind and you get to choose again. A cool gimmick, but again I guess you're still being channelled down a path where you can't affect much.

    Tim - I think InFamous is a great example of a games that gives you a good toolbox of abilities, throws you into an amazing playground and lets you approach problems the way you want to. A lot of free will in that game and it's a ton of fun. It barely ever gets bogged down by the sorts of things I'm criticising here.

  5. i loved the fake-out ending with catwoman. The Oracle speech near the end was great! And I think you can forgive catwoman for thinking batman'll be fine. I mean, he's batman!! :D

    Another thing that is kind of bugging me is the "VR simulators" side-quest. Mostly because I can't do the last couple. Luckily I have a buddy who's much more proficient to come over and "shadow-game" for me in these situations..