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?