5 Ways 'Arkham City' Proves I'm Under Qualified to be Batman
Look, I know it's highly unlikely that I would have ever been Batman, but I just didn't think the option would be completely off the table at this point in my life, you know? Yes, I'm poor, cowardly, out of shape and the only thing I want to "avenge" is that time somebody took one of my beers out of the company fridge without asking. But I guess I just figured that there was always time for my parents to be murdered, to win the lottery, and maybe to take a few karate classes. And that should be it: That's all I would need to successfully Batman myself. All the rest of it -- the mentality, the plans, the drive -- that's stuff I already have. But now that Batman: Arkham City is out, and has proven to be a rather effective Batman simulator, I realize that there are so many other factors to being a Batman, and that I am just fundamentally terrible at all of them. Sadly, what follows are the myriad ways Arkham City has finally convinced me that it's time to scratch "Dark Knight" off the list of things I want to be when I grow up.
I Got No Rhythm
The fighting sections in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and again in Batman: Arkham City, are rhythm-based affairs. That's not an observation I'm making up: During development, the devs initially planned the whole game to be a kind of gritty Dance Dance Revolution. Wait, no: Put the knife down and stop googling "batman devs address." That concept is not as stupid as it seems. Jackie Chan himself once described the inherent rhythm involved in being a great fighter. To paraphrase: If you don't feel it inside, get a sense of it while the fight plays out, find the song narrating each battle, you can't win. If you don't have music in your soul, you're going to get your ass beat.
And I absolutely do not have music in my soul. My rhythm's so bad I need sheet music for clapping. I'm so musically retarded that I thought a diminished fifth was a half-empty liquor bottle. I understand music so poorly that when I first heard the rhythm was gonna get me, I asked if it was a visual hunter and smeared myself in rotten offal just in case I was wrong.
In short: My ass gets beat routinely, and with much vigor.
Like this, except right afterward I trip, fall into a dumpster and get beaten to death.
And it's not that Arkham City's fighting is objectively hard -- you can flail at buttons and win most melees. But the point of such a basic fighting system is mostly to show what a badass Batman is: He makes short work of his foes no matter what, and if you do it right, they'll never even touch you. If you do it wrong, you still win, of course, but a lot of the savage, balletic fight scenes get interrupted by an awkward punch to the back of the head. The thugs doing the punching seem just as surprised as you when this happens. They stand there giving you a look like, "Re- really? Man, if I knew that was gonna connect I would've put some heart into it." If you ain't got no rhythm in your bones, the fighting in Arkham City feels less like a barbaric waltz that you're conducting, and more like you're the special class in the school's football championship.
You're doing your best and you should be proud, but come on; nobody's really been trying to tackle you.
I Do Not Understand People
When I said that the fist-fighting in Arkham City was easy, even if you're terrible at it, that doesn't mean the game lacks for challenge. It just means that some poor bastard brought a fist to a Batman fight. No, the challenge, rightfully, comes from the armed enemies. Guns in the game are almost instantly lethal. To defeat a roomful of armed hooligans, you'll need stealth, agility and an understanding of basic psychology -- especially that of fear. You play with their minds, get them to separate, and then take them down one by one in the dark, because you're the fucking Batman. You're what nightmares have nightmares about.
Or at least, that's how it goes if you do it right.
So far, my experience in Arkham City has mostly been setting up brilliant traps -- lines of psychological dominoes that will all fall at just the right angle to terrorize and incapacitate my foes in one fell swoop -- and then charging into them myself while screaming my own name.
I used to blame the stealth genre in general for these aborted schemes: "It's the game's fault," I'd say, "if your gameplay relies on psychology, you're going to need more impressive AI to deal with the stuff I dish out."
But after decades of failed espionage, I'm starting to realize that is not the case: The ninjas aren't eating that poisoned rice ball because the item is useless, but because you threw it into their abdomen from a shadow three feet away. They knew it was you that stabbed the guard because the crowd you were hiding in turned left five paces back, and you were left standing in the middle of an empty road with a bloody knife. You failed the stealth mission, Robert, because you covered the ceiling with explosive gel, stood directly on top of it and then detonated it so you could "jumpkick everybody through the flames on the way down," instead of just ducking into the vents, like you were supposed to.
I'm Too Easily Distracted
Arkham City takes place in a dense, heavily populated open world. It won't stagger you with its sheer size, but every inch feels organic, lived in and genuinely intriguing. This kind of game design is more about immersion than interaction. It's like good service at a high-end restaurant; all the effort is there to make sure you never notice it at all. But if you're a completionist, or you're just stuck somewhere and need a break from the main story, there are a few side missions and exploratory games.
Or, if you've lived 30 years with undiagnosed ADHD, you can go charging off after shiny things in the middle of a tense hostage situation.
This is my main problem with all open world games: If you tell me to get from Point A to Point B, you'd better make the journey fun. However, if you make the journey too fun, it's incredibly likely that I will forget about Point B entirely, and run off clapping after pretty birds instead, screaming to my wife in the other room about "these fucking crazy authentic migratory behaviors!" In Grand Theft Auto IV, I happened to notice some fast food workers cleaning the windows as I ran by a restaurant on my way to rescue a friend from certain death. I stopped and stared, mesmerized, as an NPC ran a dirty rag over glass. The clock ran out, the timed mission failed, a good man died and a window was cleaned.
Do you know how many hours I wasted just jogging from rooftop to rooftop in Assassin's Creed? Not even pursuing unlockables, just jumping because jumping is neat!
... but there's something even neater.
Well now they've added a similar mechanic to the Goddamn Batman: You traverse a vast swathe of a meticulously rendered Gotham City via a combination of parkour, grapple-hook swinging and hang-gliding. That's right: Just traveling from objective to objective incorporates the most addictive elements from Assassin's Creed, Bionic Commando and fucking Pilotwings.
A scream rings out in the night, shrill and desperate. A woman. An alleyway. Two men in hoods.
"Please, somebody help me!" She sobs.
"Ain't nobody gonna help you," the thin man answers.
"Wait, why not? Isn't this a Batman game?" The fat one asks.
"Hey, yeah, where is he?" The woman interjects, wiping mascara stains from her pale skin.
"Last time I saw him, he was doing loop-de-loops around the bell tower, seeing how long he could go without touching the ground and holy shit, is that him up there? Is he still doing it?! It's been six hours! What is he, high?"
I'm Too Ridiculous
I mentioned earlier that a large aspect of the Batman mythos, from the comics to the movies to the games, is psychology. He dresses like a bat, behaves like a psychopath and hunts in the shadows for a reason: He wants the criminals to think of him like the devil. He's the boogie man of the underworld. But this is all balanced with practicality. Batman isn't fighting crime for his own amusement. He takes villains down simply and quickly, defuses the situation and saves as many innocent civilians as possible.
Of course, in Arkham City, they're handing Batman over to you, the player. He is your avatar in the world, and he's only an avatar of savage efficiency if his player is as well. If his player has different priorities, like say, making sure things are as hilarious as possible at the expense of literally everything else, then the Bat can't help but lose a bit of that primal mystique.
What little playtime I haven't spent flitting about the rooftops like a goth Peter Pan, has been spent carefully orchestrating little plays starring the game's various henchmen, all of which are entitled How Funny Can You Die? I've burned precious hours just lining up and blowing enemies into each other like a set of meaty dominoes, or spraying explosive gel on every fire hydrant in the room and then detonating them simultaneously, or shooting the giant, hammer-wielding, one-armed clown with the taser gun because he spins when you electrocute him and how great is that?!
"Yes, of course you can make him dance for you." -- Batman: Arkham City Devs, understanding me perfectly.
The main reason I could never be Batman is not because of my physical ineptitude, or my financial woes, or because he's a fictional character and I should probably just get a life, but simply because, if given the means, I would absolutely dress in an elaborate costume and crouch unseen in the shadows, but instead of fighting crime, I would spend my nights hurling annoying little boomerangs into the backs of criminal's heads until they got fed up and started arguing. Then I would giggle, thus revealing my position, and be promptly shot.
There are a million issues that keep me from qualifying for that scholarship to the esteemed Batman University: It could be my poor sense of rhythm, my attention span, or just my near total lack of human morality. But in reality, my campaign for District Batman ends long before any of those things come into play. Bear with me on a tangent, here:
Did you know that Arkham City doesn't come with a booklet? There are half a dozen promotional inserts, adds, download codes and even a merchandise catalog for the game -- you know, that piece of merchandise that you just bought -- but no instruction manual. It says to "find it online," but even that's not available yet. I guess this is probably a leftover quirk from when I was a kid, but my favorite part of a new game has always been cracking the case open, huffing that intoxicating new electronics smell, and then sitting down to read the book, cover to cover. I know they've been getting shorter and shorter lately, but having no manual at all for such a big release game is probably the death knell of the whole practice, and that makes me kind of sad.
Hey, if you upgrade to the collector's edition, maybe you can collect the god damn instructions.
And speaking of those inserts and download codes, did you know you have to download the Catwoman bundle separately? It comes pre-packaged with every new game, but it's a separate download, presumably to deter used sales. Seems like kind of a bullshit move, right? Especially since her chapters are actually sewn throughout the game itself. You're missing chunks of the narrative if you don't have it. They're actually giving you a lesser version of the game for buying it secondhand. I think that's an intensely worrying prospect for gaming in general.
Still here? Good, because that's actually the final lesson I've taken away from playing Arkham City. Batman is Batman because of personal tragedy. It's a story about vengeance and extreme loss utterly deforming and warping a human being.
Bruce Wayne watched his parents slaughtered in front of him and became an avenging monster of the night.
Somebody forgot to write a little book for me about the video game I just bought and I complained to the Internet.
I've learned that I quite simply do not possess the badass that my subconscious keeps telling me about, so there's no point in training for the day it finally kicks in. Thanks, Arkham City; I guess I'll go knit a fucking sweater or something.
You can buy Robert's book, Everything is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Instead of a short witticism here, I would just like to use this space to say: Arkham City's Catwoman is the most embarrassingly terrible female character in the history of gaming. May God have mercy on the soul of whoever wrote her dialogue.
For more from Robert, check out The 5 Most Badass Things Ever Done By Jungle Cats and 5 Kickass Lessons Books Could Learn from the Movies.