Arkham City: Flight

Arkham City is the same sort of open-world game as GTA3: a sculptural artifact, where the player becomes intimately familiar with the details of a space that they cross over repeatedly. Such a game succeeds or fails on the basis of how enjoyable it makes the act of traversal. And that’s where Arkham City really shines — not in the story or the fighting or the puzzles, but in the way Batman moves, the way he vaults over fences and grapple-guns to ledges, the way he flies.

Which is a strange thing to say: I grew up in a time when one of Batman’s defining features was that he didn’t fly. But the Christopher Nolan films had him using his cape as a hang glider, so that’s firmly in the public idea of the character now. I have the impression that it was part of the character as originally conceived by Bob Kane, too, but like most of his ideas, it fell by the wayside — although every piece of Batman media has to have the words “created by Bob Kane” in its credits, nearly everything about the character we know was invented by Bill Finger. At any rate, Batman flying was definitely not within the budget of the 1960s TV show that defined the character for an entire generation. Likewise, the idea that Wonder Woman can fly always feels weird to me, because I grew up with the Lynda Carter version, which had similar constraints. It feels less weird to me with Batman, possibly because, being named for a flying animal, it always felt like he should fly. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve had more opportunity to get used to the idea, seeing how there have been more Batman games than Wonder Woman games.

At any rate, the flight in this game feels really good, and kind of flight-simulator-y. From a glide, you can go into a dive, pick up downward momentum, and turn that into horizontal speed by spreading your cape out again, or even swoop back upward to a certain extent. Some of the trickier Riddler Trophies require you to execute such stunts. There’s an “AR Training” side-quest consisting entirely of difficult swoops requiring precise timing. It’s one of the first side-quests you get, and it’s the most difficult thing in the game — so much so that I still haven’t finished it.

But most flight isn’t difficult. The main reason you use it is that soaring above the rooftops is the fastest and easiest way to get around town, keeping landmarks in view while passing over the heads of patrolling goons. You get used to doing this as a matter of course. And that gives Protocol 10 extra impact. Spoilers ahoy.

Protocol 10, it turns out, is simply an authorization to use extreme force against the inmates, essentially going to war against them, in the event that Arkham City becomes impossible to control otherwise. As I’ve already noted, the whole place is positively engineered to get out of control; it turns out that Hugo Strange was even secretly supplying the prisoners with guns to accelerate the process. Now, throughout the story, there have been occasional helicopters patrolling the skies above the city. (You can even grapple up to them to hitch a ride on their landing gear if you want, but there’s no way to control where they go.) Batman listens in on their radio chatter, and whenever a helicopter catches sight of him, it announces this fact using disquieting verbiage like “We have visual on the target” and “Target lost”. When Protocol 10 is activated, suddenly there are a lot more helicopters, firing missiles at anyone on the streets — and at Batman, if they spot him. Suddenly, the safest and easiest away around the city is fraught with danger. It’s a neat narrative gimmick, letting you come to rely on a convenience and then suddenly not letting you take it for granted any more as a way of letting you know that things have gotten serious. It isn’t even really about a spike in difficulty — that radio chatter effectively trains you in how to avoid being seen by helicopters long before you have any reason to do so. Rather, it’s about the removal of the sense of safety.

Arkham City: Villain Roster

I’m finding it interesting how the villains in Arkham City relate to the ones in Arkham Asylum. To an extent, you have the same gameplay roles filled by different characters, even when the original is still present.

The Joker’s role as the ultimate foe, the one who’s in charge of most of what’s going on and whose voice keeps making announcements over loudspeakers, is taken over by Hugo Strange — but the Joker keeps trying to play that role anyway. He doesn’t have access to the citywide PA system, but he does manage to get your batphone number. He’s on his deathbed, but he keeps making power moves all the same, both against Batman and against the other gangs.

Victor Zsasz was, in the first game, a tutorial on how to use stealth and batarangs: on multiple occasions, he’d take a hostage, and you had to take him down without revealing yourself. There’s a scene like that in Arkham City, but it involves the expert marksman Deadshot, and there’s no hostage — you have to avoid being seen simply because he’s capable of killing you instantly from a distance. (Deadshot wears a leather helmet, jumpsuit, and thin mustache that make him look every bit like an old-timey aviator.) More interestingly, hostage-taking is turned into a general mechanic. In any scene where you’re rescuing people from armed goons, the goons can decide to grab the people you’re rescuing and point a gun at their head, forcing you to sneak up on them. Meanwhile, as I’ve noted in previous posts, Zsasz instead uses the city’s payphones to issue race-against-time challenges, something that wasn’t really a factor in the asylum’s more confined spaces.

Poison Ivy has a stronghold in one corner of the map, overgrown with unnatural vines, but has kept to herself so far and not participated in the plot. Killer Croc makes a cameo, but his main role, as an unbeatable monster that bursts up from the floor, is taken over by a shark owned by the Penguin. (Shouldn’t have left the bat-shark-repellent at home, Bruce.) The Penguin, incidentally, is the only one of the major gang bosses I’ve fought directly. His gameplay role is a new one: the physically unimposing one who’s challenging only because of how he exploits weapons and minions and monsters. He even has Solomon Grundy under his control. Grundy takes the role of Bane: the monstrously huge brawler who can only be beaten with special tactics. Bane, meanwhile, has shifted to quest-giver. He’s still seen exclusively in grotesquely-mesomorphic mode, which makes it a little weird when he just stands there and talks to you.

Of course, Bane does betray you once he’s gotten what he wants from you. The same is true of Mr. Freeze, and almost certainly of the Joker as well (although I haven’t advanced the story that far yet). Mr. Freeze’s boss fight is an interesting one: he’s too formidable to take on directly, but the environment is full of environmental features you can use against him. He learns, though. Most tricks only work on him once. However, he’s easy to lead around: whenever he can’t see you, he follows the heat left by your footsteps, and follows them straight into the next trap you’ve laid for him. It’s a satisfying fight, and I don’t remember anything like it in Asylum, so there is some new stuff here.

The Scarecrow was probably Asylum‘s most memorable villain. Every encounter with him was a bad acid trip. He’s nowhere to be seen in City, but I’ve been through two similar hallucination sequences: one at the hands of the Mad Hatter, one with Ra’s al Ghul. The Hatter is a pretty clear Scarecrow-substitute in character as well as function: both are mind-affecting madmen styled after characters from children’s books. Ra’s and his daughter, on the other hand, don’t have any clear narrative analog in Asylum. Indeed, they basically feel like they stepped in from a completely different story, which is fairly typical for them.

Mainly, though, this game seems to want to just throw as many Batman characters in as it can, like one of those sequences in epic poetry that goes into a long list of the local heroes that were there too. Robin (Tim Drake version) shows up in a cutscene at one point, delivering a new gadget, for no narrative reason other than to let the Robin fans know what his status is in Arkham continuity. Calendar Man is in a cell in the courthouse, delivering stories of his exploits, just to echo The Long Halloween. Sometimes I get the impression that they made all these character models before they finalized the story, and then had to come up with ways to use them.

Arkham City: Wonder and Collapse

Just before you reach Ra’s al Ghul’s lair, the game starts seriously cribbing from Bioshock for a while, in style and presentation if not in exact detail. The only way to get to him is through the abandoned subway system and into Old Gotham, AKA Wonder City, a utopia of Victorian-era automation that was ruined in a cataclysm, but still remains underground, with the Gotham City we know layered on top. An old recording extolling the city’s innovation plays in a loop as you cross the threshold, now decorated with hanging corpses, presumably as a warning to delvers.

Apparently all the work in Wonder City was done by retro-looking robots, which lie scattered about, inert but still just functional enough for Batman to scan some useable data from their mechanical brains. The same robots are depicted in posters all over the place, so the designers really want us to notice them, and learn their distinctive design. Which probably means they’re going to come to life and start fighting me at some point. This hasn’t happened yet, but hey, it’s only the second time the plot has sent me into the underground. There’s probably a rule-of-three going on.

For all that this expedition is motivated by a sub-quest, I feel like this is where I’m getting close to the story’s central secrets, the real reason for Arkham City’s construction. The city’s central panopticon tower is definitely an echo of the Wonder Tower that used to be on the site, and seems to have something of the same function: acting as a lightning rod, feeding electricity to some dire mechanism below. The mechanics of Wonder City’s fall are still a bit of a mystery to me, but foreshadowing and precedent make me think it has something to do with those robots and/or their power source: Lazarus. This is the substance in the Lazarus Pits that Ra’s al Ghul uses to resurrect himself, and its natural abundance in the ruins is the reason that he’s holed up there. Although the term “Lazarus Pit” has been part of Batman lore for decades, I think this is the first time I’ve seen it explained as “a pit full of Lazarus” rather than just “a pit that is named for Lazarus because it raises the dead”. I imagine the reason for giving these semantics is the influence of Bioshock again: like Adam, it’s using a biblical name for a chemical that forms the basis of a fantastic technology that brings a city to ruin.

Arkham City: Moral Confusion

You’re only allowed to go so far in the side-quests before you start reaching stuff that requires equipment unlocked by progress the main story. So I’ve more or less switched over to advancing the plot for a while, only collecting Riddler Trophies when they’re right in front of me. Let’s talk about the plot.

The main striking thing about it is that it isn’t the simple good-vs-evil story we normally associate with Batman. For one thing, the bad guys are spending a lot of time fighting each other: there’s a big gang war going on between Penguin, Joker, and Two-Face. I haven’t really been following the details, but the goons on the street talk about it a lot, in incidental chatter you can eavesdrop on. The very first thing that happens in the game is that Catwoman, under the player’s control, tries to rob Two-Face. Penguin has a couple of other villains locked up in display cases in his museum-fortress. I suppose this is what happens when you isolate Batman villains from society. They turn on one another because aren’t enough innocent victims to go around.

This may well be the point of the prison. It’s all something of a big social experiment, run by semi-obscure villain Hugo Strange, an outwardly-respectable psychologist with ulterior motives and schemes involving hypnosis and mind control. You hear Strange’s voice over the facility’s PA system once in a while, being sanctimonious and authoritarian, informing the inmates that they bear sole blame for their own presence here and that the he relies on the criminals and sociopaths of the city to distribute food fairly and the like. He’s clearly set things up to fail, and the big question is: Why? He’s gone to a great deal of effort, and expended massive municipal resources, to turn an entire district of Gotham City into a pressure-cooker of social unrest run by the very worst. It’s worth noting here that Strange is among the few people to have figured out Batman’s secret identity, and that he most likely threw Bruce Wayne into Arkham City specifically for the effects Batman would have there. What’s it all for? All I know is the words “Protocol Ten”.

Putting a bad guy in charge of Gotham’s big open-air prison puts Batman himself in an unusual position. Normally, he’s all in favor of incarceration. For the most part, the major villains are here because he facilitated their capture. Some of the goon chatter expresses puzzlement over why Batman is there at all — what’s the point, when they’re already being punished? And it’s a fair question. The system is clearly a mockery of justice, and he’s there to end it. But the people he’s rescuing by doing so aren’t just the sort of people he normally beats up, they are in fact the very same people he spends his time beating up for large portions of the game.

And to add to the moral confusion, he repeatedly forms alliances with the bad guys. It starts with him rescuing Catwoman from Two-Face, which is sort of a gentle introduction to the theme, considering their relationship. But then the Joker, who’s dying from the aftereffects of the Titan formula from the end of Arkham Asylum and desperately looking for a cure, infects Batman, along with a number of other random innocents, with the same substance to force him to help in the endeavor. The only person close to developing a cure turns out to be Mister Freeze, so Batman has to rescue him from the clutches of the Penguin. Freeze then needs a blood sample from the unique centuries-old biology of Ra’s al-Ghul to finish his work, and that’s about where I am in the story. I don’t know yet if Ra’s is going to be another temporary alliance, but given their history, it seems likely. He’s not going to pass up an opportunity to make Batman fight on his side.

I mentioned how Lego Batman let you make any two characters fight together in Free Play mode, so that Batman and the Joker could be punching cops side-by-side (or, for that matter, punching the Joker’s own henchmen, which isn’t really out of character for the Joker). But that was clearly outside the story. Arkham City winds up in a similar place, and it does it meaningfully. I had expected that a story where nearly everyone is a criminal would simply be one where Batman is free to treat them all as enemies, but instead, the writers use it to make the “enemy” label less important.

At least, for the named characters. The goons on the street are still basically there for you to beat up.

Arkham City: Catwoman

One thing that Arkham City does to keep things fresh, at least in the “GOTY Edition” that I’m playing: You get to play as Catwoman every so often. In fact, the prologue gives you control of Catwoman before Batman. Other than that, it seems to work kind of like the Venom chapters in Ultimate Spider-Man: you play as Batman for a while, then you finish a chapter and it switches to Catwoman for a while. Since I’ve been going after side-quests instead of advancing the main story, I haven’t seen a lot of Catwoman, but I have put her through her paces in the city at large. She even has her own Riddler Trophies, in pink instead of Riddler green. Trophies For Her.

Even under the player’s control, she’s predictably othered, but not just with the obvious sexualization. She moves in frankly inhuman ways, leaping like an animal and clinging to the underside of gratings like a xenomorph. Batman grapples and glides around the city; Catwoman climbs buildings by clinging to them like a tree frog and jumping to higher handholds. Batman has his “Detective Mode”, an augmented-reality filter built into his cowl that enhances details and reveals secrets; the same button on Catwoman activates “Thief Vision”, the source of which is unclear and may be somehow innate.

Come to think of it, Batman in these games has always been a bit Spider-mannish, with all the zipping around on ropes, and Catwoman clinging to walls and ceilings gives us elements of Spidey’s moveset that the game was otherwise missing. And there’s lot here that has a feel similar to the Spider-Man games I’ve played, much moreso than in Arkham Asylum: the opportunities to rescue random innocents, the Zsasz challenges that send you racing from one payphone to another. It makes me wonder just how much it’s a result of deliberate imitation. The hit Spider-Man games of the last several years hadn’t been made yet, of course. Maybe it’s just convergent evolution, two studios hitting on similar approaches to street-level superheroics.

Arkham City: Riddle Games

Last night’s session involved zero progress in the main plot and a whole lot Riddler Trophies. Let’s talk about those.

As in Arkham Asylum, Riddler Trophies are little question mark doodads left in hidden or difficult-to-access locations by the Riddler. In Arkham Asylum, the Riddler existed only as a disembodied voice, with no character model. That role in City is taken over by Victor Zsasz, who talks to you on the city’s anachronistic-by-game’s-release payphones; the Riddler has more of an embodied presence here, although it’s still a relatively subdued one, more spymaster than warlord. He doesn’t have his own gang patrolling the streets like the other major baddies, but his people have infiltrated all of the other gangs. He doesn’t have turf, but he has secret hideouts, where he sets up special tests for you. In order to be permitted into these tests, though, you first have to collect trophies scattered through the world.

Often they’re locked in a distinctive little dome that opens up when you activate the associated machinery. There are lit-up question marks on the city’s walls, and you come to recognize that the dots under them are buttons that can be pressed by thwacking them with batarangs. There are trophies seem inaccessible until you realize that you can snag them with your grapple, or dodge through a low opening by sliding under it like a baseball player, a move you learned in the early tutorial but haven’t used much since. There are question mark buttons that don’t seem to do anything, until you figure out how to trace their power lines. It’s all about knowing what you can do, and how to do it.

And that means the difficulty of the puzzles has a lot to do with how much you remember the controls from Arkham Asylum. A lot of things are automatically tutorialized when you have to apply them in the main story, but not everything, and never for Riddler Trophies. When I started playing, I didn’t even know how to switch gadgets. You’re taught how to use the left and right trigger buttons on a controller to aim and throw a batarang, but not how to use the D-pad to swap in other aimable devices, like the cryptographic sequencer or the explosive gel. Before I discovered this, my options were severely limited. (In fairness, I could have read the manual, but who thinks of that when the in-game tutorials have been so good about everything else?)

My experience of the designated “Riddles” are a more extreme example of this. At a certain point in your dealings with the Riddler, you get a new page added to the pause menus, a grid keeping track of what Riddler Trophies you’ve found in each region, as well as various other little achievements, like breaking security cameras or popping balloons in the Joker’s territory. And some entries in the grid are Riddles. Select them, and the Riddler’s voice gives you a riddly and roundabout description of some kind of landmark, often a Batman-related one like the Ace Chemicals building or the alley were Bruce Wayne’s parents died. 1There’s a button prompt there to “pay respects”. Apart from the choice of button, it’s identical to the much-derided “Press F to pay respects” prompt in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which it preceded by three years. Find the landmark and scan it in via Detective Mode, and the Riddler contacts you to confirm the answer and check it off on the grid.

The thing is, I discovered all this almost precisely backward. The grid made no impression on me; I didn’t thumb around it far enough to hit any of the riddles. Instead, I only really became aware of the Riddles when they started showing up on my map. See, those Riddler henchmen that I mentioned infiltrating the gangs? You can find them in the patrolling goon squads, clearly identified by the UI. If you can pummel everyone in a group unconscious except for the Riddler guy — a nontrivial task, given how incomplete your control is over exactly who Batman punches when you mash the punch button — you can interrogate him to get the locations of a bunch of randomly-selected Riddler Trophies and Riddles. It’s an invaluable service, given the size of the city and how much effort it would take to find everything manually. The Riddles show up on the map as a marker just labeled “Riddle”. It took some experimentation to figure out that I had to scan them, but the UI’s reactions like “Subject obscured” and “Subject too small” were a great deal of help. And when I at last got one not too small, or too obscured, but just right, I got the Riddler’s voice in my ear explaining the answer — but it was an answer to a question I had never heard. A couple such experiences finally aroused my suspicion enough to make me check the grid and see the intended entry point that I had sauntered passed obliviously.

The thing is, I can’t even be angry about such failures of communication, because the Riddles are optional, and because they’re riddles. The whole point of riddles is coming to understand them after being initially confused. I don’t think my experience is the intended one, but at least it’s fitting.

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1. There’s a button prompt there to “pay respects”. Apart from the choice of button, it’s identical to the much-derided “Press F to pay respects” prompt in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which it preceded by three years.

Batman: Arkham City

Lego Batman has inspired me to go back to another Batman game I’ve been neglecting. I had played this for a few hours back when it was… well, not new, exactly. Old enough to be bundled. But even that was on the order of ten years ago now. Anyway, I’ve already gotten farther into it than I did back then, and may even reach the ending at some point, if I can stop being distracted by side-quests and Riddler trophies. The Riddler trophies are my favorite part of the game: many of them are puzzles based on understanding the implications of the game mechanics and exploiting them in ways that the rest of the game doesn’t push you to discover.

The game’s elevator pitch is “Arkham Asylum, but open-world”. That’s why side-quests are such a factor. Early on, it tells you that there’s a time limit of ten hours before the “Protocol Ten” is implemented, whatever that is, and that caused me some distress on my first pass, because it seemed like it was telling me that I couldn’t muck around as much as I wanted to. This time around, I’ve looked online and reassured myself that the time limit is fake, and that the number of hours remaining ticks down in response to plot events rather than real time.

The setting is basically Escape from New York but with Batman villains: a section of Gotham City walled off and populated entirely with criminals, the insane, and a smattering of “political prisoners” who were dumped there with dubious legality when they started asking questions about the facility’s real purpose. Major villains like the Joker and Two-Face have their own little fiefdoms; a lot of the random chatter between random thugs is discussions of the hot topics of inter-gang politics, like who’s going to take over Joker’s territory if he dies of the medical condition he’s been suffering from since the end of the previous game.

In tone, it’s AAA macho, with a side of absurd sexualization in the form of Catwoman. This is another part of why I left it alone for so long. There’s been a lot of talk lately about “Wholesome Games” as a genre or as a movement. Well, this is a superb example of an Unwholesome Game, the sort Dr. Wertham would look at and say “That’s so true to the original comics”. 1Well, except he’d probably say there wasn’t enough homosexual subtext to be completely faithful. The opening sequence, involving Bruce Wayne sans bat-gear being brutalized as he’s led into the facility in handcuffs as another political prisoner, is absolutely engineered to appeal to people who enjoy being angry, and who want reasons to feel angry and to feel righteous about it. While I’m enjoying the game on the whole, it very much strikes me as targeting the very worst in gamers.

I inevitably wind up comparing them in my mind, the two Batman games I’ve played this week. In many ways, they’re not as different as you might think! The gameplay is deeper in City, but the environments are more richly interactive in Lego; it’s rare that objects in City can be interacted with at all. (After Lego, it felt vaguely wrong to just walk by a desk in City without smashing it into lego studs.) Combat in both is button-mashy — City provides more incentive to attempt combos and special moves once in a while, but you can mostly get away with just hitting people until they fall down if that’s all you feel up to. Their tone is fundamentally different, but even Lego chooses a Gotham City that’s run-down, dirty and decaying — normal for Batman these days, I suppose, but that game drew a lot of inspiration from the 1960s TV show, where Gotham wasn’t like that at all. City takes it a few steps farther, mind. Arkham City is what the normally-run-down Gotham becomes after it’s been completely abandoned by its government and service workers for a few months.

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1. Well, except he’d probably say there wasn’t enough homosexual subtext to be completely faithful.