Friday, December 30, 2011

Review // Batman: Arkham City

You know, the title of "best Batman game ever" used to be difficult to get.

That's before Rocksteady Studios took the crown by force two years ago with Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game I enjoyed quite a bit, let's say. Before that, had you asked me what the best Batman game is, I would've said, "Oh, Batman Returns for the SNES, easily." That game came out in 1993. It took 16 years for a better Batman game to be made, and not for lack of trying, either. No, there have just been a lot of garbage Batman games over the years — until Arkham Asylum changed all that.

And now Rocksteady has done it again with Batman: Arkham City, making it look totally effortless in the process.

The first thing Rocksteady set about doing with Arkham City is expanding the scope of everything. The world is bigger, the stakes are higher, and while Batman is far more capable than he was in Asylum, his enemies are, too. Arkham City is a much more dangerous place than the asylum ever was, and it feels that way.

There have been some changes to Gotham City in the 18 months since the events of the first game. Quincy Sharp, the old warden of Arkham Asylum, was elected mayor, and with him came the rise of Hugo Strange, a diabolical genius who knows Batman's true identity and who orchestrated the creation of Arkham City, a massive prison carved from Gotham where criminals are allowed to do whatever they want as long as they stay within the walls.

While Batman was (understandably) not too thrilled about the idea, I couldn't have been happier. Soaring over buildings, perching on gargoyles, listening to the city to get my next objective — it's the true Batman experience, executed flawlessly.

The mechanics of controlling Batman have a purity that makes the simple act of getting from A to B a treat all on its own. You're quickly introduced to a mechanic that allows you to grapple to buildings and accelerate past them to launch yourself into the air again, similar to the grappling hook-parachute combo from Just Cause 2 that made that game such a joy, too. There's a real skill to traversal here, something the game encourages with side missions that have you flying through rings or rushing across the city.

It's so easy to find yourself in a state of nirvana in this game, whether gliding over the streets of Arkham or punching dudes in the face, where the controller melts away, you cease thinking and begin to simply... react. You'll need to be able to reliably get into that mindset if you want to do well at the combat, which I'll maintain is, hands-down, the best melee combat system ever created.

It's incredibly fluid and animated beautifully, looking more like a choreographed fight than a video game. It encourages the player to be very deliberate and spatially aware by tapping into the same addictive part of your brain that Call of Duty does with its Kill Streaks. For every five-hit combo, you'll earn the ability to use a special move, ranging from a brutal, instant takedown to a total disarm, where Batman grabs an enemy's weapon and destroys it — it's constant incentive to keep your combo going.

And like in Asylum, while there may only be one attack button, Batman still has an entire arsenal at his disposal. The way Rocksteady has used almost every single button on the controller to allow players to have quick access to each of Batman's gadgets in the middle of a hectic fight without interrupting the flow or being overly complicated is nothing short of astounding, especially given how many more gadgets he has now.

Of these, my favorite is probably the disruptor gadget, which is only really useful during stealth sections. It allows you to remotely disable an enemy's gun without him knowing. Then you can drop down in front of him and watch him freak out after his gun fails.

What I love most about the stealth in Rocksteady's Batman games is the slightly sadistic tinge to it all. Batman's main weapon against his enemies isn't a gadget or a fighting technique; it's fear. You're not just supposed to be taking out guys wantonly; you're supposed to be turning them against one another, playing on their paranoia, becoming a true terror of the night. It became a game unto itself for me to set up excessively intricate systems to inspire that fear, like starting off by quickly stringing up two enemies with Inverted Takedowns on opposite ends of the room so the remaining guys would have to run through the middle, where I'd detonate a fire extinguisher, creating a smokescreen that I'd hop down into and silently take out one of the thugs as they all panic, then grapple away before it clears, and so on. I became a monster in Arkham City, and loved every minute of it.

I think it speaks volumes about the quality of Batman: Arkham City that the worst part of the game is the downloadable (and therefore, optional) Catwoman content. There are four Catwoman missions if you've downloaded it, the first of which acts as a prologue to the rest of the game, but a bad one — there's no context to what's going on or why, is incredibly short and insubstantial to the overall plot, and most importantly, replaces the actual introduction (which is fantastic) as the opening to the game.

The rest of the missions feel sandwiched into the story, breaking the otherwise excellent pacing, and would've been better left relegated to the main menu to be played later so that rather than interrupting Batman's story, they would've been complementing it. Oh, also, she's not much fun to play as, either, thanks to a severely limited toolset and the inability to fly. So not only does it take her longer to get places, but she can't do much once she's actually there. That certainly doesn't help. Honestly, I'd recommend just waiting to download the Catwoman content until after you've finished the game.

Ignore the Catwoman missions, though, and Batman: Arkham City has an awesome story, filled with smart writing and outstanding performances from the entire cast. It's engaging and dramatic and silly in all the ways you'd want a Batman story to be, but it's darker than you might expect, too. While a lot of the story might feel like an excuse to have you facing off against each of Batman's villains, I'd argue that that's exactly what's great about it: You turn all of Batman's greatest enemies loose in a small city-sized prison and I'd imagine he's going to have a pretty busy night. It continually ramps up and gets crazier and crazier until it finally reaches its spectacular conclusion.

And then—because why not?—Catwoman gets a mediocre epilogue.

Beyond the story, there's so much stuff to do. The game is packed with side missions, collectables, riddles, and challenge rooms, all of which are really satisfying to complete. The riddles, in particular, are gratifying to get, often requiring you to solve a fiendish puzzle first. Something about hearing the Riddler chime in after you've solved an especially difficult one to accuse you of cheating is consistently amusing. The challenge rooms return from Asylum, pitting you in combat or stealth-focused arenas with specific goals to meet, but are now accompanied by "campaigns," which are just series of three challenge rooms strung together with "modifiers" you have to activate. These can be positive or negative, like offering Batman regenerating health, making his enemies more aggressive, disabling Batman's gadgets, etc. You have to use all of them before the campaign is over and you can only use up to three at a time, so it takes some real strategy to decide which are best to use for which challenge.

In every respect, Batman: Arkham City absolutely raises the bar for other games, with the best melee combat and stealth action to date, a gorgeous, well-realized world, stellar voice acting and animation, and a tremendous value. I can't give enough praise to this terrific game.

Batman: Arkham City / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review // Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

I can't remember the last time such a high-profile game had the odds stacked against it to this degree.

Infinity Ward, still reeling from a late backlash against Modern Warfare 2, was torn apart and rebuilt following the sudden termination of its founders. Sledgehammer Games, a newly formed studio that was supposed to be giving a new spin to the Call of Duty franchise, was called in to help Infinity Ward deliver Modern Warfare 3 on time. And through it all, players turned their noses and sneered at what they considered to be a soulless shell of a company, declaring the franchise dead and running to the open arms of Electronic Arts, only too happy to position Battlefield 3 as the anti-Call of Duty.

But it was still made, and now, after spending dozens of hours with it, I can confidently say that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is pretty fucking rad, and that you should buy it.

Say what you want about how incredulous the stories of the Modern Warfare games have been or how many plot holes they have; I'm still willing to decree them the best, most engaging stories in any first-person shooter this side of BioShock for the mere virtue that I can remember the names of the characters. And not only that, but I actually care about them, too. Going into Modern Warfare 3, I was genuinely interested in how things were going to play out for Soap and Price. I'd call that a triumph.

Compare that to Killzone 3, where I wanted nothing more than Sev and Rico's heads on a pike by the end. I can't tell you anything about Nathan Hale from the Resistance series beyond the fact that he's as bald and bland as every other modern character out there, and unless I were to cheat and take a quick trip to Wikipedia, I couldn't give you a single character's name from Halo: Reach's Noble Team. Honestly, I'm impressed enough with myself that I even remembered that they were called "Noble Team."

Mind you, Modern Warfare 3's borderline nonsensical depiction of a near-future World War III isn't exactly high art, but it's easy to get absorbed into and provides a great catalyst to put you in some insane scenarios. And really, in a game more concerned with keeping the act of shooting dudes in the face fun and intense for five hours than weaving an intricate and thoughtful treatise on the futility of war and the horrors of what men are capable of doing to each other, that's totally fine.

To Infinity Ward's credit, shooting dudes in the face for five hours was a blast. There's a feel to the guns in the Modern Warfare franchise that nobody else has ever quite nailed — they feel substantial without the polarizing sway of artificial weight so prevalent in games like Killzone; they feel powerful without the crutch of excessive (and distracting) recoil in games like Battlefield. Maybe it's because enemies go down in just a shot or two, or because the reticle changes to let you know you've hit someone, or that distinct sound of the bullet impacting an enemy. Whatever it is, the gunplay in Modern Warfare 3 remains the best in the business.

But what really keeps it interesting are the absurd scenarios you're put in. Whether it's barreling past populated subway terminals while in a truck chasing a train full of terrorists or engaging in a breathtaking zero-gravity gunfight in a free-falling plane, you're almost always doing something completely crazy in this game. In fact, it's the middle act of the game, where the set pieces let up for a little while for standard boots-on-the-ground firefights, that I enjoyed the least. It was still fun, but I much preferred the pulse-pounding intensity of the scripted moments.

There are definitely some logical inconsistencies in the game's story that might bug some people, like why the Russian president is launching full-scale attacks on Europe at the same time that he's trying to negotiate peace, or how Russia even has the resources to attack all of Europe at once, but none of that really detracted from the story for me. No, I was more bothered by things like why Frost, one of the playable characters, was suspiciously absent from one of the final missions and was never seen again, offering zero conclusion to his storyline.

Overall, though, the game's story should be commended for eschewing the increasingly modern trend of leaving the ending open for potential sequels. There's a real sense of finality here when the credits begin to roll, and it's refreshing.

But the moment the credits are done rolling, you get dumped right into the returning Spec Ops mode, so get a friend ready. If you played Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2, you know what to expect — missions designed for two players, often involving multiple pathways through a level or requiring each player to take on a vastly different role, usually amounting to one player covering the other player's back from the safety of an AC-130 gunship, for example, or a series of remote turrets. It's nothing new, but it remains a fantastic mode that simultaneously encourages cooperation and trash talk.

What impressed me more was the other side of Spec Ops, the new Survival mode, where the game just throws increasingly difficult waves at you until you die. I didn't really think a wave-based survival mode in Call of Duty would be all that fun, but it pretty quickly surpassed the Missions mode for me. When I wasn't playing it, I was thinking up new strategies and reminiscing over how wild some of the later waves get, like when the game decides to drop three Juggernauts on you at once, or dogs with C4 strapped to them, or three Juggernauts with riot shields and helicopter support.

It's more fun with two people, but I actually found myself making it further on my own. I didn't have to worry about whether my partner was carrying his weight, or taking cover when he was injured so I wouldn't have to come revive him, or executing our strategies properly. I could just... play. But hey, that's probably my fault for picking my roommate to be my partner.

Of course, that just leaves the competitive multiplayer. There have been some really smart changes to the tried-and-true Call of Duty formula, like the new Kill Confirmed mode that operates like Team Deathmatch, except that kills only count if you pick up dog tags from fallen enemies; you can even outright deny enemy kills if you pick up your teammates' tags before the other team can. It's a really clever mode with layers of strategy, like realizing you can use tags as bait, or that any tags you see could be a trap.

Another smart change is the new Kill Streak system, so if you're a more casual player who isn't confident in his ability to rack up a dozen kills in a single life, you can switch to, say, the Support option, where your kill count persists even if you die. You'll just be getting more defensive rewards, like body armor for your team, rather than the assortment of missiles and gunships that someone using the traditional Assault option gets.

There are other great tweaks here and there, but if you've played a Call of Duty game since the first Modern Warfare, this is going to feel very familiar. If you've played all of them since then, it might feel too familiar. But if you're someone like me who only plays the Modern Warfare games and avoids the off-year Treyarch filler, Modern Warfare 3 is going to feel like coming home.

I love that matches rarely exceed 10 minutes, so I can play a round or two to kill time and feel totally fulfilled. I love how customizable everything is, so that I can design a class to suit my play style that's wholly unlike anything my friends are using. I love that it's not as woefully unbalanced as Modern Warfare 2 was, where the double shotgun superhumans broke what should've been an awesome game. The maps are a little less memorable this time around, but there are still some real gems.

Unless you've been playing a Call of Duty game every year and now you're just completely burnt out, you should pick up Modern Warfare 3. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, has some truly stunning moments in the campaign, and offers multiplayer that's more addictive than ever before.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC