Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Batman: Arkham City - Initial Impressions

The following is a guest blog written by Bill Gienapp, a Hollywood screenwriter and story editor currently employed by SEP in Beverly Hills.  He is a Harvard and USC alumnus and one of the smartest cats I know:

In case you haven’t noticed, video game storytelling has evolved over the past decade to a point in which it rivals - if not outright trumps - much of today’s cinema. Those of us who grew up playing the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt probably never envisioned the day when a game like Bioshock would double as a philosophical rebuttal to the works of Ayn Rand or LA Noire would spin a hard-boiled yarn with a narrative complexity worthy of Raymond Chandler. I’ll leave the tiresome argument of whether a video game can ever truly be “art” for others to debate… all I know is that a prospective screenwriter can learn a heck of a lot more about constructing a first-class adventure by studying the nuances of character, plot and pacing in the Uncharted series than 90% of the supposed crowd-pleasing blockbusters Hollywood trots out every summer.

One of the very best games this generation to date has been Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was rightfully acclaimed for translating the world of its titular hero to a degree never before seen in the medium. However, as great an experience as Arkham Asylum was, I couldn’t help but feel a certain nagging disappointment that, for a game literally set in Gotham’s fabled prison for the criminally insane, it took only minimal advantage of Batman’s unparalleled (and I do mean unparalleled) stable of villains. While there was little doubt of a sequel, presumably it would be a different breed of adventure, leaving one to conclude that the developers squandered their one and only chance to produce a game with a built-in excuse to congregate the entire rogue’s gallery.

Well, I’m happy to report that Rocksteady proved me decidedly wrong on that last count with its just-released follow-up Batman: Arkham City, which, after just a few hours of gameplay, appears to offer everything one could possibly want in a game dedicated to the exploits of the Caped Crusader. From a conceptual standpoint, the premise, in which a sizable chunk of Gotham is sectioned off into an Escape From New York-style prison complex dubbed “Arkham City,” is nothing short of brilliant. It offers a contained environment - like a powder keg into which Batman is dropped like a lit match - but still affords its robust lineup of villains the sort of autonomy that wouldn’t have been feasible in the Asylum. The basic setup thrusts you into the middle of an ongoing power struggle between the Joker, Two-Face and the Penguin, while Arkham’s newly appointed warden, Hugo Strange (who appears to have - (uh-oh) - ascertained Batman’s secret identity), plots sinisterly behind-the-scenes and speaks ominously of something known simply as “Protocol 10.” The initial burst of giddiness only grows more pronounced as Batman ping-pongs tirelessly from one crisis to the next, hunted all the while by Strange’s army of private mercenaries. With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, this is superhero storytelling at its finest.

To be honest, Arkham City doesn’t differ all that noticeably from its predecessor in terms of the core gameplay, employing the same fundamental balance of hand-to-hand combat, stealth and basic detective work. The one key difference is that Arkham Asylum offered the mere illusion of open-world gameplay when, for the most part, it was a rigorously linear experience. No one much complained, given how superbly paced and executed its campaign was, but Arkham City truly makes you feel as if you’ve been immersed in an interconnected, fully realized comic book world. Early on, you overhear Harley Quinn dispatching a handful of thugs to track down Mr. Freeze, telling them “You find the Snowman and remind him what happens when you double-cross Mr. J!” Later, you’re shaken by a distant explosion, with radio chatter indicating that the Penguin has blown up the bridge to the industrial sector, in an effort to cut off the Joker from the rest of the prison. These moments are scripted, of course, yet they reinforce the idea that Arkham City is a living, breathing environment, in which literally dozens of events are occurring at any given time. Exploration, meanwhile, is rewarded with a bounty of side quests that range from forming a tenuous alliance with Bane to destroy barrels of Titan formula, to investigating a series of executions perpetrated by Deadshot, to racing against the clock to prevent Victor Zsasz from claiming another victim. Had there been time limits imposed on these missions - or on the central storyline - the game might have swiftly devolved into a muddled frenzy, but thankfully the developers allow you to proceed at your own pace (a good thing, as I realized I’d nearly burned an hour just chasing down Riddler trophies).

A special point also must be made to quickly commend Rocksteady’s bold decision to weave Catwoman into the proceedings, not only as a narrative wild card, but as an actual playable character. Her sequences serve more as the figurative cherry on top, but are such an entertaining change of pace (“I don’t suppose Red’s still ticked off at me,” she asks, before making the dubious decision to try and recruit Poison Ivy to her cause) I would wholeheartedly support a future game dedicated entirely to her exploits.

If there’s any criticism to be had of Arkham City in the early going, it’s the fact that the game is so jam-packed with content, it can feel a little overwhelming at first. The opening sequence is intensely cinematic but light on exposition, and players who haven’t cut their teeth on Arkham Asylum are apt to find their heads spinning. Still, to quote Catwoman, upon narrowly escaping execution at the hands of Two-Face and a sniper’s bullet courtesy of the Joker - “This place is dangerous. I like it.”