There's a common complaint about the Bioshock games, which is that they're not very good shooters. People writing about Bioshock Infinite tend to mention this, saying that the story is interesting and the writing is sharp but the actual game is poor. And this is true: it's not a very good first-person shooter, and it's arguably much worse than its predecessors. But this implication of most of these comments, from Kotaku's essay on its violence to Brainy Gamer's naming it the "apotheosis of FPS, is that Infinite is bad in many ways because it's a first-person shooter--that it's shackled to its point of view. In doing so, it has become a sort of stand-in for the whole genre, from Call of Duty to Halo.
I sympathize with the people who feel like the game's violence is incoherent (it is), and who are sick of the whole console-inspired manshooting genre. But I love shooters, and it bugs me a little to see them saddled with the burden of everything that's wrong with American media.
Set aside Infinite's themes and its apparent belief that the best superpower is the ability to literally generate plot holes--when we say that it's not a good FPS, what does that means? What is it, mechanically, that separates the two? I'm not a designer, but as a avid FPS player, there are basically three rules that Infinite breaks.
First of all, the enemy progression can't be just about "bigger lifebars." A good shooter increases difficulty by forcing players to change their patterns because they're not able to rely on the same rote strategy. Halo, for all its flaws, gets this right: few of its enemies are actually "tough," but each of them has a different method of avoiding damage, and a different weapon style. By throwing in different combinations, players are forced to change up their tactics for each encounter, or even at multiple points during the encounter. Almost all of Infinite's enemies, on the other hand, are the same walking tanks, with similar (dim-witted) behaviors and hitscan weaponry. I never had to change my approach, only the amount of ammo I used.
Along those lines, weapons need strengths and weaknesses. Each one should have a situation where they feel thrillingly powerful, as well as a larger set of situations where they're relatively useless. This doesn't have to conflict with a limited inventory--I loved Crysis 2's sniper rifle, spending the entire game sneaking between cover positions in stealth mode, but it was always paired with a strong close-in gun for when I was overrun. A good game forces you to change weapons for reasons other than "out of ammunition." Infinite's close-range weapons feel identical, and its sniper rifle is rarely useful, since a single shot alerts everyone to your position.
Finally, every fight cannot simply be about shooting. Most shooters are actually about navigating space and territory, and the shooting becomes a way of altering the priorities for movement. Do you take cover, or dodge in the open? Do you need more range, or need to close on an enemy? The original Bioshock made the interplay between the environment and your abilities one of its most compelling features: electrifying pools of water, setting fire to flammable objects, flinging scenery around with telekinesis. But at the very least, you need an objective from time to time with more complexity than "kill everything," both as a player and in terms of narrative.
Bioshock Infinite has, in all seriousness, no period I can remember when my objective was not reduced to "kill everything." Combined with a bland arsenal and blander enemies, this makes it a tedious game, but it also puts it at complete odds with its characters. The writing in Infinite is unusually good for a shooter, but it's hard not to notice that Elizabeth freaks out (rightfully) during one of Booker's murderous rampages, comes to a cheery acceptance with it a few minutes later, and then spends the rest of the game tossing helpful items to you under fire. That's writing that makes both the narrative and the mechanics worse, by drawing attention to the worst parts of both.
It's not the only shooter with those flaws--people just had higher expectations for it. The average FPS is badly written, and it's a favorite genre for warmongering propaganda pieces. But that's true of many games, and yet we don't see pieces talking about the "apotheosis of platformers," or talking about RTS as though they're emblematic of wider ills just because Starcraft II is kind of a mess. And there's still interesting stuff being done in the genre: Portal and Thirty Flights of Loving come to mind. To say that FPS have reached their limits, ironically, seems like a pretty limited perspective.
During one of those 24-hour colds, when I curl up under every blanket in the house and just wait for the fever to break, I often lose track of reality. It's not like I hallucinate. But, drifting in and out of consciousness with my body temperature far above normal, the line blurs between dreaming and my rational mind, which means I find myself thinking quite seriously about things that are either entirely absurd, or which never actually happened. It's the closest I get to doing drugs.
It may just be that I was playing it after recovering from a cold during the holidays, but Hotline Miami often feels like it comes from a similar place (fever or drugs, take your pick). Although it pays homage to Drive with its setting, violence, and a selection of trippy electronic dance tunes, Hotline adds a gloss of unreality: heavy filtering (including a subtle screen tilt), an increasingly unreliable narrator, and an astonishing sound design. The darker half of the soundtrack leans heavily on synth drones, distorted bass, and indistinct vocal echoes, walking a line precisely between captivating and terrifying.
So it is atmospheric. But in the wake of Newtown it is difficult to talk about Hotline Miami without talking about violence, since it is also a game about brutal, sickening violence. Dressed up in a retro 16-bit facade, the blood and gore is made more abstract, and thus more palatable, but that's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? The NRA recently blamed video games for school shootings, drawing on such contemporary examples as Mortal Kombat and Natural Born Killers, and while that's obviously laughable (and more than a little disgusting) it's hard to take the moral high ground when a prospective game of the year for many people involves beating anonymous mobsters to death with a crowbar.
Part of the problem is that Hotline Miami is and isn't about those things. Someone playing the game isn't sitting at a computer plotting murder--they're primarily thinking about navigating space, line of sight, and the AI's predictable response. Most violent video games are only superficially violent: mechanically they're just button presses and spatial awareness. That's not an excuse, but it does explain why gamers get so huffy about the accusations of immorality. It also begs the question: if these games aren't actually about death and destruction, then why all the trappings?
In the case of Hotline Miami, there's a studied juvenile quality to the whole affair. It's the interactive version of some smart-but-disengaged stoner's doodling on their high school chemistry notebook. It's gross because its influences are gross, and because gross things are fun to draw, and because chemistry is boring, dude. This accounts for some of the feverishness as well, since it taps into the same powerful imaginative impulse that we have as kids and mostly lose when we have to start paying our own rent.
It's not a bad thing for Hotline Miami to draw on those influences, or for it to be ultra-violent. There's a place for ugly, childish things in our cultural stew: I don't think you get Death Proof without Saw or Dead Alive. I like the game. But it bothers me a little that its violence is so unremarkable, and that it wants to use self-awareness as an excuse or an explanation. Using excess to criticize gaming culture was old with Splatterhouse (another up-to-the-minute reference from the NRA, there). So since we don't have a lot of variety in video game narratives, maybe we should stop letting "bloodthirsty" pass for "profound."
Why is it all capitalized? That's what I want to know. XCOM isn't an acronym for something--presumably it stands for Extraterrestrial Combat (or Command?)--so shouldn't it be XCom? I guess that doesn't look as good on the posters. Maybe they should add an exclamation point. (Or a dash, according to the purists. Luckily, having never played the original, I'm not really interested in purity.)
There aren't a lot of games where I finish them and immediately start a new session. Mass Effect 2 was probably the last example--I did two straight playthroughs, and possibly started a third, just because the basic mechanics were so solid and enjoyable. XCOM might be just as catchy, even though I didn't expect it to be. Here are three things that surprised me the first time through:
I didn't think I'd get so attached to my squad. People talk about doing this in the old X-COM, being genuinely upset when a soldier bit the dust, and I just figured those people were crazy. But about half-way through the game, letting Col. Zahara "Werewolf" Mabuza die just stopped being acceptable. The nicknames must have a lot to do with it. I knew every nickname on my squad, especially the ones that got funnier as they got more panic-prone ("Padre," indeed).
XCOM gets a lot of mileage out of only a few maps. I think I saw in an interview that there's only 30 or so maps in XCOM, which is not a lot considering the hundreds of encounters in a typical game. Partly, the maps are just well-designed: just starting out in a different space and direction is enough to make many of the UFO capture maps completely disorienting. But they're also partially-randomized, meaning that you never entirely develop a single cover strategy for each map. Add in the day/night filters, and it feels like a lot more content than it actually is.
Everything is short. Six soldiers means that you're doing with a turn in roughly 60 seconds. A mission in XCOM takes, at most, 30 minutes. Between missions, you pick your research tasks and your engineering projects and then you hit the big "GO FAST" button in Mission Control and see how far you get before the next invasion. Sometimes a movie plays--they're all skippable, as are all the little interstitial animations (launching a fighter, landing the SkyRanger, etc). Everything in the game is made with the understanding that you Should Not Wait, a convenient side effect of which is that it's compulsively playable.
It's not a particularly profound game. It's not even particularly well-made--bugs pop up all over. Even with the tutorial, I restarted the game twice trying to figure out how to keep everything balanced, which is pretty hardcore. But it's so consistently fun that those problems don't halt the experience. I never really got the Halo philosophy of "30 seconds of fun" because I find Halo to be a boring, frat-boy knockoff of better shooters, but XCOM pulls it off.
The fourth Humble Bundle for Android is wrapping up today: if you like games and charity, it's a ridiculously good deal, even if you don't own an Android device--everything works on Windows, Mac, and Linux as well. Although it turns the Nexus 4 into a toasty little space heater, it would be worth it just to get Waking Mars, the loopy botany platformer I've been playing for a couple of days now.
If nothing else, I like that the Humble Bundle proves that it's still feasible to sell software the old-fashioned way: by putting up a website and taking orders yourself. Digital retailers like Steam or the various mobile platform stores are all well and good (the Bundle comes with Steam keys, which I usually use to actually download the games), but a lot of my favorite gaming memories come from this kind of ad-hoc distribution. I don't want to see it die, and I think it would be bad for independent developers if it did.
In the last few months, people like Valve's Gabe Newell and Mojang's Markus Persson have raised concerns about where Windows is going. Since the PC has been the site of a lot of really interesting experimentation and independent development over the last few years, Microsoft's plan to shut down distribution of Metro-style applications on Windows 8, except through a centralized store that they own, is troubling. At the same time, a lot of people have criticized that perspective, saying that these worries are overblown and alarmist.
There may be some truth to that. But I think the fact that the Humble Bundle is, across the three or four mobile platforms in popular use, only available on Android should tell us something. Why is that? Probably because Google's OS is the only one where developers can handle their own distribution and updates, without having to get approval from the platform owner or fork over a 30% surcharge. That fact should make critics of Newell and Persson think twice. Can the Humble Bundle (one of the most successful and interesting experiments since the shareware catalogs I had in the 80s) and similar sales survive once traditional computing moves to a closed distribution model? It looks to me like the answer is no.
When I bought a new computer a little while back, I figured it would be a chance to play some of the Steam/GOG.com games that I bought while they were on sale, knowing that my laptop couldn't handle them. And in one or two cases, it is. But for the most part, I spent last week's small amount of gaming time buried back in a trio of titles from Blendo--a one-man shop that's becoming my favorite indie developer.
Blendo (AKA Brendon Chung) is best known right now for Thirty Flights of Loving, sequel to his absurdist spy short Gravity Bone. It's a funny, cinematic little nugget of first-person narrative. It's also about seven minutes long. I'm not sure it was worth the $5 asking price, but Chung's definitely playing with some ideas here that are worth rewarding.
Besides, he had my good will starting from my first minutes playing Flotilla last year. This was a game that I'd wanted, but somehow had not been able to find: full 3D space tactics within a randomly-generated campaign. The missions themselves are tense, slow-moving affairs set to classical piano pieces, while the overworld screens are Blendo's typically jazzy blend of surrealism (rastafarian pirate cats, defanged space yeti, and wandering Greek goddesses appear along your journey) and procedural storytelling (decisions along the way are assembled into an illustrated ship's log). The combination of the two should be dissonant, but instead the funny bits serve as a nice break between the tense turn-by-turn bits.
And then there's Atom Zombie Smasher, which is the most unbalanced and most compelling of the three. It's basically a tower defense game, which means I should hate it, and yet somehow I really don't. It's ridiculously unfair--sometimes you get an overwhelming mix of units for a stage, and sometimes you just get barricades and mines, meaning that I tend to win or lose the whole game depending on which two units are randomly assigned in the first stages--and yet tremendously addictive. Maybe that's just the surf guitar talking.
Ultimately, I think what charms the most about these is that they almost remind me of board games in their approach to design and replayability. Even though they're radically different genres, Blendo's stuff shares a common sensibility in the way that they construct stories out of small vignettes and procedural generation. Each takes, at most, an evening to play completely through, and yet there's plenty of detail and reward for digging in. They continue to surprise players outside of all proportion to their actual size. There aren't a lot of people making games in this space--it's all either bite-sized casual fare or sprawling epics. Chung's genius is making the former feel, if only for a little while, like the latter.
When I started thinking about blogging again, after an unintentional break, I realized that I'd been doing this, almost continuously, for more than seven years now. That's a long time. Although it was tempting to let it lie fallow, I figured it would be a shame after such a long run--and besides, I do like writing here, especially now that most of the readers (such as they were) are gone.
When I turned Mile Zero into a blog, way back in the day, one of the main things that I wrote about was gaming--specifically, gaming culture. That wasn't all I wrote about, but it was something I was interested in, and there was a whole community of great gaming blogs I could join. Gaming culture had plenty to write about, because it was (and is) a problematic place dominated by emotional children and shameless hacks pretending to be journalists. If I took on those issues, even in a tiny way, I hoped it could help--and it was a good distraction from an office job I wasn't thrilled about and a freelance career that probably wasn't headed anywhere either.
A few years later I got a job at CQ as a "Multimedia Web Producer." Nobody at CQ knew what that was supposed to mean, so gradually I turned myself into the newsroom's go-to person for interactive journalism. I loved my job, and the time and energy I put into it (not to mention the strict editorial policy of non-partisanship) meant I cut back on blogging. I also threw myself into dancing, which I think took me by surprise as much as anyone else, particularly once I joined Urban Artistry. And I went on a bit of an information diet, angry with the low quality/high volume approach of most gaming and tech sites. When I got a chance to write here, usually once a week, the spread of subjects had become more random than ever.
So here we are, seven years (and almost two months dark) later. Sure, this was never really a gaming blog. But I did write about gaming, particularly the sexism, racism, and classism I saw there, and I hoped it could get better. Has it?
Well, kind of better. I mean, it's still awful, isn't it? Sometimes it just seems like the exploitation gets more subtle over time. Tomb Raider pops back up, for example, but now Lara Croft's proportions are less exaggerated--and she's being threatened with sexual assault so players can feel protective toward her. One step forward, two steps off a cliff marked "Seriously, guys, what on earth were you thinking?"
At the other end of the malevolence spectrum, I just finished Driver: San Francisco. Loved it: it's funny, well-balanced, filled with homage to classic car movies and TV (including constant callbacks to its obvious inspiration, Life on Mars). But even though it's a game where the main character is never playable outside a car, even though it's set in a world where the solution to every crime involves vehicular damage, even though the physical make-up of the hero is literally of absolutely no consequence whatsoever... you're still playing as John "Incredibly Generic White Dude With An Incredibly Generic White Dude's Name" Tanner. You could not possibly challenge fewer conventions than Driver:SF, which these days is not so much actively frustrating as it is wearying.
That said, I think there's hope. When I look at something like Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes Vs. Women project on Kickstarter, which went from zero to troll-ridden to ridiculously over-funded in a matter of hours, it kind of blows me away. Seven years ago, would Sarkeesian's videos have gotten that much support? Would it have gotten sympathetic attention from the corporate blogs? Would it have been picked up across a wide range of non-gaming media? I feel like no, it wouldn't have. And while tools like Kickstarter have made it a lot easier for small projects like this to get the funding they need, I suspect that changes in the culture have also made a big difference.
More importantly, it's not just one culture anymore, if it ever was. Communities don't just grow by getting bigger, they also grow by having new circles intersect at their Venn diagram. You see this everywhere: look at the way that music fans start out as a small, particular group, and then as the artist gets bigger, different people begin to attach--sometimes for very different reasons, which may eventually drive the original fans away. The reasons why I love the Black Keys (their early, filthy-sounding recordings from Akron) are not the reasons that new fans probably love them, but we all end up at the same concerts together.
When I was studying intercultural communication in college, the term for these meshed sub-populations was "co-culture." I didn't care for the term then, but now it seems appropriate. Gaming is bigger than it was seven years ago, and it's no longer accurate--or seen as desirable--to say that the "real" gamers are the angry 14-year-olds with a chip on their shoulder about girls and minorities. This space can (and does) support more than that: from Troy Goodfellow's series on science and national characters in gaming, to The Border House providing a critical examination of character and plot, to rhetorically-stunning games like Auntie Pixelante's dys4ia. These are not all the same voices I was reading and responding to seven years ago, but they are stronger and louder and more influential. That's fantastic.
I'll probably never refocus here to the degree I did when I was writing a post or more a day, because being a single-issue blogger (or a single-issue anything) has never been interesting to me. But I'm thrilled other people are doing good work with it. As a gamer, the same way that other people might be movie buffs or music snobs, I want to see it grow and change so that I'll be exposed to new and interesting perspectives. I don't want to see it stagnate. While progress is slow, I think it's being made. Let's hope in another seven years, I can look back and say the same.
The sound design, as usual for Nintendo, is instantly recognizable. It makes this kind of phased, dopplered hissing sound, a parody of "something going very fast." You can hear it coming up from behind a few seconds before it hits, or when it passes someone else in splitscreen mode. The latter is the really frustrating scenario: you know you're going to be knocked out of the race--the only question is, when?
The blue shell is the reason I can't play Mario Kart anymore. Belle and I started playing on the Wii again a couple of weeks ago, and for the most part I enjoy it. The boosts are toned down so that snaking can't be abused like the DS version, the tracks are decent with few outright stinkers, and I like the addition of motorcycles (even if they're unplayable with the Classic Controller). In multiplayer, I could care less: if I get knocked out and lose to Belle, it's all in good fun. But then I tried unlocking new characters in the grand prix mode, and the blue shell completely ruins that.
The thing about Mario Kart is that it's balanced via progressive taxation. Everybody in the race gets items, but the better you're doing (right at that moment) the worse those items generally are. If you're in the lead, you only get items that let you maintain that lead (but not increase it), like banana peels or fake item boxes. If you're in the back of the pack, you get items that let you jump up in line, like the star or bullet. And the game heavily incentivizes using those items quickly instead of hoarding them--a number of the other power-ups will cause you to lose anything you're holding when they hit you. It's actually an extremely clever set of interlocking mechanics, all designed to keep races unpredictable.
But the blue shell breaks that pattern. It doesn't give you a boost (even implicitly, by punishing everyone else, the way that the lightning does). In fact, if you're in the back of the pack, it probably doesn't help you at all--the second and third place racers are just going to shuffle up in position. Using a blue shell in Mario Kart has one goal, and one goal only: to ruin the third lap for the best racer on the track. It's subsidized griefing.
Worst. Power-up. Ever.
This is not a post about Mass Effect 3's ending. Of course, the ending is fine. No, it doesn't account for the whole of player choice during the last five minutes--but you get plenty of choice and repurcussion for previous choice during the entire rest of the game (I brought the same Shepherd through all three). No, the final reveal doesn't make a lot of sense--neither did the endings for BSG or Lost or every William Gibson novel ever written, but nobody started petitions to force the creators to change those. It says a lot that after years of trying to get games recognized as art, huge swathes of the community still seem to be blissfully unaware of what that would actually mean: artists don't have to alter their work just to fulfill your expectations.
Ahem. Not a post about the ending.
Although it would serve everyone right, I think, if Bioware's upcoming patch just removed the treacly "stargazer" narration from the end.
I think the progressive side of the gaming blog community tends to spend a lot of time calling out the many, many ways that developers screw things up, via sexism and racism and all the other various -isms. This is a good thing--public shaming can and does have an effect on the industry. But lately I've wanted, as a counterpart, to give credit where credit is due when things go right. And for all its issues, I do think Mass Effect 3 gave me a pleasant surprise when it came to its take on LGBT rights.
The game contains a number of same-sex couples, but the moment that really stuck out for me comes early on, when Commander Shepherd drops in on the ship's shuttle pilot, Steve Cortez, to find him replaying a recording by his now-deceased husband. The dialog doesn't make a big deal out of that--it's not a "More You Know" teaching moment. It's just a guy who's torn up because a loved one was killed. I like to think that it only underscores the in-game banality of gay marriage that Bioware then makes Cortez a romance option, for people who really enjoy playing as "creepy rebound Shepherd."
The usual suspects have, of course, chimed in, and it's genuinely heartwarming to see that EA isn't taking their demands seriously here or elsewhere. Although, to be fair, when the demands include people using headlines like "rebel fleet surrenders to gay empire," they're not exactly struggling against the eloquence of history's greatest activists here.
There are still plenty of other deeply problematic nits I could pick with ME3: the weird and uncomfortable "sexy robot" character, the lingering shots of Miranda's leather pants, or female Shepherd's anatomically-correct armor plate, to pick a few. The Asari still seem like they were imported from one of the Star Trek episodes where Will Riker makes out with Aliens of Low Self Esteem. But progress doesn't come all at once, and I'm glad to see that neither Bioware nor its parent company is rolling over the moment they get hit with some criticism.
Now, if they can just grow a backbone when it comes to the
ending parts of
the game that this post is not about.
Belle and I thought our shipping containers full of all our worldly possessions would arrive from Virginia on December 8th. Turns out they hadn't left the East Coast. Now it's due Friday, we hope. Merry Christmas: we got ourselves all of our own stuff!
So in addition to missing our bed, our cooking utensils, and all our books, I've also been out of luck when it comes to console games this month. This is a funny reversal from the month where my laptop was out of commission. I like this better, though: PC gaming was where I started, and its independent development scene still puts together the most interesting titles anywhere, in my opinion. So I've been having fun knocking out some of my PC backlog, left over from Steam sales and random downloads. Here's a sampling:
Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It's Just Not Your Story has the longest title since the Dejobaan catalog, and if title length were an indicator of quality, it would be really good. Unfortunately, it's not. Where its predecessor, Digital: A Love Story was a mix of 1990 BBS hacking with a cute story to overcome its repetitive "hunt the phone number" mechanics, Don't Take It Personally is basically just one of those Japanese choose-your-own-adventure games, except with extra tedious high school drama. You click "next" a lot, is what I'm saying. The theme it's trying to present isn't nearly strong or coherent enough to overcome that.
I love Brendon Chung's Flotilla, which remains the weirdest--but most compelling--version of full-3D space combat I've ever been able to find, and it scratches a quick-play itch that I can't get from Sins of a Solar Empire. Since I was having a good time revisiting it, I went looking for Chung's other games and found Atom Zombie Smasher on Steam. A mix of tower defense, Risk, and randomly-generated RTS, AZS is one of those games where you think "this isn't that great," and then realize you've been playing until two in the morning. It also has a deceptively complicated learning curve.
One of the games I've had sitting around on Steam from an old sale was Far Cry (and its sequel, but I doubt my 2007-era Thinkpad will run Far Cry 2 very well). For some reason I seemed to have formed a lot of ideas about this game that weren't true: I thought it was an open-world shooter (it's not), I thought it would be dynamic like STALKER (definitely not), and I thought it was supposed to be a decent game (it's pretty boring). The one thing I'll say for it is that I do like the honest effort at making "jungle" terrain, instead of the typical "corridor shooter with tree textures," but that wasn't enough to keep me playing past the first third of the game.
Another holdover, one that fared much better, was Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. It's not a comedy game per se, but it is often very funny: although it lacks the satirical edge and black humor of Oddysee and Exoddus, it retains their gift for writing hilariously dim-witted NPCs. It's also deeply focused on boss battles, which I kind of love (I felt the same way about No More Heroes, for similar reasons). The controls suffer a little on a PC (this is a game that really benefits from analog movement), and there are a couple of out-of-place difficulty spikes, but otherwise it was great to revisit the Oddworld.
I couldn't quite get behind indie adventure Trauma, unfortunately. It's a very PC title, part Myst and part Black and White, but it feels bloodless. Ostensibly the fever-dream of a photographer caught between life and death after a car wreck, the bland narration and ambient music never gives you any particular impulse to care about her, or reason to believe that she herself cares whether she lives or dies. An abrupt ending doesn't help. Trauma is arty, but there's no arc to it.
Speaking of indies, I finally beat the granduncle of the modern independent game, Cave Story. It's an impressive effort (especially given that there's an entire series of weapons and powerups in there that I completely skipped), but I'm not sure that I get all the love. The platforming is floaty--even at the end, there were a lot of jumps I would have missed without the jetpack--and the "experience" system seems to undermine the shooting (if you start to lose a fight, your weapons will downgrade, meaning you'll lose it faster). That said, it really does feel like a lost NES game, dug up and somehow dropped into Windows. The parts that are good--the music, the sprite art, and the Metroid-style progression--are all very good. But the parts that are frustrating, particularly a couple of incredibly frustrating checkpoints, are bad enough that I spent half the game on the edge of quitting in search of better entertainment.
Finally, I just started playing Bastion. The gorgeous texture work pushes my older video card, but I think it makes up for it by pushing a relatively low amount of geometry, so it plays pretty well. The clever narration gimmick is strong enough to make up for the fact that it's basically Diablo streamlined to the absolute minimum. I've never really been a fan of Diablo-style games--I don't care about the grind, and the controls feel strange to me--but we'll see if the story is enough to pull me through it.
Between our upcoming move and our recent wedding, it's not a great month for deep thoughts. So let's talk about something much, much shallower: Batman: Arkham City.
The going question, since it was raised by Film Crit Hulk, is "how sexist is Arkham City?" And the answer is, as it sadly tends to be in these discussions, "really sexist." But honestly, I think it's as much because the writing is very lazy this time around as it is the misogyny of the developers.
Let's be clear: there is one, and only one, reason that I like Batman, and that's the cartoon series that ran from 1992 to 1995. Striking a balance between Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" and the camp silliness of the Adam West TV show (tilted toward the former as much as a kid's show could be), it presented a version of the characters that was smart and well-shaded. It also introduced the "two voices" gimmick for Batman and Bruce Wayne, retconned several villains to be more interesting, and brought us Mark Hamill as the Joker (not to mention creating Harley Quinn as his codependent partner-in-crime--a relationship, incidentally, that Arkham City also fails to capture). That's impressive work for something that aired between "Tiny Toons" and "Freakazoid."
Arkham Asylum, the previous Batman game, was written by one of the animated series' head writers, Paul Dini, and it borrowed a lot from the show's reinvention of the character. As a fan of the show, even despite the "realistic" art direction, it felt like the animated series tie-in I would have wanted as a kid. But after the first five hours of Arkham City, I had to look it up online to see if the staff from Asylum had even been involved. In comparison, the new game's premise is wildly silly, the dialog is clunky, and Batman's actions veer inconsistently back and forth to meet the demands of the plot (such as it is, being a tedious stream of fetch-quests and scripted blackouts). Where's the humor? The wit? The arresting set-pieces? Why is Batman so grumpy?
A general air of forced macho grittiness is typified by Robin's cameo partway through the game's second act, when he saves Batman during a rooftop ambush. The two immediately get into a petty, ego-driven shouting match for no apparent reason, which comes across as incredibly resentful on Batman's part given that Robin just knocked a ninja off his throat. When the Boy Wonder seems to be the more mature of the Dynamic Duo, you may want to reconsider your script.
Now, I'm not trying to excuse or minimize the sexism that exists in Arkham City. If anything, it's the opposite. In contrast to those who argue that the sexism ruins a good game, I'd say instead that the sexism simply puts the insulting cherry on top of a badly-written sundae. I mean, seriously? It's bad enough that they couldn't write a funny Joker this time around, they've got to stack it high with misogyny to boot?
(The fact that laziness and misogyny go hand in hand also says something about the tolerance for sexism in the game development community. After all, this is an industry where the art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution felt perfectly comfortable to stand in front of a public audience and describe his philosophy of female character design as people he'd like to have sex with. It's an atmosphere only Michael Bay could love.)
The general critical consensus seems to be that such terrible writing is particularly shameful because it's a great game, but I'm honestly not that impressed with it mechanically. Arkham City is set up as a Metroid-style progression, where new gadgets open up previously-visited portions of the map. Most games of this type start out with the main character de-powered, but City gives Batman most of his gadgets from the first game. As a result, it just feels cluttered and game-y: ice grenades that create floating platforms and a zap-gun for powering doors don't feel like Batman, World's Greatest Detective. They feel like they wandered in from Zelda in order to justify a sequel.
The same thing applies to the combat, which was one of the defining high points of Arkham Asylum. The foundation is still there, but they've crammed in extra enemy types that each require a flow-breaking special combo to counter. The worst of these are the shielded enemies, who take forever to dispatch because you can't land more than a single hit on them at a time, and have a tendency to crowd in during uncancelable animation frames to knock Batman out of his combo. It's an endlessly frustrating design, compounded by the awkward controls and the fact that few (if any) of the bat-gadgets do anything demonstrably helpful during combat (or out of it, really). Meanwhile the new open-world city--which is a genuine evolution--prioritizes these imbalanced brawls over Asylum's tense stalking arenas.
Part of the danger of sequels is that they exist in an entangled state with their predecessors. A great sequel--to pick an on-topic example, Nolan's The Dark Knight--makes previous entries look better, especially if it can weave in and question their themes. Arkham City isn't all bad. I finished it (granted, it's not very long). But it's definitely a disappointment, and one that reflects badly on its inspiration. This isn't the Batman I admired as a kid anymore, because what City tries to fix about him wasn't broken.