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Weekender: Arkham City Rises

With the start of a new year of gaming weekenders, we examine wide-ranging industry topics by framing them through the titles we're currently playing.

  • Text: GR-UK Staff

This week Gillen looks at sandbox environment and completion sub-quest designs while finishing Arkham City, while the rest of the team weigh up what's on their play lists for the next 48 hours.

"300. 5. 1. Three magical numbers, the combination of which turned grin to grimace, scarred deep black rings under the eyes as if a drunk boxer's fists had run rampant, and made mockery of last grasps towards accomplishment before the bells struck twelve.

Yet simultaneously I felt the urge to applaud.

Let's explain those numbers backwards. One refers to January 1. Five the hour in the A.M that I found myself sitting slumped and clutching at my Xbox 360 controller, perched precariously on the edge of the couch and giving serious contemplation to throwing myself off onto the floor and into sleep - and thereby end my night's vigil.

Three hundred. I roll that number around in my mouth. Its a big figure. A number which in other mediums is equated to success, personal sacrifice. It's the number afforded a perfect score in bowling, for hitting strikes in every frame. It's the number of Spartans that gave their lives to hold back a Persian invasion.

In Arkham City, such a figure would only get a snort of disgust and a put-down of harsh derision from a villain clad in ragged green.

The lack of games fully finished in my collection come the last days of 2011 was appalling me. Yet it wasn't until the last few hours of December 31st that I decided to make a concerted stab at ending one game. Batman, with main story over and 'only' the Riddler Challenges yet to finish, was a dead cert.

As anyone who's played both Rocksteady's titles can attest, the Riddler Challenges are the true test of your Dark Knight skills. With the sequel the London studio rightly expanded the side-quest which, depending on your discipline and speed, could match the main storyline for length.

We've already touched extensively on the Challenges - requiring both mental and physical agility to solve - in both the review and Game of the Year Awards. What I came to appreciate, before my brain turned to mush with both NYE drinks and the wee hours of the morning, was the intricacy of the city and the Challenges within - to the point in combing every street corner it was hard to separate which complimented what. Chicken or Egg? City or Riddles?

Collection quests can, like online multiplayer, feel tacked on. Rushed. Superfluous. Wedging treasure chests in a corner of a room or behind a corner smacks of laziness. Modern day sandbox environments have - with a few exceptions - never linked with emergent gameplay. Tedious in design, interesting aesthetic more convenient backdrop to the immediate action, cityscapes ape real-world setting to evoke a sense of realism rather than exploiting their potential.

Crackdown managed to create a superhuman playground, with Pacific City's vertical gameplay one of the game's strongest elements and good reason why the exploration was so enjoyable. And so to is Arkham City.

In Arkham, you need to read the environment, flick through your equipment, or leap between different points just to work out where said secret is, let alone how you're going to get it and when. And all that's only if you've tracked down a Riddler informant who'll reveal the locations of each (nicely, you can avoid that aspect entirely if you want).

It's a wonderfully enmeshed experience. Weighing up the skyline for the highest building with a clear path to trigger pressure plates. Angling the exact point in which to hammer through a barricade on the underside of the building above with a tight grapple boost. Scouring transmissions for hidden lairs. Scanning billboards and rooftops for the right angle and subject to solve abstract Riddles.

The niggling discomfort over the city's arch like shape still remains. But the casual glance of identically-created streets and bland architectural choices designed only to signify general districts have given away to a environment that feels like a real city. Like every street and alley has a story, a history. Arkham City's packed full of smaller incongruous additions that only seep through with repeated sweeps. The grapple boost is so convenient that its not until you have to get dirty in the slums below that you really take note of them all - and you wonder at how the developers have set upon each in shaping them to suit the Riddler Challenges. It's a world wherein nothing feels wasted nor included to fill an empty space.

Realisations that didn't come until after the fact, appreciation eroded away as the clock plunged down into the late night, and the sun soared from below to touch the horizon. I'd half-heard (and a warning to taking advisement when intoxicated) on some previous escapade out with friends that you didn't need to get all 420 of Riddler's Challenges to finally trump the egoistical nut-job: the story would run to a satisfying conclusion with a lesser figure reached. For some reason unexplainable to me now, that digit became 300.

Yet with number reached there was no fanfare. No fireworks like those that lit the sky outside my window five hours previous. Just a lightly tutting tone and a refusal to reveal the last location that'd see my finish my game. I hadn't done well enough. My tasks lacking in fulfilling set conditions.

What could I say? I was exhausted. But also incensed.

I still don't know how the Riddler subplot climaxes in Arkham City. But I'm damned sure I'm going to find out. Perhaps that's the greatest trick Rocksteady has pulled. Other than the gadgets and main storyline, its the potent cocktail of perfectly executed city design and application of challenges to test your mettle - to level the players' hate of the collection sub-quest not at the game creator, but at the virtual villain who masterminded the entire plot in the first place. To keep us all fully immersed in the experience of a living, breathing city, and not see the framework of a system designed to keep us playing."

Next: an important decision is made about the first steps into a galaxy far, far away, and how Tetris puzzle-solving skills can aid real world dilemmas.

Mike: This weekend I'm heading off to The Old Republic. I've picked my character and got stuck into the beginning of the game. Now it's time to really kick on now and fully experience Bioware's epic MMO.

It's not the type of game you can just dip in and out of. I read somewhere that the average play session lasts for roughly five hours, which means I've definitely got some catching up to do. Still, I can't wait. I think its fair to say that I've been waiting for this game for a long time, and I intend to enjoy it as much as possible.

I've also got a date with All Zombies Must Die! I'm looking forward to getting stuck into what looks a fun twin stick shooter. You'll hear what I think of it next week.

Bengt: This weekend I'm stuck with the real life Tetris of moving boxes up to the attic and trying to fit the most of the contents of my flat up there. Next week my apartment is up for grabs, and after the move is done with I'll get to unpack my games collection for a wider selection of weekend diversions. As it stands I'll probably play a few hours of Skyrim just to unwind, I've completed the Dark Brotherhood questline, and I think my next big objective is to try and find some new shouts - I understand there is a total of 20 out there and so far I've only got a dozen. I stumbled onto some old ruin called Korvunruud (or something similar), and as "korv" means sausage in Swedish (and this game is meant to have Norse influences) I'm sure it will be well worth a visit.

Last night I sat down and watched my nephew play a bit of Battlefield 3. It's interesting how he immerses himself into just one or two games and sticks with them. FIFA has been a staple for years with him, and now Battlefield 3 is his second game of choice - and he "hates" Modern Warfare 3. Right now I guess I'm similarly dedicated to Skyrim, but generally I would peg myself as a sampler, who likes different kind of games and seldom gets tied down with one mistress... or game.