Since Batman is a gameplay-focused game, we should probably talk about the gameplay first.
I’ve heard the game dismissed as “Bah, it’s just a buncha quicktime events”. This isn’t true at all, but I can understand how people arrive at this conclusion. There is something wrong with the way the Arkham games present combat, it’s just that the complaint of “quicktime event” is misidentifying the problem.
I wasn’t particularly impressed with Arkham Asylum during my first play-through. It struck me as a bit of a shallow power fantasy: Just mash the attack button until all the dudes fall over. It wasn’t until a later playthrough that I discovered the depth that made fights an engaging challenge rather than simple cheap gratification.
How it works is this…
The typical brawl pits Batman against a group of foes. Every time Batman hits someone, the combo meter fills. The higher the meter, the faster Batman will strike and the further he can leap as he moves from foe to foe. If Batman gets hit, whiffs an attack, moves around without attacking, or stops fighting and stands still like an idiot, the combo ends. So in order to keep the flow going, you need to continually land punches without taking damage.
When the combo is high enough, you can activate a special move that can instantly take one foe out of the fight, knock a bunch of guys down to give you some breathing room, or permanently destroy a weapon. This doesn’t end the combo, mind you. Your goal is to keep that thing going for the whole fight, unleashing your special moves at regular intervals to end the fight as efficiently as possible.
When someone is about to punch Batman, an alert appears around them. At this point you can press the counter button to have Batman automatically counter the attack. This is the part where people accuse it of being “a quicktime event”. They apparently think the goal is to just mash the counter button and not die. And yeah, if you reduce the outcome of every encounter to survived / died then the game will seem shallow. But that’s like scoring golf by counting how many holes you played. Getting through it is a forgone conclusion. It’s all about how efficiently you did it.
Yes, you can get away with button-mashing and counterpunching in the early stages of the game. But this means the combo meter never gets anywhere, and fights take much longer than they should. Moreover, once you get a little ways into the game this strategy(?) will collapse because you’ll be dealing with a variety of foes that aren’t susceptible to counterpunching.
So your goal is to keep the combo meter climbing. When a combo is getting started, Batman doesn’t have a lot of momentum. You can press <direction>+attack to punch a dude directly beside you, but if you try to hit the guy three meters away then Batman will whiff because he doesn’t have enough momentum to close that distance. As the combo climbs, Batman’s “reach” will increase. He will be able to leap a few feet to strike someone far away. Get the meter high enough, and Batman basically becomes a projectile, Bat-flipping all over the battlefield and bouncing from foe to foe like a pinball.
One of the key skills you need in a fight is to take advantage of this ever-increasing reach. Bad guys are always trying to swarm you, and if you stand in one place for too long you’ll get boxed in. Either you’ll miss a counter, you’ll get pelted with thrown weapons from the ranged guys on the edge of the battlefield, or you’ll get swarmed and pinned by guys that can’t be countered.
So what you want to do is keep the crowd loose by never standing in one place for too long. As you zip around the room, you have to keep updating your mental map of where your foes are, tracking all those guys standing just off-screen. Sure, you can stand still and counterpunch, but if someone is trying to hit you it’s much better to simply leap at a foe on the other side of the room and let the attacking mook swing at empty air. This keeps you in control of the battle instead of them trapping you into a cycle of holding still and reacting. As a bonus, when you’re playing this way you’ll find yourself behaving (and possibly feeling) like the Batman himself.
One of the things I like about the game is how much time and effort was put into making all of this bone-crunching combat look plausible. Your typical brawler might have you swinging swords through the bad guys while they loop through generic pain animations, but in the Arkham series the enemies are just as carefully animated as the protagonist. Batman can do grabs, throws, arm-locks, kicks, stomps, and other moves that require both Batman and his victim to be animated together. What you end up with is a brawl that looks passably like a choreographed fight scene in a movie. Even fighting games don’t really nail that sense of contact and momentum.
You’ve heard of the traveling salesman problem? It’s a classic algorithmic challenge for computer science nerds. In it, you’ll be presented with a random map of N cities and your goal is to write a program that will find the shortest possible route that will visit all of them. It turns out that the problem takes dramatically longer to solve as N increases.
Batman fights present an inverted version of this: Which foe is furthest away from where I’m standing right now, yet still within my attack radius at my current speedThis is really important on hard difficulty when the counter window is small and guys constantly swarm you. You need to keep moving to prevent being mobbed.? Only in this version, the points on your map are constantly moving around. As the camera orbits the fight, you need to keep track of all the guys so you know where to leap next.
Meet The Mooks
As good as these fights look, the game would get kind of boring if you just fought endless waves of the same mooks over and over. So the game gives you a variety of foes, each of which add something new to the fight.
Throwers: Technically, any random mook can become a thrower. They just run off to one side and grab some bit of debris like a crate or a fire extinguisher. They hold it over their head for a few seconds, shout a taunt to telegraph the throw to the player, and then chuck the object at Batman. You can press the counter button to catch the object and whip it back at them, but the window of opportunity for that is pretty tight. If you see a guy getting ready to throw and you can’t deal with him at the moment (maybe you’re swarmed, or he’s too far away to reach right now) you can fling a batarang at him to make him drop the object for the moment.
Knife guys: You can’t counter these guys like regular mooks. Instead, you have to back away while countering to make Batman dodge the attacksThere’s an upgrade late in the game that lets you automatically take out a knife guy if you get the counter timing just right. Once you master that, it becomes an asset to have lots of knives on the field, and knives move way down the threat list..
Armored guys: These mooks are wearing body armor. If you attack them directly, it just breaks your combo, so you can’t mindlessly spam the attack button. If you want to attack these guys directly, you “stun” them. Batman whips his cape in their face and disorients them, leaving them open to rapid-fire punchesThe game justifies this by saying that once they’re stunned, Batman can strike at the joints in their armor.. The downside is that this flurry of punches requires you to hold still for several seconds, which can result in you getting swarmedAlthough it’s a good way to quickly raise the combo meter if you can get away with it..
Guns: This game will make you think like the Batman. Specifically, it will make you HATE guns. Seriously. Guns suck. Guys with guns are tremendously dangerous. If you get shot you will lose your combo, slow down, and take serious damage. This is bad because gun guys tend to stand way back from the fight, and you’ll have a hard time closing the distance if your combo is broken. The key is to take them out as soon as possible and work to prevent anyone else from picking the gun up off the ground.
Abramovici Twins: These two guys are unique to Arkham City. It can take some time to learn all of their tricks, since they only appear at specific points in the storyAnd in the challenge maps DLC.. You never face both of them at onceTheir backstory explains that they parted ways. One signed on with Joker, and the other with Penguin. and they work pretty much identically. They have a ton of hitpoints, a slow attack, and a ridiculous reach. If you’re in a gambling mood, they provide a great way to quickly build up the combo meter. You can jump in, hit them with a flurry of punches, and then leap away before they clobber you. It’s a game of brinkmanship.
Shield guys: They can’t be attacked from the front because they have a shield. Their shield-bash can’t be countered at all, not even by retreating like you do with knife guys. Your only option is to move out of their attack range as soon as possible. When you’re ready to deal with them, you stun them with your cape and then jump on their head. This knocks them down and makes them drop the shieldAlthough another mook can easily pick it up a few seconds later. This is one of those cases where it might be good to use the “destroy an enemy weapon” special attack, to remove the shield from the fight for good..
Stun batons: Like knife guys, you can’t counter these attacks. Unlike knives, you can’t even punch these guys in the face. You need to jump over them and hit them from behind.
Having one of these guys in a fight is like eating a handful of jellybeans and one jellybean-sized rock. You have to watch what you’re doing or you’ll hurt yourself.
Titans: Sigh. They’re big monster guys. I’m sure you can guess how they work just by looking at them: Wait for them to charge, then dodge out of the way. You don’t want to get near them until you’re ready to engage, which gives you another thing to think about when executing your attacks. They’re mechanically interesting, if a bit silly.
So yeah. Varied foes. Many different attack patterns. Numerous tools for dealing with them. A variety of ever-changing battlefields and group compositions. You need to prioritize foes, keep the combo meter climbing, and avoid being swarmed.
I can understand if people don’t like the game. It’s certainly a bit of an odd duck among brawlers and there are many annoying thingsI’m pretty sure Joker is in charge of the camera. that can hinder your enjoyment. But whatever their faults, the Arkham games are not “quicktime events” and they are not “mindless button-mashers”. Then again, I think I get why people come to this conclusion. Because the Arkham games don’t force you to engage with their mechanics. They allow you to play the game poorly.
The Problem With Batman
Some people complain that the game is “too easy”, because the game doesn’t make a point of killing you for making mistakes. But the problem isn’t how “easy” it is, but how poor the feedback is.
Golf is considered a pretty hard game, even though anyone capable of walking and holding a club can eventually finish a round of golf. The Arkham games are like a golf course where there’s no par listed for any of the holes. “It took me 23 strokes to finish this hole. Is that good? I mean, I finished the hole and I didn’t die in any of the three sand traps I fell into, so I’m just going to assume I’m an amazing golfer. Man, this game is easy!”
In Batman your goal isn’t merely survival, but to overcome an encounter with a flawless execution of strategy, reflexes, and pattern recognition. The problem is that the game does very little to draw attention to the combo meter, and the post-fight result is so understated it may as well not exist. After a fight your performance is rated in the upper-left of the screen and you’re rewarded with more XP for better performance. But the pop-up is small, not particularly informative, and you have to parse the numbers if you want to see how you did. And even if you take the time to stop and read those fussy numbers, there’s nothing to give you a sense of “par”. If you’re mindlessly hammering the attack button and fighting like a goon, you might simply assume you’re having the expected experience. After all, your health never got below 50%. In some games that would qualify as amazing.
I think this is the biggest mistake the game makes with regard to the brawling mechanics. I think it’s actually the great sin of the series. Poor performance – one where Batman takes a lot of damage or struggles to fill the combo meter – should give the player some sort of feedback to indicate they could be doing better. I don’t mind that the game allows you to win while still playing poorly, but the game should at least let you know you’re playing poorly. As it stands, it’s possible to overlook the most interesting challenge the game has to offer.
We don’t need a huge popup to appear and break the flow. It doesn’t need to be big or showy. We just need a basic answer to the simple question, “How did I do?”
Perhaps something like the rankings you see in (say) Bayonetta would help players understand how they’re doing. The game actually has a bronze / silver / gold medal ranking system that’s used in the out-of-game challenge rooms. They could just import that to the fights in the story parts of the game. Something. Anything. The player just needs a point of reference. If a simple grade appeared beside the XP reward and was accompanied by an appropriately muted or triumphant sound, it might entice more players to strive for the higher ranks. Players looking for shallow empowerment could ignore the grades and button-mash their way to inevitable victory, and players looking for a real challenge could work on pushing those grades as high as they can go.
 This is really important on hard difficulty when the counter window is small and guys constantly swarm you. You need to keep moving to prevent being mobbed.
 There’s an upgrade late in the game that lets you automatically take out a knife guy if you get the counter timing just right. Once you master that, it becomes an asset to have lots of knives on the field, and knives move way down the threat list.
 The game justifies this by saying that once they’re stunned, Batman can strike at the joints in their armor.
 Although it’s a good way to quickly raise the combo meter if you can get away with it.
 And in the challenge maps DLC.
 Their backstory explains that they parted ways. One signed on with Joker, and the other with Penguin.
 Although another mook can easily pick it up a few seconds later. This is one of those cases where it might be good to use the “destroy an enemy weapon” special attack, to remove the shield from the fight for good.
 I’m pretty sure Joker is in charge of the camera.
The Plot-Driven Door
You know how videogames sometimes do that thing where it's preposterously hard to go through a simple door? This one is really bad.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
The Biggest Game Ever
How did this niche racing game make a gameworld so massive, and why is that a big deal?
Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3
Yeah, this game is a classic. But the story is idiotic, incoherent, thematically confused, and patronizing.