The Batman: Arkham gameplay is a lot like God of War and Diablo: It’s something that looks simple and easy to duplicate, but it’s not until you play a bad clone that you realize just how much thought and attention went into the original, and how difficult it is to replicate on anything other than a superficial level. My column this week is about how Shadow of Mordor missed a few core concepts that made Arkham work so well.
People were kind of surprised that I included Dark Souls in my Top 64 Games list. I’m on record as someone who hates punishing gameplay, and I’m not a huge fan of high difficulty. Or more accurately, I hate high difficulty when mixed with learning. I hate dying tons of times when trying to master a new system, but I’m happy to crank up the difficulty once I’ve gotten good at a game and decided I like it.
I tried Dark Souls a couple of months ago. As predicted, I found it stressful and unpleasant. I tried to fight that first boss, died twice, and decided I didn’t want to play anymore. I wasn’t having a good time, and unlike most Dark Souls fans I wouldn’t get a profound sense of accomplishment when I finally did get the patterns and timing down.
Strangely enough, it was Batman: Arkham City that enabled me to see what people liked in Dark Souls. People praise Dark Souls for being “fair”, and they say that, “When you die, it’s your fault.” That never made any sense to me, because as a new player the game is manifestly unfair. A sudden bolder rolls down the steps and does massive damage? Yeah. There’s nothing remotely “fair” about that.
But what we’re talking about is a lack of randomness or system noise. In Half-Life 2, even the greatest player in the world will get hit sometimes. Everyone takes damage. So when you complete a room you have no way of knowing how well you did. Could this room be done better? Is it possible to take less damage? Actually, maybe we should rate performance based on how long it takes to kill the enemies instead of damage taken. What’s the core mastery here? Am I working to maximize damage output or minimize incoming damage?
But in Arkham and Dark Souls, there’s no noise. The “fair” bit means that once you fully master the game, it is totally possible to get through the whole thing without taking a scratch. When you die, you don’t have to worry that you were just unlucky and a bad guy got a critical or something. Every death – and even every hit – is avoidable. This means that the longer you play the game, the better you perform. You can see and feel yourself improve.
Dark Souls just doesn’t appeal to me, but it’s the punishment, not the system. For me playing Dark Souls is like trying to learn to play the piano in a situation where fluffing too many notes will force me to go back and practice some other tune that I’ve already mastered.
If you found Batman “boring”, it’s probably because you thought your goal was just to survive, which is obviously pretty easy. But your real goal is to execute fights without getting hit and without breaking your combo. When viewed this way, I find Batman’s gameplay to be immensely enjoyable.