We’re nearly to the end of this series and I still haven’t talked about the stealth encounters. I’ve been waiting until now because the best stealth encounter in the game takes place pretty close to the worst one and I thought they’d make for a good contrast.
A really good stealth encounter is one where you’re constantly having to observe enemy patterns and change your approach in response to enemy action. A bad one is where you crouch in the same spot for a long time and wait for the mindless AI to walk into your ambush.
Batman games are really good at providing the kind of dynamic behavior that makes for good encounters:
- You have regular guys with guns, who can make short work of Batman if he gets spotted.
- There’s sometimes a guy carrying a signal jammer. This blocks Batman’s connection to the Bat-computer, which means detective vision doesn’t work, which means he can no longer see through walls. Having one on the field is a pretty big handicap.
- Sometimes there are guys with mines. You want to take them out quickly because if left unchecked they’ll put mines all over and you won’t be able to move around on the ground. Mines do serious damage, stunlock you for a couple of seconds, and alert your foes. Blundering into one is one of the most dangerous mistakes you can make in a stealth encounter.
- Late in the game you’ll start running into snipers. Unlike the nearsighted goons that can’t see more than ten meters, these guys can spot you from the other side of the arena. Which means you need to keep track of where they are (they move around occasionally) and stay out of their sights. Also, unlike regular goons they don’t pause and announce that they’ve spotted you before they begin shooting. If you blunder in front of them, they will tag you for huge damage, stunlock you for a couple of seconds, and announce your position to everyone else.
- Sometimes there’s a guy with nightvision goggles, which means he can see Batman perched in the rafters and give away his position to the other mooks. (Of course, it’s easy for the player to see the rafters, but in the fiction of the game it’s supposedly too dark to see what’s going on up there.)
- Sometimes there’s a mook with a hostage. If he personally spots Batman, he shoots the hostage and you get a game over.
This isn’t like most stealth games, where you simply memorize patrol patterns to slip by. There’s a good bit of unpredictability to their behavior. You have to wait for an opening, move into position, neutralize the vulnerable foe, and then retreat before the rest of them converge on the position. If things are going well you might try to ambush a second one in the resulting confusion. Afterwards, the field has changed and everyone is doing something different.
Batman is durable enough to get away with making a few blunders. If you max out his armor upgrades, you can get shot an unreasonable number of times before you wind up at the game over screen. But like the brawling mechanics, the fun isn’t in making it through, but in making it through like Batman.
This is a good example of a game that actually benefits from checkpoint saves. If you bungle an ambush and end up with everyone shooting you, then yes, you can run away, hide, and try again. But you might not want to. Maybe you want to ghost this room. In which case it’s easy to reset to the last checkpoint, which can take you back to the moment you entered with room. Like Hotline Miami, the retry cost is basically zeroExcept for the stupid loading screen, which should be unnecessary. It’s not long, but it has no reason to exist at all..
When you enter the zone, you can often hear the goons laughing about “The Bat” and fantasizing about how awesome it’ll be when they kill him. If you can pick these guys off one by one without being spotted, then their fear levels will rise. Eventually they’ll fall apart as a group and start refusing to help each other. The game rewards competent play with a satisfying emotional reaction from your prey. They become paranoid, frightened, and confused. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Batman in your life, then flawlessly overcoming one of these stealth encounters is the best way to do it.
Lots of games focus on “empowerment” by simply making you able to kill lots of stuff and destroy the environment, but few games focus on the emotional side of empowerment. But in this game the mooks almost go through little character arcs as they go from overconfidence to pants-wetting terror in the space of a few minutes. This is far more “empowering” to me than things like kill-cams, destroyable environments, and gore effects. Those things are cool too, but I can’t think of any other game that delivers this same sort of emotional empowerment to accompany the visceral empowerment.
And now we come to the stealth section at the top of Wonder Tower. This is the big finale. You finally arrive to settle things with Hugo Strange, and most of the things that make the previous encounters so enjoyable are gone.
Let’s start with the good stuff: The room is a circular observation deck. It was originally a spot for tourists. Now there’s a sealed control room in the center, where Dr. Strange is pacing around and directing the action. Along the outside are balconies with a spectacular view of Arkham City. Instead of the Tyger guards falling apart emotionally, it’s Hugo Strange himself who becomes increasingly angry, frustrated, and eventually dismayed at the inability of his forces to stop “The Batman”. It brings drama and characterization into the nuts and bolts mechanical parts of the game.
My problem is that this is probably the least interesting stealth encounter in the entire gameAside from the tutorial ones, I guess.. It’s hard, but not in a good way. You just don’t get that many options here. The vents aren’t connected to each other, so while you can use them to hide you can’t really use them to get around. There aren’t any places to hide in the ceiling, which means you can’t sit above the room and survey the territory. The lights are on in the room, which means you can’t really move around inside. You can travel outside by swinging along around the edge, but guys don’t go out there so you’re kind of leaving the encounter area. The few available hiding places inside are just behind boring crates (why is this room full of crates?) where the camera will aim itself in unhelpful directions. If you’re spotted, you generally only have one viable place to go.
Since the lights are on, there’s no need for the guys with night vision goggles. The room is small, so there aren’t snipers. There’s no signal jammer. There’s no hostage. I can’t remember if there’s a mine layer or not, but given the space you don’t spend much time skulking around, so mines aren’t going to hinder you all that much. The environment is simple, the foes are simple, and your options are few.
In the best encounters of the game, it feels like you’re juggling a dozen ever-changing variables to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Here, it feels like you’re groping around and trying to find the one viable route the designer intended.
The Strange Conclusion
As Batman tears through his defenses, his guards, and his tower, Hugo Strange keeps insisting that “You have not won.” Eventually it becomes clear that he’s trying to convince himself more than Batman. It’s a good moment, although it would have so much more punch if we’d spent more time with this plot. From what the story has shown us so far, Batman could easily have come up here eleven hours ago and stopped Protocol 10 before Hugo set his plans in motion.
Once Batman breaches Strange’s inner sanctum, Hugo’s plan is over. Once Batman is inside Hugo’s control room, Oracle is able to get all of the Tyger Guards and gunships to withdraw. Strange doesn’t want to let go of his dreams, and he’s still monologuing when Ra’s Al Ghul stabs him from just off-camera, as villains do in these kinds of stories.
This is where we get the big reveal that Ra’s was the one who financed Arkham City and manipulated Gotham’s politics to make the whole thing possibleBeing 600 years old, Ra’s Al Ghul has kind of an Illuminati thing going on.. This was Hugo Strange’s audition for Ra’s Al Ghul’s job leading the League of Assassins, and Ra’s executed him for his failure. (Did the League not have any openings in middle management? Maybe Hugo isn’t ready for the top spot, but after all that money it seems a shame to just murder him. I dunno. Maybe this is why nobody ever hired me to run an assassination business. I’m probably too soft-hearted.)
I’m nitpicking and poking fun here, but this is actually a really tense scene and a fun reveal. Unlike the plot with the Joker toxin, the events of the story are clear, the various character motivations are comprehensible, the plot threads are all properly tied up at the end, and it’s not plagued by awkward structure and fridge logic. Hugo had a discernible plan and Batman stopped it.
With his dying breath, Strange orders the computer to execute “Protocol 11”, which blows up the top of Wonder Tower. At the last second, Batman dives out the window, dragging Ra’s Al Ghul with him to safety. Unable to suffer the indignity of being saved by Batman, Ra’s attacks Batman on the way down. Batman slips away, which leaves Ra’s to plummet all the way to the bottom of the tower alone. He lands directly on the gates of Arkham City, impaled on the stylized “A” of the prison’s logo.
It’s a great finale. Both villains were undone by their own bloodlust and hubris, and both died in symbolic ways. Hugo perished in his tower, dying pretty much the same death he’d planned for his inmates. Ra’s died again (he does this often) but never got Batman to compromise on his “no killing” principle. Batman defeated both of them physically, intellectually, and morally. He proved once again that despite all his violence, deep down he’s motivated not by cruelty or hate, but by a fundamental belief in the value of human life. He risked his life to save an enemy, and fought to save the lives of the criminals he’d been pummeling all night. This version of Batman isn’t violent because he enjoys it, he’s violent because in this world it’s a necessary compromise to save lives.
It’s a brilliant ending to the story. The only problem is that it’s not the end of the story. We have another chapter to get through, and it makes for a far less satisfying conclusion.
 Except for the stupid loading screen, which should be unnecessary. It’s not long, but it has no reason to exist at all.
 Aside from the tutorial ones, I guess.
 Being 600 years old, Ra’s Al Ghul has kind of an Illuminati thing going on.
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