Sunday, September 27, 2009

REVIEW :: Batman: Arkham Asylum

When I hear that Batman: Arkham Asylum is a 'good' game--and while agreeing with that sentiment--it makes me wonder what the definition of a 'good' game really is. It certainly means fun and entertaining, but it is not necessarily synonymous with original or innovative. With that in mind, I agree that Arkham Asylum is a 'good,' fun game, but it is also an unoriginal, and sometimes apathetic game.
It's fun because it does what it attempts to do, and does it right--it successfully melds combat, stealth, exploration, and puzzle-solving together while inadvertently ripping off Assassin's Creed and Zelda in order to do so. That being said, Arkham Asylum is unoriginal in that everything it tries to do has already been proven.

Although Arkham Asylum is fun and tries proven methods, there is still room for improvement. I am going to put out 3 suggestions that I think could make Arkham Asylum a better game.

3 Things that Could be Fixed in Arkham Asylum
1. Addition of a Mini-Map
There is a consistent problem in Arkham Asylum in that you can't really tell where you're going all the time. Part of this is caused by the fact that the camera is narrowly zoomed into Batman's cape, and part of it is attributed by the fact that the scenery recurrently blends together with or without Detective Vision™.
What this leads to is a constant re-checking of the map screen by the player in order to figure out where he/she is and where he/she needs to go. This constitutes pressing the 'select' button, pausing the game, letting the map screen load up for several seconds, and then pushing 'select' again to return to the game--an entire process which takes several seconds and must be perpetually repeated.
It really wouldn't hurt to have some sort of mini-map or radar always available on-screen to the player. Adding a simple mini-map in the corner of the screen (Ala Zelda style) would alleviate much of this problem and prevent the player from getting irritated by re-pressing the map screen button so many times in one arena.
Twilight Princess and its mini-map.

2. Arbitrary Gameplay Rewards
Another thing that could be fixed in Arkham Asylum is the arbitrary handing out of gameplay rewards. Currently, in the game there is no definite reason as to why the rewards you get (new items, gadgets, or keycards) don't come earlier or later in the context of the narrative. For example, when you decide you need a new bat claw you haphazardly hop back to the Bat Cave and decide to improve your arsenal only at that specific time, when you could have done it much earlier in the game, if only the game let you. Another example is when the Warden of the asylum conveniently decides to give you a card which magically unlocks a large portion of the inaccessible areas in the game, only after you find him after an indeterminate period of time. Furthermore, Batman only decides to retrieve his handy zip line the second he needs it from his Bat plane by phoning it into a remote part of the island, when he could have easily called it in at any other time in the game.
By giving the rewards out to the player in this way, the game prevents the player from feeling like he or she has actually earned the rewards. In contrast, this puts the player at the game's mercy of giving out new items not when the player has accomplished a certain feat or defeated a certain boss, but instead when the game 'feels' like giving out these rewards.
This is in opposition to other games such as Zelda, in which the gameplay rewards are situated within the context of the game world and story. For example, in a Zelda game the player is rewarded with new items not when Link feels like pulling them out of his backpack, but instead when the player discovers them in a subterranean dungeon or when defeating an evil leviathan.
If the gameplay rewards in Arkhum Asylum actually depended on the player's progress and victories instead of arbitrary backpack pulling, then the game would provide a much more gratifying gameplay experience.

3. Status-Quo Storyline
Arkham Asylum's story leaves much to be desired in terms of clasping onto the player and never letting go. This is because in a comic-book world, everything revolves around returning things to a state of normalcy, back to the status quo.
No matter how much I loved Spider-Man and Batman as a kid, I always despised the fact that things would never change. At the end of every episode, Batman would arrest the villain, Spider-Man would revert to his normal self, and everything would return to the status quo, the same as it was before.
This is the exact reason why it's so hard to get involved with the storyline in Arkham Asylum when it starts out by saying: 'The Joker's escaped and set all the inmates free! What should we do?!' And then ends by saying something like: 'Good job Batman, you returned the Joker to his cell and put all the inmates back. Nothing's changed!'
Guess where he's going by the game's end.

Despite the game needing a story to motivate the player's goals, this is about as one-dimensional as the narrative can get. Playing through the game, I'm not compelled to pursue each goal, because I don't care about the inevitable outcome of the story. What I want from a story is change, tension, things to go wrong, mystery, suspense--things that the film 'The Dark Knight' all did admirably, but fail to apply to Batman's video game counterpart.
If Arkham Asylum attempted to create a more challenging, multidimensional story, it would provide an incentive for the player to keep playing the game and it would create a more satisfying experience in the end instead of containing the detached and apathetic feel it currently has.


In conclusion, Arkham Asylum is a fun game, but it's too safe. It doesn't offer anything new, challenging, or unique. Even though Mirror's Edge is a game that has remarkably more frustrations, I would say Mirror's Edge is still more fun than Arkham Asylum because it offers something that Arkham Asylum does not have: an original, exhilarating experience. When it comes down to what I want in a video game, it is all about providing a unique 'experience'; the feel of being able to do something in another world, to journey through a compelling story, to challenge myself in new ways. Arkham Asylum doesn't fully offer an original experience such as that, and so, despite its accomplished design, the game eventually remains more to be desired after its completion.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge is like a Jackie Chan stunt: exhilarating when pulled off correctly, but frustrating and irritating the five or six takes it demands before it's done right. For that reason, I would not say that Mirror's Edge is a bad game, but just a failed game. It has the right ideas and direction, but fails to pull them off in the correct execution and/or presentation.

There's no question that the game does something right: it offers the chance of freedom, exploration, and the thrill of the chase across city rooftops and narrow corridors. However, it has an equally fair share of problems that diminishes this enjoyment from being the centerpiece of the game.

What I am going to do is discuss what Mirror's Edge does wrong, and how it could be improved to create a tighter, more accessible, and less frustrating experience.

Things That Need to be Changed
1. No-Error Policy
People are always going to make mistakes, especially when learning new ideas. If the penalty for these mistakes is death (and a quick load dozens of second prior) like it is in Mirror's Edge, then it becomes annoying and frustrating to the person making the mistake. This is an unavoidable pitfall, because making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process.
In Mirror's Edge, if the player jumps slightly to the left too much, a tad too short, or lacked a tiny bit of momentum on a wall crawl, then that player is punished with death, which becomes frustrating as a recurrent penalty.

How can this be fixed?

The first thing you can do is to create a gentler learning curve so that the player can master the essential game mechanics before being exposed to a more dangerous environment. This is what Portal did. It allowed the player to learn all the core functions of the Portal gun and its mechanics in a controlled environment where they weren't threatened by death at every corner. If Mirror's Edge extended it's "safety net" for the player, then that would give the player more time to become comfortable with wall running, kick-jumping, and the like before the consequences of failure are death. This can be accomplished by removing the pits and deadly drops below each wall run or failed climb. If the player can make mistakes without having to worry about dying, then that player can master the game mechanics much more quickly.

The second thing the game can do to alleviate its "no-error policy" is to create a series of safety nets for the player. This means that the game will catch the player from falling whenever he or she makes an innocent mistake. A game that does this well is Assassin's Creed, which also prodded itself upon the aspect of free-running. In Assassin's Creed, if the player walked off a nearby edge accidentally, the protagonist would fall off but catch onto the ledge to avoid certain death. This avoided many frustrating scenarios of dying by careless mistakes. On the other hand, in Mirror's Edge, if the player walks off nearby edges many times, he instead falls off to his impending doom every time. It would be much less stressful if the game "caught" the player in instances like these instead of allowing him to die. Little features like these allow the player to make tiny mistakes without having to face dire consequences.

The third thing Mirror's Edge can do to become less frustrating is to add gameplay "indicators," letting the player know when a jump is attainable or not. Many times in the game the player faces obstacles or gaps in which he or she is unsure that it can be crossed. For instance, there is a zip line hanging over a ledge which is just out of reach. If the player knows for sure whether or not a jump would reach the zip line, then she would not have to guess after every jump if she will land at her destination. This indicator need not be on a HUD, but could just be a simple display of the character's hands in a certain 'ready' position. By using these indicators, the game prevents the player from performing many blind leaps of faith in hopes of reaching the other side, a feature which will lower the stress level of the player if implemented.

2. Abrubtly Flowing Gamepay
The second main element that would benefit from a change is the abruptly flowing gameplay. As it stands now, the gameplay in Mirror's Edge runs akin to something like this: Enter a new rooftop; run to the edge and scout for possible exits and/or paths to progress to the next area; jump across the correct path (after failing several times) and land in the new area; stop, turn around, and then scout again for the next path.
Because of this, the current flow of the gameplay is somewhat jarring and abrupt. There is rarely a free-flowing feeling of continuous momentum, which unfortunately ruins the free-running aspect of the game.

So how can this be fixed?

Part of the problem with this lack of awareness on the player's part (which requires them to stop and check their surroundings so often) is due to the first-person nature of the game. However, the first person feature is partly what gives the game its unique quality: to put the player directly in the shoes of a free runner, not in the position of a detached third-person camera.

An alternative way of solving the problem of brevity--without changing the camera view--would be to somehow distort the camera so that the player can see a wider view than currently possible. This would allow the player to see more routes and pathways than just a narrow tunnel vision ahead of him. With this feature, the player can then make decisions about where to go without having to wait to reach the very edge of each roof.
A second way of solving the problem of abrupt flow is to include a map feature, however arbitrary this may be. This would allow the player to see where she is going without having to stop at every edge and peek over before deciding the next course of action.
Lastly, a third way of solving this problem is to massively expand the amount of available routes in each level to make the game much more non-linear. This would mean that there is no one direct route for the player to progress through a level, and can instead jump off to any which way that he or she desires. Expanding the available routes would mean less time searching for the one way the designers' intended the player to go, and instead more time jumping around and free-roaming the accessible rooftops, improving the flow of the game.

3. Lack of Complexity/Progression
Finally, Mirror's Edge also suffers from a lack of complexity and progression in its gameplay. There's only so much you can do with the same gameplay mechanics re-used over the course of an 8+ hour game. Assassin's Creed is a prime example of this; it keeps the same ideas and mechanics that it uses in the first two hours, and then repeats them over and over throughout the rest of the game, with little variation or development. This creates a stagnant gaming experience primarily instigated by repetition.
Mirror's Edge suffers from a similar quality, in that it never grows beyond the mechanics it establishes in the beginning of the game. At the beginning, the player is presented with crawling, jumping, wall-running, double-wall jumping, and several varieties of combat options. By the end of the game the player has not gained any new abilities, items, or weapons, which makes a somewhat lackluster gaming experience.

Even a bit of variety beyond the free running mechanics would have made the game somewhat more interesting. Currently, the majority of the game is spent running to and fro from various locations. If the game managed to chop up these running sections with something else (for instance, assassinations?) then it may become more interesting (but then it would be copying Assassins' Creed, as well).

What Mirror's Edge can do to make the latter half of the game more interesting is to introduce new abilities, such as the already incorporated increase in speed during the last levels. If the player got new acrobatic abilities, or boosts in their current attributes (running, jumping, crawling) then it would provide some much needed variety and development in the game.


That being said, Mirror's Edge is still not a bad game despite these problems. It has some truly innovative and unique ideas and experiences that make it stand out from the rest of the conventional brown, murky, space-marine-infested insipid shooter crowd. If you can endure the many hardships of failing the same jump over seven times, then you will be rewarded with an exciting free-running sequence that is rarely found in another game. For that reason alone it is still worth playing.

In conclusion, what is the main game-design lesson that is to be learned from Mirror's Edge? I would say it's this: Don't punish the player too severely for making mistakes, especially early on and when learning, for this can cause an annoying amount of player frustration (but alternatively, it also makes a challenging game, which also forces the player to continue to play and get better). Players need to be able to learn without being afraid of dying every several seconds. It doesn't matter if a game has the best, most innovative concept in years, unless it can execute it in the correct way for the player's enjoyment.

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