Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360 and PC)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: October 18, 2011

It was just last month that I finally played through Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady’s breakout hit from 2009. That game totally blew me away and removed any pre-conceived notion I had about superhero titles lacking in quality. After completing Batman’s first PS3/X360 effort, I immediately picked up last year’s sequel, Arkham City.

Whereas Arkham Asylum focused primarily on a plot against the Joker, Arkham City showcases several prominent villains. After former warden Quincy Sharp is elected mayor of Gotham, his first order of business is to clean up the streets. His solution? Turn the slums of the city into a maximum security prison — its own metropolis, blocked off from everything else. Naturally, this is a terrible idea, as that means all sorts of evil masterminds are put together in one location. All hell breaks loose, and it’s Batman’s job to restore order against the likes of Hugo Strange, Two Face, the Penguin, and the Joker, among many others.

The biggest difference between the two games is Arkham City’s venture into a larger open world. The city is five times bigger than the asylum, and it allows Batman to have free reign in a massive urban environment. With the ability to use a grappling hook from building to building and rooftop to rooftop, you really feel as if you are Batman himself. The sheer freedom that the city provides is awe-inspiring, and it helps to be controlling such a badass character.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

The core gameplay is the same as before, a strong mix of combat, stealth and exploration. The combat system still uses the same attack/countering method that is so simple yet amazingly well-executed. Batman has some new gadgets this time around, many of which help during battles. Smoke pellets can be dropped to disorientate enemies and allow Batman to more easily escape harm’s way. A taser gun can be used to shock enemies, and it also restores power to generators. There’s even a new freezing gadget that can be used to toss ice grenades. All of these new toys are used throughout the game, often at critical points.

Stealth is largely the same as before, but the exploration aspects have drastically increased. If you couldn’t get enough of Riddler’s challenges before, you will love Arkham City even more. This time around there are a whopping 440 trophies to acquire, and all of them are scattered throughout the huge in-game world. There are also an increased amount of side missions, many of which introduce other villains not otherwise found in the main story. The Riddler himself has a side quest that has Batman stopping Saw-like puzzles to save innocent victim’s lives.

What’s great about all of these new quests is that once the main campaign is completed, everything is rolled over into a “New Game+” mode. That means that you can pick up all of the side quests you missed the first time around, but with all of Batman’s upgrades already included. I loved having this functionality, as I am the type of gamer that usually tries to finish the story first before digging into the supplementary features.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Also carried over from Arkham Asylum is the expansive Challenge mode. This feature pits Batman in a series of increasingly more difficult combat sequences, with the goal being to string together awesome combos in order to achieve a high score. A new twist to this mode is the ability to tweak the settings in order to make combat even more challenging (or easier, if you are so inclined).

Yet another new addition to the game is the ability to play as an entirely different character, Catwoman. Unfortunately, she can only be used if you buy the game brand new, or if you are willing to cough up $10 extra for used copies. This is a seriously shitty move on the part of the publishers, as Catwoman was clearly already built into the game and therefore should not be considered as something akin to downloadable content. I had considered paying the $10, but from what I have heard, her campaign is very short and only lasts about an hour. That’s not worth it to me, and I am disgusted that it is not included as part of the main package.

Still, Catwoman or not, Batman: Arkham City is an incredible experience that is an absolute must play, especially for those that loved its predecessor. The dark, gritty visual style is back and better than ever, and the soundtrack feels like it could easily belong in one of Christopher Nolan’s terrific Dark Knight films. With a staggering amount of gameplay depth, this will last a LONG time. An easy contender for 2011’s Game of the Year.

9/10

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Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Batman: Arkham Asylum
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360, Windows and Mac OS X)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: August 25, 2009

I am not a big comic book or superhero guy, but I have always had a soft spot for Batman. I remember buying Batman trading cards (based on Tim Burton’s 1989 film) when I was a kid, and I even watched the ultra campy (but fun) 1960s TV show when it aired on daytime television. After some poor movie sequels in the 90s, Christopher Nolan revitalized the character with his acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy. This success has translated to the video game world, where we have Batman: Arkham Asylum, easily one of the greatest superhero titles ever made.

Arkham Asylum is gripping from the opening moments, as Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) escorts the Joker (Mark Hamill) to the eponymous institution. The Joker is restrained by handcuffs and surrounded by armed guards, but there is still that sinking feeling that shit is about to hit the fan. Sure enough, his accomplice Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) is there to override the security system, allowing the Joker to escape. Now it is Batman’s turn to regain control of the asylum, while also thwarting the Joker’s plan to create an army of Titans that threaten Gotham City. All in a day’s work for ol’ Bats, right?

Fans of the comic books (and TV shows and films and so on) will be pleased to see several recurring characters show up. Bane, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy are just a few villains that our caped hero runs into, and there are references to several others as well. In fact, for those who could use some refreshers on the series, there are dozens of newspaper clippings scattered around the game’s environment that can be picked up to learn about backstories for each character. Even non-fans will find it easy to get sucked into the world of Gotham.

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Arkham Asylum’s gameplay consists of a mix of brawling combat, stealth and exploration. The combat, at first glance, seems almost elementary in execution, as just one button is used to attack. However, this “Freeflow” system is surprisingly well-crafted. Along with standard attacks, Batman has the ability to “stun” an enemy, as well as counter an opposing punch or kick. In order to string together long combos (which boost the overall score), he must flawlessly maneuver between each function, dodging enemy attacks while fighting back at the same time. High scores are eventually rewarded with XP, which can in turn be used to upgrade Batman’s gadgets. Many of these can be used in combat as well, such as the Batarang and Bat-Claw. The amount of depth that this simple brawling system has is outstanding.

The stealth aspects allow Batman to hide in the shadows and use his grappling hook to fly from pillar to pillar. Evasion is important in areas where enemies are rampant, particularly when they are carrying guns. Utilizing a healthy mix of brawling and stealth is the way to go to achieve maximum success.

For those who enjoy exploration, the game offers plenty to whet the appetite. There are countless items scattered throughout the environment, many of which give insight to the game’s backstory (as mentioned earlier). Most intriguing is the addition of a whopping 200+ riddles left behind by the Riddler. In every new area, the puzzle-obsessed villain leaves behind a riddle for Batman to figure out. Many of these are tricky and benefit greatly from the use of Batman’s impressive Detective mode. This well-designed feature highlights objects of interest and allows limited X-ray vision on anyone in sight.

Batman: Arkham Asylum [PS3, 2009]

Quite frankly, there is not a shortage of quality gameplay in Arkham Asylum. As an added bonus, there is even a separate Challenge mode that offers bite-sized levels to boost combat and stealth skills. The amount of options and replay value is staggering.

Although Arkham Asylum is now over two years old, its visuals still hold up well today. The game’s environment is very dark and gritty, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s films. This presents a sense of realism that is very welcome, and this is aided by a stellar voice acting cast. Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn are all played by their voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, and the other roles are filled by more-than-adequate veterans on the scene. In terms of aesthetics, everything screams high quality.

I won’t go so far as to say Arkham Asylum is the best superhero game ever made, as many have, but it is certainly up there. The gameplay is near flawless, the story is a worthy entry to the canon, and the presentation is superb. You don’t have to be a fan of the series to appreciate what this game has to offer. As a bargain bin title today, there really is no excuse to miss this.

9/10

Now, onto Arkham City, which I am VERY eager to play.

Video Game Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: October 13, 2009

I liked the original Uncharted quite a bit, but it took me a while to get a hold of the sequel. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves expands upon the original in every way while maintaining the same adventure/platforming gameplay that was so great the first time around.

Uncharted 2 picks up right where the first game left off. Treasure hunter extraordinaire Nathan Drake is back, this time trying to find out what happened to the lost fleet of Marco Polo. Aided by new and old characters alike, Drake’s journey takes him across exotic locales all over the world. Jungles, snowy mountains, hidden villages — you name it, it’s there.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

Building upon the epic nature from the first game, Uncharted 2 is grandiose in every sense of the word. Again playing out as a big-time summer blockbuster movie, the game has a number of insane cinematic moments. The opening chapter of the campaign heaves itself in your face, forcing you to learn the game’s controls while Drake is trying to climb up a wrecked train that is hanging — just barely — over a cliff. Yeah, this “tutorial” is only the beginning. There are a lot of ridiculous and over-the-top action sequences scattered throughout, and they are just AWESOME. Drake has almost superhuman jumping abilities — which come in handing for the game’s excellent platforming sections — and does a lot of stuff that is physically impossible, but it works because this is a *video game*. For sheer cinematic brilliance in gaming form, Uncharted 2 is among the best.

It certainly helps that the game is stunning, one of the most gorgeous titles available on any platform. The character models are top-notch, and the aforementioned exotic locales are simply beautiful. The details found while traversing these areas are subtle but brilliant, such as Drake having snow get stuck to his pants while in the mountains, or having his clothing become wet after jumping into a lake. With an impressive musical score and some excellent voice acting, Uncharted 2 definitely feels like an action movie.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

While this sequel is all-around more polished than its predecessor, it still struggles with some minor gameplay mechanical issues. Combat is much improved, as now you don’t have to empty clip after clip into enemies before they finally drop. However, there are still occasional problems with the covering system, namely Drake getting sent to hide behind the wrong piece of cover than what you originally intended. This tends to happen right in the heat of important battles, and can lead to some frustrating deaths that are faults of the gameplay, not the user. There is also a lot of repetition in the game. There are moments where there seems to be gunfight after gunfight, which gets tiresome. Naughty Dog usually does a good job dividing up segments into different styles of gameplay, but there were some areas where it became redundant. Still, there are a lot of EPIC sequences that make up for the occasional monotony.

Perhaps most intriguing about Uncharted 2 is its addition of a multiplayer mode. At first I was wary of this because Uncharted is very much a single player experience, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how well-executed the online play turned out. There are both competitive and co-op options available, each of which has different game modes. I found the co-op games to be the most fun online, as you can either play through various levels while fighting off countless enemies, or you can play an “Arena” mode where you shoot your way through ten waves of villains. The competitive modes include traditional Deathmatch, Plunder (a spin on “capture the flag”), and Turf War (control areas to win), among others. There is still a good-sized community active today, and that should remain for the foreseeable future.

Uncharted 2 has received an impressive amount of accolades — and Sony has made sure that we are aware of this by listing “25 Perfect Review Scores” on its cover — and most of these high marks are deserved. While I still found issues with some of the gameplay quirks and general repetitiveness, I greatly enjoyed working my way through the single player campaign. The addition of a high-quality multiplayer section is just the icing on the cake. If you’re a fan of giant action/adventure epics, you will feel right at home with Uncharted 2.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

L.A. Noire
System: Playstation 3 [also on Xbox 360]
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi
Release Date: May 17, 2011

The first thing you should know about L.A. Noire is that this is not a traditional Rockstar game. If you come in expecting a Grand Theft Auto-style adventure, you will be sorely disappointed.

Having said that, L.A. Noire is pretty damn brilliant in its own right.

Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the game places you in the role of Cole Phelps, an LAPD Officer who is trying to work his way through the ranks after just coming home from World War II. In a world filled with crime and shady characters (as in the classic film noirs that this borrows heavily from), Phelps is one of the rare few who seems interested in doing the right thing. Phelps doesn’t believe in covering up evidence or tampering with crime scenes; he does his job strictly by the book. This is a refreshing change of pace from previous Rockstar titles in which the lead character basically has free reign to wreak havoc in the game environment.

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

Cole’s job is to investigate crime scenes and to figure out exactly what the hell happened at them. This involves inspecting areas for clues, examining dead bodies, chatting up witnesses and interrogating suspects. While maintaining the open-world environments found in other Rockstar games, L.A. Noire is much more linear overall. You are given case after case to solve, and outside of some side missions that usually involve shootouts or chasing after suspects, there isn’t as much to do in the game world. This is not a problem at all, however, because the cases are long and extremely engrossing. It’s hard not to get caught up in the particulars of certain cases, especially while working in the homicide department. Many of these crimes are based on true stories, which adds even more to the game’s authenticity. In terms of creating 1940s Los Angeles, this is pretty f’n incredible.

The gameplay plays out as something like a hybrid of Heavy Rain’s detailed theatrics and the old point-and-click PC adventure titles prominent in the 1990s, with bits of action sequences sprinkled in. But really, L.A. Noire has developed its own unique style that sets it apart from other titles.

While the action sequences are fun — ramming suspects off the road or chasing them on foot over rooftops never gets old — the most intriguing part of the game is when you interview potential suspects. L.A. Noire’s big developmental feature is the use of a new MotionScan technology that uses astounding facial accuracy to make the characters truly come to life. Seriously, L.A. Noire has the best facial expressions ever seen in a video game. This is absolutely crucial to the gameplay as well since you are required to study the faces of suspects, witnesses and anyone else you talk to. When someone answers one of your questions, you are given three choices: “truth,” “doubt,” or “lie.” It’s up to you if you believe the person of interest or not, but if you believe they are lying then you have to show some kind of proof. If you are unable to accurately determine if they are telling the truth or not, you will be penalized and this can change the outcome of the case. It is possible to send the wrong person to jail in some cases, so it is extremely important to study character reactions.

L.A. Noire [PS3, 2011]

The aforementioned MotionScan technology is made of even greater use by employing real actors to play out the in-game characters. The game borrows heavily from the cast of Mad Men, as more than a handful of the popular TV show’s actors have been used for various roles (including Aaron Staton aka “Ken Cosgrove” as Cole Phelps). The combination of outstanding facial animations, authentic acting and an immaculately-detailed LA game environment makes this one of the better looking games on the market today. Throw in some phenomenal voice acting and 1940s radio and you have a fantastic work of art.

For all of its brilliance, however, L.A. Noire is not perfect. The game offers 21 cases in total to solve, but they start to grow repetitive around the final third of the campaign. This happens after the homicide chapter, which is so good that it would have been really hard to top. Considering the way the story goes, it makes sense to have it in the middle, but it’s almost like Team Bondi gave away its main event too early. Outside of this, there are some occasional annoyances that hinder the gameplay such as idiotic pedestrians who have a habit of running like maniacs directly into your car’s driving path, as well as some occasional glitches and slowdown. Late in the game, I stumbled across one of the most bizarre glitches I have ever seen: I was driving to a crime scene and cut through someone’s backyard. Not a big deal, but apparently the game randomly decided that their yard was made of quicksand and my car slowly started to sink into the ground, tail-end first. The game jolted Phelps and his partner out of the car while the vehicle proceeded to tilt straight up, with just the front half of the car remaining above ground. It was definitely a strange sight to behold. I got a kick out of it, and this will probably not happen for too many people, but I couldn’t help but to share this weird little story.

In essence, L.A. Noire is pretty damn incredible despite its flaws. This is a game unlike any other, and it is one that will surely spawn its own copycats in the future. There is room for growth, which I am sure the inevitable sequel will expand upon, but this is still an engaging experience for anyone interested in detective fiction and film noir. As long as you don’t expect a wild action ride like GTA, chances are you will enjoy L.A. Noire as much as I have.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: MLB 11: The Show [Playstation 3, 2011]

MLB 11: The Show [Playstation 3, 2011]

MLB 11: The Show
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: SCEA San Diego Studios
Release Date: March 8, 2011

One of the biggest reasons I bought a Playstation 3 last year (other than for Blu-ray and a handful of exclusives) was to finally be able to play MLB: The Show in its full-fledged glory. I had played the pint-sized PSP versions in years past and heartedly enjoyed them, but I knew its PS3 big brother would deliver all of that and more. It is rare that I buy new sports games, but I made sure to pick up MLB 11: The Show right before the actual season started.

This year’s edition boasts brand new analog controls, a huge change to the series and something that seemingly all sports games have been moving toward. For the most part, these analog controls work well. Pitching in particular feels more natural than ever before, and it’s about as close as you can get to actually throwing a baseball with a video game controller in your hand. The hitting and fielding controls take some time getting used to, especially the hitting, which has a steep learning curve that is bound to frustrate all but the most patient gamers. Still, even if you end up disliking the new controls, you can always revert back to the traditional style of gameplay. The allowance of a change in control schemes is just one of many, many tweakable options that MLB 11 provides.

MLB 11: The Show [Playstation 3, 2011]

Basically, this is a baseball simulator in video game form. While not entirely as in-depth as text-based PC titles such as Out of the Park Baseball, MLB 11 still offers detailed statistics, including several that are mainly only of interest to sabermetricians. This is a game that is catered toward hardcore baseball fans, although it remains accessible for the more casual as well.

Typically in sports games I spend most of my time building a franchise and watching it progress over the years. While MLB 11’s franchise mode is excellent and worthy of many gaming hours, I found myself playing Road to the Show more than anything else. In this mode, you create a player of any position and then work your way through the minors before hitting the big time. Along the way, you can train and build up your stats via in-game experiences. If you’re a hitter, you can gain more “XP” by not just getting base hits, but by working the pitch count and getting a strong at-bat out of the situation. This is similar for pitchers as well; getting an MVP-caliber hitter to single after a long at-bat is better for you than letting him do so on the first pitch. It’s a lot of fun watching your created player work his way up to the big leagues. Just like in reality, once you hit the big time you never want to go back.

MLB 11: The Show [Playstation 3, 2011]

I would be remiss if I did not mention MLB 11’s stunning presentational values. This is a gorgeous game, and it’s easily one of the most lifelike sports titles ever. Every player is modeled after their real-life counterparts, complete with accurate batting stances and pitching mechanics. The stadiums are simply beautiful, and the game really makes you feel as if you are there. The game’s announcing crew of Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell and Eric Karros is solid for the most part, although their comments sometimes feel disjointed and a lack of chemistry is apparent.

For baseball in this generation of video games, you cannot do any better than MLB 11: The Show. While the game is not without its flaws — namely, the steep learning curve for hitting/fielding and an abundance of lengthy loading screens — it is still a great effort that will please any and all baseball fans. If this is your first time playing Sony’s franchise, you are in for a treat.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Heavy Rain [PS3, 2010]

Heavy Rain [PS3, 2010]

Heavy Rain
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: February 23, 2010

Heavy Rain is a story driven adventure title that feels like equal parts video game, film noir and crime novel. This effort from Quantic Dream is unique, an experiment that does not come often enough in the gaming world these days. The developers themselves call this an “interactive drama”, which is a pretty good way of describing the experience.

This is a game that relies heavily on its story, and thankfully it delivers in that aspect. The plot revolves around the Origami Killer, an unidentified male who has been murdering children by slowly allowing them to drown via extended periods of rainfall. There are four playable characters, each of whom is trying to determine the killer’s identity. One is a father who believes his missing son is the next potential victim. Another is a photojournalist who is trying to write the next big story. The other two are a private investigator and an FBI profiler, both of whom have the same agenda. As we play through the game, the characters are thoroughly developed, and it is easy to get caught into their worlds. The game starts off a little slow, but once the story picks up it can get very, very difficult to stop playing. I burned through the game in less than a week, simply because I had to find out what would happen next.

Much of the gameplay relies on exploring areas and talking to characters, and then participating in quick-time events (pressing a button or performing a function quickly when it appears on screen). What helps set Heavy Rain apart from other titles is that everything you do is permanent. If you slip up and let one of the main characters die, they are gone forever. This dynamic makes certain moments even more intense because you are literally fighting for your character’s life — there are no do-overs here. I love this style of gameplay, as it makes everything you do, no matter how trivial, feel important.

The game’s entire presentation is fantastic. The graphics are amazing, and they feature some of the best human character models ever found in a video game. The well-written story, strong character development and high quality voice acting are all part of what makes Heavy Rain so great.

There is one fault that I feel compelled to mention — the game’s occasionally clunky controls. I’m not sure who’s bright idea it was to make us hold down R2 and use the analog stick at the same time in order to move around on screen, but this method never feels natural. Even as I approached the game’s ending, I still found myself accidentally moving a character in the wrong direction. An annoying problem, yes, but one I am mostly willing to forgive considering how brilliant the rest of the game is.

To be short, Heavy Rain is a fresh and unique experience that cannot be found elsewhere on the Playstation 3 system. This is by far one of the most immersive video game experiences I have ever played through, and it is something that every serious gamer should play at some point. This is a dark and occasionally disturbing game, but it is one hell of an adventure.

9.5/10