Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Security failings of Arkham

Despite the fact that it houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the world, the security arrangements of Arkham Asylum seem to be dangerously slack.* Playing Batman: Arkham Asylum has brought home to me how bad the policies actually are. For instance, I can’t see the logic in keeping unlockable boxes of assault rifles scattered throughout the island; are they honestly that sure there will never be a breakout?

Let’s take a look at some of the other worst offenders:

At the beginning of the game, Harley Quinn seems to have gotten access to the security forcefield control room, and has a pass to enable/disable them. We’ll gloss over the fact that Arkham was willing to employ someone who was obviously already unstable enough to allow herself to be lured by the Joker into villain-dom, and focus on how she managed to get into the control room… Did she break in? If Harley Quinn, with her red and blue Basque and chalk white face makeup, was somehow able to evade security, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. Also, why does her security pass still work? I’m pretty sure most high security prisons collect those and deactivate them once you become an inmate.

Leading on from this, why do they let Batman walk right up to the Intensive Treatment rooms? Yes, he’s Batman, and is unlikely to break anyone out of Arkham, but is it hospital policy to allow heavily armed, masked men walk the corridors?

Batman? Upset the inmates? How very dare you...

Of course, once you’re barred from proceeding any further (you’ll “upset the inmates”, apparently… where obviously a chemically-scarred, maniacal, psychotic mass-murderer won’t), that’s where things go wrong. As soon as Joker is able to get somewhere he’ll cause some damage, he is being attended by a single unarmed guard and an orderly. They even take him out of the restraints they had him in to take him down to the treatment rooms!

How did the Riddler hide all these trophies around the place? Most of them are in places even Batman struggles to get to, so Riddler must have been crawling around ventilation shafts for months. As a side issue, did no-one realise Batman had a Batcave hidden in the foundations? How did he even build it?** Who knows what else is lurking underneath the mansions.

A more appropriate level of security

With all of these flaws, it’s no wonder people are constantly breaking out. That said, when the founder of the Asylum’s idea of treatment is fatal electrocution, it’s not hard to see why the place doesn’t have a roaring trade in rehabilitation (and why so many people are keen to leave).

*Beyond the obvious ‘revolving door’ policy on sentencing, of course.

**Actually, this has always bothered me about Batman. Where does he get his labour? Do Bruce and Albert do all the heavy construction work in the Batcave themselves, or do they have a very discrete building contractor?

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

"Just as I expected. The agile crook also managed to slip an induction receiving antenna into your left trouser leg."

Now that I've spent a fair bit of time with it, I thought I would put down my thoughts on Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Batman shouldn't work; it's a video game based on comic IP riding the success of a movie adaptation. I struggle to think of a single recent game with either of these qualities that was better than mediocre; I hear the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games aren't too bad, and City of Heroes/City of Villains, although not based on a particular comic IP, are fairly well regarded. Nothing, however, can approach Batman in terms of style and passion. Batman: Arkham Asylum nails the one thing you want in a superhero game: it makes you feel like the Dark Knight himself.

The game begins with Joker captured and en route to Arkham. A wonderful sequence sees you escorting him to the depths of the Intensive Treatment building over the credits before, inevitably, the Joker breaks free. As you pursue him deeper into Arkham, it becomes clear that the joker has been planning his 'party' for some time, and you are his guest of honour.

It's worth pointing out that the game is not based on the recent successful films by Chris Nolan; good though they are, certain things key to the comic book had to be removed in the transition to the big screen. Though Arkham Asylum feels much more true to the comic book roots of the character, I would point to the critically lauded Batman: The Animated Series as inspiration for some of the stylistic choices (and, indeed, the story was written by Paul Dini, a writer for The Animated Series).

In fact, several of the voice actors return from the animated series return here; Kevin Conroy delivers a solid performance as the unflappable Batman, but stealing the show is Mark Hamil as Joker. You'll hear a lot from Joker throughout the game; he regularly pops up on the public address system to taunt you or, more likely, his own thugs scattered around Arkham. There are enough messages that they never get repetitive, though the thugs you fight for the most part of the game have considerably less variety.

The graphics are, put simply, gorgeous. The game runs surprisingly smoothly, even on a mid-level system. The character models are supremely detailed; it may just be my imagination, but I think you can even see Batman's stubble get longer over the course of the game. Some characters are definitely modelled after their animated versions (Killer Croc, for example). As this is the Unreal engine at work, outdoors environments are handled seamlessly (load times in general are very short, except for the unskippable start-up splash screen), though everything does tend to have a bit of a 'plasticy' look to it.

The visuals do a very good job of bringing Arkham to life; there are vague feelings of other games (the more gothic sections of Bioshock, for instance), but this is ultimately the comic book world of Gotham. The sprawling gothic buildings perfectly evoke the feeling of the infamous madhouse. In fact, you sometimes feel a little uncomfortable walking round it; to mirror Batman's sentiments, it's hard to imagine the place being conducive to anyone's mental wellbeing (I could talk for a while about this mirroring Batman's presence in Gotham; after all, in The Dark Knight Returns, Joker has effectively become comatose until Batman comes out of retirement. This would, however, be overly pretentious, so I won't).

The only thing which may cause drops in framerate is the PHYS-X effects. These are unique to the PC and add certain funky physical effects to the game; realistic smoke, cloth and paper curling and flapping realistically, breakable tiles, etc. These effects weren't present in the console versions and, to be perfectly honest, they're only ever a nice little extra; if you're suffering terrible framerates, you could happily turn them off.

Unfortunately, you may not see as much of the environment as you'd like as much of the game has you using Detective Mode. This vision mode allows you to see enemies through walls and highlights grates and weak walls for you to exploit. Though this sounds like it makes the game too easy, when you play for a while it just feels right; after all, you're Batman! The downside is that Detective Mode paints everything a deep blue, meaning you lose out on the lovely textures and models that have obviously had a lot of time and energy put into them.





Boss fights (not so good)

The 'silent hunter' gameplay is brilliant; you will occasionally be confronted with a room full of armed guards and will have to incapacitate them all before you can continue. Batman can use his grapple to swing about amongst the rafters and gothic architecture (ie, stone Gargoyles), and can sneak up behind thugs to silently knock them out. Other gadgets and upgrades offer more options, from multiple batarangs and selective detonating of your explosive gel (the inverted takedown comes highly recommended). There are plenty of ways to use the environment as well; there are walls to break down, grates to hide under, so you can meticulously plan your attack or improvise on the spot as you see fit.

The real joy in this mode, however, is watching the thugs become terrified as you take their comrades out one by one. You can hear them starting to talk to themselves ("I'm gonna die down here, and no-one's ever gonna know...") and see them shaking; occasionally, they'll even shoot into the shadows at curtains flapping in the breeze or a boiler venting off steam. Most of these sections are unlockable for play in the game's Challenge mode, so you can attempt them against the clock (or just have fun silently eliminating all the threats...).

Lasting Appeal

Challenge mode

Story mode replay

Hard mode

Unlockables (Riddler trophies)

Friday, 18 September 2009


Sorry, but what is the deal with Halo III: ODST? I’ll admit I’ve never been a huge Halo fan, but this is just starting to feel like the Emperor’s new clothes. It’s just another Halo game, people! They’re all boring; boring weapons, boring enemies, boring environments. Give me some Call of Duty any day of the week!

In other news, Batman: Arkham Asylum is out on PC today. Yay! Steam is downloading my copy as we speak… I’m so psyched about playing this; even Yahtzee seemed to enjoy it (speaking of Yahtzee, I’m intending on downloading all of his adventure games to play over the weekend to try and inspire me… I’m hoping to try and write my own adventure game [with a little help from a friend] using AGS!)

Coming up soon (early next week) will be a brief review of Time Gentlemen, Please!, the sequel to the free Ben There, Dan That. If you haven’t checked these out, go do it now! I’m also going to write some more stuff about Fallout 3, just a few thoughts I had about the dialogue that came to me the other day.

Enjoy the weekend, y’all!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Hulk Smash!

So, I've been playing a particular game a lot over the past couple of weeks... BUT! It's not a video game! I've finally got a copy of the reissued Games Workshop boardgame Space Hulk (well, I say finally, I actually got it three days before it was released in the shops), and have spent the last few weekends giving it a spin and playing through a variety of missions.

Space Hulk is Games Workshop's answer to Alien and Aliens. Your squad of Space Marine Terminators have boarded a drifting mash to derelict ships, the hulk, to prevent it from colliding with a nearby hive world. Scans of the hulk reveal it is teeming with sleeping Genestealers, a brooding and darkly intelligent alien species related to the Tyranids. One player leads the Terminators on various missions through the hulk's twisting corridors, the other takes the role of the Genestealers as they stalk the Space Marines through the ship. The Genestealers are initially represented by 'blips' which can hide between 1 and 3 aliens, and the Marine player can use a secret pool of command points to spring surprises on his opponent. In close combat, the odds are heavily stacked in the Genestealer's favour, so the Space Marines must do their best to engage at range with their rapid firing storm bolters...

The box itself is fantastic and, though it is pricey at nearly £60, it weighs in at around 4kg, with much of that being the beautifully detailed 'debossed' cardboard corridors and snap together plastic miniatures. Beware, though, it'll be a good few hours before you can actually play the game; it took me two solid evenings to clip out all the models and shave the flash off them.

The models really do deserve a special mention. They're as crammed full of detail as any of the metal commander models, and the plastic they're made of allows authentically spindly arms and pointy claws on the Genestealers. For the most part, mould lines are hidden well underneath the joins in plates of armour, and the many intricate details makes the models a painters dream. Of course, as they're snap together, there isn't really any scope for conversions, but as the formation of the squad is fixed this shouldn't be too much of an issue (and for your own games, you could always paint up a regular box of Terminators with any funky conversions). The only two slight criticisms are that the models are undeniably Blood Angels, so tough luck if you fancy painting them up as Smurfs, and that they are maybe too spindly; I had a couple of fine bits of detail snap off as I was assembling. However, as you can see, the models are absolutely fantastic.

It's been many years since I last played the game, so I can't reliably say whether the game has changed much since its previous incarnation, but it certainly feels authentic. The rules are nice and simple; they're very easy to learn, though I would recommend rereading the rules after you've played your first few games as there will undoubtedly be some small point you've missed! The game can often feel unbalanced one way or another, with some maps being very challenging for the Marines, and others seemingly impossible for the Genestealers. However, the point of the game is to play each map with both sides in a single match to even out any unfairness.

I thought I would round things off here with a quick summary of a few hints and tips I've picked up over the past few weekends:

  • Firstly, and most basically, don't ever let a Space Marine get bogged down in combat. Only the Librarian and the two combat only Terminators can really reliably win, and even then, they should be left on Guard rather than being used offensively.
  • Don't throw away Genestealers. It may seem like you a limitless amount, but quite often every single one will need to count.
  • You should really be using the timer, it adds a lot to the game. However, a ten second pause at the beginning of your turn can work wonders; just remember to do the things you really need to get done on your turn first!
  • Don't bunch your Space Marines up; bunched up Terminators can't fire, and you are therefore wasting their shots!
  • Remember to read the manual; for instance, notice that Sergeants only get their +1 bonus (+2 for the chap with the Thunder Hammer) if an attack came from the front square only. Also, closing a door will trigger overwatch, as will opening it; a Genestealer can stand behind a door opening and closing it to trigger jams or waste assault cannon ammunition!
  • Finally, paint your models :)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

FUEL Review

FUEL was a game I never intended to buy; indeed, I’d never even properly heard of it until I read an article on it over at The Escapist. I mean, I was aware of the game but knew nothing about it; I very seldom play racing games (the last one I properly played was Need for Speed: Underground 2 back in 2004), so previews tend to slip under my radar. I only ended up buying it as I wanted to have a play round with the game world!

The premise of the game is that, after a massive ecological disaster, people have abandoned vast swathes of land due to the dangerous and unpredictable weather. You, and a number of other thrill-seekers, have started competing in races across the uninhabited wasteland to win fuel (yes, I’ll let you read that again to absorb how stupid it sounds; you race cars to win fuel).

This game is all kinds of large…

The main draw of the game is its much publicised, massive procedurally-generated game world; the playable area is around 14,400km2. I guess this equates to a square roughly 128km on each side, with a few sections on the top of mountains and in the sea being unreachable (this is an area roughly the size of East Timor, fact fans… Thanks to Wikipedia for that one). The game doesn’t store the entire world on your hard drive, however; the landscape is procedurally generated (not the same as it being random; see Elite), allowing the developers to hand-sculpt a few key areas and have the computer fill in the boring in-between parts.

The upshot is you have an enormous post-apocalyptic world you can roam around in (with a handy helicopter mode for quick travelling between zones). Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. This is not a living, breathing environment like Liberty City or the Capitol Wasteland of Fallout 3; you can explore in a ‘free drive’ mode, but there is little to see aside from the (admittedly hugely impressive) vistas. Exploring allows you to spot challenges and races scattered around the map, but it’s far easier to unlock these by bumping into ‘doppler’ trucks. These are unlocked after particular races; all you have to do is drop down on a helipad nearby, drive cross-country until you catch it up, and bang! You’ve unlocked all the challenges.

The views are frequently breathtaking.

Presentation wise, the game is good; the lighting during races is especially pretty, with sunrises and sunsets bathing the screen with a wonderful golden glow. Cars kick up realistic amounts of dirt and spray, all the stuff you’d expect of a game released in 2009. Interface and controls are okay, I guess… The game is obviously converted from console (only being able to switch between menus with the Y and T keys becomes highly frustrating), but if you grab your gamepad you shouldn’t have too many problems. The music is alright to begin with, but I ended up turning it off as the small selection of tunes started to grate; the same applies to the sound effects, particularly the ‘tyre-screech’ sound. Nothing too gamebreaking, though.

The races themselves are good fun, and FUEL is at its best when it does things differently from a standard racing game. For example, one of the challenge modes sees you pursuing a helicopter from the ground, with the dust kicked up by its rotors obscuring your version. Another has you chasing down rival cars and knocking them off the road in a cops-and-robbers mode. The career races are often memorable; one race has you struggling to stick to the road as a monumental lightning storm knocks trees and pylons into your path, and a further has a tornado hurling burnt out vehicles at you as your descend a mountainside. Even the settings themselves are fun to race through, from a wind farm in a desolate forest to a valley floor littered with wrecked trucks and a tanker ship marooned in the middle of a desert.

Some of the career races feature bizarre weather (strangely absent from the free-drive mode).

The strength of these few scripted races only seems to underline the mediocrity of both the free-drive mode and the other ‘fill’ races. You can’t help but feel a profound sense of wasted potential; yes, the Seek ‘n Destroy (the aforementioned cops-and-robbers mode) races are fun, but they ultimately pan out the same, a fact not helped by the lack of a proper damage model. You can’t help but think what would happen if elements of a Destruction Derby type game were added in to the game, or if we had single player ‘missions’ to perform not unlike the structure for flight or space combat games (the old classic ‘defend the convey’ mission would work brilliantly well here). In fact, I intend to post in a couple of days as to what I think could have been done with the game!

The other main problem with the game is the AI. I don’t know if the developers tried to add rubber-band AI or not, but the computer players can be seen to visibly cheat. For instance, if you lose sight of the person in first place, it’s very difficult to catch them up, though they will frequently slow right down once they get within sight of the finish line. I guess playing in multiplayer alleviates this problem, but in career mode we’re stuck with frustrating AI until a patch comes along to fix it (assuming it does!).

Despite the above, FUEL is a hard game to really dislike. It might just be the fact I’ve not played many racing games, but I love the decidedly arcade handling of the vehicles as I can throw the cars round the track as I was playing Mario Kart, and the thrill you get from hurtling down a slope through a forest like an extra from Return of the Jedi is hard to deny. If the idea of a massive post-apocalyptic world with some fun racing thrown in interests you, go for it. For everyone else, we can just look at the best Mad Max game that never was and sigh disappointedly.