A quick bit of background, before I get to discussing the cool bits.
Portland State professor Tom Bissell is also a geek culture journalist. Not in the same way that your 13-year-old cousin is a "journalist" because he started a blog called "Boobtaku" and once got linked by Fark for a list of the top 12 labia in gaming. Instead, Bissell is widely respected and is considered among the top geek-centric journalists in the country purely by virtue of his ability to take an otherwise inaccessibly geeky topic and make it both palatable for a mainstream audience, and an entertaining read in its own right.
He's written books, penned articles for Slate and Harper's, and one time, he even deigned to discuss the wacky bullshit that is Gears of War 2 with our own Erik Henriksen.
On the flipside, Batman: Arkham City is a new Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC videogame centering on Batman, a character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 who is steeped in enough mythology to choke a hippogryph. Despite the stereotype that all licensed games are terrible — and the more direct stereotype that all superhero games must also be terrible — Arkham City is one of the greatest games released this year.
Hoping to explain why (or at least get an opportunity to textually fellate the game like the rest of us), Bissell recently wrote a brilliant article for ESPN's Grantland blog. What it lacks in overt, inexplicable praise for the Bowl Championship Series and cameos by Dan Patrick, it more than makes up for in witty analysis of why Arkham City just works so damn well.
Instead of a rote review, Bissell forms his piece around the idea that this is a game whose (entirely justified) success is the result of a developer who took a character that is steeped in mythology, yet relatable, and gave players the tools necessary to re-enact his most thrilling adventures.
The only competition Rocksteady's Batman games have in terms of generally accepted video-game excellence is Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 so it might be useful to figure out what Batman and Spidey have in common.
Both are mortal. Both have clowning, grinning psychopath archenemies. Both derive their powers, whether literal or assumed, from creatures of notable ickiness. None of this suggests a mother lode of compelling video-game material, so why have Batman and Spidey proven to be such successful video-game characters? I suspect it has something to do with both characters' proclivity for gadgets, acrobatics, and urban environments. Green Lantern remains Green Lantern whether in Times Square or a wheat field. Superman remains Superman whether in Metropolis or cruising the rings of Saturn. But if you remove Batman from Gotham City or Spider-Man from Manhattan, you are basically left with two guys in funny suits. Only with the city in play do both characters become fun to control.
With Batman and Spider-Man, video games allowed us to vicariously experience what in the comics was only approximated and what in the movies was only spectacle. For the first time you actually got to feel what being Batman and Spider-Man was like. You attached your Batclaw to an Art Deco gargoyle and lurked up there in the shadows. You webslinged from one building to another through the canyons of Midtown. That was good, but what was even better was landing smack in the middle of half a dozen thugs and pounding the life insurance out of them. Was it really that simple? Create some interesting environments, incorporate a few cool villains, and wrap an interesting — or even competent — story around the thrilling core game loop of urban acrobatics and fistfights, and poof! — the perfect Batman and Spider-Man video game appears.
It's an oversimplification he readily admits, but then goes on to explain why the game is not just incredible by virtue of its quality, but also because it trumps its predecessor, Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that was widely lauded as the best superhero game to date on its release in 2009.
Continuing, he almost dips into proper review territory by offering Arkham City a smattering of genuine, if relatively low-key, praise.
"There is virtually nothing about the game that has not been praised: the world, the voice acting, the story, the boss fights, the gameplay, the packaging, load screen, the collectibles, the music, the combat," Bissell writes. "So before I write another word let me add to the hosannas. Arkham City is something special, something spectacular — the superhero simulation to end all superhero simulations."
He also adds a justified nod to the game's well-crafted combat system in the form of an only-entertaining-for-industry-folk jab at the New York Times'
only guy in the newsroom under the age of 70 gaming critic Seth Schiesel. In his dull-unto-narcoleptic review of the game Schiesel claims that the combat system in Arkham City is overly simplistic to such a degree that one can simply tap a single button repeatedly to win most fights.
Ironically, Schiesel's description is a vast oversimplification in and of itself, and Bissell calls him on it, saying that Rocksteady Studios has "basically found the Rosetta Stone for a certain kind of video-game combat system — one that is simple, supple, entertaining, variable, and still hair-raisingly intense."
Propers to Bissell for his apt description of the sublime combat mechanics and having the gall to drag a professional milquetoast like Schiesel out into the glaring light of public opinion before hurling him under the nearest mass transit option. Bonus propers to Bissell for finding a way to describe virtual fisticuffs as "supple," without managing to sound like a minutely less creepy Brian "Have I Mentioned My Japanese Wife?" Ashcraft.
The rest of Bissell's piece (again, I don't know what to call it exactly), is likewise excellent reading both for those who have yet to buy Arkham City and those who are currently luxuriating in an ongoing playthrough. He praises the apparent and impressive attention to detail in the world created by Rocksteady Studios, and wavers between sly admiration and disgust with the jerk-ass façade that is Bruce Wayne.
Most impressively, Bissell is also able to see past the wonderful shiny bits to pick a few nits where necessary.
"For a game whose writing and story have been so highly praised, you would think that Arkham City elevates the superhero game to a place of unimpeachable narrative accomplishment," Bissell writes. "It does not, and there are far too many dialogue botches in this game, such as when Batman overhears someone say that Catwoman is about to be executed. "That doesn't sound good," Batman says to himself. No, World's Greatest Detective, that most certainly does not."
As loathe as I am to promote anything that won't directly bring me profit, I have to give it up for Mr. Bissell. If you only read one article on Batman: Arkham City, make sure it's this one. Whether you want to view it as a review, a meditation or simply one of us Portland creative-types waxing verbose on what is likely the 2011 game of the year, this article is most definitely "required reading."
Assuming you can pull yourself away from the eternal midnight of Gotham's streets, that is.
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