Batman: Arkham City
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Rocksteady Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, mild language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco, violence)
When “Batman: Arkham Asylum” wowed us in 2009, most praised it for prioritizing quality over scope and giving us a polished Batman experience in a confined space instead of one spread thin across yet another open world.
Two years and incalculable more polish later, “Batman: Arkham City” has arrived to make us all look foolish.
As the title implies and story explains, “City” takes place in a much larger space. The prison city of Arkham is walled off from the rest of Gotham City, but it’s extremely spacious as prison cities go. “Asylum” nailed the fun of gliding, rappelling and ziplining as Batman, and “City” makes it that much more fun by giving you more room to move freely. The Batmobile remains absent, but given how fast you can bound across and around rooftops, it would have felt passé anyway.
The fruits of a bigger world are obvious. There’s a wider array of environments to explore and numerous side quests to engage at your leisure. The optional Riddler challenges are back, but now there are more than 400 of them, and while the best of them still involve actual riddles you’ll need to use gadgets and your head to solve, you’ll complete many of them simply by finding a way to access the city’s most obscure corners.
Finally, the story itself is longer, and between the four-part Catwoman story arc (included with new copies of the game) and metric ton of challenge rooms, Riddler content and side missions available to Batman and Catwoman alike, “City” is a monstrously deep game.
But bigger alone isn’t better, and it’s the lessons learned from “Asylum” that truly elevate “City” beyond its predecessor.
Chiefly, “City” doesn’t fumble the primary objective, which is to make the player feel like Batman. The open world exists to serve Batman’s unique brand of movement, gadgetry and detective skills rather than vice versa, and that leads to some ingenious mission designs that rise far above the same old open-world stuff. Batman’s Detective Vision — a transparent overlay with numerous interfaces for tracking villains and unlocking other secrets — is even more valuable than before, and the myriad ways “City” uses it to craft unique interfaces for unique circumstances is a testament to some amazing attention to detail.
Additionally, “City” knows when to go small. Though you’re never forced down a linear road, many of the story’s biggest moments take place inside smaller areas (many indoors) that deviate considerably in terms of design, architecture and the demands placed on Batman’s gadgets and skills. “Asylum’s” outstanding hand-to-hand combat — a system that rewards rhythmic timing and punishes mindless button mashing — returns, and “City” generally features it in areas neither too cramped nor too wide open to disrupt your rhythm.
The benefits of diverse design are most pronounced for “City’s” stealthy side, which tasks you with disarming multiple gunmen with as little fuss as possible. Controlled scenarios in close quarters invoke the best of “Asylum’s” stealth scenarios, while showdowns against snipers pitted on multiple rooftops allow you to spread your wings and use every gadget at your disposal to quietly, humanely and epically neutralize them one by one.
Everything “City” tries, it nails, and its ability to do so many things so well makes the transition to a larger space a trivial and painless one.
The game displays a similar level of confidence with regard to its storytelling and the way it paces itself, supplying a cavalcade of villains who each leave their mark on the game without getting in each other’s way. The visual design and voice acting are incredible, and while the way “City” plays may be what defines it, the way that story wraps may be what you remember most vividly about it.
Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One
For: Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, fantasy violence, language)
You should know straight away that if you expect a typical “Ratchet & Clank” experience from “Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One,” what you get instead probably will disappoint you.
If, however, you understand going in that “One” is the Playstation 3’s answer to “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” what you get should match and very possibly exceed expectations. Significant compromise went into distilling the series’ best ingredients into a potentially messy four-player (online or offline) co-op game, but what remains mostly does the name proud.
First, the obvious explanation of what “One” is not. It isn’t a traditional 3D platformer that gives players complete freedom to move around and explore massive, intricate environments in any manner they please. Nor is it a freewheeling third-person shooter that combines that joy of movement with brilliantly offbeat weapon design to create a wonderful marriage of platforming, shooting, puzzle-solving and cartoonish destruction on a gigantic scale.
“One’s” worlds remain large and inspired in their design, but navigating them is hamstrung by a fixed camera designed to accommodate two to four characters at once. Similarly, while your arsenal of weapons and gadgets gradually expands into a massive collection of series favorites and brand-new contraptions, the fixed camera and the need it creates for auto-targeting dumbs the gunplay down quite a bit. “One” compensates somewhat by bumping up the enemy count and upholding the series’ appetite for destruction, but if there’s one area where the compromise feels most pronounced, it’s here.
As bears repeating, though, “One” makes up for those losses elsewhere and in the service of the game it truly wants to be — a frantic co-op experience that’s playable alone but accessible to all, and one designed around action that’s fast and manic instead of epic and nuanced.
In that regard, it succeeds quite nicely. “One’s” overriding storyline is as lengthy as a traditional “Ratchet” game and its worlds comparably large, but it divides itself into co-op-friendly chunks that take roughly 15-20 minutes each to play. The interface for setting up games isn’t terribly elegant, but the game itself is flexible enough to accommodate whatever setup — solo, with friends, with strangers or a little bit of all three — you wish to take.
Similarly, “One” bounds so swiftly between gameplay elements that the aforementioned compromises mostly cease to matter. You’ll take down a wave of enemies for a few moments, solve a puzzle for a few more, do a little running and jumping, swing on a rope or ride a rail to cross a gap, maybe fight a boss enemy, and do whatever else the game fancies next. “One” struggles near the end when it runs out of ideas and goes heavy on the shooting, but for most of the way, the steady mix of platforming, shooting, puzzle-solving, random diversions and new gadgets makes for a fast game with little downtime.
If anything, it’s a little too frantic with three or four players. Having Ratchet, Clank, Qwark and Dr. Nefarious sharing one screen leads to some hilarious collapses in teamwork and competence, but two players may be more ideal for those who’d rather prosper than let chaos ensue. Going it alone also is viable, because “One” provides an A.I. partner whose competence and perception are startlingly on point. (Take notes, Lego games.)
It wouldn’t be a “Ratchet” game without a funny script and brilliant voice acting driving it along, and this, happily, is one area where “One” doesn’t deviate. The story gamely explains why this unlikely foursome is stuck together, and the dialogue — from main and supporting characters alike — is among the sharpest and funniest to grace any game this year.
Sideway: New York
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Playbrains/Fuel Industries/Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild language, fantasy violence, crude humor, tobacco reference)
On style alone, “Sideway: New York” is immediately striking. It takes a genre as old as time — the sidescrolling platformer — and applies a graffiti motif that animates flat, cartoony characters in front of fully-rendered environments while a terrific soundtrack (courtesy of Mr. Lif) blares behind it. But style immediately becomes the second most interesting thing about “Sideway” when it completely and seamlessly turns that world on its ear for the first time. In “Sideway,” player and enemy alike exist as flat, living tags on the walls and rooftops, and when you’re that ingrained into your surroundings, they can completely shift perspective without disorienting you. Jumping to the top of a building, for instance, will cause a perspective shift that turns the rooftop you just climbed to into a wall full of platforms you must navigate to reach the next rooftop, which might rotate a whole different way to get you back to the ground. The trick is hard enough to describe on paper, and it’s impossible to do verbal justice to the ingenious way “Sideway” turns different sides of the same world into a single, continuous sidescrolling level that’s groundbreaking and classic at once. The process isn’t flawless: Combat and other controls aren’t as responsive as their fluid animation would suggest they are, and you’ll die many cheap deaths en route to finishing the story (and, if you’re up for a stiff challenge, finding every last secret shift and collectable in each level). Fortunately, checkpoints are generous enough to keep the annoying aspects of “Sideway’s” challenge from overtaking its enjoyable aspects. “Sideway” also supports two-player co-op, though it’s offline only.
Payday: The Heist
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Overkill Software/Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, strong language)
“Payday: The Heist” is an interactive robbery playset, and like all playsets, it’s only as good as the imaginations of those playing with it. The six missions recreate classic heist scenarios — some glamorous (bank robbery, penthouse diamond heist), others not so much (a slaughterhouse full of gold, a panic room inside a meth lab). Staying alive is the primary objective, and standard first-person shooter controls and mechanics apply, but every situation throws out secondary objectives that either help the heist along or keep bloodshed to a minimum (by first-person shooter standards, anyway). If that sounds a little like “Left 4 Dead,” only with riches instead of mere survival at stake, you’ve got the right idea. And just as with that game, “Payday” truly sings when you team up with others online (four players). You can engage the missions by yourself, and whatever experience you accrue will boost your game-wide reputation meter and unlock new weapons and upgrades. But while “Payday” teams you up with three serviceable A.I. partners in crime, the inability to coordinate and strategize the way you can with human players and headsets takes away the game’s best feature. A bank may sound small, but when you have to break into the basement vault, crack the second-story server room and keep hostages from escaping through the front door at the same time, it suddenly feels massive. If you want to cover all that ground and have an absolute blast doing so, human companions are a must.