Wednesday, December 14

High Horse Audit 2011: Most Disappointing Game of the Year

There's an obvious nominee for this award, but it won't walk away with the prize. Yes, Duke Nukem Forever was horrible. It took more than a decade to see release, but it failed to "disappoint." No-one at Gearbox Software leapt forth to scream the virtues of the "return of the king." This game was spruiked solely on the novelty that the game would in fact be released. Despite my initial optimism, I wasn't overly confident of a strong showing.

 Disappointment came from the over-hyped, overrated games that simply failed to live up to their developers' promises (or abjectly failed to meet my expectations). L.A Noire falls into this category, as I often assume anything with a Rockstar logo is a guaranteed winner. It was an un-game, that refused to let me play. Sure, there were gamified elements, but they all fell flat. For example (SPOILER): in the fourth case, it's bleedingly obvious that there was a racial motivation for the crime; you just can't raise that point in questioning until the game wants you too (END SPOILER). Arbitrary driving and combat only added to the tedium. This was a horrible "game," but it was by no means the most disappointing release of the year.

The unjustifiably and universally acclaimed Dark Souls also failed to sell me on From Software's punitive brand of Action RPG hell. If it weren't so brutally difficult, it would have been written off as "ugly," "awkward," and accused of containing a shallow story. Force gamers to endure anxiety and frustration, and suddenly it's "memorable," "riveting," and "inviting" (Gamespot). By comparison, Lost Planet 2 was also excruciatingly difficult and likewise, had little in the way of checkpoints or most other standards of modern game design and it's "broken, tedious" and "downright frustrating" (Gamespot - for the record, I chose this outlet because it is one of the strongest advocates of Dark Souls while being a fierce critic of Lost Planet 2). Such a curious double standard in games journalism, wouldn't you agree? Still, we're not quite there.

Before I put you all out of your collective misery, I need to clarify something: disappointing doesn't mean bad. I broke my brother's heart last year when I said Mass Effect 2 was more underwhelming than any other game from 2010's extensive release list. I don't want to enrage anyone, but you must know that good games can fail to deliver on the promises of developers, game journalists, and your peers.

The most disappointing game of 2011 was Batman: Arkham City. 

Batman: Arkham Asylum was nothing short of a revelation. It may not have been the best game of 2009, but it was - and still is - the best superhero game released in recent memory. I expected a lot from a sequel, and the early reviews only served to feed the fires of hype; matter of fact, the game is now second only to Grand Theft Auto IV in terms of metascore on the PlayStation 3 (Metacritic).

While it was a solid (I may have even used the word, great) game, Arkham City failed to meet or exceed expectations.

First of all, some of my favourite villains were mishandled by the developer. Two Face was a generic gangster with none of the mystique he displayed in my favourite Bat Books. Penguin - voiced by the literal everyman, Nolan North - was equally forgettable and unlikeable. Even some of the heroes were misappropriated. Take the regrettably silent Nightwing for example. Upon reflection, with the exception of the rousing score, the sound design was pretty repetitive too. Being treated to the same thug diatribes as I glided around the city became somewhat grating, and felt like a poor replacement for the hustle and bustle of life found in the Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto titles.

There was also the issue of control. More gadgets were added to an already expansive arsenal, and navigating with the d-pad was pretty unresponsive. This was particularly frustrating during sequences - such as the boss fight against Mr Freeze - where a little precision was required. You could also use some of the more offensive items in a "Quickfire" capacity during combat, but that turned a simple rhythmic dance into a button-mashing farce. Towards the end, I was flipping around thugs dropping explosive gel everywhere; no skill required. Worst of all, the tension-filled boss fights of Arkham Asylum were dumped in favour of visually-impressive - though deceptively-simple encounters - with villains that felt thrown-in to the already twisted narrative.

Should've packed more gel...

The optional nature of open world games also came into conflict with the Batman I know from comic books. The Caped Crusader wouldn't allow any evil to go unpunished in print, so why am I allowed to pick and choose who I bring to justice? This was a game that would have benefited from the reins being tightened.

Rocksteady tried to shoehorn too many characters into the adventure, and the resulting lack of focus made for a clumsy main story arc. When the credits started rolling after the anti-climactic, final boss fight, I was gutted. "What? What? This can't be it?" I wailed. All of the momentum that the narrative picked up was crudely killed off with an ending cinematic that was typical of fighting games during the late nineties.  

Arkham City went with the quantity over quality approach. There may have been more to do, but the game delivered fewer memorable moments, less responsive controls (when translated to the "open world" setting), and pretty, yet simple boss fights. Like I said in my review, the game is bigger, bolder, but not necessarily better than its predecessor.

Batman: Arkham City coverage:

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