Batman: Arkham Design Analysis (Part 1)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The following are Design-specific excerpts from my Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City YouTube videos, which I thought would be the sections of most interest for discussion on this site. If you want to listen more about Context, Aesthetics, Cohesion and Emotions feel free to watch the full videos.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
"--Arkham Asylum has 3 main components - combat, stealthy predator sections, navigation, and an auxiliary component in form of gadgets which adds depth to all 3 main ones.
Batman has a very flowy combat system which utilizes one principle very important in mainstream games - its basics are pretty easy, it’s really just hit and counter, but to master it you need to understand crowd control, utilize gadgets to help you, and keep in mind your timings to increase the combo meter.
There’s also just enough enemy variety to keep the combat interesting and not overload the player. There’s normal thugs, thugs with guns, thugs with knives and thugs with stun batons, and only the 2 last ones need special behavior - knife ones have to be stunned first, and enemies with batons have to be jumped over first. Rocksteady makes sure to not add too many types of these special enemies into a combat scenario at the same time, just one or two to spice things up.
Arkham Asylum does some very interesting little design choices that really help with the flow of the combat.
For example, when you have at least a 2x combo going, the last enemy in a fight will always fall down in one hit regardless of how much health he has left. In Batman combat usually you jump from one enemy to another, this means that the last enemy standing is somewhere farther away which is an excellent opportunity for a slow-mo one hit knockout as you jump towards that goon.
When you are doing an instant takedown, which requires at least an 8x combo meter (can be upgraded to 5x), other enemies will not attack you during the animation. There is no animation cancel in this situation, and being denied a takedown that required a combo would not feel good.
However, whenever you try doing a ground takedown, the closest enemy will always go to hit you and cancel the takedown. You won’t be able to counter them during the animation, so your combo will break. This sort of nudges the players to learn crowd control, as you’d want to do a ground takedown only if other enemies are too far away, or are stunned and can’t hit you. These kind of choices is why Batman’s combat system works so well.
Stealth also does a number of things correctly. First, of course, the predator sections pit you against gunned enemies - the most dangerous types as guns easily kill you. Especially if there’s multiple enemies firing. So melee combat is possible in certain cases but ill advised.
Then, the game really puts you in the shoes of Batman by making enemies more and more scared as you progress through a stealth section and take out the goons one by one. At first, enemies are unaware of your presence and are fairly calm. Then, if they notice you or at least one knocked out body they become aware and nervous, and start searching through the environment. In the last state, they’re terrified, and will frequently turn around or go in pairs to try and not let you get them unnoticed.
One very important thing the game does is that enemies do 180 degrees turns only in that terrified state. This allows to ramp up the difficulty of the encounter as you progress, but also makes you feel more like Batman in the earlier stages when the criminals are not as aware.
Predator sections are very well designed with a wide array of pathways, grates, breakable walls and gargoyles, although gargoyles are a little bit overpowered and there’s only one predator section in the whole main campaign that tries to take them away from you by booby trapping them. And even though it’s a shame that there’s just one instance of that, the environments are still very well designed.
And the last important part of the game, navigation, isn’t very exciting on its own. It’s mostly about utilizing an array of gadgets to get from point A to point B. However, it is very important in tandem with everything else. Batman: Arkham Asylum has absolutely stellar pacing, mixing up navigation sections, combat and predator encounters at just the right time. And the Scarecrow levels that have special rules and add more variety are inserted at just the right time as well.
The weakness that Asylum does have is the boss battles. The most interesting one is with Poison Ivy, and that’s not saying much considering that as boss battles go it’s quite basic. It is much better than the fights against huge enemies that is repeated several times over the course of the game. Which is a bit of a shame, but it’s a very minor frustration in comparison to everything else that Arkham Asylum does right.
So in terms of design, Asylum is an exemplary game of its genre worthy of your time--"
Batman: Arkham City
"--In terms of core gameplay, Arkham City is indeed a definite improvement. Combat has introduced double counters and a more comfortable use of gadgets which allows to more easily play in varied playstyles, while the stealth part of the game has got more types of takedowns and improved AI that will try to counter repetitive behavior. Plus, there’s more neat gadgets that spruce up both aspects of the game.
One other thing that is definitely an improvement over Asylum is the boss battles. City hosts an array of varied and very well designed fights with villains. The most memorable of the bunch is the Mr. Freeze battle that is not actually a brawl. It asks you to utilize a variety of stealth actions to defeat Freeze, as each strategy will work exactly one time only. It’s a very elegant design that fits perfectly into Arkham’s mechanics.
However, outside of those two pretty important points, the game starts breaking at the seams with what can be marked as the beginning of ‘more and bigger’ approach in the Arkham series.
Despite boasting a very detailed open-world in terms of environment design, Arkham City is still strongest in interiors, just like Asylum, where it utilizes the strength of all the in-game components - all navigation and stealth tools. The open world itself doesn’t really feature any good predator encounters, they’re quite basic. Nor does it feature interesting navigation opportunities, for the most part it’s all about grappling and gliding.
What Arkham City open-world does have is almost 300 Riddler trophies that at first provide a fine little distraction but ultimately become quite a chore to collect. And you need to collect them all if you want to apprehend the Riddler in the side-mission.
Speaking of side-missions, each quest-line on its own has interesting mechanics or concepts going, but it’s also very repetitive. Running from telephone booth to telephone booth to triangulate Zsasz’ position is fine the first time… it’s even fine the second… but then it gets boring. The mysterious stalker? You need to meet him on one roof. Then on another one. Then on another one. Then on another one. And then he tells you that you will meet again and doesn’t appear in the game after that. It just doesn’t feel rewarding. To be fair, there are some unique one-off side missions and they’re the most interesting ones too.
The world of Arkham City is essentially a hub, like the island in Asylum. You couldn’t really do much there and its main goal was to allow for some breather as you’re going between buildings. But that area was also fairly small, unlike City. So that can take a toll on the pacing of the game.
And, there’s not much really to analyze outside of what I talked about in the Asylum video. Arkham City has polished core gameplay, great boss battles, well designed interiors, but the whole open-world aspect is overall pretty lacking and monotone,--"
"--It’s still a well-designed game, but not as tightly-designed as Arkham Asylum.--"
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