Spare the Stick, Spoil the Gamer

As discussed on the most recent episode of Critical Talk, I recently wrapped-up the main story in Batman Arkham City. The mini-sandbox was a double edged sword, as the distractions are fun and helped to add layers to the universe but at the cost of the relative linearity that kept Arkham Asylum so focused and engrossing. However, I loved the story and characters, and the city was as atmospheric as it was dangerous.

As good as everything else was, it’s the balletic yet weighty combat that’s the real star, as was the case with Asylum before it. While it may be easy to jump into, it does take a while to master but is well worth the effort. Once you come to understand the rhythm of the smackdowns, how to move fluidly between foes and how best to utilize the different moves and gadgets at your disposal, you have one of the most satisfying combat systems around. In Arkham City, each and every ruckus is full of joy, no matter how severely outnumbered you may be.

Combat is central to AC’s ability to rise above the countless superhero disappointments of the past. But just as flawless combat can elevate a game to a different level, broken or superfluous rough-housing can be infuriating and completely overwhelm positive aspects of even the most promising of titles. For example, Mirror’s Edge would’ve been a much better game minus the frustrating hand-to-hand shenanigans and the unfair and out of place firearms that the game constantly goaded you into picking up.

As frustrating as being shot whilst scurrying up a drainpipe may be, the baffling inclusion of combat in ICO is in a league of its own. The release of the ICO HD Collection finally gave me the opportunity to fully experience Fumito Ueda’s two modern classics – Shadow of the Colossus being the other. I initially struggled with the infuriating camera and grew tired of constantly being lost in a castle that, in places, is a rather dull and hollow abode. However, I soon began to warm to its charms and enjoy the simple relationship between Yorda and Ico, taking to heart her complete reliance upon a child who, despite being kidnapped and utterly lost, takes it upon himself to protect and guide a delicate and unknown companion. As the boundaries of the castle moved outwards, I found myself being treated to stunning vistas and increasingly aware of the simple yet effective soundtrack of seagulls, chains and echoes, punctuated by the occasional pleas from boy or girl.

If you don't give me a bloody sword I'll jump!

However, my limited time with ICO – Arkham City caused me to reluctantly abandon it three hours in – was hounded by combat so unnecessary and ill-conceived that it soured the entire experience and served to constantly remind me that I was playing a very dated game. I understand the role of the persistent wraiths that try to snatch Yorda from your grasp, as it makes you reluctant to leave her alone for any significant period of time and reminds you that you are not alone; but it could have been handled so much better. Forgive me for suggesting it, but perhaps this would have been one instance where QTEs would have worked wonders; the wraiths snatch Yorda and a series of swift button presses either reclaim or relinquish control of her.

The symbol of this shambolic combat is the mighty stick. It was my lone weapon for the majority of the time and is as useless as tits on a bull. Uncontrollable swings of this oversized splinter would strike walls, doors and every other inanimate object in sight that doesn’t require a beating. Time and time again, a soulless wraith would trundle off with Yorda slung over its shoulder, as I busied myself with laying into a wall. The most impotent of weapons, it barely registered when I finally made contact with the wisp-like enemies. I could almost feel each wasted lunge shooting up my arm, conveying the sensation of a missed swing that wrenches every muscle in the upper body. I hope Ico has a capable masseuse.

It doesn’t really get much better once steel is introduced, as the lack of a lock-on feature means that you will still be twatting walls more often than not, the only difference being that the thud of timber on stone is now replaced with a metallic chime. Every time I was forced to swing that weapon, it took me back outside of an experience that had started to enthral me, and I was no longer enchanted by the simple beauty of two lonely figures traversing a barren ruin, frustrated instead by unwanted confrontation.

Much like multiplayer modes, combat is sometimes shoved in where its not needed. We all enjoy hitting people with a big stick, but sometimes its nice to go on an adventure without having to batter someone to death. Unless of course you’re Batman, in which case you should always be spoiling for a fight.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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