Spare the Stick, Spoil the Gamer
I just last night wrapped-up the main story in Batman Arkham City. The mini-sandbox was a double edge sword, as the distractions are fun and help to add layers to the universe but at the cost of the relative linearity that kept Arkham Asylum so focused and engrossing, but 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 is 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 it is well worth the effort. Once you come to understand the rhythm of the smack downs, 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 it's ability to rise above the countless super hero 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. Arriving through my door only days before Arkham City was due, and concerned that I wouldn't be able to finish what I started, I opted to begin with ICO - a game I have wanted to play for some time, but not as desperately as SOTC. 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 it's charms and enjoy the simple relationship between Yorda and the 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 expanded, 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.
|Give me a fucking sword or I'll jump!|
However, my two or three hours (I didn't have time to see it through to the end) were 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 were 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 my first 2 1/2 hours and is as useless as tits on a bull. Uncontrollable swings of this over sized splinter will strike walls, doors and every other inanimate object in sight that doesn't require a beating. Time and time again, a soulless wraith will trundle off with Yorda slung over its shoulder, as you busy yourself with laying into a wall. The most impotent of weapons, it barely registers when you do finally make contact with your 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 your upper body. I just hope Ico has a good 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 enthrall 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 components, 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.