Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Eurogamer Expo 2011 Reports (Part II) - Batman Arkham City; Mario Kart 7; Rayman Origins


Last week, I attended the Eurogamer Expo in London, where attendees were able to play demos for many major games yet to be released. I'll be bringing reports for the games I played over the next few weeks, with each article covering three games at a time. Games that will be covered include, but are not limited to, Battlefield 3, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Mario Kart 7, Sonic Generations, Journey and a hands-on with the PlayStation Vita.

Last week's three games were The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Resident Evil Revelations and Saints Row: The Third. Under the microscope this week are Batman: Arkham City, Mario Kart 7 and Rayman Origins.
 

BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY (WB Games; Rocksteady - PC, PS3, 360)

The anticipation surrounding Batman: Arkham City manifested itself through one of the Eurogamer Expo's consistently lengthy queues. Fortunately, the demo proved up to the intensive scrutiny, providing one of the most polished and entertaining games on the show floor. Unlike many of the sequels hosted at the Expo, Arkham City got the balance right between keeping the flavour of what made the original game such a favourite and mixing up the formula in tangible, beneficial ways.

It has to be said that the game's opening set-piece, involving Catwoman breaking into Two-Face's office in search of something hidden within his safe, didn't inspire a great deal of confidence. For sure, it was a good way of getting a taste of the game's combat system, with Catwoman spinning and dodging like a practised ballerina: anyone familiar with Arkham Asylum would immediately feel at home. It was just that they may feel a little too at home: Catwoman, for all her graceful movement, amounted to little more than a reskinned version of Batman when put to the test. From the kicks to the punches to the stun (the latter performed this time with a whip), everything he can do, she can do, and vice-versa. Aside from being perhaps marginally quicker on her feet, there's no feeling that changing characters requires any adaptation of tactics to deal with a new set of strengths of weaknesses because any that may exist weren't noticeable enough to make a difference. The game was obviously set on a low difficulty, so perhaps any variation will be picked up by a greater challenge, but from what was on show, that assertion is based on nothing but hope.

Being thrown into Batman's sizeable frame marked a significant improvement, as it showcased a little of the game's new non-linear exploration system. The city boundaries were clearly demarcated by a transparent wall with the words 'NO ESCAPE!' scrawled over it in bright red lettering, but it is unclear whether this clunky system of restricting players to a certain area will be present in the full game or whether it was just to keep demo players on the right track. Either way, even within the set limits, there was a lot of fun to be had swooping between Gotham's buildings using a combination of the Bat-grappling hook and gliding with your cape. The city looked gorgeous, a mixture of sizzling neon signs and spotlights on the rooftops and grimy browns and yellows on street level, combining the grittiness of Christopher Nolan's Batman with a boldly-coloured garishness appropriate to the game's more comic-book approach to the material.

The streets and rooftops were packed with groups of thugs, with one of the primary pleasures being to swing down on top of them in a surprise attack. One of such occasion led to the saving of a journalist in what would appear to be a side-mission - there was no reason for me to be exploring that particular street above any other on my way to the courthouse where my main objective lay - hinting that there will be plenty of optional extras hidden away for the player willing to undertake a little exploration. What was also notable was the absence of a map - or at least, one that I could find in my rush to get as far as I could in the demo - with the player being entirely guided by objective markers. This made exploration feel a little uncomfortable, as though it would be easy to get lost (but thankfully proved not too difficult to get back on track, thanks to the versatile grappling hook), which could be Rocksteady's way of keeping players from going miles off-course.

The demo came to an end (for me - anyone who moved faster than I did was able to get further) shortly after entering the courthouse, where a mock 'trial' was being staged by Two-Face and his thugs. Catwoman, as the accused, was hanging over a vat of comedy green acid in a fate somewhat Adam West-ian in its absurdity. There followed a fight, which I was unable to finish before an attendant arrived to get rid of me, between Batman and the thugs who made up Harvey Dent's 'jury'. I am told that a subsequent section involved the rescue of Catwoman (obviously) and forensic examination of evidence left at the scene once the courthouse was cleared. Though I didn't get that far, in my short time with the game, Arkham City showcased the merits of its more open design philosophy in enhancing the acclaimed elements already in place from the first game.

POTENTIAL: 4/5 (It's a little disappointing that the much-vaunted Catwoman sections apparently offering so little new, but navigating the sprawling Gotham City offers a range of new options for the player frustrated by Arkham Asylum's linearity while preserving everything that made that game one of the most celebrated of its year.)


MARIO KART 7 (Nintendo - 3DS)

Mario Kart is Mario Kart. That's the most telling thing I can say about the four tracks I played with the new 3DS iteration of the series. If you have played one of these games before, you will know immediately what to expect. The handling is more akin to the DS and Wii versions rather than the Gamecube's unwieldy Double Dash!! and the tracks pitched somewhere in-between in terms of visual detail. Powersliding continues in its revised version, which will enrage everyone who argued that the thumb-destroying practice of snaking in MKDS was a legitimate strategy (it was, but not one that made the game any fun for those who didn't want to do it). There were no motorbikes on offer and no apparent way of performing tricks.

The only thing approaching substantial changes were the gliding and underwater sections, both of which felt unnecessary. True, the tracks on show were obviously from early in the game, given the relative lack of serious obstacles or careful driving skills required to navigate, but all the gliding and underwater sections did was slow the momentum of the race - and Mario Kart is hardly F-Zero in the speed department to begin with - offering few strategic options other than the collection of a few extra coins.

These supposedly increased your speed once ten had been pocketed, although there was no visible sign of this happening. The low difficulty meant that holding onto a lead was ridiculously straightforward, especially since the range of items had clearly been limited - I played the demo twice and stuck to the back of the racing pack on my second run, yet received little other than red shells and mushrooms, perhaps suggesting that the absent blue shell has undergone some much-needed changes - but my kart did not seem to be moving with any greater velocity no matter how many coins I ensnared.

Giving the game the benefit of the doubt, the gliding sections could potentially be interesting if mixed with aerial obstacles such as Bullet Bills and offering worthwhile rewards, while the underwater sections' heavier handling could force players to become more adaptable in their driving styles, yet across the four available tracks, they were little if not annoyances. Nintendo has made a bad habit of meddling with a Mario Kart formula that works better without gimmicks such as tricks, motorbikes, multiple drivers or customisation, because these rarely manage to offer the degree of in-depth complexity required to satisfy the dedicated player, but do make things more difficult for the newcomers, who should be a core part of Kart's pick-up-and-play philosophy. Going underwater or gliding looks like being another set of needless additions that will surely be abandoned after a single iteration.

Does that make it a bad game? Not at all. The tracks, based around the usual iconography of tropical beaches and jungles, one Donkey Kong-inspired (this time directly referencing Donkey Kong Country Returns through the Tiki tribe drums loitering across the track), were entertaining to play, but just didn't feel particularly new. As I said, Mario Kart is Mario Kart. It's a staple series for anyone who owns and Nintendo console and there is no reason why the seventh iteration shouldn't be given similarly privileged status by anyone who owns a 3DS. Heck, even the 3D worked well enough. It should more than pay back its RRP through the online modes - although hopefully Battle Mode will be back to normal - and there is clearly plenty left yet to show, such as new items and possible revisions to the more unbalanced old ones, like the blue shell. If more of the same is exactly what you're looking for, though, that's an area where Mario Kart 7 delivers in spades.

POTENTIAL: 3/5 (There was undoubtedly plenty of enjoy in the demo's four tracks, but all of them were familiar pleasures, with everything new either slowing the game down or adding an unwanted extra complication to a game series that benefits from being kept simple. Over-familiarity is still far from breeding contempt, but it may wear the game out a little sooner than older iterations)

RAYMAN ORIGINS (Ubisoft - PS3, Wii, 360)

Ubisoft's return of Rayman to his platforming, yes, origins was one of the bigger disappointments of the Expo for me. I had been quietly looking forward to the game since seeing those gorgeous early screenshots that painted it as an animated cartoon. On that front at least, the game is a success: Rayman moved with a jaunty elastic waddle and dispatched enemies departed the screen in elaborately ridiculous death animations. The backgrounds were sumptuously illustrated and there was always a huge range of colourful items and characters filling the screen. As a visual experience, Rayman is as polished as you could hope for.

The problem is that all the effort seems to have gone into the art. The game didn't do anything badly per se, as the characters controlled tightly enough and there were a range of secrets (as per Mario, there always seems to be an enormous coin waiting just out of reach) to uncover whilst navigating each area, but there was nothing that felt inspired or inspiring. The levels on offer were your standard platforming mix of jungle (a forest technically, but the look is more or less identical), desert and underground caves, all beautifully painted but based around the same old colour schemes and iconography. Each level had different goals, from the collection of little yellow orbs in the forest level to escaping an enormous monster in the cave, but again, these are standard practice for the genre. Mario Kart 7 may be familiar, but it is based around gameplay that the series has honed over years of practice. Rayman hasn't been around in a while and was never top dog when it was, a bronze-placed legacy that was quickly revealed once the sheen of the art style had worn off.

Everything the game does seems to have been borrowed from elsewhere, mostly Nintendo: building each level around a different challenge is from the philosophy that inspired Donkey Kong Country Returns, although Origins appeared content to borrow not only the philosophy but the manner of putting it into practice as well. All the obstacles on show had already been covered in Retro Studios' game. The emphasis on co-operative play, meanwhile, is shared with both Kong and New Super Mario Bros Wii, although with few of the nuances of either of its inspirations. The pace is fast and there are myriad opportunities to 'sacrifice' your colleague in order to claim a prize for yourself, but there were neither the range of collaborative moves offered by Kong, nor opportunities for mischief offered by Mario. It seems to be taking a middle road between both, even though the two Nintendo games offered very distinct experiences whose specialisation was a big part of what made them successful. Rayman Origins looks the part, but would seem to have little to offer below the surface pleasures that hasn't been done better elsewhere.

POTENTIAL - 2/5 (Rayman Origins probably won't be a bad game, but nothing apart from the visuals hinted that it had anything special or particularly interesting to offer either. It felt like a hodgepodge of ideas from two of Nintendo's most high profile games, inexpertly glued together and disguised behind an attractive smokescreen.)

In the next Eurogamer Expo Report... Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Kid Icarus Uprising and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.


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