Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day 26: Part 3, Arkham Asylum and WET demos.

I tried two very different demos with two very different initial experiences that both left me intrigued and curious about getting my hands on the full retail versions of the games.

First off: WET. This is the kind of game that I want to like. It offers the fantasy of cool gun play, over-the-top action sequences, set on a cheesy wire-fu movie set. What I was hoping for was Stranglehold but... fun.

Unfortunately, the initial experience was a mess. I was dropped into billboard prompt tutorials that were easy to fail. And fail. And fail.

Part of the problem was that the controls being introduced were quite difficult to execute: They mostly involved manipulating the Right Trigger, Right Thumbstick, and Face Buttons. Moving your right thumb quickly between Thumbstick (for fine grained aiming) and Face Buttons (for mashing) is very hard to do.

Another part of the problem was that the aiming model was confusing. The reticle did not seem to auto-lock on targets, but shots fired seemed mostly to hit targets. It felt exceptionally hard to aim during slow-mo gun play, but then aiming didn't seem to matter because bullets just kind of found targets.

When this was coupled with the fact that the tutorial tasks were very easy to fail within a few seconds, the deck was stacked against the player feeling any sense of competence.

Sure, it's a demo. Players were only provided with a limited amount of content and needed to be rushed up to speed. Hopefully the weapons and special moves are layered on a little more sensibly in the retail version. Ideally players would have opportunities to practice and master core mechanics through well paced challenges.

Although I found the grainy film art style of the opening sequence a bit distracting -- and even nauseating in places -- I loved some of the other art direction choices. The silhouetted background level was fantastic and really provided for some cool stylized violence that I haven't seen before in a game. The guys in bright white shirts and black pants coupled with the red of the background and blood effects really drew me into the game in a way that I haven't experienced since some of the crazy and brilliant levels in Psychonauts.

The final sequence in the demo combined some QTE events with a fantastic car-to-car combat sequence. It made me think of what the Wheelman demo should have been -- and even gave Ninja Blade a run for its money in terms of the sheer insanity of some of the sequences.

After a rough start, the WET demo took me for a wild ride and left me wanting more. Because of the poor initial experience and the fact that combat felt very mash-y and not very strategic, I do worry that the game will end up feeling unpolished and that combat might get a little repetitive. I'm definitely adding it to my Gamefly Q.

On the other hand, Batman: Arkham Asylum provided an exceptionally polished demo that felt good right from the very start. The controls were almost as complex as those in WET, but they were introduced in a way that made the game approachable and fun. I felt like Batman right from the get-go.

Instead of large obtrusive billboard hints, smaller onscreen help prompts triggered at key moments (e.g., "X to strike opponent"). Combat proceded from simple punches to counters and takedowns at a reasonable pace. Moreover, at least during the demo, there were on screen tool tips that reminded players of some of the cooler combat moves that Batman could perform.

One of the more interesting decisions was to calibrate controls such that the player always felt cool. There was no manual aiming of basic melee attacks; ranged attacks had a lot of target assist, and special moves required very little aiming and were pretty much fire and forget (ensure the enemy or target is in your site and then press the appropriate button). The tactical and strategic feel comes from using a mixture of stealth and sleuthing in order to outwit enemies who are too powerful to take on via a frontal assault.

My main concern after playing the demo was that the game would be too much of a one trick pony: Hop around from high ledge to high ledge and swoop down on unsuspecting loners who get separated from their squad. A secondary concern was how boss battles would play out: It seemed unlikely that I'd be able to grapple with the rather large monster/creature that the Joker unleashed on me just as the demo ended.

Those concerns aside, I did get sucked right into the story. I love the prison/asylum as a setting for a horror/action adventure game (or movie), and I immediately thought of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness, two games I enjoyed immensely.

Interestingly, when I think about whether to buy or rent this game, I find myself leaning more towards buying it. Why? For the same reason that I bought Bioshock. I loved the demo, and because I saw a bunch of my friends playing through it via Xbox Live, it made me think that it must be worth owning and playing right away as opposed to waiting for a rental.

The power of the social network compells me.

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