This is adapted from a reply to an article that praised Arkham Asylum but noticed that the combat system had a few flaws, and completely missed the actual flaws the combat system had.
Batman Arkham Asylum has a miserable combat system, with 4 basic actions, punch and counter being the primary ones you’ll use, and jump, and stun sitting on the side for when you meet a special enemy type you need to press those buttons in order to start punching.
The primary issue with the combat system is that it consists primarily of pressing punch until an enemy winds up an attack, then you get a flashing indicator that you should press the counter button (I played on hard mode without this indicator, that didn’t make it any better).
Bonus, you can press punch with the right timing to get double the combo count.
If this sounds like an entertaining game to you, then I recommend picking up DDR, you’ll have more fun, it has 4 buttons instead of 2.
Meanwhile, in games with good combat, like God Hand, there are things like startup and recovery frames, ranges on attacks instead of all the attacks snapping on no matter where you’re standing, specific attacks mattering instead of being randomized and therefore every attack having an identical function because players never known what animation they’ll get and other goodness.
The different kinds of enemies are largely pointless, there’s no genuine differentiation between any enemy type except normal thug, gun thug, and drug thug. The knife and shock baton thugs just mean pressing another button before mashing punch. They do not interact with the player in any new way relative to the old enemies, unlike God Hand enemies which have terrific variation.
The instant takedowns are still not interesting, they are just another button press, as opposed to being an action with some kind of physical information, like hitting a unique area, having a unique animation, making batman vulnerable in a unique way. Other enemies can’t hit you during them, and they basically snap onto whatever their target is.
The batarangs just add another buttonpress to it all, press for advantage, no thinking involved. They too snap onto some enemies, and provide a bit of bonus damage and bonus hits when you’re already doing well. They aren’t a unique tactical option, they barely harm enemies.
Ultimately, these are a lot of features, but none of them really augments the way the game is played or requires much thought from the player. No matter what, combat is always a process of going through the motions correctly rather than thinking (with some exceptions during the stealth missions, which were hampered by the silly gargoyles). There are more efficient patterns and they are readily obvious, but rarely are there ever interesting choices or anything that requires any sort of progressive actions or decisions from the player.
It is aimed at people who want a game to play itself, and it practically does. It doesn’t go to the lengths that games like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Dark Souls, God Hand, or even No More Heroes did (NMH is obviously the weakest one here). It is a polished product in every way so much as a Michael Bay Transformers film. There is no real exploration element (at least, not required for progression), there are no real puzzles, the combat is a chore, so what does this game have left?
This is a game that is marketed to people who do not enjoy games, this is marketed at people who enjoy movies, beautiful graphics, great voice acting, superficially detailed environments, and tons of batman lore.
They put a lot into the game, but all of it is really geared more around convincing the player that they are having a good time than legitimately making a fun game. It’s like, “If we animate this with enough heartpounding action, then the player will forget that they’re not really being asked to do anything besides push buttons in time with the counter and will tell themselves they’re enjoying it.”
It’s an excuse of a combat system like something I’d expect out of 6th gen games (remember how every character ever had some 3 hit combo they’d repeat over and over? Wasn’t that fun? I didn’t think so). Instead of designing it to implicitly require careful timing to succeed (like Castlevania, dark souls, god hand, etc), they arbitrated that players use careful timing by building in a timing system without room for improvisation or other factors determining the success of an attack beyond the fact that the punch button happened to be pressed.
A high level player of the game will play it exactly like a low level one will, just they will make fewer mistakes. This is completely not the case in better games, where the better players will demonstrate knowledge and mastery of the system beyond the simple way the game presents you. The game has no depth, no layers of strategy, no strategy beyond the simple.
Physical information, like startup time, like recovery time, like the hitboxes, like how the hitboxes move over time, like the overall range of the attack, like how much it knocks the enemy back and how long it stuns them for after being hit. I call this physical information, because it relates to physical space in the game (and put it in quotes because of someone inevitably pointing out that it’s virtual, not actually physical). These are generally all the traits of games with good melee combat.
It’s not about going for games with just more complexity, it’s about going for games with more depth. It’s very very easy to make a horrendously complex game, like Disgaea or something, but it’s not about complexity, it’s about depth. A big part of depth is creating a very large number of meaningful gamestates from very few initial rules. It’s about creating a lot of things to consider and finely adjust for the player, they need to be very aware of what they’re doing, where they’re doing it, what time they’re doing it, and other factors that may come up. It’s about risk versus reward, with the two being proportional to each other. Batman isn’t about making decisions or taking risks, or really even analyzing and evaluating the situation. It’s about going through the motions until all the enemies are on the floor. Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo is arguably a simpler game (In just programming terms I know it has less lines of code), but it manages to use its simple principles to create incredibly vast depth and an absurd number of possible game states.
It’s not just about having a lot of things to do, it’s about them interacting with each other in meaningful and nuanced ways, which is a great deal harder to do than just adding a lot of elements.
People absolutely have their own tastes, I’m not a fan of RTS games for example, and Blazblue for some reason just puts me off, even though I’m sure it’s a nice fighter, but on another level are you gonna tell me that it’s a taste to prefer mindless games about going through the motions until it rewards you with a bad movie featuring fancy graphics and all your favorite voice actors?
It’s easy to say that we can’t be tricked into having fun and there’s no such thing as fake enjoyment, but in reality, manipulating people into enjoying things is routine. A large part of the hype cycle with game review websites is a form of psychological manipulation of the consumer. We have been conditioned by the industry at large to defer to fancier graphics ever since Final Fantasy 7 advertised itself as being comparable to a movie (and arguably even sooner than that). Beyond that, it’s been shown in psychological experiments that people can be rather easily manipulated into saying they enjoyed something. In one example, subjects were told by a prior subject how entertaining a task was that they were about to do, then asked to perform an extremely dull task for an extended period of time. At the conclusion of the experiment, half of the subjects were paid to tell the next group how interesting the task was, and the other half were just asked to tell the next group how interesting the task was (of course neither group was aware of the other). They were then asked to rate how enjoyable they actually found the task. Surprisingly, the people who were not paid, reported that they found the task extremely interesting. The logic behind this, in relation to other experiments carried out on similar topics is that we tell ourselves stories to justify our actions to ourselves. We have a desire to be psychologically consistent. When the experimenters were told they’d be performing an interesting task, then told others that it was interesting, they made a narrative in their head to justify their actions to themselves. This is known on a broad level as cognative dissonance. Another form of it is related to MMOs and Casinos, where random outputs create a pattern of addiction in players, despite the results being completely regulated by the programmers. This was carried out with skinner’s boxes with mice. Make a lever, when pulled, a food pellet drops. When a device gives consistent output relative to input, it creates a pattern where the mouse is only motivated to pull the lever when it’s hungry. But then researchers made the food pellet drop randomly when the lever was pulled, and the mouse suddenly couldn’t stop pulling the lever, even when it wasn’t hungry.
Many games manipulate us in very similar patterns. A basic cycle of action-reward is alright to teach players to play well, but game developers have discovered that most consumers are not internally motivated to play games. People are manipulated much more easily by external rewards, like ingame currency (which humans psychologically have difficulty separating from real earnings), and fancy graphical effects. The new pattern is, go through the motions we tell you for a reward, resulting in games that, lacking externally motivating factors, are unplayable. I can tell you that these effects exist, because I’ve experienced cognative dissonance, both in life and in games, and in a lot of cases, we want to tell ourselves that the game characters we love (like Travis Touchdown for me) are in great games, but often that just isn’t the case. We very often tell ourselves stories to justify things to ourselves, because of the reality we want rather than the one we have. We want to tell ourselves we’re batman, we want to tell ourselves that we just shot hundreds of terrorists dead, but games of this design are structured to pet our egos more than anything else. Escapism is Narcissism, and we can never have enough of that.
“In a GDC talk, the project lead of Rocksteady said that their goal was to make everybody feel like Batman. Which for them meant, that the combat should feel effortlessly spectacular. It would seem out of place if Batman could get beaten up by some random thug. In this regard they clearly achieved their goal and it’s the reason why they received so much praise.”
And can you blame me for seeing anyone saying something like that and immediately replying, “Kay, your game will not be worth playing.” the Mass Effect developers said extremely similar things around Mass Effect 3 (not that the first two were good either.) They were like, “Every time you push a button, something awesome has to happen.” This isn’t any way to design a game, this is a way to make superficially interested consumers buy your product.
Have you ever seen the Batman Animated Series? This was the version of Batman I grew up with. Batman got beaten up by random thugs a lot. Victory mattered because there were stakes at hand. Batman didn’t just flash his ID and all the thugs fell to the ground, he had to work for it. The animated series version of Batman is what I’d consider the best version of Batman (personal opinion, obviously). Everyone in the series was depicted as actual people with strengths and flaws, and more importantly, as human rather than supernaturally good at kung fu.
Did you ever play God Hand on at least normal mode? It’s pretty agonizing in some ways. Your first time through, you’re going to see the continue screen a lot. However, as you go through the game, you pick up momentum and hang onto it. You learn the quirks of the AI and how to use your moves properly. The entire game is about momentum, and either you have it or you don’t, forwards or backwards, and when you’re doing well, you will feel exactly like Gene does on the screen because it took a level of effort, performance, and understanding on your part far beyond what most modern games demand of you. There is an internal motivation to succeed, not just the game telling you with cutscenes how awesome you’re doing.
Making the player feel like batman, means in part that the stakes need to be real and there needs to be a difficulty to the game beyond just failing to push the counter button at the right times. I played the game on hard mode, and hard mode is pretty hard I guess, but in my head, I’ve solved the game already, hard mode is pointless. The entire point of difficulty in games is to force you to solve more elegantly and to drive the stakes higher so you are forced to perform better, but if the game has no depth driving it, then there’s no point. Games about running through the motions cannot have meaningful hard modes.