As one of the best games of last year, it’s hard to think that anyone interested in Rocksteady‘s campaign will be playing it for the first time in Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition. Regardless, Nintendo has turned to the Dark Knight to help launch their brand new console, the Wii U, along with extra features making use of the innovative tablet controller.
We had the opportunity to try out the new features of the Wii U version at E3 2012, and while the developers have come up with some promising uses for the handheld touchpad and gyroscope, Arkham City and the Wii U may not be the best fit.
Despite what Nintendo may claim is powering their newest platform, there is no question that the visuals of the Wii U version of Arkham City are significantly reduced from the Xbox 360 and PS3. The on screen fidelity of Batman’s character and the environments are obviously an upgrade over anything the Wii was capable of producing, but still have serious anti-aliasing and texture issues.
Familiarity breeds perfection, it seems, as our demo of Assassin’s Creed 3 on the Wii U was more than comparable to the competition. At this point Ubisoft appears to have a much better strategy for harnessing the Wii U’s technology, which makes sense considering the team’s commitment to the system. As far as Warner Bros. Interactive’s first next-gen conversion goes, the visuals seem more representative of the first projects developed for the Xbox 360 or PS3.
Visuals aside, the gameplay and punishing combat still remains untouched, so any concerns that a Wii U version would be lightened for a more family audience are unfounded. The only real addition is the Wii U-exclusive armored Batsuit that gives this version its name. The metallic suit doesn’t just offer another Batman skin on top of the dozens already released, but introduces the B.A.T. system, charging up with kinetic energy through the impacts of punches and kicks.
The fact that taking hits builds up charge while it decreases health is the only real sign that player punishment has been lessened for the Wii U, meaning the player can become more dangerous through struggling. Still, the shift to Detective Mode-esque color and wireframe when the B.A.T. is activated is satisfying, in the same way that chained attacks and counters made the player feel superpowered in the original release.
Aside from the B.A.T. most of the innovations made possible for the Wii U are tied to the touchpad controller, and its onboard motion sensors. Much like Assassin’s Creed 3, the screen displays a map when not engaged in combat, marking Batman’s location in real time. When approaching a group of enemies though, the action really begins.
The shift over to the Wii U has been orchestrated by developers at Warner Bros. Interactive, working closely with the team at Rocksteady. The result of the collaboration is that the touchpad inventory aesthetic matches that of the in-game menus quite well, ensuring that both screens feel like a part of the same experience. Extending this design idea is the real time reaction of Batman’s character to interaction with the touchpad. Anytime you slide your finger on the controller touchpad, Batman’s on screen avatar does the same to his forearm-mounted Bat-computer.
The team has made an effort to use the controller to offer choices, not hindrances. For instance: engaging B.A.T. mode can be done by clicking both analog sticks, or by selecting a touchpad icon. When activated, the map is replaced by a duration meter filling a Batman logo that would look right at home mounted to Batman’s armor. The touchscreen is also used for combat directly, offering a sonar pulse that allows Batman to view the location of every enemy on the mini-map without seeing them directly.
The demo then continued with the planting of explosive devices – accessed through the touchscreen’s inventory screen, offering the ability to choose specific gadgets or drag and drop into D-pad slots – as evidenced in the Arkham City: Armored Edition trailer, also showing the ability to set off specific explosives by pressing their onscreen indicator. This new ability was a welcome change, and while it did promise new gameplay and increased lethality, it could run the risk of feeling removed from what was taking place on the larger screen.
One of the most enjoyable uses of the touchscreen was the new Hacking mini-game, made possible through the implementation of Batman’s stand-in Bat-computer. The original game had Batman synchronizer crack into systems by tuning into a frequency, the touchscreen offers another chance to introduce new touch gameplay. Dragging a finger across the screen caused a signal bar to grow stronger or weaker in relation to how close the correct node was, synchronized with the controller’s rumble feature. The developers on hand promised that at higher difficulties more detection lines traveling at varied speeds and directions increase the frenziness, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Unfortunately, the implementation of motion controls does not follow the same additive-over-novelty philosophy. Engaging Detective Mode to search for and analyze clues is now preceded by a prompt telling the player to raise the controller in front of the screen, which engages the standard zoomed view. The view can be changed by rotating the controller’s angle, but a wide sweep is impossible without turning away from the TV, thus necessitating the use of the right analog stick to do the same thing.
The motion options for remote-controlled Batarangs are equally quirky, and far less precise than the analog sticks. Unless the player specifically enjoys rotating a controller to control angle and direction the analog sticks can be resorted to here as well, with increased precision. These motion controls might be entertaining for younger audiences, but that is problematic in itself – for reasons we’ll address later.
Overall, the motion controls for the Wii U fall short of impressing, and seem more like novelties or forced use of the onboard sensors than inspired design. The best results come from the ways the team has decided to implement the controller’s touchscreen, offering a new interface and a chance to extend the sensation of being Batman. It seems that this approach would be more pallatable to skeptics than fundamentally changing the way the game operates, Warner Bros. made the right choice.
Those aspects of the game are the most promising, not just for third-person action titles based in existing universes, but for all games considering Wii U versions (Sidenote: the smoothness and clarity of the touchscreen in person truly can’t be understated, which bodes extremely well for future first and third-party development).
The Armored Edition does come with all post-release DLC , including the most recent Harley Quinn’s Revenge, which might just be enough motivation for some considering the Wii U to pick the game up at launch. The campaign is more than entertaining upon a second playthrough, so perhaps this pairing of game and system isn’t so outlandish after all.
All thing considered though, the implemented motion controls and touchpad gameplay seem like the perfect way for younger gamers to immerse themselves even more into the world – and cowl – of Batman. But seeing as Arkham City is unquestionably mature, the developers may have painted themselves into a corner. While the functionality is a faithful incorporation of motion controls into Batman mythology, the tone and content of Rocksteady’s open-world brawler is anything but appropriate.
But for those who have forgotten about Arkham City over a jam-packed year of award-winning games, and aren’t afraid to risk looking silly while gaming, the game might be worth a look. After the brief look the developers were giving, the use of the Wii U’s unique abilities is intelligent and promising going forward, but the game itself may not be suitable for the audiences that would enjoy them the most.
Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition is scheduled to release alongside the Wii U in Holiday 2012.
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Keep up to date on Wii U first and third-party titles and more with our extensive coverage of E3 2012.