Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of my favorite games in 09 and rose to the top of my favorites that year along with Demon’s Souls. Now, two years later, we have both sequels out with changes in each. Earlier this year I wrote about Dark Souls and how it felt that the designers moved away from what made Demon’s Souls great due to the design changes. Arkham City doesn’t share the same fate and you can just feel how the game is bursting from the seams with new content, for better and worse.

Continuing the story of B: AA, B: AC kicks off shortly after the first game. With the island no longer usable, the inmates of Arkham have been moved into the slums of the city and kept locked away from the citizens, which Batman isn’t too fond of. After some important plot points that I’m not going to spoil, Batman finds himself knee deep in Arkham City and forced to find out what is going on.

Now, I could once again talk about the excellent voice acting and how great it is to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, but the stand out for me was Nolan North as the Penguin. If I didn’t read that he was doing the voice, I would have never known it was him and he did a great job of making him sound menacing.

The motto behind B: AC’s development seems to be “go big” as every aspect of B: AA has been built on for the sequel. Side quests are more prominent thanks to the game space being opened from the start. As Batman explores the city he’ll find cases that involve more of his rogue’s gallery for him to solve. The cases do a lot to bring the city to life and finally give us a good Batman game that lets us patrol Gotham. Perhaps the biggest enhancement is the Riddler challenges which play out as their own full side story this time around. The Riddler has set up all kinds of puzzles and death traps around AC for Batman to solve and his challenges play into unlocking more content and puzzle rooms for the Dark Knight to solve.

Stealth has become more challenging this time around as the enemies have picked up new tricks including being able to disable detective vision. The AI reacts more random this time and it never gets old frightening harden criminals by taking out their friends without being seen. Like the first game, Batman is not bullet proof and a few hits from a gun will take him out. This time Batman is armed with his trademark smoke pellets which can be used to disorient and act as a safety net for stealth areas.

The one main fault of B: AA which was the boss battles, have been touched up for B: AC. They are more varied this time around and less focused on Batman just wailing on someone. One of my favorite battles is an actual “stealth fight” which I’m not going to spoil who it is with.

Overall B: AC is an excellent game, but it’s not without problems. Looking at the design the problems seem to stem from how the designers built their new game-play on top of B: AA. The beauty of B: AA was in how everything was designed to work with each other and was balanced that way. By building on top of the design, B: AC doesn’t feel as refined compared to B: AA in a few areas.

The combat system in B: AA was one of my favorites due to how accessible it was and at the same time complex with the quick gadget use. In B: AC, the # of moves available to Batman has been increased dramatically: more quick gadgets, special moves, aerial attacks, beat-downs, special combos and ultra stuns. The problem is that all of these moves have been added to a primarily one button combat system and it feels convoluted compared to the first game. There is no in game logic for the player to follow why square-triangle is the weapon break move or X-Circle is the multiple take down move. Enemies armed with special gear now require specific attack combos to hurt them. It feels like the simple combat system from the first game is being stretched in multiple directions.

Not helping the combat is the camera system. I lost count of the # of times where an enemy would begin his attack animation off screen to then move into focus as he’s attacking, leaving me with no way to avoid it. The camera during combat is stuck in this awkward position, because of the increase of enemies per fight. The camera is too close to get all the enemies on screen, yet too far away to make it easy to see enemy attack tells.

During movement in the city the camera has a habit of getting stuck on objects in the environment. In the first game, the design of the levels was very wide to keep the camera from getting stuck in places. With the increase agility of Batman and narrow areas, the camera has trouble keeping up sometimes.

In regards to the Catwoman DLC, she plays like a quicker version of Batman. I do like how her movement across the city is more horizontal with her whip compared to Batman. In terms of content, Catwoman has her own 4 mission story arc along with Riddler challenges set up just for her. During stealth sections she can climb around on certain ceilings which lend a different feel to Batman. The only problem I have is that her “thief vision” doesn’t show enemy vitals like Batman’s and it can be hard to see from a distance what equipment enemies have.

Even with my complaints, B: AC is still an amazing game; Rocksteady have shown that they are not a one hit wonder with B: AA. I’m very curious to see how they will try to top themselves with whatever their next project is. B: AC is a clear definition of a successful sequel by keeping what made the first game special and improving upon it.

Josh Bycer

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I’ve always been a fan of the city builder genre, as I’ve enjoyed the multi-tasking and the splendor of watching a fully developed city. These past few years however have not been too kind to the genre with no information about a Sim City 5 and the closure of Tilted Mill have left us city builders with few options. With Anno 2070, not only is it one of the most polished city builders I’ve seen, but the changes under the hood do a lot to make it rise above other games in the genre.

From start up, the game’s setting and plot are integrated into the menus. As the title states, it’s the year 2070 and global warming has lead to the polar ice caps melting and the world has begun to flood. Many coastal cities have already been submerged and the ecosystem is changing. You control a ship called an Ark, which has the technology and tools on board to create settlements for the human race. There are three groups vying for control: The Eden Initiative, Global Trust and S.A.A.T and how you build your cities help determine the state of the world.

As in Anno 1404 (or in the US: Dawn of Discovery,) Anno 2070 comes with the usual suspects of game modes: Campaign, continuous, scenario along with multiplayer. The difference is how everything is wrapped into this global meta-game. Every few days a global vote takes place to decide what group’s plans is enacted and every player gets a say. The agreed upon plan becomes a global modifier that affects your city building in either scenario or continuous play. Daily missions pop up that allows the player to make career points for a specific faction, which plays into unlocking rewards on your profile.

As for the actual gameplay, things are both new and familiar in 2070. First, here is a quick primer for those completely new to the franchise. The Anno series is about managing economic growth with the use of trading. At the beginning of every map you have access to the lowest tier of buildings and the lowest class of citizens. As you meet their needs and more people move in, at certain population points, new buildings are unlocked. Once you have unlocked and met every need for that class of people, you can then upgrade their homes to the next tier, which also unlocks new buildings. The higher the class, the more they need to be happy, while still requiring the basics from previous classes.

Trade comes into play with how you have to move resources around. Many products require resources from multiple sources to be produced and effective supply chains are the name of the game. You can set up trade routes to transfer resources to and from your colonies which becomes a necessity as you go up in tier.

Playing into the future setting, Anno 2070 mixes things up from previous games. Besides worrying about your people and income, power and the environment are now factors in the world. Every non housing structure on your island requires power, and if you go into the red you’ll suffer a productivity penalty until you create more power generators. Structures also have an effect on the environment and if the quality of the land goes down, your farms can suffer. However, you can build structures that positively affect the environment which in turn can give you bonuses in production.

Each faction has its own affect on the world. Eden buildings take up a lot of space, but hurt the environment less and their farms receives bonuses based on the environment, while the Trust using smaller more efficient buildings that do greater harm. S.A.A.T or the tech faction is the analog for the Orient faction from 1404 and are used to support the highest class of citizens of the previous two factions. Their buildings are mostly underwater based and players can set up mining colonies under the sea.

What sets S.A.A.T apart, is the concept of research, as you go up the tech tree for their faction, you’ll unlock research buildings that allow you to spend money and resources to perform research projects. The projects range from providing you with warehouse buffs, to timed duration bonuses and even upgrades to your Ark which act as global bonuses.

As you can tell, there is a lot in 2070 to do and the inclusion of the Meta game helps tie the game elements together. As you play continuous games, any ark upgrades become stored on your ship and can be taken with you from game to game. This will allow you to get a head start with future games or make things easier for you. Research projects also persist across games allowing the player to keep their progress with unlocking them. With everything that needs to be digest I wish that the game went a little more towards helping the player learn.

The interface for 2070 is one of the most streamlined UIs I’ve seen for the genre; however this means that a newcomer will have to figure out all sorts of little icons and graphics to make sense of the game. The game’s campaign is essentially the tutorial, but it doesn’t feel like it does as good of a job as 1404’s campaign did.

What made 1404’s campaign work, was how it was focused on only showing the player a few mechanics each level to not overwhelm the player. At the start of a new map, the player is usually given a base city that has all the previously learned mechanics already established for the player, so that they can focus on what’s new.

2070’s campaign switches between the three factions throughout the missions making it harder to understand how progression works. The campaign is separated into three groups of missions, and within each group the player’s city is transferred from map to map. While the concept is commendable, it can leave the player in a situation where they have developed their city in such a way that makes progressive maps harder. The help screen isn’t as intuitive compared to 1404’s help panel on the bottom right of the screen and takes the player to a separate screen which makes it harder to follow how the tips relate to what’s happening in game.

As an example of the unintuitive nature of the campaign, the first time the player is introduced to drilling for oil, is the last map of the first group, where they must set up refineries using the tech faction. After that map, oil is not re-introduced until the 2nd map of the third group and this time the player is asked to use the Trust faction. The problem is that the game does not explain anywhere during that mission that the Trust can drill for oil on islands and where to check on the UI to make sure that it is possible to drill there. When the game asks the player to build more power structures or affect the environment, there is no mention on screen why the player should be performing those actions.

The other problems with Anno 2070 are the same ones that are inherent with the series, first, is that the game is sloooooooooooow (yes I had to spell it that way.) This is a game where the easiest scenario can take at least 8 hours to complete. For people looking for a game where they can just hop on and play for 15 minutes a day and make some headway, Anno 2070 is not for them. For all the complexities and depth of building your city, combat still doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could be. Anno 2070 introduces air units through the tech faction, but combat still feels like a side dish compared to the city building instead of being fully integrated.

Still, the campaign is just one part of an excellent game and the other issues fans of the series have looked past. Fans of previous Anno titles should snatch this one right up. For newcomers, I would suggest either trying out a demo or watching gameplay footage on YouTube so that you can have an idea of what you are getting into. The dynamic of introducing a Meta game of connecting progress and settlements together was a smart move by the developers and does a lot to expand upon the sandbox nature of the game. While the thought of the polar ice caps melting is not a pleasant one, I do look forward the time where we all have corn powered robotic servants.

Josh Bycer

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The adventure genre is one of several genres on the PC that have been declining over the years. The days of Myst and the Lucas Arts era of developing games are behind us. Telltale Games met success with the Sam and Max revival and a lot of gamers were hoping that they would help revive the genre. However, while last year they had a hit, this year saw a downward turn with negative reviews of both games based off of Back To The Future and Jurassic Park.

Reading reviews of BttF, one common complaint I kept seeing was about the puzzles. Having played both the Sam and Max seasons and BttF, I tried to remember if the same puzzle design was featured in both and why one was praised and the other scorn. As I thought about it, it seems like puzzle design is one of those elements that has not grown as much compared to other genres.

Looking at the concept of a traditional puzzle in a video game, the components of a puzzle can be represented simply as a locked door. The door represents the goal, the lock represents the obstacle, and the key represents what has to be done. Disregarding story and writing as player hooks as another reason to play adventure games, there are several aspects of puzzle design that we can examine.

1. Trial and Error: To me, one of the defining elements of bad puzzle design is trial and error. Trial and error can occur from two situations, first is by design. Personally, I think this is where a lot of people’s complaints about Telltale’s games come into play. A lot of their puzzles are based around going through dialogue options to find the one that will set up the solution, or trying to figure out how something works by playing around with switches or buttons, which is a throwback to classic adventure design. The second situation is when you have no clue of how to solve the puzzle, and your only option is the brute force method. Raise your hand if you ever had a number-pad puzzle that you just sat there for a few minutes trying every combination imaginable.

The problem that I have with it goes back to my favorite puzzles to do. As a brief tangent, I love doing Picross and Sudoku puzzles, but for the life of me I can’t do cryptograms while my mom is the exact opposite. The reason I like them is that the solution is right there, you just have to decipher it and there is a feeling of accomplishment for solving it.

Puzzles built around trial and error design do not rely on thinking or player skill to finish and can feel more like busy work. Compared to a puzzle where the player has to solve the puzzle using their own thought process, there is less satisfaction with a trial and error type puzzle.

2. Puzzle Environment: Puzzles fitting into the game-space have also hit a snag in terms of growth. In the old days, the size of a puzzle section took up multiple screens with puzzles placed around. The player would not know where to use certain items, or even what puzzles to do in what order without spending a lot of time wandering around. Sometimes an item would be picked up, that won’t be used until further in, leaving the player to guess what it is supposed to do.

Recently with adventure games like Amnesia and the Penumbra series, the game space has become more hub based. How it works is that when the player enters an area, there is one main problem stopping the player from moving forward. In order to fix it, the player will have to go through several areas that are specified to find items, or activate devices that will open up the way forward. The difference between this design and past adventure game design is that each area is closed off from each other in terms of items: if the player is in area A, they will not need to find any items to help them with area B.

The advantage of this design is that it removes some of the trial and error nature of adventure games. You know when you enter an area that everything you need is right there and you don’t have to worry about missing an item that will come back to bite you later on. The disadvantage is that you lose some immersion to the world and exploring in the process. The player knows that whenever they enter a new area, that there will be at least 3 doors leading to puzzle areas.

3. Esoteric influence: Another throwback to the adventure games of yesteryear, are puzzles with unrealistic solutions. While giving the player the ability to feel like MacGyver is cool, bending the rules of reality to do that is not. This issue also feeds back into the trial and error problem, as players will have to go through their inventory item by item to find the one that works.

One other part of this is using real world knowledge or skills that everyone may not know, for example, having a puzzle based on chemistry or understanding Norse Mythology. Whenever you want to include real world information in your puzzles, it helps to leave notes or clues that explain what you expect the player to understand. For instance, in the Penumbra series there is a puzzle that requires the player to create an explosive and right next to the chemistry set is a note detailing what exactly that entails so that even if you are not familiar with chemistry, you can still figure it out. Physics based puzzles have become very popular as everyone understands how gravity and weight works, leaving the player to figure out how to use them to solve the puzzle.

4. One Way: Designing amazing puzzles is a great feeling, however the more unique the puzzle is the less freedom there usually is in solving them. There probably is another game design debate here on the subject of adventure games as interactive stories or games. One of the major pulls that designers use to get people to play adventure games is the story; it’s one of the reasons why so many people jumped at the latest Sam and Max games. What this means is that once you played the game once, there is very little reason to replay it other than coming back to watch the story again.

Some designers in the past have tried ways of having replay-ability or multiple solutions in their games. In Portal 1 and 2 with how physics can play a factor in the design, it is possible to find unusual solutions to many of the puzzles, and there are expert variants of the puzzles available to try.

Another game that attempted multiple solutions was Zack and Wiki on the Wii. In the game the player is graded on how they solve each puzzle in the level, with many puzzles having a “good”, “better”, and “best” solution. The best solutions usually involve getting a puzzle right on the first try, or using the tools in the most optimal way and the end of the level, score is used for unlocking bonus features.

The idea of using randomized puzzle layouts and design is an intriguing one, and it will be discuss in the next section.

5. Living Puzzles: The last point for this post has to do with the concept of integrating puzzle design into the world. One of the best examples of this is with the final section of Portal and part of the second act in Portal 2. During these sections the player is not confined into a set space with a specific goal to achieve. Instead they have to find their way around using the same tools that helped them in the puzzle chambers. The game, Limbo is another example, the game flows seamlessly from one puzzle to another and while it is technically segmented, the illusion of the world helps.

What this comes down to in my opinion is the actions the player has available in the game. For this post, the term “actions” will be defined as: the ways the player interacts with the world. For example, in Grand Theft Auto, the player’s actions involve shooting, fighting and driving vehicles. The more actions the player has access to, the more the world opens up and this idea of letting the world become a puzzle takes shape.

In the Assassin’s Creed series, the player’s main interaction with the world is through movement, just about every edge can be used to climb up and help the player get around. With so many actions available, the world becomes a living puzzle with how the player can figure out how to move around the city in the best ways possible. The only real shortcoming of the first two games (I have not played the latest two and can’t comment on them,) is that there isn’t more freedom in performing tasks, such as having missions where enemies and targets are randomized instead of being in the same place every time.

I’ve been playing around in my head with the idea for an adventure game with a randomized world. The concept is that there is a murder mystery and all you know is who died and where. As a detective you have 24 hours to figure out the rest and each time you play the details of the case are randomized. The game is played in quasi real time, every time the player performs an action time moves forward a little bit and eventually time will run out and you’ll have to present your evidence.

A few months ago there was a great piece in PC Gamer looking back at some of the more unique adventure games that came out in the late 80s and 90s, like Maniac Mansion and The Last Express. Creativity and uniqueness are not strange concepts to the genre, but the challenge is figuring out how to implement them without falling back into old patterns of design.

Josh Bycer

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I’ve been recently getting into the Anno series which is a complex economic city-builder and it got me thinking about another city-builder that I wished that it would have taken off. Tilted Mill was a company formed from former Impressions Games employees. Impressions Games made a variety of city-builders including Pharaoh and Zeus (which are their more recognizable brands) and at the time were the alternatives to the Sim City series. While Tilted Mill was around, they created several games, but none of them achieved mass success, with the game Hinterland being one of my personal favorites. However, today I want to talk about their first title: Children of the Nile and how it could have redefined the genre.

Children of the Nile take place in ancient Egypt and cast the player as the pharaoh who must build a successful city within various scenarios. CotN did several things differently from other city builders at the time. One common mechanic in the Impressions series was how vital attaching everything to a road was. People would wander through your city using the roads and if they carry products or resources, unless they walk by a building, no one in the building would get access to it. This made early city builders very inorganic and was the first big change in CotN.

Anyone in your city could go anywhere, with or without roads, but roads would speed up their movement. Another common system in most city-builders was how the player only needed to care about the macro level of their economy, meaning as long as the city is making money for the player and people were happy, everything is good. CotN changed that and was one of the few city-builders to attempt to create its own economic system.

CotN’s economic system was based off food, as there was no paper currency during the time of ancient Egypt. Harvesting food is based off of the seasons of the land, first farmers will plant their crops after the Nile recedes, then harvest them next season. Afterwards the Nile floods the farm lands to make the land fertile again and the pattern repeats. During the harvest, the food is divvied up to the different classes of people in your city.

The lower class is the farmers who live on land leased by the upper class. They keep some of the food and give the rest in the form of taxes. The middle class is split between shopkeepers and government workers and the difference is how they get food. Shopkeepers sell their wares to everyone and whatever food they earn is used to support them, while government workers receive food from the city storage thanks to their services. Lastly the upper class or nobles give a portion of their food supply to the city which becomes your source of currency, the # of nobles you have determines how many farmers you can have employed.

Throw in children going to school to become educated, allowing them to work at specialized buildings, and the challenge of setting up mining colonies and building monuments, and CotN stands apart from other games. Out of the various city builders released, it is one of the few that tried to create its own ecosystem and getting a city running successfully is a major accomplishment. However, the price of doing something new is that you don’t have a frame of reference for any potential problems, which CotN did have.

Because of how each group relies on the other to survive, it’s very easy to start a downward spiral of losing people due to missing or unable to fix any issues in the city. With shopkeepers, you won’t know how much of their stock they have, only vague clues of: “almost out” “tons in stock” etc. Without exact numbers, it’s difficult to determine how they are meeting the needs of your townspeople and this becomes even more complicated when you have to set up colonies to mine.

Any good city-builder is about managing escalating chaos and while CotN definitely has chaos, the game makes it very difficult to manage it. Most city builders escalate needs based on the size of the city; CotN does it by game length. At random points in the game, an alert will pop up signaling some kind of event that will cause your citizens to want something else, for example, a bad harvest may want them to pray to a different god. The problems are twofold, first is that advanced buildings require educated workers and your stock of them are limited. The more prestige your pharaoh has will attract some, while the rest comes from sending children to school.

However what usually happens is that you just assigned your worker to one job, when all of a sudden an event may pop up requiring a hospital, but you don’t have any more workers right now, leaving your people unhappy. The second issue is that everything in the game takes time to be built which makes issues last longer. The process is that first the materials must be transported to the site, and then the actual construction begins. All this eats into more time that your people are unhappy, and people remember issues in your city for some time which affects their overall happiness. When a group of people become angry, they may either strike or just move out of your city, which going back to the Eco-system starts a downward spiral that is difficult to climb out of.

The randomness of city events and the lack of hard numbers when it comes to certain resources leave the game in a cluttered state. Contrast to the Anno series, where the player can see exactly how much of each resource they have along with how more challenges are introduce, makes it easier to build and understand. Blind luck is not something you want in your city-builders, especially when you are trying to learn the game.

One of the hallmarks of a player “getting it” in a city-builder is getting their city to the point of being self sufficient, or being able to run itself without any further input from the player. When you play CotN, it is very difficult to reach that point, as while you are trying to build all the necessary structures, the random events will occur to change everything up. Looking at Anno 1404 on the other hand, it is very easy to get your city to the point of being self sufficient, the challenge comes from keeping it self sufficient while balancing out income, growth and trade.

The advantage of reaching the point of being self sufficient early is that it allows the player to see very easily, how their additions and growth affects the city and learn from that. Whereas in CotN the player is required to make choices without being able to see if they will have the intended results if an event happens.

To the game’s credit, CotN did go where most city-builders don’t venture to with the concept of an eco-system. CotN reminds me of another flawed gem: Evil Genius in how the game had a lot of great ideas and hindsight along with a sequel could have done a lot to improve the mechanics.

Josh Bycer

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