Monday, 14 November 2011

Zeno Clash VS Arkham Asylum

Zeno Clash is the artistic antithesis of Arkham Asylum's purely derivative, design-by-committee, bland, sexiness: it is a celebration of ugliness and asymmetry; the stranger realms of "Heavy Metal" (1981) with the soft core nudity supplanted by the broken detritus of an steam punk brawl between H. R. Giger and Pablo Picasso (during his surrealist phase).

In the same vein, the storyline is impenetrably mysterious and schizophrenic, very much "Through the Looking-Glass". The entire game experience could well have just been the oddest dream you've ever had. Batman, on the other hand, is Batman; you're getting the whole multi-billion dollar franchise shoe-horned (very successfully) into a Bioshock meets Streets of Rage framework with a side helping of Assassins creed. It incorporates the current characterisation of the whole mythology quite nicely; an epic win for Batman fans (of which there are many, hence the guaranteed return necessary for investing the effort of a large game developer) but perhaps a pretty uninspiring prospect for some regular folk.

Admittedly Zeno Clash is a rail shooter corridor fighter, which makes it positively  claustrophobic compared to some of the spaces available in Arkham Asylum's sandbox-ish environment. However, it's arguable how much all that freedom adds to the game: a lack of location discontinuities does make the story more immersive, but this was balanced (for me) by constantly wondering if I was pointed in vaguely the right direction, or if I had understood correctly which part of the shopping centre island I should be rendezvousing at next. Of course, Zeno Clash is very low budget in comparison, it's creators having had to scale back from a much more ambitious project to get it done at all.

So based mostly on artictic originality, we have an early leader:
Zeno Clash 1-0 Arkham Asylum

The big similarity between these two games (the reason I'm comparing them at all) is their primary game play mechanic: brawling. Each have challenge modes too, that take the place of multiplayer modes. Deathmatchs would be impossible in either case: Ace Team Software simply don't have the resources to implement one, and there's only one Batman! In each case, challenge mode is great for allowing you to get to grips with the nuances of fighting more quickly and then to carry on playing the fun part after the end of the story.

The Batman brawling system was very slick, well, once I eventually got round to rebinding the right mouse button to avoid whipping out a random gadget when I mistimed a block. I presume this unhelpful setup is a vestige of porting from console development. Clearly, much thought, effort *and* testing went into making this part of the game fun. It starts out looking like a button bashing frenzy (left click = punch nearest baddie and repeat), but you are forced to progress in control complexity with the advent of more, better armed minions. Upgraded 'batarangs' and 'batclaw' are introduced and can be used seamlessly in combat. These increase Batman's range and let him engage more opponents simultaneously, preventing it all proceeding like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fight, where extras queue up to take turns being blocked and dropped. That does happen to an extent, but it still feels cool once really in the thick of it, you have to be careful not to initiate too long a sequence of moves on one target (or else get smacked for behind). Sometimes you really do just have to get out of there when the odds are piling up too deep (like a host of Agent Smiths), then you can just hand spring over some shoulders and start over in a clearer area of floor.
Up close and personal with Zeno Clash

By maintaining the first person perspective at all times, when in control of Ghat, Zeno Clash is more immersive, gritty and personal. The trade-off is that one is ends up being sucker punched (and shot) from behind, while Batman gets a far less frustrating God's eye view. He is a movie superhero I suppose. I had moments of rage bashing the keyboard with both, when they each just wouldn't do anything right. For Batman it was more my poor reactions and the key binding issue. Ghat had trouble getting stuck on scenery details (an age old bane of 3D FPSs), picking up objects reliably when in a hurry, getting stuck reloading a weapon by mistake and, more unavoidably, just not being able to block attacks at *exactly* the right time required to turn a bitch slap into a successful counter. When up against 3 armed baddies in a confined space my success was pretty haphazzard (i.e. stocastic and unlikely). It felt like there were no reliable tactics to use, finally fumbling through the first armed 3-way after many fails and a change of difficulty. I did acquire a better grasp of punching while dodging later on, which helped.

Zeno Clash's hit detection seemed rather too generous to the AI many times. I often backed off instinctively, instead of using the proper block/dodge mechanic, and so took damage despite being a good few meters from the an animated, limb flailing adversary. Batman's far simpler (higher level) control system meant that, for most aspects of combat, the animations could be made to smoothly fit the events. The visuals here are more like illustrations for the abstract button push timing game that one is *really* engaged in, thus avoiding the messiness of truely 3D physics.

With Batman, my reactions (and perceptions) were a touch too slow to build a string of consecutive hits all the way to powered up completion most of the time, but the Buffy style sparing (with multiple patient partners) on it's own still felt fun, rewarding. This despite what I was doing was basically just clicking the 'block' button each time I saw a symbol above a guy's head to shows he's about to hit me (in a second or so). Upon description this seems ridiculously dumbed down and simplistic, but in practice the result was less frustrating and more fun than trying to react in real time to bodily movements of a computer model. Arkham Asylum also adds in subtle moments of time dilation during take downs, which primarily lets one bask in the beauty of Batman kicking arse, but also gives that bit of extra time to spin the camera around and take stock to decide on the next tact. Batman will also seem to teleport short distances to be on the right spot to catch a punch, rather than not block successfully. This all shows that a good game (a fun one) is not necessarily created by simulating reality more closely, it has to be primarily be fitted to human psychology.

Challenge mode in Arkham Asylum (I'm-a gonna hit you!)
Making you feel like you are doing something complex and clever without you having to spend years learning something that is genuinely hard (like a musical instrument or a real martial art). Of course some games are more dependant upon aesthetics and plot elements, while a rare few strategy games actually demand (and reward) longer term practice and careful thought. Many games cheat in that they make it feel like you have progressed when it has merely upgraded your character's stats through various grind mechanisms.

Batman is definitely guilty of this to a small extent, with his lengthening life bar/circle and extra gadgets, but Zeno Clash relies purely on real player improvements in button pushing skills and tactics. This makes it less casual gamer friendly, for sure, but gives it far more potential to be loved as a cult classic by those who can hack it. Less remarkable (easier) playability may mean Arkham Asylum risks near instant oblivion after it's wide success.

I really do wonder how much of the realm of possibilities we have already explored when it comes to button controlled games on TV screens. I mean, I'm somewhat sick to death of the generic iterated shooter (and driving games). Granted I've never been competitive at FPSs, but there are many areas that are less well trodden. I think both games show there is still room for genuinely new games to be created (for IBM PCs and games machines directly descended from gaming consoles of the 70s), rather than the same old formulas with shinier graphics added. There is not infinite space though, so I do look forwards to the new frontiers that completely novel personal interface devices will eventually open up.

Anyway, back to the review meta-fight: Although the fighting mechanic in Zeno Clash is as novel as that in Arkham Asylum, it is far less polished, with some fundamental problems and haphazard levels of difficultly between successive fights. Arkham Asylum also totes the stealth based encounters that really let you get into character as the fearsome caped crusader. So in this round Arkham Asylum comes back, exactly, as "strong as a powered up Batman" for an equaliser to make it:

Zeno Clash 1-1 Arkham Asylum

Zeno Clash, while short (and bitter), gelled together very well. In contrast Arkham Asylum was a huge bunch of cool stuff all strapped together in an heroic effort to give a consumer £30 worth of entertainment. 6.3 hours (according to Steam), which is just fine for an indie game; on a par with Machinarim (which I've also just played), or Osmos (I recommend both). Value for money it's not up there with Magica or Terraria (each of which have taken several whole days of my time in exchange for a few hundred pennies). Arkham Asylum took me 12.5 hours, but it kind of felt like longer. More than 2 years down the line, Zeno Clash is still on sale to download for £10 (but far cheaper in sales and on CD), while Arkham Asylum (also released in 2009, months after) has only just reached this price point due to it's sequel sequel making it obsolete.

So the bottom line is, given roughly equal cost, spend your money on whichever you prefer, or both:

Zeno Clash 2-2 Arkham Asylum.  Oh, what'd'ya know, a draw!

+ Extended Zeno Clash discussion (because it was so much more interesting) [Spoilers]:

'Golem' apparently filling the role of Charon
 (Ferryman of Hades).
By teasing the player with only vague hints, and blatantly refusing to make an ultimate revelation at the end of the game, the Zeno Clash universe maintains the kind of bizarre fascination that brought Lost so many viewers. In both cases, my interpretation is that we are looking at a world with physical impossibilities, ergo it is not a place in the physical world: they are in purgatory or, rather, a computational simulation of such a place. A 'ghat' is, after all, a Hindu funeral pyre and his lady friend is 'DEADra'...

Zeno Clash could also represent the an individual's shattered mind, particularly with it's "Corwid of the Free" characters, with bizarre OCDs, could be individual personality traits (somewhat like America Mc Gee's interpretation of Alice in Wonderland). My money's on simulation though: talk of journeying to the end of the world makes me think there's going to be a "Thirteenth Floor" (1999) type incounter with the limits of their reality. This fits with Gollum going on about showing them so much more beyond Zenozoik. And his creator's (captors) being long dead might fit into an Omega Point Singularity setting; a place where all possible beings (however arbitrarily bizarre) are brought to life by computer emulation (then, according to Frank J Tipler, their souls would be literally salvaged: guided down a path to peace, love and general goodness). Incidentally, an end of the universe Omega Point is predicated on the possibility of 'Zeno machines' (a Turing machine that does each sucessive calculation step in half the ammount of time the previous step took). I hope there are sequels that explore the Zeno Clash universe more fully and are as cool as the Matrix Reloaded, without a stupid conclusion like Revolutions.

A nice touch, in both games, is that you never actually kill anyone. Zeno Clash is unrelentingly brutal in it's violence and gun use, but this is always against easiliy recognisable characters who come back later (which it gets away with because it's wierd). Arkham Asylum is lucky in being based on an ethical vigilante who only ever knocks out, or strings up, his adversaries. This does leave one wondering if you are making rather a lot of work for yourself: repeatedly knocking down the same dozen poor grunts again and again over the course of the game. The lack of killing is a pleasant departure from most violent games, where dismembering myriad nameless enemies, as is so often the case. Both games forgo the need for ammo and health pack gathering too, thank god.

+ Further Arkham Asylum Criticisms:

No fun for YOU!
Unlike the little indie title, to play Batman you have to sit through 20 seconds of trade mark animations and disclaimers before Windows Live informs you that you *have to* let it update istself (or else sod off), then restart the game for it to complete. The first time I ran Arkham asylum it took 10 minutes before I could actually *play* it.

As for the game itself, one particular plot flaw bothered me: Batman casually calls his VTOL jet fighter right at the end of the game, as if he had forgotten about this minor asset... Then all he gets from it is the zip line rope launcher package thing. That's bad enough; why could I not have had this earlier? But also, why have I been busting my ass running around outside, fighting through certain buildings and passageways when I could have just air-dropped in (or blown half the bad guys to pieces from the sky)...

Anyway, for a full blooded dismemberment of Arkham Asylum see Bent Crowbar's (Zero punctuation) review:

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