Opinion

Opinion: Life is better with a Titan

As Titanfall’s charming live action trailer (in a great piece of marketing, which you can watch here) observes and I can’t disagree. Developer are Respawn Entertainment – many of whom ushered in the dominance of the Multiplayer Shooter with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – have redefined a stagnating genre, and in doing so have recaptured my love for compettative shooters.

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 Stand by for Titanfall:

There’s a sense of enjoyment that underscored my time with Titanfall (appealing to my inner child, Titanfall gives each player a jetpack and their own two storey tall mech – the eponymous Titans of the games title), that’s characterised by player experimentation.

This ethos stems from the fundemental change Titanfall makes to player movement. The parkour abilities that the jump-pack allows feels like a combination of the Nano suits strength ability from Crysis (which allowed players to jump higher and further) and the exhilarating mobility of Mirrors Edge. The biggest obstacle is learning to read the environment, ignoring the conditioning from years of playing competitive shooters. See a second storey window? Jump through it or chain wall runs together to quickly cross a map (even after hours of play I was finding new ways to utilise these mechanics – I had a moment of realisation when I found out that instead of capturing an objective in Hardpoint from the ground, I could hang from the ceiling), this makes for fast paced and i that’ve map traversal. The level design is brilliant (the vibrant maps eschew the usual grey/brown colour palette of modern shooters, transporting players to the far distant planets of the frontier. On a dessert planet huge alien creatures lumber in the background and fly overhead, swooping to carry off grunts and as an interstellar battle rages in a planets orbit snow falls delicately on giant turrets that can turn the tide of a match – one of the few interactable environmental objects), making use of verticality, bottlenecks and open areas – it’s quite a statement to say that each map makes any play style a viable option – maps strike a pitch perfect balence between pilot and Titan gameplay.

Set on the fringes of the solar system, Titanfall’s setting seems ripe for exploration. Every aspect of the games design – from the socio-political conflict between the IMC (Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation) and the Militia, to the Titans themselves (for me such an intriguing concept) – offer tantalising glimpses at a larger fiction, that’s only briefly touched upon in the games multiplayer campaign. Incorporating narrative elements – like NPC characters, ingame cutscenes and expository ingame dialogue – into the nine campaign missions (somewhat like Brink) to create an intergrated experience, ultimately falls short of its ambitions. At its best Titanfall blurs the line between narrative and emergent gameplay – one of my favourite moments happened in the midst of an intense firefight with two enemy Titans when I recieved a video communication from an NPC character on my HUD. Unfortunately these moments can easily be missed amongst the fast paced action on screen. The barebones story gives each match context – these snippets of narrative made me feel I was working towards an overarching goal and helped get me more invested in whether my team won or lost. Unlike in Killzone 3’s multiplayer mode Operations, Titanfall’s story doesn’t change depending on the outcome of a match- something I feel is a missed opportunity.

Titanfall’s gameplay – at its heart – is all about empowering the player, whether they’re newcomers or veterans alike. The best example of this is the Titans themselves. The Titan replaces the standard killstreak rewards found in most compettative shooters and the ability to customise them (though not to the extent of the Front Mission or Armoured Core series) – much like you would with your character – with different chassis, weapons and abilities (in a neat touch you can also customise your Titans AI) makes each players Titan feel personal to them (I felt so attached to my Titan I even gave him a name). By not restricting the Titans use based on on player skill – instead of accumulating a number of consecutive kills, each players Titan can be called in after a certain amount of time has elapsed – ensures each player gets to experience taking control of a Titan from their first match (this mechanic still benifits veteran players as the more kills you get, the faster your Titan becomes available). There’s a sense of unrivalled anticipation that accompanies the words ‘Stand by for Titanfall’ and it’s always satisfying to see the familiar smoke trails as your Titan drops in from orbit. The Titans could easily have felt overpowered but Respawn have created mechs that feel at once both very powerful and uniquely vulnerable (I haven’t piloted a mech this satisfying since Metal Gear Rex in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots), A single pilot rodeoing your Titan – jumping on its back and attacking its power source – can cause a huge amount of damage. I’ve had matches where my Titan has survived an entire round and others where it’s been destroyed in minutes.

There are two other gamplay mechanics that I feel deserve a mention for bringing a sense of inclusion the the compettative multiplayer. Titanfall’s matches accommodate up to twelve players, these six man teams are accompanied by AI teammates called Grunts. Marrying PVP and weaker AI opponents makes Titanfall more accessible for new players (especially as killing Grunts counts towards player objectives). The main function of the Grunts is to empower players – running into a room and killing four Grunts (or the tougher robotic Spektors) induces the same endorphin fueled rush as if they were enemy players. Each match ends with a short epilogue in which the losing team must get to a dropship for extraction – giving them the opportunity to gain extra Exp (This mechanic is built around empowering the losing team, on the few occasions I made it to the dropship I felt so pumped up with adrenaline for the next match). The epilogue drastically changes the matches dynamic, from fast paced objective based games, into tense games of cat and mouse which engender a sense of camaraderie, during one memorable extraction two of my teammates held off the enemies with their Titans – effectively sacrificing themselves – so that we could escape.

Titanfall is the best compettative shooter this year (and my personal favourite since Crysis 2). It’s the perfectly balenced combat – in which everything feels extremely powerful and uniquely vulnerable, relying on skill as opposed to which player has the best weapon – and innovative game design (that combines the familiar trappings of an FPS with expanded gameplay opportunities for player creativity) that led to my rediscovery of fun within competition, and that is perhaps Titanfall’s greatest achievement.

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Opinion

Cuphead: The Indie title that stole E3 (and my heart)

Cuphead

With what was- for me- a lacklustre showing at E3 this year, MDHR Studio’s indie title Cuphead (announced during Microsoft’s E3 press conference) transported me back to my childhood and instantly captured my imagination.

Described as a run ‘n’ gun and fighting game hybrid, Cuphead has been in development since 2010 by the small five-man development team at Canadian MDHR Studio. Not to be released till 2015; this Xbox One and Steam exclusive combines the animation style of 1930’s cartoons-complete with Jazz accompaniment- with 2D shooters from the 16-bit era of gaming, with the developers themselves citing Kenji inafune’s Mega Man and the Contra series as influences.

The beautifully detailed hand drawn aesthetic- with slightly washed out Backgrounds and lo-fi monitor scan lines to recreate the appearance of a cathode ray tube television-instantly brings to mind cartoons like Popeye and Bettie Boop. While the games playable over-world is a nod to classic Nintendo games like Super Mario World and The legend of Zelda, the sidescrolling gameplay is more of a boss-rush than in the traditional run ‘n’ gun style. Foregoing the classic grunts to focus on 1 on 1 fights.

You can watch the E3 trailer for the game here and while I still have questions about the validity of the gameplay and whether the focus on boss fights could lead to fatigue (even with the addition of platforming and Shmup levels), this title is already one of my most anticipated of 2015.

 

Opinion

Coming back to the fold, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Call of Duty-advanced warfighter

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of my favourite FPS games of all time, with a singleplayer campaign and multiplayer that redefined console shooters. But after three more yearly iterations I felt thoroughly fatigued with a franchise whose gameplay had rapidly begun to stagnate. I haven’t purchased a Call of Duty game since Black Ops (Especially after playing through the lacklustre campaign of Modern Warfare 3), so what is it about the newest entry in the series that has me thinking about coming back into the fold?

Developed by Sledgehammer games for the PS4 and X-Box one (with the last-gen versions being handed to an as yet unspecified developer) and running on a brand new engine (Even from the reveal trailer the game looks gorgeous, with beautiful lighting effects and some of the most detailed facial animations I’ve seen) the first truly next-gen Call of Duty game takes the series into the near future. Set in 2054, the games plausible Sci-Fi setting imagines a world where wars are fought solely by PMC’s (Private Military Corporations) and poses the question what would happen if PMC’s started following their own orders? (An engaging topic that’s explored in an excellent documentary advertising the reveal of the game, which you can watch here). With Kevin Spacey and Troy Baker providing voice work for the project, I can only hope this means there will be a greater focus on both plot and character development.

I think the most exciting aspect of the futuristic setting is the technology that’s on display in the reveal trailer (which can be watched here). First and foremost is the Elysium-esk exoskeleton. What’s most interesting is the meaningful impact this could have on gameplay, with the exo-suit providing the player with a new level of mobility (whether it’s been designed as a rival to the parkour in Titanfall or will function more like the Nanosuit in Crysis-enhancing the players jumping ability and strength-remains to be seen). Players will also be able to upgrade the exoskeleton combining RPG elements into Call of Duty for the first time. The trailer also hints at other technologies that exist in 2054, scenes show soldiers using cloaking devices as well as portable cover and it will be interesting to see just how much of this can be utilised by the player in-game. Informed by the robotic concept art of Aaron Beck, the ethos of the games striking visual design combines the familiar with hi-tech industrial influences; nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of the walking tanks and the soldier’s exo-suits.

While this post is only based on my first impressions of the game from the reveal trailer; the games aesthetic, setting and story has already captured my imagination. The question remains though, can Sledgehammer games reinvigorate the singleplayer campaign and create a multiplayer suite to rival that of Titanfall? (What I see as being the most original multiplayer experience around). I for one an cautiously optimistic.

Opinion

Atoning for past sins, Battlefield 4’s campaign

battlefield 4 squad

I’ve been a fan of the battlefield series since the first Bad Company game was released for consoles in 2001, even since the first game though I’ve felt torn. Though the multiplayer continues to improve with each iteration of the series, the same can’t be said for the single player component which has progressively gotten worse. Moving away from the staples that make the Battlefield series unique to the military shooter genre (namely the vehicular combat and destructive environments) instead choosing to ape the narrative style and action of other series like Call of Duty. The problem for me is that I play games specifically for the single player campaigns with multiplayer as a nice addition to play once I’m done (I know that not every gamer feels that way), if the campaign is lack lustre then how can I justify paying full retail price for a game that I will only play through once. I also feel games like battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 shouldn’t garner such high critical scores when a major element of the game being reviewed just doesn’t cut it, the campaigns for both of these games were average at best and yet critics still gave them nine out of ten. As you can tell this isn’t just a problem I have with the Battlefield series. The problem is with the genre as a whole, this generation it has rapidly stagnated becoming repetitive and now with a focus more on multiplayer over single player content I feel increasingly alienated from the genre

Battlefield Bad Company (released in the same year as Call of Duty 4: Modern warfare) was the complete antithesis of other shooters on the market at the time. The plot didn’t take itself too seriously, concerning the exploits of a group of soldier who abandon their mission to go in search of a fortune in gold (a plot heavily influenced by Kelly’s Heroes). The key feature of the game was destructible environments, if an enemy was giving you trouble from inside a building, you could simply use a grenade to destroy the wall he was hiding behind. The game also had micro sandboxes where it was up to the player to decide how to proceed with completing mission objectives, while the game starts off with more linier missions: destroying anti-aircraft weapons and riding in a Humvee convoy (which comes under fire during an ambush). Later the game opens up; towards the end of the fourth mission you have to escape across an open plain after rescuing your squad from a chapel and how you do this really is up to you. Do you take enemies head on in a tank and fight towards the extraction point?, make a break for it in a speedy humvee, or do you take is slowly and takeout enemy positions with airstrikes?

The best example of all of these elements coming together but used in a narrative context would be Battlefield 3’s ‘Thunder run’ mission. This is the standout mission in the game (telling then that it’s the only mission in which you’ll take full control of a vehicle), in which you take on the role of a tank operator being tasked with supporting troops already entrenched in a hostile city.

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Here you not only take control of the tank, along with the rest of your battalion you engage enemy tanks, use a UAV to scout enemy placements to call in a bombing run. You will have to get out from the safety of your tank to destroy a minefield blocking your path (this change in pace is brilliant as it removes the feeling of safety you previously experienced in the tank, as you rush from cover to cover bullets whittling through the air as you search for a detonator dropped by a comrade) and finally use the mounted machine gun on the tank to hold off enemies while the troops you were sent to protect get extracted. This mission has an emotional blow at the end of it and it’s one of the only moments in the game where I felt for the character I was playing as. It’s really the combination of the different types of gameplay that makes this mission stand out and it over all conveys a real sense of warfare.

So far for the campaign two pieces of media have been released, the seventeen gameplay reveal showcasing a mission called ‘Fishing in Baku’ and the gameplay demo from E3 showing a mission called ‘Angry Sea’. After seeing these demos I feel a lot happier with the direction Dice seem to have taken with the game, these are the main reasons that I came away impressed:

1)                      One of the most exciting and notable changes to gameplay for me is your squad, this was something that was sorely missing from Battlefield 3 (here the player assumed the role of a different soldiers and the pace at which you did so left me feeling disengaged from the narrative). This new squad mechanic is best shown in the ‘Fishing in Baku’ mission and during the seventeen minutes shown it was interesting to see how much of the games minute to minute gameplay focused on them. To begin with, you can now issue commands to your squad (a first for the series), so that they can provide you with support fire or focus on a specific enemy. There was also a substantial amount of interaction between the player and your NPC squad, in one of the more suspenseful moments you stop one of your squad mates from falling from a collapsing building after you’re attacked by a helicopter and another part sees you carrying an injured soldier to safety. I think that having a squad in a military shooter really helps to engage the player on an emotional level. One of my favourite missions levels that showcases this is from Medal of Honor (2010). During the mission ‘Belly of the beast’ the player is tasked with destroying a DShK heavy machine gun, this required the player to suppress the emplacement while your AI team mates slowly advanced to mark the target for an air strike, this takes some time and is tense and can be challenging, but it’s still one of my favourite moments in a military shooter because by having to work together with your squad to achieve the goal, making you feel that sense of camaraderie.

2)                      The second element that the developers seem to have worked on is the sheer variety of the gameplay. Battlefield 3 was a much more linear affair, where it seemed that each mission was focused on one element (whether it was being the gunner in a jet, sniping and being stealthy etc) and they didn’t feel like they jelled together creating what I felt was a disjointed narrative. The level ‘Fishing in Baku’ was really the standout demo for showcasing this, in the seventeen minutes of gameplay that we see, the player engages in stealth, open firefights, covering a friendly soldier as they make their way to you down a street, we are shown a set piece where a helicopter crashes into a building, a emotional moment where you have to help amputate your senior officers leg in the field and finally am intense car chase. One of my favourite levels from this generation of shooters, in ‘Cliff-hanger’ (from Modern Warfare 2) it perfectly blend narrative elements (like climbing up a cliff face) and provides an amazing array of gameplay mechanics for only the third level in the game. The mix of gameplay we see in ‘Fishing in Baku’ really reminds me of this, hopefully each level will be as well paced as this one. One final element I’d like to mention in regards to the gameplay is the level of limited player choice and destructibility that seems to have been reintroduced into the series. In the demo, the players squad get ambushed by a vehicle with a mounted turret, in a Gameinformer preview article it was stated that the player could either destroy the vehicle or if the player took out the soldiers instead then the vehicle could be commandeered. Dice themselves have stated that they wanted to introduce ‘mirco sandbox’s’ within gameplay and its the way that Dice switches between the minute to minute gun play, story driven set pieces and these micro sandboxes that is so exciting (hopefully harking back to the gameplay style of the first Bad company game but allowing for a more story driven experience).

3)      There also seems to be an increased focus on vehicles in this new game, over the course of the two gameplay demos three different vehicle sections (one being optional) were shown off, these impressed me most due to the control the player is given, rather than reducing the gameplay to turret sections. In ‘Fishing in Baku’ the escape segment at the end of the demo showed the player driving a truck in hopes of avoiding capture, this segemant which is reminiscent of the driving sections from Medal of Honor Warfighter then switches to you having to take out a helicopter with a grenade launcher while another member of your squad drives, really adding variety to the gameplay. As Battlefield is a modern war game the main emphasis should be on splitting gameplay time equally between infantry and vehicles.

 I still have a few concerns about the campaign, after all we’ve only seen a few snippets of gameplay which is a long way from seeing the whole game

1)      First and foremost is the lack of originality shown so far. The problem with the military shooter genre at this late stage in the console cycle is that is has become so saturated it’s hard for developers to produce something without reiterating what previous games have done and where the player feels like they’re experiencing something for the first time and I question whether story and gameplay will feel stale. The mission ‘Angry Sea reminded me of the first mission from Call of Duty 4; Modern Warfare, though obviously on a bigger scale and with the destruction physics of the Frostbite 3 engine. But the player is still infiltrating a ship and then when it starts to sink they have to rapidly evacuate. Though it looks like Battlefield 4 refines all of these mechanics, it still begs the question whether it will feel new. Coming away from E3 the game that really impressed me and felt truly Next Gen was Ubisoft’s ‘The Division’. The way the game transitions not only from cinematic to gameplay but from single player/co-op objective based missions to multiplayer all in a ever evolving world is an idea that I think could be used by next gen FPS games. This could be the fresh approach that modern shooters are looking for

2)      Secondly is the use of set pieces for spectacle. In Battlefield 3 a lot of the time set piece moments felt that they didn’t really add much to the game and were there to show off the power of the Frostbite 3 engine. This was best shown in the mission ‘Going hunting’. In this mission the players assumed the role of a gunner in a jet. This was reduced to a boring turret sequence (A missed opportunity as well, this practice would have carried over into multiplayer, but instead the lack of player interaction in this mission means that there is never any part of the game which gives you help with this) where the best asset shown off was the skybox. Though Battlefield 4 doesn’t show any signs of this (at least to that extent) there are some moments in the gameplay demo where I question whether the end result will enhance the gameplay, I think the most obvious example is in ‘Angry Sea’ when the aircraft carrier breaks in half. I’d much rather this level of destruction be used when the player instigates it, like calling in an airstrike on a building.

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The multiplayer already has me very excited and If Battlefield 4 can create an engaging narrative while side stepping the pitfalls of previous titles then I really believe that this will be Battlefield’s year. All will be revealed when the game launches later this year on the 1st of November

Opinion

The good, the Bat and the ugly (or why I’m feeling positive about Batman Arkham origins after Arkham City)

batman-arkham-origins-deathstrokeI know that this might not win me any fans but after the fantastic Batman Arkham asylum, I was excited for the sequel Arkham city but was ultimately left feeling very disappointed with the end result. Recently the first trailer for Arkham origins was released along with a slew of information about the game and I have to say that it’s given me hope that the series will be reinvigorated.

My main complaint with Arkham city was It’s narrative, instead of what I’d hoped for (and what I thought the end of the first game hinted at) a game set in an open world Gotham City with individual stories and cases but with an overarching narrative (like the structure of the plot in The Long Halloween). What we instead got was a small corner of Gotham that had been transformed into a giant prison. This and a paper thin story whose main role seemed to be to incorporate as many of the villains from Batman’s rogues’ gallery as possible were perhaps the biggest let downs. The combat was as great, offering a slightly expanded move set over the first game but occasionally I felt the combat could become a bit to chaotic when there were too many enemies. Boss fights were lacklustre at best (with the exception being the battle against Mr Freeze, this is in fact one of the best boss battles in recent gaming memory, and really forced you too mix up your tactics). The use of Catwoman as an incentive to buy the game new, was ultimately a shallow experience as though she played brilliantly and it was fun her campaign was too short and had a throwaway plotline , I would much rather that Rocksteady had incorporated her into the main game making for a much more satisfying experience. Just imagine if as Catwoman you could infiltrate a building stealthily as you used Batman as a distraction, the dynamic between the two was great in the two cut scenes where they were together and really should have been utilised more. Another problem I had was the city, I never felt like the city was at war, you never saw rival gangs having shoot outs vying for control of the city or anything as dynamic as this. It was all conveyed in dialogue. These are just a few of the gripes that I had with the game, I don’t want to go into them all now but as you can tell I was unimpressed with most of the game.

So why am I feeling positive about Arkham Origins? For one the plot sounds entirely plausible and more realistic than the events of Arkham City (And realism worked in the Dark Knight) and is supposedly partly informed by Batman Year One. The game is set on one Christmas Eve in Gotham and sees Black Mask hire eight assassins to kill Batman, why Black Mask has this vendetta against Batman provides an intriguing mystery from the off. Being a prequel this allows new developers Warner Brothers Games Montreal to start afresh. Though this isn’t another origins story in the typical sense, the game does feature a younger and more unrefined Batman whose relationships with other characters aren’t developed yet, so this will hopefully incorporate Batman’s first encounters with allies and villains alike. The enemies that have been revealed so far are an unusual choice, but a welcome change of pace. The developers have forsaken the more well known super villains in favour of Black Mask, Deathstroke and Deadshot with more to be confirmed. The choice of Deathstroke and Deadshot should provide two very different approaches to boss encounters, with Deathstroke favouring melee heavy combat and Deadshot preferring long range combat, this should provide ample recourses to create engaging battles against them. I’m also hoping that the suggestion in the trailer that there might be multi boss fights becomes a reality or that the developers provide an interesting twist by showing us Batman’s enemies clashing with each other, the trailer clearly shows Deathstroke’s distain for his rival assassin. It’s also been confirmed that the Joker will be appearing in the game, but in what capacity remains to be seen. While I like his new character model (shown in screen shots released by Warner Brothers) and I’m interested to see how he is involved in the game, especially as the game is set before the rise of any of the major villains (or so the official synopsis on the Arkham Origns homepage informs us) my hope though is that he has less of a major role and fits into a single “case” or mission and has no bearing on the main storyline. The final interesting story detail that’s been revealed is set during Batman’s early years, it will see him having to face off against a corrupt and distrustful police force as well as villains. What this will mean gameplay wise I’m not sure, but I’m hoping for police pursuits that flip Batman’s role from hunter to hunted. I also hope that WB Montreal aren’t afraid to use pre-rendered cutscenes, if the official trailer is anything to go by they would look amazing and I miss their use in modern gaming where ingame cutscenes now seem the norm.

Side missions were the highlight of Arkham City for me. This really allowed you to assume the role of Batman and was the only time that I felt like a detective in the game. The Zsasz side mission provided a fun minigame whilst the hush side mission perhaps provided the strongest story in the game. So it’s nice to see these optional missions have returned and seem to be no less interesting. One such mission sees Anarchy attempting to blow up buildings in Gotham and Batman having to diffuse the bombs using detective vision to follow the wires. This makes me hopeful that the side missions will be self contained stories that explore villains motives separate to the main plot and won’t just provide an artificial way to extend the game.

The Christmas setting of the game should be very thematic and colourful and this seems to contrast nicely with the moody artwork of the game depicting snowy vistas. The game world is roughly twice the size of that seen in Arkham City and as well as gliding and using your grapple to traverse the city like in the previous game (something else I thought was handled very well) you can now use the Batwing to fast travel to locations. While it seems all control is taken from the player in these moments use of vehicles seems to be the next logical step for the series to take; chasing a villain in the Batmobile would certainly one-up Rocksteady’s efforts. One difference I would like to see in the city is a reduced number of henchmen, so that it feels like Gotham City being terrorised by the rogue’s gallery, whereas it made sense in Arkham City to have thugs everywhere being a giant prison, here I hope henchmen represent supporting roles only during main missions. The world structure isn’t the only new gameplay mechanic, detective mode has also been overhauled so that when you examine crime scenes the detective mode will compile the evidence you find. The way the IGN describes this in its hands on preview is ‘By scrubbing through different evidence in different places, Batman assembles the truth piece by piece’. I’m also hoping that this means that the old detective mode has been removed or tweaked at the very least, the ability to see people through walls sacrifices tension and for me also looks aesthetically displeasing (maybe just show the outline of people)

Warner Bros have confirmed that pre-order DLC will come in the form of Deathstroke as a playable character for use in challenge maps along with two maps and two skins. This seems to be along the lines of Arkham Asylum’s Joker DLC and it will be interesting to see how Deathstroke will play in comparison to Batman. In an exclusive interview with Game Informer the creative director of Warner Brothers Games Montreal, Eric Holmes addressed their vision for post game DLC ‘I think the challenge with DLC is finding something worth saying that you didn’t say in the main game, something that adds to the story or universe’ This makes me hopeful that any post game content will come in the form of story based DLC, by the sound of it, it will either tie into the game itself or at least add to it in some way and this is the best news I could have hoped for in this area, I think this is really what the best DLC aims to do and I look forward to hearing more about their plan.

gotham at christmas

These impressions are based on preview articles, developer interviews and the official trailer, but without seeing any actual gameplay I remain a little wary. But as more information about the game comes to light it seems most of the problems I had with the previous game have been addressed and I feel more positive that this could be the sequel to Arkham Asylum that I always wanted.