Saturday, 26 October 2013

Not Quite First Impressions Corner: Batman Arkham Origins

To begin with: yes, I write for the Escapist, no, this has nothing to do with the Escapist, it's entirely my own thing, and no, this isn't a review. I've only been playing Batman Arkham Origins for about 4 hours on Hard difficulty; I've penetrated Penguin's lair, and am currently fighting Deathstroke.

If someone were to ask me, right now, whether or not this was a good buy, I'd have to say no. Wait for a sale.

I don't have that option - video games never go on sale down here, particularly console versions - and besides, I enjoyed the first two episodes, so I didn't mind shelling out for this one. The first two were made by Rocksteady; in 2009 Arkham Asylum put that studio on the map, and in 2010 Warner Brothers bought the studio.  City followed soon thereafter, and was a huge success. Then something odd happened. Though a sequel to City had been announced in 2012, there were mixed messages about its content - was it Silver Age, was Paul Dini attached as writer, who would voice Batman and the Joker? - and in February 2013 it was announced that Rocksteady would not be the developer this time out. Instead, Warner Brothers Montreal would be the folks in charge. Perhaps it was thanks to talent drain; a Rocksteady developer lamented in February 2012 that an unfriendly business climate at home was forcing UK developers abroad. Be that as it may, from Feb 2013 to its release that October, Montreal was in charge, and to my mind, it shows.

After four hours, I haven't seen anything here that I didn't see in City. The environment's the same, since every outdoors location so far - and again, it's only been four hours, so that could change - has come from City. That same covered mall which was sprinkled with mines and a pain in the Bat-side to sneak around in City, is where I just foiled Penguin's gun deal in Origins. The same environments and rooftops I glided around in City, I'm gliding around now. The only thing missing is that bloody great wall, and Strange's armed thugs; but if early gameplay teasers are any indication, SWAT will be playing the role of Strange's Tiger teams. No doubt as soon as they appear, so will the choppers I remember spying on me in City. At least the wall hasn't been built yet.

The interior locations are a change of pace. Blackgate didn't really stand out. I'm enjoying Penguin's floating casino, though it seems a little small for what it is, and I can't help thinking that the basic premise is much the same as Penguin's Museum base in City. There are signal jammers outside, so deal with them first. Bust in to Penguin's lair, find your way to the fight pit, have a big fight, have a mini boss fight, move on. The Electrocutioner first appears in Penguin's lair, and what a big bag of wind he turns out to be, but the character that wins my 'least enjoyable' award so far is Tracey, Penguin's secretary. I've heard better Mockney from Jamie Oliver. The writers didn't dare say Fuck, but Bugger's ok, is it? Numpty? Have the 1970's returned, and nobody's told me?

I don't think Tracey's from the books, but I haven't followed comics since I was in uni, so I can't be sure. I hope, if she is, she gets better treatment there. Her biography doesn't say one way or the other, which is a departure from the other games; Rocksteady was always pretty good about telling you who first appeared where, and when.

The boss fights are interesting, but really not significantly different from previous outings. Killer Croc, who you fight early on, has broadly the same tactics as the Titan-boosted thugs found in both previous titles and the minor boss Siamese twin goons seen in City. He's quicker, but that's about it. Stun him, hit him, and keep hitting him. There's a really annoying Hit A Repeatedly QTE half-way through; I hope you have strong thumbs. But the bigger problem in that fight is the camera, which whooshes around like a drunk on a spree. You don't see enough of the Electrocutioner in his first fight to really test his mettle. Deathstroke has a curious block-block-hit him thing going on, but if you remember Ra's al Ghul's fight in City, you'll see a lot of similarities. It doesn't take place in a dream zone, but other than that, it's a very familiar fight.

Speaking of fights, yes, they're just as you remember them, and just as fun to plow through. The upgrade system is very odd. You get experience, much as you did before - hit things, smash objects, do well in predator encounters - but before you can buy any fun combat upgrades, you have to buy all the armor upgrades first. I've just bought the Blade Takedown, which will help deal with those pesky knife-users, but I had to fully upgrade my close combat armor first. Other combat moves are specific to bullet resistant armor, which I haven't fully upgraded yet. I'm not sure what difference that system makes to gameplay, but it did make me feel as though I was being forced to upgrade the way the developers wanted me to, rather than as I wanted to.

Again, this is a first impressions, not a review. I will play through to the end - I may even tell you what I thought of it, once it's done - but so far, I'm not impressed. Arkham City felt completely different to Asylum, right out of the gate. Origins feels like City's warmed-up leftovers. That's not necessarily a bad thing - City was a brilliant game - but it's not great for WB Montreal that my initial thought, as soon as I see the outdoor environments, is 'hang on, Rocksteady was here first - and Rocksteady was better.'     

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Trail of Cthulhu Sordid London: Fabian of the Yard

Detective Inspector Robert Fabian, ex-Scotland Yard, author, and TV personality, is one of those sources you have to treat with caution. His book, London After Dark, is in my collection, and it's an entertaining read.  The difficulty is, Fabian's a relentless self-publicist intent on creating his own mythology, and you have to be cautious about taking his word as gospel. That said, anyone seeking source material for a Bookhounds of London game would do well to seek out a copy, particularly if they want to create a Sordid London setting. Endless data mining can be had, provided you're prepared to hold your nose when Fabian goes off on another tangent.

Bob Fabian started his police career in the early 1920s, and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Detective Superintendent, and head of the Vice Squad. He's the eponymous pipe-smoking British hero, the kind of brains-and-brawn policeman that wouldn't have been out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. If he ever failed, you wouldn't know it by London After Dark; time after time, he collars the crook he's after, often in spectacular fashion. After retirement he turned his career into a television series, Fabian of the Yard, drawn from episodes of his career, bookended by appearances by Fabian himself, describing what happened in the real-life case. And what a career it must have been; everything from dope king Eddie Manning right through to Satanist enclaves and perverts in the 1950s. Fabian's the sort of detective who'll casually describe blacks as having the "brains of children" while at the same time displaying pictures of himself having a pint with his "colored" friends; who'll describe marihuana and cocaine in the most lurid terms imaginable; who'll casually link homosexuality with perversion and child molestation. He's a man of his times, no error, and very fond of the spotlight to boot. It's not as if he was the only one publishing his memoirs - Edward Greeno's War On The Underworld's well worth looking at, among others - but there's something slightly off-putting about Fabian's eagerness to be in the center of things. As a reader, you're left with the impression he'd let nothing stand in the way of a good story, which can be very worrying if you're relying on your source for factual accuracy.

As this is Trail of Cthulhu we're talking about, factual accuracy is the least of our worries. Let's get down to cases, and talk about two useful things to be drawn from Fabian's reminisces: night clubs, and young criminals.

"There are 295 registered clubs within one mile of Eros Statue in Piccadilly," says Fabian, "where music, dancing drinks and companions await the well-filled wallet. The job is to empty that wallet - whether they do it with pink champagne and satin-quilted walls; or by meth-and-ginger ale, marijuana cigarettes and tope-jumpy teenage girls who, for two pounds, would cuddle a baboon." Of course, if there are 295 registered clubs, there are bound to be plenty of unregistered ones too - Fabian claims to know of fifteen - none of them very expensive to set up or run. A single room, a few tables, some chairs, and girls; that's all a clubman needs. Then, much as now, a club could shut up in a week crushed by debt, or run for years with the efficiency and morals of a rat trap. Some were very inventive. "The Hell Club ... was installed with hidden lighting that changed color slowly, at a time when this was quite a novelty, and sank from pink to deep red and ghastly purple, and with various effects to make flickering shadows. I have no doubt that some of the patrons must have thought they had actually arrived!" Or there were the American clubs, like the 21 and the Be-Bop, with the exotic appeal of the foreign and unfamiliar. It was a toss-up which approach worked better, the no-expense-spared or the budget option; a club's appeal is ephemeral, and often depends as much on the mood of the moment as the decor or the head waiter.

From a Bookhounds point of view, the typical Club is in Westminster, and the contacts most often met there are barmen, bright young things, inspectors and bobbies (during a raid), prostitutes and gamblers. Gambling is illegal in London, as is prostitution, which - according to Fabian - led to a novel defense against the income tax brigade. Fabian alleged that, when asked, notorious women would declare without shame "I am a prostitute of London," at which point the income tax inspectors backed hurriedly away. The last thing they wanted to do was get involved. Gamblers had a different problem; when they lost, they were expected to pay up. Sometimes gamblers relied on the Gaming Act, which essentially said that debts arising from gambling were unenforceable. They hoped to brazen it out. But if their creditor has criminal connections, they might sell the debt on to a gang, which has its own means of debt collection.

 Now let's talk about criminals.

"'Pity you wasn't here last night, Mr. Fabian,' said the barman. 'You never seen such a mess as those villains made of that girl!'" They suspected her of being a nark, a police informant. The three walked into the bar, ordered three pints, and a bottle of brandy. They drank their beer, then poured the brandy into an empty pint pot. "'He goes across to this girl. Have a drink, Rabbit, he says, and tips it all over her. Face, hair, clothes - the lot! Ever get neat brandy in your eyes, Mr. Fabian? Well, she starts to scream, claws at her eyeballs. He just grins. He takes out his cigarette lighter and calmly sets her off like a Christmas pudding!"

 It's well known that the police and the criminals they chase, in period, seldom carry firearms. That doesn't stop violence; if anything, it becomes more inventive. Some of the worst offenders are children. They might wear makeshift armor, metal shields under their shirts that cover them from wrist to elbow, intended to protect their arms and wrists from knives, razors and chains. They always have some kind of sharp weapon, whether it's a set of rings with hooks embossed, or fish hooks sewn into their jacket sleeves and hat brims. If that sounds like something trivial, imagine having half a dozen fish hooks embedded in your face, then pulled out in one long scraping motion, just by a seeming casual brush-by. There isn't a criminal in London that goes unarmed, and the Keeper should assume each has the equivalent of a knife (-1) at the least. The only saving grace, when dealing with a professional crook, is that the pro is usually too careful to get mixed up in violence. They don't like prison, but it's never difficult to find an amateur - again, often children, or teens - willing to do something drastic for a nominal fee. "There are crazy young hoodlums of the underworld, hungry to make a reputation for being tough, who will slash your face for twenty five pounds, though they know they will be arrested within a very short time of doing it!"

But there are gunmen. "The true gunman is always slender, with agitated appearance, like a man who has been kept waiting. He is solitary. Also, he loves his gun. He cleans it frequently. When I arrested the gunman who did London's first daylight armed robbery of a jeweler's in Oxford Street, he was busy loading his gun in his bedroom. He had polished every cartridge until it glittered. If he hadn't been so particular his gun might have been loaded when we burst in." The true gunman always has grey eyes, according to Fabian; make of it what you will. The gunman knows that his natural prey - cashiers and clerks, perhaps carrying payroll - is also armed, but they couldn't hit a doorway at ten paces, and frequently don't bother to take care of their weapons. The true gunman doesn't fear them, but he'll be wary of shooting a policeman, not because he has a conscience but because he knows that, as soon as the deed's done, every single patrolman and officer - 16,000 men - will be after him, day and night. And after arrest, the hangman. 

I hope you found this useful! I may return to Fabian later; he's a fund of odd trivia, even if I wonder about his reliability as a source.