For the last eighteen months, one game has dominated my thoughts and industry interests more than any other. That game was Batman: Arkham City, follow up to 2009’s roaring success Arkham Asylum. Praised for its tight Metroidvania design and original plot penned by long time Batman writer Paul Dini, Arkham Asylum placed us into the world of Batman like no super hero game has before or since. Appearing from seemingly nowhere in the gaming landscape, UK based developers Rocksteady crafted a true love letter to fans of The Dark Knight, with their incredible attention to detail both large and small scale drawing plaudits even from those not previously familiar with the DC comics. As a studio, Rocksteady themselves wooed the specialist media with their honest, friendly and personable approach to the game’s development. They had the world at their feet and could do no wrong. Uncharted 2 might have pipped Batman to many Game of the Year gongs in 2009, but Rocksteady’s debut still stands as possibly the Game of the Generation to me.
With this all said, you may be able to imagine my disappointment that my experience with the sequel was not quite so stellar. Having bought the game on PC – the only game I’ve ever pre-ordered through Steam, no less – my time with Arkham City was drawn to a close last night. Unfortunately, it wasn’t done so through my own choice or progression to its finale.
To say I’ve had some issues with Arkham City on PC would be something of an understatement. Generally, I’ve been unable to make more than an hour or two’s progress at a time without something forcing me to dive back into the settings; a process which in itself requires exiting the game entirely and relaunching a separate window through Steam rather than through any in game menus. Since I started playing Arkham City, I’ve experienced the following issues.
- Stuttering Performance: This affected everything from the frame rate to the audio quality, but was particularly apparent during Arkham City’s video sequences. Starting with the Nvidia logo at start up and affecting every pre-rendered scene in the game beyond that, the game would stutter and chug to intolerable levels of slow down, resulting in sound drops, missing audio, glitchy scenes and “off” lip syncing. For a game with such an impeccable cast of both in game characters and the voice actors themselves, this was never going to be acceptable. Remedying this issue was relatively simple for me, but involved disabling PhysX entirely. As you can imagine, being required to disable the very feature PC gamers were forced to wait an extra five weeks for within the first hour of my time with Arkham City did not go down particularly well. Especially as this was an issue even under DirectX 9, completely independent of the launch issues that made running under DirectX 11 almost unplayable until last week’s patch for all users.
- That Direct X 11 Patch? It Didn’t Work: Last Monday’s official patch pledged to fix DirectX 11 issues for all but those running Windows Vista or Windows 7 32-bit. According to the patch notes, I shouldn’t have expected to be exempt from the benefits of this patch, but upon booting up Arkham City once Steam had finished its business I apparently was. DirectX 11 performance was and still remains an inconsistent and glitchy mess for me, with rollercoaster frame rates dipping into the mid-teens at their worst. The patch did however improve some of my stutter issues in DX9, allowing me to play large chunks of the game with a relatively stable and stutter free 45 to 60 frames per second, but DX11 and PhysX still remain off limits for me without seriously compromising on performance. Like a bells and whistles shop without any bells and whistles.
- Various Crashes to Desktop: Yeah, this was… kind of annoying. Pre-patch (which at least seems to have fixed this issue, if little else for me) Arkham City would crash once in every four or five boot up attempts at the “Checking for Downloadable Content” screen. Around a week after the game launched, it would inexplicably crash to desktop on every single attempt to load, leaving Arkham City completely unplayable for me for four whole consecutive days and annoying everybody on my Steam list with my constant attempts to restart. It was only after the third attempt at a totally clean re-install – no small inconvenience at 17GB per time – that the game decided to let me through to the main menu and actually play the blessed thing.
- Loading Screen Crashes: Part One: The next obstacle standing between me and the good name of videogame progression was a blank screen crash right after an encounter with one of the game’s villains. Overcoming a certain boss fight around what I figure was the half way point of the campaign would trigger another troublesome video sequence. With PhysX of course turned off the video itself played fine, will all audio intact and voice synced properly to Batman’s laughing gear, but once the video finished the game would hang at a black screen. The annoying thing about this is that you retain control of Batman and are still able to bring up the games menu’s during this time. You just can’t see anything. Move the analogue stick and check your map regularly and you can see that you’re still in control of the game. It just becomes impossible to progress anywhere because, well… the screen is entirely black. Thankfully, this was a known issue apparently associated with “lower end” hardware, so was relatively easy to solve. Exiting the game and hammering all my settings down as low as possible allowed the game to push on beyond the previous video sequence, although only after forcing me to watch all the sequences again and endure what was a pretty sub-standard boss fight. Oh, and I’m still puzzled why my i5-2500k @ 3.30GHz, 4GB RAM and Nvidia 560ti system was classed as “low end”.
- Loading Screen Crashes: Part Two: This is where thing’s get a little more sinister. Yesterday, another section of the single player story brought about a similar conclusion. This time the game froze entirely, again after a set piece encounter and the ensuing video sequence. Unable to control Batman or even bring up the game’s menus, Arkham City was entirely stuck. Restarting the game multiple times failed to encourage any progress, nor did tweaking the settings and ensuring all available options were set to either “Low” or “Off”. This was a very different kind of issue, and one I couldn’t find a clear and concise answer for. The only possible fix I found was on a user community, badly written and unclear but apparently good enough to prompt the game to continue working in his case at least. I applied this lone wolf’s fix, and this happened:
- Corrupted Save File: Uh oh, sad face time. The big one. The mother ship. The Daddy. The Corrupted Save File of Death. Thirteen hours of progress down the shitter, gone forever despite my failed attempts to recover various saves I’d retained to avoid exactly this sort of thing happening, given that save file self-deletion is another known issue with Arkham City across all formats. Thirteen hours of gargoyle swingin’, Riddler solvin’, Joker ass whoppin’ up in smoke pellets. Kaput. The end.
I’ve allowed myself a twenty four hour cooling off period before committing any of this to type. It’s unlikely that anyone from Rocksteady will ever read this, but in the small chance that they might the last thing I want to do is come across as one of the moaning cry babies of the PC community, which the cynic in me thinks some less noble developers must sometimes assume. I don’t want to be that guy kicking and screaming my way through a forum or blog post, because I’m 99% sure doing so would get you absolutely nowhere even if someone from the studio did see it. What I am is a consumer who spent £28 on a product and expected it to work. A consumer who put up with two separate delays for his PC version and kept his pre-order regardless. A consumer who still passionately adores what this particular studio did with its previous game and desperately wanted to feel the same way about the sequel, even now after all these problems. A consumer who when presented with sometimes game-breaking obstacles, went out of his way to fix those obstacles as far as he could, and invested thirteen hours of his life into a product which for the majority of that time, simply didn’t work.
I’m certainly not here to trash the game because I want to. Nothing would have made me happier than for Arkham City to have worked and to have become one of my favourite games of all time, which to be honest some of the sections I did play without interruption suggested it might have done. My concern isn’t even monetary. I’ve spent £28 on a broken game that I can’t play, but these are the risks you take with a digital service like Steam, which to my knowledge doesn’t issue refunds for situations like this. What irritates me the most is that I feel let down by Rocksteady and Warner Brothers. Games for Windows Live integration was a terrible idea. Three separate layers of DRM (because Steamworks does still count as DRM, and GFWL is nothing but DRM, despite Microsoft’s protests to the contrary) is absurd. The five week delay of the game was handled poorly, with communication to paying PC consumers almost non-existent. The pre-launch confusion over DLC access for PC players and even the release date was communicated badly, while the post launch support for a game with clear and obvious issues has been slow and poorly handled.
To be honest it’s all a bit of a mess, and I’ve lost a large degree of confidence in Rocksteady as a developer and of Warner Brothers as a publisher as a result. Rather than resort for the easy option of blaming piracy, Warner Brothers might want to take all of the above into account when assessing why Arkham City didn’t sell as well as expected on PC (and Steam figures suggest it certainly hasn’t pulled up any tree’s). But we all know where that particular press release is going already.
Arkham Asylum remains one of the stand out single player experiences of this generation for me, yet I have been unable to even finish the sequel due to technical issues. We’re on the verge of a winter Steam sale, where Arkham City is likely to join a long list of other big name releases in receiving tasty discounts. Even at Steam sale prices, I honestly cannot sit here and recommend the PC version of Arkham City to anybody at this point based on my experiences. I just can’t do it. I hope you believe me when I say that that is a genuine wrench to have to say, and is a bigger discomfort to me than losing £28 or thirteen hours of progress.
A real shame for all concerned.
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