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Batman Arkham City Review, DX11 Explored
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Date: Dec 19, 2011
Section:Misc
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction
Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of the top hits of 2009. It told the story of the Joker's surprise escape and takeover of the notorious Gotham facility for the criminally insane and Batman's struggle to subdue the Clown Prince of Crime and stop his plans to create an army of monsters. The game captured the look and feel of Batman and the Gotham universe perfectly and explored Bruce Wayne's backstory and mental fragility without becoming campy or bogging down.


Come...and I will show you something different from either

The best news about Batman: Arkham City is that it's a sequel that lives up to and even surpasses the original. The story takes place 18 months after the original game. Quincy Sharp, the onetime administrator of Arkham Asylum, has become mayor and convinced Gotham to create "Arkham City" by walling off the worst, most crime-ridden areas of the city and turning the area into a giant open-air prison.


Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Bruce Wayne is concerned enough about the situation to take a public stand against it but is arrested and dumped into the new Arkham by Hugo Strange, who succeeded Quincy Sharp as warden/administrator. Bruce gets in touch with Alfred, the Batwing makes a flyby, and Batman takes wing into a seething environment of chaos and destruction.


Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you

Harley Quinn has taken a medical team hostage in Gotham Cathedral, Harvey Dent (Two-Face) is preparing to dip Catwoman in acid, hungry, desperate prisoners roam the streets, and Hugo Strange's voice booms over the city's PA system announcing that "Protocol 10 will commence in 10 hours."


I will show you fear in a handful of...WTF IS THAT?
Welcome to Arkham City.
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Structure, Storyline, and Gameplay
AC's virtual world is roughly 5x larger than the environments of Arkham Asylum, but much smaller than a full-scale implementation of Gotham would've been. Focusing on a smaller area gave the developers more time to personalize and craft it while maintaining the sense of an enclosed prison. Arkham City may be huge compared to Arkham Asylum, but this doesn't feel like a "free-roaming" world. Batman, like the other prisoners, can only run so far before hitting a wall, guard post, or the uncaring, icy waters of Gotham Harbor.


. Gotham feels much more distinctive than a simple collection of high buildings and generic city architectures

The Joker, Two-Face, and the Penguin have all staked out zones of control and have sizeable gangs, while villains like Mr. Freeze and Killer Croc have remained focused on their own goals or gone more-or-less to earth. The Riddler makes no direct appearance, but puzzles, traps, and trophies positively litter Arkham City. The puzzles themselves are far more sophisticated this time around and often require the use of multiple gadgets or abilities.


Killer Croc drops by for a discussion on the meaning of life

Arkham City's story is driven by Batman's search for a cure to a Joker-caused disease and his primary investigation of Hugo Strange and the mysterious "Protocol 10." The plot is decent and the game moves along at a good clip, but the Hugo Strange plot relies on characters and relationships that newcomers to the Batman mythos may not be aware of.

The Joker remains the strongest cast member of Team Evil, even if he shares star billing this time around. One of the charges leveled against Batman in Arkham City is that his presence has created a crucible where the strongest criminals come to test themselves while his refusal to kill has allowed the evil he battles to fester and ultimately return to kill again. The Joker puts a personal face on this charge in Arkham City; the game makes it clear that the Clown Prince has a point when he sees himself and Batman as inextricably connected--even if Batman doesn't want to admit it.


Boss fights are varied and require strategy. Clayface made a cameo in Arkham Asylum; he's back for blood in Arkham City

In addition to the main quest there are a number of entirely optional side quests involving lesser-known villains. As a result, Arkham City is shorter than AA if one plays strictly through the main quests and ignores the optionals. Toss in the side quests and the game is at least as long, particularly if you're a completionist who needs to hunt down every trophy and solve all the riddles.

PC gamers also take control of Catwoman for a few missions, and while they're not vital to the overall storyline, she's quite a bit of fun to play. While she lacks Batman's array of gadgets, she's much faster in melee. Catwoman is also a playable option in the game's challenge maps, as is Robin.

Gameplay

Arkham City uses almost exactly the same controls as Arkham Asylum, but with a few notable improvements. Combat has been streamlined and now allows for double/triple counters, catching objects thrown at you, and the ability to use all gadgets in combat. Double-tapping the key for a particular gadget will quickfire it. There's a much wider assortment of toys this time around, including electrical guns, smoke pellets, freeze bombs, and weapon disrupters.


Mighty foot engaged.

The wide variety of gadgets underscores the need for strategy and the fact that Batman, while in peak physical condition, is still human. Attempting to take on a group of thugs with shotguns, even in a fully-upgraded Batsuit, is a quick ticket to a reload. The same group of enemies that'll trash you every time in a face-to-face confrontation can be taken out without a scratch by a combination of stealth takedowns, aerial attacks, batarangs, and your boot.
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Graphics: DX9 vs. DX11
Arkham City's graphics are a good news / bad news situation. The good news is that the game looks great in DX9. The bad news is that even after waiting several weeks for a DX11 patch to arrive, the advantage of using that mode is surprisingly small.

We tested DX9 vs. DX11 by running the built-in benchmark and using FRAPS to capture screenshots every second. Detail levels were set to 'Very High' in both cases. Ambient occlusion was enabled, FSAA was disabled, PhysX was on and set to normal. Tessellation was also set to normal in DX11 mode.  

The fog in the images below is created by PhysX. All DX9 screenshots are on the left, DX11 is to the right. We went to some trouble to compare the DX9 vs. DX11 shots to ensure we weren't missing effects, even using AMD's "The Compressonator" tool to highlight the exact differences between images.


There's virtually no difference between these two in DX9 and DX11

Above is as perfectly identical a screengrab as we could manage. The only apparent difference between DX9 and DX11 is that the DX9 shot is brighter.

 
PhysX is used well, but again, the difference here is minimal

Another comparative set. We're guessing that the randomized hairdos are part of how the game randomizes NPC appearances. Again, virtually the only difference between the two screenshots is the general level of brightness, although the lens flare from the light in the back-right corner is somewhat larger in the DX11 version. Normally, DX11 is used to create more realistic shadows, but the lighting change is global rather than shadow-specific.

 
This is an area where DX11's tessellation would be expected to make a significant difference

A giant plant. This is one area where we might expect to see tessellation make a serious difference, but there's none to be seen--at least not here. Watch what happens as the camera continues panning and we pass through the grate you can see to your left.

 
Here, it does -- but notice the limited view and short camera distance.

Holy major tessellation, Batman! That's a heck of a difference. So why is it all focused in just this one spot? Check the previous set of images, and there's zero evidence of anything like this. Suddenly, in one area, boom. We don't know if Rocksteady was being lazy or deliberately trying to create a false impression of what DX11 delivers in Arkham City, but there's virtually nothing this dramatic in the rest of the game.

Here's a more realistic example of how tessellation is used.

  
Check the curve of the lion's back and the area under his chin, around the mane

Compare the lion sculpture in DX9 vs. DX11 and you'll note that the DX11 version is more organic and less angular. The stone appears to have been shaped rather than struck off at sharp angles. Sitting at the computer flipping between the two modes, the DX11 version is clearly superior—but you'll never notice in-game.

Here's the last, and arguably most-important comparison series from the benchmark. As always, DX9 is on the left, DX11 on the right.


DX9 Mode, Left - DX11 Mode, Right

That's from a system using a pair of GTX 480's in SLI. We have no idea where the extra performance is going, because it sure as heck isn't going into rendering much on screen. While the DX11 system doesn't spend much time at the minimum frame rate, it's enough to notice.

In this case, given the choice between turning on features like PhysX and AA or running in DX11, we'd choose DX9 and take PhysX and AA all day long.
 
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3D Vision, PhysX
Like its predecessor, Arkham City supports both PhysX and Nvidia's 3D Vision. This is the first time I've gotten a chance to play with Nvidia's second-generation 3D Vision system using a 27" Asus VG278H monitor. We've reviewed the setup and discussed the updated 3D Vision tech before.  Feel free to check that coverage for additional information.


It's an artist's rendition of the effect -- but a pretty accurate one

I've always been skeptical as to the value of 3D gaming, but I found myself liking 3D Vision more than I expected to--it's significantly better than the 3D I saw from Lenovo's Y560D.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to post screenshots of how 3D mode changes the game, but the added depth improves two fundamental characteristics. First, it's easier to judge the exact position of enemies relative to yourself. This might sound like a small thing, but much of Arkham City's combat relies on chaining combo moves together and properly using gadgets to confuse, distract, and scatter numerically superior forces.

Second, soaring over Arkham City and exploring its environments is even better looking. Is it enough to justify buying a new 27" display? Maybe not--but in Arkham City, at least, it's more than a gimmick. The 3D Vision support in this game is among the best we have seen. Even the cut scenes are 3D.

 
Normal PhysX on the left, high PhysX on the right.
Without PhysX, there's no smoke effect at all. With high PhysX, the papers roll blow along the ground.


Hardware PhysX support is another major feature of Arkham City (if you own an Nvidia graphics card). AC uses PhysX well, and it's particularly effective in 'High' mode, where it's used to model newspapers and other bits of detritus sweeping down the poorly lit city streets.

Both of these capabilities have existed in NV cards for quite some time, and we don't expect Arkham City to suddenly sell an ATI user on swapping for Team Green--but if you want a game that shows off some of the features NV has spent a great deal of time polishing, this is a good one.

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Conclusion
Arkham City is a great game, period. It neatly refines, improves, and extends the original concepts; it's clear that the developers took the source material and elements seriously and set out to build a work of art. They did so. By all rights, Batman: Arkham City is Game of the Year material.


Moonrise over Gotham

Unfortunately, what should have been a great all-around experience has been diluted by delays, buggy launches, and continuing problems. The DX11 "patch" that went in recently only applies if you're running 64-bit Windows. According to Steam's hardware survey, 32-bit Vista and Windows 7 still account for 21.08% of all gamers. (Windows XP accounts for a further 16.96%, but Windows XP users can't run in DX11 mode anyway). Meanwhile, this is one of the least effective DX11 implementations we've seen; it delivers minimal visual benefits over DX9 but still manages to sap the frame rate badly.

Finally, there's the ridiculous activation hassle. Playing Arkham City legally means first buying and authenticating it from Steam, then authenticating it via an activation server, *then* authenticating it via Games for Windows. Meanwhile, while the game will auto-install GfW at download and it doesn't use the most-updated version -- which means you have to patch GfW before you can proceed to authenticate and play the game.

The pirates are the ones who download the game and fire it up, without worrying about a limited number of authentications or the need to sign in to multiple services. We do NOT recommend or condone piracy--but we'd understand why someone might choose to buy the game legally but install a cracked version to bypass security measures.

Do we recommend Arkham City?  Yes--because it's that darn good, and because good game play is about more than graphics or laborious activation procedures. Furthermore, the advantage to PC gaming is that even in DX9, the PC version will offer better texture detail and higher resolutions. And playing the game with NVIDIA's 3D Vision 2 technology is awesome.

We'd be lying, though, if we said we were happy with this trend. It's to the point that we're looking forward to new consoles, if only so developers will start targeting graphics levels that match what the PC is capable of producing.


  • Great sequel to a great game
  • It's Batman.
  • New gadgets, streamlined combat, and more challenging riddles provide better experience
  • PhysX, 3D Vision both used to good effect
  • DX11 broken at launch, blah when fixed
  • No way to remap keys without quitting and restarting game.
  • Ludicrous activation process


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