The killing joke?
The Dark Knight returns: Digital Foundry presents its take on Batman's debut on the new Nintendo hardware.
By Richard Leadbetter Published Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Expectations were rather low as Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition booted up on our US import Wii U. Images like this one that emerged just after the launch suggested a game with fundamental compromises over the existing Xbox 360 release, while frame-rate analysis of the E3 trailer strongly hinted at a sub-par performance level.
The state of the game was a cause for genuine concern once we managed to get hands-on with a pre-release playable version. A post-E3 preview event revealed unfinished code plagued with bugs and texture issues - all of which didn't quite tally with press assets showing a considerably rejigged Wii U version with some image quality enhancements over the existing game.
So it's with a mixture of relief and slight disappointment that we can report that Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition is actually a pretty close match to the Xbox 360 game, from a visual standpoint at least. Those low-res shadowmaps from the now infamous screenshot? They appear to be confined to a pre-rendered video sequence, presumably dumped from the Unreal Engine editor, and are nothing more than an oversight. Existing renders from the Rocksteady work wouldn't be useable owing to the changes in character costumes.
But it's not all good news, unfortunately. There are still some LOD transition "popping" issues but the texture problems we've seen previously are all but resolved. In-game, image quality is a very close match indeed for the existing console versions. And that cuts both ways too - the changes we saw in the E3 media assets don't appear to have made it into the final game, so the rejigged LODs which brought out additional detail in some areas (and cutbacks in others) are gone - what we have here is pretty much the standard Arkham City experience.
The only real exception comes in the form of the addition of NVIDIA's FXAA post-processing technology. The original console versions of Arkham City operated at native 720p with no anti-aliasing employed at all so we might expect a welcome bump in image quality from the addition of the AA tech on Wii U. However, the arrival of FXAA is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, high contrast edges are smoothed significantly - a welcome addition. Unfortunately, on the flipside, the additional blurring detracts from the quality of the artwork, with specular highlights in particular dulled significantly.
But let's check out how the Wii U version compares visually with its counterparts with a series of head-to-head videos produced by matching up the new release with our existing Arkham City Face-Off assets, along with a fresh quad-format comparison gallery.
Anti-aliasing aside, the biggest difference from a visual standpoint is the inclusion of new "armored" costumes for both the Dark Knight and Catwoman. This covers off the inclusion of the only noticeably new plot point added to the revised game - it turns out that Waynetech has developed a new system for absorbing kinetic energy, storing it in the suit and then allowing the wearer to access it when a power gauge reaches the max, giving a short boost of additional strength.
This is accessed by the player through depressing the left and right analogue sticks simultaneously, God of War-style. The intro video for the suit suggests that the wearer turns into a rampaging powerhouse possessing superhuman strength, but the reality is that the bump in power is fairly modest.
From a narrative standpoint, quite why Catwoman gets the upgrades too isn't clear - Alfred makes reference to a "female prototype" of Batman's new suit, though why it would have been created in the first place and indeed how Selina Kyle acquires it is anyone's guess. What can be stated unequivocally is that the new costumes look hideous - Catwoman's athletic bodysuit gives way to some kind of futuristic monstrosity with glowing breasts, while Batman's new costume bears all the design hallmarks of a supermarket-exclusive action figure - with a wrist-mounted Batcomputer.
Therein lies the bulk of the Wii U exclusive features, consisting of a robust series of touch-screen based enhancements - specifically, a new spin on the Waynetech upgrade system, easier accessory management, along with touch-based maps and sonar, plus a slightly bizarre spin on the Detective Mode, where players are invited to align the GamePad to the HDTV. From there the motion sensors are used to scan around the environments, picking up evidence. Or, alternatively, don't align the screens at all and just concentrate on the touch-screen - either approach works fine.
If the touch-screen activities don't appeal to you, the game also offers a full HDTV mirroring option, meaning you can detach from the main display and play remotely. We've said it before and we'll say it again - this is an excellent feature that works beautifully and on PS3/360 ports we'd like to see it featured as standard, especially as it appears that GamePad mirroring incurs no noticeable performance hit. Just like New Super Mario Bros U and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the mirroring option appears to be sending a native 720p image across to the Wii U's touch-screen, which is then downscaled to fit the 480p resolution. The downgrade is noticeable, but doesn't detract from gameplay.
The Robin and Nightwing challenge rooms plus the Harley Quinn's Revenge expansion pack round-out the DLC additions bundled into the Wii U version for free.