Sunday, July 5, 2015

Batman: Arkham Knight - Almost the Ultimate Batman Game

There is only one superhero awesome enough to break the curse of licensed games, and that's Batman.  Screwing around in Lex Luthor's rings on the Nintendo 64 is for Superman, Batman on the other hand has been the star of one of the greatest video game franchises of modern gaming, the Arkham series.  That includes "Batman: Arkham City", one of my favorite experiences to come out of my old PlayStation 3.  Rocksteady has promised that this new game, "Batman: Arkham Knight" for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the PC* will be their final Arkham game, an epic and exciting conclusion to their grand Batman saga.

...Now before you put too much stock into that claim, remember the loophole-friendly words Rocksteady used.  They said this would be the last Arkham game, not the last Batman game, or even the last game in this particular continuity.  The "Arkham" part of the title has been having less and less relevance to events since "Arkham Asylum", to the point that "Origins" and now "Knight" have nothing to do with Gotham City's most infamous H.P. Lovecraft-reference medical facility.  So really the next Batman game - and trust me, there will be more Batman games - will only have dropped an anachronism from their titles.  Yeah, the game opens saying "this is how the Batman dies", but if you actually believe that promise you're probably the same gullible sort who did not guess this game's twist identity reveal a whole year ago (spoilers).

So "Arkham Knight" may not be a grand ultimate conclusion to all things Batman, but at least it can still be a decent Batman story.  And while "Arkham City" was one of my favorite video games, even I can admit that Rocksteady still had a long innovative way to go before they could create the ultimate Batman game.  Most of that particular innovation in "Arkham Knight" has been focused around the new Batmobile which has proven to be a controversial choice.  Gotham City is still empty aside from criminals and supervillains, so the town does not feel alive other than as a playground to be a bad dude kicking ass.  Still Gotham has never been bigger or more beautiful, gameplay has never been more varied, and there are few games out there that can rival "Arkham Knight"'s storytelling sophistication.  This is a game that truly knows what being Batman is all about, and even if "Arkham Knight" cannot be the definitive Dark Knight experience, it is a good one.

Being Batman is, of course, as fun as ever.  Gameplay-wise "Arkham Knight" is almost indistinguishable from "Arkham City" and "Arkham Origins".  You still have the fast varied free-flow combat from the earlier games.  That brawling system is so perfect that I am glad they did nothing to change it, there was nothing to fix.  Also unaltered is the stealth gameplay, where with your Batvision you can easily plan out your moves, use your gadgets to isolate enemies for safe knock-outs, and have easy routes of escape in case of mistakes.  That was all great, glad to see it here again.  I wish other stealth games were so efficient and joyful.  On the ground there are more enemy types, such as medics who can revive fallen foes, adding an element of strategy to your combat.

Gotham is bigger and more open than ever, with a gorgeous colorful map that fits exactly what your vision of Gotham should be.  It's a weird mixture of decades:  crumbling gothic darkness of the 70s, art deco glories of the 30s, and shining glass neon techno monstrosities of the 21st century.  It's as if New York City has been in a time warp for 70 years and has been mixing all of its eras together in one weird fantasy land.  The lighting is impressive, giving a dark city lots of bright elements.  The map is five times bigger than the one in "Arkham City", but even if its bigger and badder, the same general theory still applies.  The only real change to things is the Batmobile.

I assume Bruce Wayne will cover the property damages and insurance claims this beast will cause.
The Batmobile is not the game changer that Rocksteady seems to think it is.  Ultimately all the car manages to do is add an additional combat mode to a game that already had at least two perfectly fine and satisfying action beats.  It adds a new quick mode of transportation, but Batman's batarang and glide combination was already plenty fast.  Not to be too negative, the Batmobile does work as a mechanic.  As a vehicle the Batmobile drives perfectly well.  But it also borrows some of the sillier physics of the Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher film series by climbing up walls, defying gravity in Hot Wheels-esque race courses, and doing rocket powered barrel rolls in tunnels.

There is also what I call "Christopher Nolan Mode" where the Batmobile transforms into a tank, allowing Batman to destroy fleets of the Arkham Knight's endless armada of Panzers.  Don't worry though, the enemy tanks are unmanned drones, so it is not like Batman is going to break his One Rule tonight.  This is a serviceable mode of combat, fluid enough but easily the weaker than the brawling.  Most of it involves a pretty basic highly mechanical system of shooting an enemy, quick dodging the Batmobile out of the enemy fire, and then shooting again.  It's so stiff that it almost feels turn-based.  It never really becomes fun.  You could have removed the Batmobile entirely from this game and very little would have changed story-wise.  The Batmobile manages to force itself into every element of the game, from the dungeons where its winch is necessary to pull down doors, to even puzzles where it is an essential mechanic to the Riddler's schemes.  For the fantasy of having unlimited billionaire playboy resources to beat bad guys, the Batmobile works fine, but sometimes it feels like its getting in the way of actually being Batman.

The Batmobile goes from a mere overrated ad promise to an actual nuisance the moment that Rocksteady tries to design boss fights around it.  The Arkham series has been legendary for its inability to match the joys of its gameplay and the drama of its stories with real intense boss fight moments.  Most of the bosses in "Arkham Knight" are based around the tank, including three out of the four with the titular Arkham Knight himself.  All of them suck.  I was forgiving for a very long time.  But the moment when I suddenly found Batman in a stealth level inside a freakin' tank was the point I had to diagnose this part of the game with a severe case of the Not Funs.  A stealth mode in a tank is the kind of nonsense thinking that only a game designer desperate to add variety to a game mode could ever come up, and I really wish they had thought twice about it.

Arkham Knight is more of an Arkham Slight Annoyance.
Luckily there is a much more enjoyable mechanic where in Batman teams up with Nightwing, Robin, or Catwoman briefly to take on the cowardly and superstitious criminals in tag-team matches.  Every one of Batman's allies have varied fluid combat that feels unique and special.  But this is not given the same level of focus as the Bat-tank is, since you can't use any of Batman's allies outside of very specific dungeons.  Obviously it immediately breaks nearly all difficulty since you can focus your energy into Limit Breaks which will defeat any enemy immediately.  But it is a great deal of fun to see Batman's honestly charming banter with either Tim Drake or Dick Grayson.  I know Robin isn't cool anymore, but especially in the Nightwing sections you can really see how much fun a lighter Bat Family focused game could have been.  If only Tim Drake would lose that douchey buzz cut I'd love to have him on my side fighting crime.  Too bad the story is more focused on Batman's more negative darker aspects.

This time Gotham is brought to its knees by a supervillain team up of the Scarecrow and a new villain called the Arkham Knight whose identity is unknown**.  The Arkham Knight is dressed in some Tetsuya Nomura-esque armor and has an entire advanced military behind him.  He also does not like Batman, to put it mildly.  To put it less mildly, the Arkham Knight squanders whatever air of mystery and malice he might have by spending the entire game whining at Batman, making boasts about his army's prowess that prove instantly false, and losing at every turn.  Scarecrow, luckily, has had a complete make-over since his appearance in "Arkham Asylum", so he is now more terrifying than ever.  The Scarecrow has always been a great villain and it is a lot of fun to see him get some limelight, especially now that the Arkham series has finally gotten over its Joker addiction.

Except wait, has it gotten over its Joker addiction?

"Arkham Origins" wound up being a surprise Batman-Joker story - and an awesome one too, one of the best ever written about those two characters.  Can Rocksteady or any other Warner Bros studio manage to make a story about the Dark Knight without his foil, the Clown Prince of Crime?  No, they apparantely can't.  Ironically for a game that opens with the Joker's cremation, "Arkham Knight" has more Joker than the other games put together.  How he manages to rejoin the story is a clever twist straight out of the wonderfully mad playbook of Hideo Kojima at his best.  There is definitely something wrong with a series that cannot quite manage to give Bruce Wayne any female romantic relationship*** stronger than his perverse death game with the Joker.  But... on the other hand, it's Mark Hamill being the Joker again, and he's having such a great time of it.  Awww, I can't stay mad at you, Joker!  You're hogging the spotlight and bringing up some unfortunate implications for what a truly fucked up person Batman is, but I love you anyway.  Never change.

When you're having this much fun it's almost as if your parents never got shot in the first place! Whee!~
A terrifying villain based on fear, hidden dark secret from Batman's past, and a reborn Joker together seems like a combination of some serious brain boiling mind-bending stakes.  But the stakes never seem to actually come into the gameplay, even while in the story Batman's family is in mortal danger.  An open world means that you're never isolated, there is never a sense of being trapped.  There is no real economy to this game since Batman never takes permanent damage and it's not like Bruce Wayne has to worry about shilling three dollars per gallon to fill up the Batmobile.  You can do whatever you want, and every time you get to be free and do whatever you want, the story loses more and more of its impact.

Ultimately I do not think this innovative almost perfectly executed story matches this fun wish fulfillment game.  We have one night to defeat Scarecrow's evil scheme to unless a biological fear toxin that will drive the entire East Coast into chaos.  But who says you need to save the world right now, those Riddler trophies sure do look tempting, right?  Maybe Batman has lost all control, but we will never see it gameplay-wise.  "Arkham City" proved that an open world Batman game is going to be great fun, but maybe "Arkham Knight" is a game that needs to be less fun.  If Batman is suffering, maybe I should be suffering too - just a little.  Instead I'm having the time of my life charging down Gotham's avenues in a one-man blitzkrieg and solving puzzles while the villains courteously wait for me to take on their schemes at my own pace.

Let's compare "Arkham Knight" to the other recent climax to another Batman mythos, "The Dark Knight Rises".  The movie and this game are both theoretically telling very similar stories:  Gotham is occupied by an enemy beyond anything that Batman has faced before, forcing him to consider an unimaginable sacrifice and struggle with his darkest demons.  You can complain all you want about "The Dark Knight Rises"'s details and tones and various other minor issues and plot holes, but you have to admit it was a pretty definitive thesis to the Nolan version of Batman.  And being a final thesis, "The Dark Knight Rises" was not trying to just be a fun movie, it was more a dramatic war story that just barely averts being a tragedy.  In "Arkham Knight", I'm the goddamned Batman, I'm in a goddamned tank, and anybody who wants to fuck with me is going to get run over by my electric wheels!  Not every second of a great story needs to be built around pure audience exhilaration, as AAA games seem to need to be, and until they learn how to not to nothing but fun, they will continue to be held back as an art form.

Bat-Tank? Please. I'll be more impressed when we get to use the Bat-Gundam next game.
Rocksteady is always going to deliver fun experiences with deep enjoyable storylines.  The Arkham series has become reliable solid entertainment, clearly above average in terms of major video game releases.  There are plenty of moments in "Arkham Knight" that I can point to as genius decisions:  the opening first person sequence, a few well-placed jump scares, and a musical number that will drive you wild.  Even the ending is a godly moment that should remind us all why Batman is so friggin' awesome.  And I truly loved playing "Arkham Knight", I'll continue playing it once I'm done writing.  There are still Riddler trophies out there in puzzles worth solving.  But "Arkham Knight" has ended up just being "Arkham City 3" in the end when it could have been a lot more.  It is not the revolution this series needed to really grow into the ultimate Batman experience.

I'll be waiting for when it finally gets there.

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* I'm playing this on a brand new PlayStation 4, making "Arkham Knight" my first entry into next-gen gaming!  This means that I'm playing this game on its intended console in its most stable configuration.  Unfortunately the suffering of all those PC gamers who received this game in a broken state is something I'm sympathetic to, but it's not really going to be relevant to this review.  I'm sorry you bought a busted game, I did not, and really those issues will probably be fixed soon enough.  I'm more interested in the ultimate meaning of the story Rocksteady is trying to tell anyway, which are elements that cannot be simply patched away, there are other critics who can focus more on the technical failings.

** SPOILERS:  That is unknown to everybody but even the most casual of Batman fans, who would have guessed a year ago (like I did) that the Arkham Knight is in fact Jason Todd, the second Robin.  This is such an obvious choice that the entire mystery plotline was a waste of Rocksteady's time.  They might as well have just called him "Red Hood" from the beginning.  I was actually hoping that the Arkham Knight would end up being, say:  Harley Quinn or Barbara Gordon or Talia Al-Ghul or Damien Wayne or really anybody other than my first instinct.  Which is really disappointing, but not as disappointing as what a loser this character turned out to be.

*** Sure Talia Al-Ghul gets mentioned a lot in this game, but I never really saw Batman as being in mourning at any point.  Or if he was, his mind is definitely more on the Joker.  "Arkham City" even had Batman leaving Talia to rot while he dramatically carried Joker's body out of the city.  That's pretty messed-up.  Look, Rocksteady, if all you can do is Joker x Batman, then they better kiss in "Batman Arkham 5" or whatever you call your next game.

4 comments:

  1. Yay your back.

    Sword Of Primus

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  2. It's great to see you finally make a post again!

    Unrelated to Batman, but if you want a fun, action packed anime to watch, you should check out JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. I've been watching it for the past week, and it's really good. Right now it's only available online subbed, but they've recently announced a DVD English Dub. Either way, I recommend it.

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    Replies
    1. Your kidding, the 2012 series is finally getting a Dub. I have tried watching the sub,but its so hard to work through.

      Okay now its back on my stack, thanks for letting me know.

      Sword Of Primus

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