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July 20, 2015

Let’s “discuss” Batman: Arkham Knight (Part 1).


All right.  Let’s talk about fans.  Not Batman fans, mind you.  Just regular old ceiling fans.

Don’t worry.  I know almost exactly what I’m doing.


Early on in Arkham Knight, there’s a sequence where Batman gets to walk around the Gotham City police headquarters -- AKA the home base of Commissioner Jim Gordon, the best Batman character.  It’s not a long stay, but you at least get to see their inner workings, including a strategy meeting for the boys (and girls!) in blue.  I can’t say I paid too much attention to it, though, even if a quirk of the game is that NPCs giving instructions will repeat that dialogue until you presumably leave.  I was busy looking at the room.

I had already swiveled the camera enough to take a good look at the room, but something caught my eye.  Shadows were cast throughout thanks to a slowly-spinning ceiling fan -- which in turn made me focus on it so much I ignored everything else.  Essentially, there were five streaks of darkness in the room at all times.  So it would mean that the lightbulb for the fan (or the room at large) is above the fan’s blades; a two-second Google search will give seventeen million hits for ceiling fans with lights -- and popping over to the images tab shows one fan after another with lights below the fan where they belong.  That design is more practical, because if for any reason the fan’s blades are stopped, then it’s going to cast shadows over policemen doing paperwork or looking at sensitive materials.  That seems problematic.  Plus, Gotham City is already dark enough, isn’t it?

So why am I talking about fans?  Simple.  Because it’s emblematic of all the problems with Arkham Knight.  The devs put in stuff that would look cool, and didn’t bother asking if it would make sense.  Typically, it doesn’t.


Here’s the setup.  It’s Halloween time in Gotham, but the age of tricks and treats gets cut short thanks to Scarecrow’s antics.  Namely, he’s threatening to detonate a bomb -- filled with his latest and greatest fear toxin yet -- in the city, which will inevitably spread to the entire east coast.  Naturally, Batman ain’t havin’ that, so he decides to go sort things out before Scarecrow can blow up his big dumb fear bomb.  (In hindsight, he probably should have detonated it in relative secrecy and not blabbed to the city about his plans.)  The trick this time is that Batman also has to deal with the Arkham Knight, a guy who dresses up like a cyber-Batman and knows most of his tricks intimately -- and also has a militia and fleet of drone tanks at his disposal, just in case Scarecrow’s cerebral assassinations were too subtle. 

Essentially, Batman has to beat them both while also making sure that the streets of Gotham -- evacuated for fear of getting caught in the blast -- stays in one piece.  Tanks roll around at their leisure, thugs take to the streets to raid whatever they can get their hands on, and other villains slink about to further their evil plans.  (The Riddler is in there for sure, but I don’t feel like messing with him, which I’ll explain later on.)  So as usual, Bats has got a busy -- and curiously perpetual -- night ahead of him.  But in the early hours, things only get more complex.  Sooooo…INCOMING SPOILERS (that anyone could probably see coming):

Joker’s back as a figment of Batman’s imagination (thanks to a healthy dose of fear gas), and I’m gonna go ahead and assume that the Arkham Knight is one of the Robins (which was recently and rightfully confirmed in a conversation with my brother).  Not like I care about the latter, because he’s really kind of dull.


I’m no expert on the Batman mythos, but I thought that the point and allure of his rogues’ gallery was that they were reflections of the dark knight.  And sure, I guess that even at this early stage in the game, I can see the reflections of the Arkham Knight.  He knows his enemy’s secrets; he’s got tons of resources; he’s willing to compromise law and liberties alike; he’s got a serious grudge against those that have slighted him.  But it’s just so blatant and on-the-nose with this guy that it’s had to take him seriously.  He’s loud, he’s obnoxious, he’s prone to hissy fits, and his menace is kneecapped by just how bland he is overall.  Also, if he hates Batman so much, then why is he dressed almost exactly like him?

Despite being a series standby, Scarecrow’s not all that appealing either.  He’s one of those just according to keikaku-type characters who acts like everything is fine and he’s always winning.  More pressingly, he’s a gleeful participant in what I’m going to call “Handsome Jackin’ it” -- where one character (usually a villain) will jabber on and on to the player/player character about their plans, how awesome they are, and/or how much the good guys suck.  It annoys the shit out of me, because there’s no rapport between two characters; Scarecrow might as well be talking to a brick wall, especially since he’s gloating so “eloquently” to Batman.


I’m disappointed in Rocksteady/WB for adding in the Joker again, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  The very first thing you do in the game is cremate Joker -- you press the button yourself -- but that’s as believable as a sloth running a marathon.  They didn’t have the restraint to keep him out of the game, so now he’s back so he can in essence start Handsome Jackin’ it to Batman without repercussion.  He’s got some good lines, for sure, but it feels like the devs used him as a crutch instead of a tool.  They either should have done without him for one game, or not set up his death from the get-go…so in a way, his return here almost implies that the devs ran out of steam and ideas for the finale, but that’s all a bunch of speculation.

Honestly, I’m more confused by the circumstances of his “return”.  So Scarecrow’s gas is shown in the game’s opening minutes to make people see some horrifying imagery, and remains active until Batman can presumably give them a cure (you see an affected policeman losing his mind in a cell).  So Batman gets a huge dose of that gas -- presumably the same fear toxin -- and it makes him see…the Joker? 

Comic fans, I need you to help me out here: has Batman ever been shown to be afraid of the Joker?  He’s got every reason to, but I always thought he saw the clown prince as a nuisance, not as someone to be scared of.  Or is he afraid because Joker symbolizes his inability to control every situation?  I doubt that, because Batman as a character and Batman as the player’s avatar regularly has control of the situation.  Or is he afraid of the fact that he’ll never be rid of Joker now that he’s got him in his brain?  Again, I have my doubts about that -- seeing as how he’s Batman, and can probably make a cure with as much effort as it takes to make the average milkshake.


Based on where I am in the story, it looks as if the main theme of the game -- story-wise, at least -- is that Batman isn’t the invincible hero everyone thinks he is…except when he is…except when he isn’t.  The core conflict: he’s gotten so used to being “the only one that can save the day” that it’s the only course of action he’ll accept.  He won’t take help from Robin, he tells police crews that he’ll handle it and they should stay back, and he goes into martyr mode despite Alfred’s desperate protests.  It’s an interesting idea, and one I hope gets developed in full…but right now, it feels like there’s a shortage of good execution.

I mean, Batman pretty much has a point, doesn’t he?  He’s really the only one that can save the day.  The police don’t have the manpower or tech.  Robin’s busy with stuff on his end.  Alfred’s a butler.  And sure, you could argue that the other good guys of Gotham could help if Batman shared some of his toys -- but he hasn’t, and now he’s the only hero the city’s got left.  He’s justified in thinking the way he does. 

But on the flip-side, he gets help constantly.  Barbara Gordon/Oracle helps him out extensively as his mission control, even if it means staying in the city and risking a fear-bomb.  Her computer wizardry and intel let Batman get within even a foot of Scarecrow in the first place -- so what, is he only willing to accept help from people in wheelchairs?  Physical help is out of the question, but all the info money can buy is in the green?  I don’t know, man.  It feels like they added in this wrinkle to the character without asking if it made sense.

But how about the gameplay?  Surely it’s airtight, right?  Right?


In all fairness, there are things to like about the gameplay.  For example, I think Arkham Knight is at its best when Batman gets to be a detective -- searching the environment for clues and building up a stock of evidence or countermeasures with whatever’s on-hand.  It’s limited to the odd minigame here or the rudimentary search there, but it’s something.  It’s still appreciable.  I guess it’s too late to wish for an expanded version of the detective segments, what with this being the last game in the franchise (for now), but for what it’s worth?  There’s something strangely satisfying about sorting through the clues at a crime scene or disaster zone.

In terms of conflict resolution, I have to say that the stealth segments are my favorite of the bunch.  As someone who manages to screw up every stealth attempt under the sun (and under the suns of different galaxies), I can’t help but like AK’s implementation -- to an extent, at least.  The core ideas are there; use high vantage points to get the drop on enemies, and dispatch them sneakily with Batman’s skills and gadgets.  Much like the detective segments, using your wits (in theory) and cracking the myriad puzzles throughout Gotham is inherently rewarding, much more than using brute force.

So what’s the problem then?  Well, it’s the same problem that weaves its way through the game: the devs went and added too much, and weakened everything as a result.  Or, alternatively: they put in stuff that would look cool, and didn’t bother asking if it would make sense.


One of the game’s new wrinkles is that early on, Batman gets a new armor- and tech-lined suit that enhances his capabilities -- and you just know already what I’m going to say next, don’t you?  If not, then let me put it this way: this is a suit that lets Bats move faster and hit harder, and enhances his ability to fly through the air.  So basically, the superhero whose notable trait is that he doesn’t have a superpower (besides money) can suddenly take out a trio of bad guys at once -- at least, because I assume upgrades can boost that count -- before they can even fire a bullet at him.  Can you see how that might be a problem?

The multi-enemy takedown is an ability featured almost as soon as you get the new suit, and something you’re practically required to use to clear a stealth section.  So for a gameplay segment that should pride itself in making the players consider their next move carefully and not rely on brute force, suddenly the game makes brute force into one of the best possible options.  Why bother systematically taking down one enemy at a time with a slow move when you can beat three of them instantly? 


The “balance” behind the multi-takedown is that A) you have to recharge it with silent takedowns, and B) it makes noise that can attract fresh and potentially-armed enemies.  But the areas I’ve encountered thus far in AK are too forgiving to make it a concern; Batman can decide when and how and how long to engage enemies before he zips well out of their attack/vision range with his grappling hook.  (Or he can toss out a smoke pellet to reset the situation, but the grappling hook works fine.)  The biggest threat I’ve faced so far has been from gunmen, and even they’re not so tough; you can disarm them from afar with your Batclaw, and if for some reason you end up getting spotted, you can mash Square to punch them to death unconsciousness.  And you’ll still have time to make your escape.

Like Arkham Origins before it, the deck is stacked so far in Batman’s favor that even if you do manage to get a perfect stealthy run, the stakes and difficulty aren’t there to provide the expected catharsis.  That’s kind of a given, seeing as how one of the game’s necessary evils is a vision mode that lets you see enemies through walls, but there’s always a voice in the back of my head that says “Why bother with stealth when you can rush in and punch everyone?”  The obvious answers are “Because that’s how Batman would do it” and “Because it feels good” but those aren’t good answers.  In some ways, they’re excuses.


Even though we’re years off from the first game’s release, I’m still not sold on the series’ combat system.  I’ll gladly admit that it’s likely the best it’s ever been, though, or at least better than Origins; the final hits landed on enemies have the force of a shotgun blast, and Batman’s picked up some cool new animations (presumably by watching lots of wrestling matches).  Likewise, I think it’s easier to aim here than it was back then, and as far as I can tell you can’t win just by standing in a corner and spamming Batarangs.  And it’s not as if it’s an objectively bad system; I can see why people like it, because if nothing else it lets the player feel what it’s like to be a guy that can rhythmically take down twenty dudes at once -- a count that I’m referencing quite literally.

I guess my problem with it is made all the more obvious in light of me and the special edition f DMC4.  Sure, in that game you can also take on twenty enemies at once -- not necessarily all the time, but it’s possible.  And some of those hordes don’t bring in the ball-busting difficulty.  So what’s the difference?  Well, in DMC4, it’s as much about the style as it is about the difficulty; it’s an active, freeform system that lets you do whatever to slay the demons before you.  Fight on the ground, fight in the air, use your sword, use your guns, charge your guns, charge your sword, pop your Devil Trigger, use this move, use that move, attack one guy, attack multiple guys, switch your gun, switch your sword, switch your style -- all options tapped at a furious pace, itself afforded by the pace of the game.

  
Comparatively, all of the Arkham games feel like I’m playing underwater with cinder blocks on my limbs.  That’s hyperbole, sure, because ultimately it’s something I can deal with; the DMC games aren’t always the most accessible, least of all because of their pace.  But the problem is that Batman’s combat isn’t suited for style.  He may do cool stuff on a regular basis, but the issue is one of rhythm.  DMC4’s combat is wild because of two factors: the sheer number of inputs the player can make, and the offenses of its enemies (who are as much a threat to your pride as they are your health -- maybe more so).  It takes some real neuron-firing to get a SSS rank, the route to which depends on the situation and your actions.  The rhythm is wild and intense, but more satisfying as a result.

In AK, the rhythm is constantly the same.  Sure, some different enemy types force you to mix things up (and beat their gimmick with one specific combo, so it’s buying into the DmC school of thought).  And sure, the entire point is to balance offense and defense via punches, stuns, jumps, and counters -- each mapped to a face button.  But the process is too regimented.  Wail on a guy for a while, then hit counter to stop an incoming baddie.  Then wail on a new guy, then counter another guy.  Then leap over here, or stun a guy there, and counter two guys at once.  Every time the counter symbol pops up over some guy’s head, it feels like I’m being woken up -- and unlike Origins, you can most certainly score knockouts with counters, thanks to your powered-up suit.

So like…if Batman has the resources to build a super-suit, why isn’t he always wearing it?  And why not make an even better one?


Again, the combat’s probably the best it’s ever been -- but for me, that doesn’t mean much.  It’s not lazily-made or anything, but the execution makes me feel lazy.  And sleepy.  This is a game where Batman can and will slide as much as forty feet to land a punch on a distant enemy, just because you kinda-sorta pushed the stick in a direction while you hammered Square.  Even if there are plenty of combo strings and a dedicated move list, what’s the point of mashing Square and adding in the occasional counter will win one engagement after the next?  And I’ve been playing for hours, and there hasn’t been a single boss fight to mix things up.  What the hell?  (Oh wait, yes there has; it was just against a bunch of tanks and a helicopter.  Perfect.)

Okay, sure, you can lob a similar complaint at DMC4 and every other character action game around: why bother with stylish combos if the basics are enough to win a fight?  Well, that’s an extremely debatable assumption; I can’t imagine fighting Credo or the Lumen Sage without learning the systems’ ins and outs.  But the entire point of those games is to engage in their systems -- the heat born from a chain of inputs and outputs.  AK and its ilk just can’t compare -- and while it’s unfair to even think of putting them in the same genre, it doesn’t pardon the fact that it’s a gameplay element that’s serviceable at most, and much too sluggish to be anything more than quaint.

But it’s still leagues better than anything involving the Batmobile -- because every time I’m forced to use it, a part of me dies inside.



What’s the problem?  Well, I’ll get to that -- next time.  Till then?  I don’t know, just play the 60’s theme in your head.  Like, for days.  It’ll be fun, and probably won’t drive you insane. 

Yeah.  Probably.

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