Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

July 23, 2015

Let’s “discuss” Batman: Arkham Knight (Part 2).

I thought about starting this post with a reference to the 60’s TV show, but then I remembered that this post was originally going to be just one instead of split into two.  So let’s not make this thing so long that it goes into three.

You know what’s next, right?  Yeah.  Let’s talk about the Batmobile.

I don’t understand how this happened again.  How do you put such a huge focus on cars and traversing long distances, yet make that car so sloppy to handle?  It’s bad enough that it happened once with Watch Dogs, but for it to happen again with the flagship addition to the franchise’s big finale is utterly baffling.  But here we are, with a vehicle that I crashed within seconds of my first drive with it.  And I continue to crash every time I take it out for a spin.  That probably wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the fact that the Batmobile is shoehorned into a huge percentage of the game.  There’s a reason why it shows up on the box art, folks: it’s Batman’s real sidekick, but it’s more annoying than a thousand Robins hopped up on helium.

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Batmobile has two modes.  The first is the unwieldy mess of the car mode, while the second -- accessed by holding a trigger -- is the tank mode.  It’s exactly as it sounds; the machine twists and unfolds, so that you can shoot unmanned tank drones.  But the problem is that it doesn’t feel like you’re driving a tank, or even a Landmaster.  The damn thing slides around weightlessly, especially with a special booster that lets it strafe a short distance -- but just barely enough to be worth anything.  By default, you’ve got a machine gun that fires “suppressor rounds” on top of the standard, slow-to-reload cannon; there are also homing missiles that you can fire, but only if you avoid damage and pepper enough foes with cannon rounds.  So how is that supposed to work, exactly?  Batman only presses the “resolve situation” button one’s he’s hyped enough?

It boggles the mind that they made a vehicle so unsatisfying to drive, no matter its form (and this is coming from a guy who thinks tanks are inherently awesome).  But it gets worse -- because again and again, Batman is forced to use the Batmobile, or take it along with him like a baby in its stroller.  There’s one instance -- the first of many, I’d bet -- where Bats has to escort Gordon to a clock tower, and the inevitable rush of goons can only be beaten by knocking them off the road with your slippery-ass ride.  (Don’t worry; I’m sure they survived that!)  Battles against tanks are absurdly plentiful, to the point where there’s a whole side-mission type devoted to them…as if there weren’t enough in the main story.  You can’t even go through certain doors unless you’re behind the wheel.

But here’s where things start getting absurd.  You actually have to use the Batmobile to solve puzzles, by which I mean you pull stuff with its winch to progress.  And in turn, you have to do stuff like move a crane at a chemical plant to drop a ramp-shaped…well, ramp so the Batmobile can clear a jump.  (What’s a ramp doing at a random spot in a chemical plant?  Who knows?)  You upend roofs and signs to create more ramps to jump. 

At one point -- and I hope you’re sitting down for this -- you have to do platforming sections with your tank, wherein you use the winch to scale buildings’ walls.  Reportedly, there are stealth sections with the Batmobile…which even in its default mode looks like a tank.  And the Riddler, whose entire shtick is making people solve his dumb puzzles so he can feel good about himself, decides to test Batman’s brainpower with -- drumroll please -- a bunch of underground racetracks he has to clear within a time limit.  I pretty much tapped out minutes after the sidequest began.

But that’s all dodging the major question I have: why does Batman even bother with the Batmobile WHEN HE HAS THE BATPLANE?

This isn’t me pulling from some alternate canon in the Batman mythos.  It’s shown directly in AK that he has the Batplane, and it can be deployed at leisure.  What does Bats use it for?  It shows up in a cutscene to attach a winch to the Batmobile, and then flies off.  And the game just broke for me.  Like, he understands that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right?  So why would he waste time skidding through the drone-infested streets and dragging his tank up buildings when he can fly to where he needs to go unimpeded?  His mission is (or was) time-sensitive, because early on he finds out that there are five hostages at the chemical plant.  By the time he gets on the move, Batman only finds two of them alive, and laments that he couldn’t get there to save all of them.  And I just sat there thinking, “Well, maybe you would have gotten there sooner if you didn’t drag your tank up a fucking BUILDING!”

I guess the reason why the Batplane isn’t used is because it would step all over the gameplay’s toes -- because, like I said, Batman can already pretty much fly via his grappling hook and gliding mechanics.  But that just begs the question: why even add the Batmobile in the first place when there’s already a dedicated (and much better) traversal system built into the game?  The simplest answer is that they put in stuff that would look cool, and didn’t bother asking if it would make sense.  You just know that they added in up-close, borderline-pornographic shots of the Batmobile and the new Batsuit so players could revel in the devs’/publishers’ opulence how “cool” it looks.  And I say as much, because the goons you overhear regularly talk about how awesome his tank is, and how badass his new suit looks. 

But it’s not.  It’s not badass, it’s not awesome, and it’s not fun.  It’s a bad decision that the game keeps trying to justify, and ends up doing its best to smother the good parts to death.  And even the good parts are either flawed, underdeveloped, or used sparingly.  I want to do more detective stuff, but apparently that’s not part of the job description for the world’s greatest detective.  I want to do more stealth, but I can’t because even when I’m granted the privilege, I’m still a human tank instead of a mechanical one.  I want to feel the nuances of the combat, but I can’t because the combat alternates being a chore and a snore.  But most of all, I want to get engaged in the story -- but every other character is doing their best to make me hate the entire mythos.

Why?  Because right now, I have a theory that Batman’s rogues’ gallery is full of needy, screeching man-children.

Nobody in this game has the decency to shut the hell up.  One after another, the villains vie for their chance to start Handsome Jackin’ it and fill every waking moment with their meaningless, attention-seeking chatter.  The Riddler won’t shut up about how much smarter he is than Batman, and how he’ll win, and how much he really, really wants Batman to try out his new racetrack.  The Arkham Knight won’t shut up about how much better he is than Batman, and how he’s got the advantage, and how he’ll win, and how much he hates that mean ol’ caped crusader.  Scarecrow won’t shut up about fear, and his evil plans, and how he’ll destroy the world, and how scared Batman is.  Joker won’t shut up about how much Batman sucks -- which got old within minutes of his introduction, but has yet to stop.

THESE ARE NOT CHARACTER INTERACTIONS.  It’s just one character blathering on, and on, and ON about how cool they are to another character that can’t react, won’t react, or simply doesn’t give enough of a shit to respond.  But their chatter is virtually constant, even when they’re miles away, underground, or nonexistent.  Hell, I’m afraid of finding another villain in the game, because they might start talking at me, too. 

You know what?  Maybe I’m the one who sucked up Scarecrow’s toxin.

(Side note: was the redesign really necessary?  I’m not sold on it, but whatever.  Discuss.)

I’ve tossed around the phrase “the same, but less” when it comes to eighth-gen, PS4 games.  But Arkham Knight seems like it has the opposite problem -- and is worse off because of it.  Yet again, we’ve been delivered a multimillion-dollar open-world game.  And yet again, it has the same problems as stuff you’d expect from The Ubisoft Game.  Yeah, it’s cool that you get to fly around as Batman high above the city streets, and I’d be lying if I said the game didn’t look good (although I’m concerned about why it looks like everyone smeared piles of dirt and sand on their faces).  But what was the price to pay for this bigger Gotham?  Besides the obvious issue of “necessitating” the Batmobile?

I thought that the appeal of Arkham Asylum -- you know, the game that started the franchise in the first place -- was that it was mostly a small and intimate experience that put Batman in close quarters with his greatest foes.  So the best way to evolve from there was apparently to run in the completely opposite direction and create a world that’s devoid of all but thugs who apparently didn’t care about the threat of Scarecrow’s fear toxin? 

I would have loved to have been able to take on one mission after another in sequential order.  Batman needs to save some firefighters?  Okay, sure -- make that into a little episode, and the end goal of a section of the game.  It could be a very literal episode; start with the rise of a conflict, have Batman play detective to find clues and the whereabouts of the firefighters, throw in some action, a reveal that blows the case wide open, and a final encounter with the boss du jour.  There.  Done.  You get a focused game as a result, with the ability to create tension and the illusion of a time limit (if nothing else) without the player going off the beaten path to scrape up Riddler trophies. 

It’s a shame that AK plays out the way it does, because I would have loved for the side missions to become more well-defined.  Can Batman save an innocent doctor from his transformation into the Man-Bat?  Who could be behind the mutilated bodies pinned throughout the city?  Those are plots that could easily earn some much-deserved respect; instead, they’re just diversions used to fill the map with chores to fritter away time, or as a chaser between story missions that Batman can get to whenever he feels like it, even if it means Barbara Gordon is still in the Arkham Knight’s hands.  Also, not to be that guy, but am I the only one who thinks there’s something incredibly disrespectful about turning firefighters into collectibles in a damn sidequest?  Yes?  Okay, moving on.

Like I said, I want to get deeper into the story, but thanks to the open-world format, it feels like the amount of hours put in doesn’t translate to the amount of the narrative I get.  That’s likely because of the sidequests distractions -- I saw a Batmobile marker for one story mission, and bat-grappled in the opposite direction -- but either way, the pacing of this game really suffers when huge swaths of time can be spent (in-universe or out of it) screwing around.  I appreciate the scope of the game, but I wish it didn’t have to come at the expense of a solid structure.  Or any structure, really.

That may well feed into a bigger problem: so far, I’m not compelled enough by the story to push toward its conclusion.  I’m doing it more out of obligation than outright excitement.  Scarecrow is more The Dark Knight Rises-style Bane than Scarecrow, to the point where I suspect I’ll learn how to tune him out.  The Arkham Knight is even worse, in the sense that I wanted him to shut the hell up in his first conversation with Batman.  I’m not even remotely hyped by Joker’s return, because -- setting aside the depressing inevitability of it -- he hasn’t done much besides troll Batman, which has thus far proven as effective as teaching calculus to a fire hydrant.  I sincerely hope the Riddler gets crushed by a giant Rubik’s cube.

I don’t buy the idea of Batman being forced to confront his fears and foibles, because it has yet to materialize besides some jackass clown hopping around.  There was actually a really good moment at the chemical plant when he first gets gassed, and the blast radius of Scarecrow’s bomb -- which his efforts slowly reduced -- is suddenly announced to have jumped up by a thousand percent.  But after that, it’s just Joker trying to mess with him. 

If the point is to show Batman beginning to crack, then he needs to…you know…begin to crack.  He hasn’t.  He’s had one hallucination where he witnessed Barbara’s infamous moment from The Killing Joke (the problems of which are well-documented), but that’s it -- and it’s not nearly as effective as one would think because A) that’s a trauma Batgirl experienced, not him, and B) it allowed her to be reborn as the just-as-tough Oracle. 

I guess the next -- or maybe final -- step is for Bats to relive the death of his parents, but damned if that’s not the easy way out.  In the same vein as the above, if the point of this game’s story is to deconstruct or break down the Bat, then it’d be cool if we actually got to see him break down, gradually, over the course of the game.  And sure, maybe he does later on in the game -- but in order for that to happen, there need to be signs that he’s losing his grip early on. 

The most I’ve seen so far is Batman going into “WHERE IS THE TRIGGER” mode for a couple of seconds to find a kidnapped Catwoman (side note: how does someone as skilled and clever as Catwoman get kidnapped, especially by the Riddler and his goons?).  So I guess the moral of the story is to have a character that reacts to stuff, instead of a character that scowls and says almost nothing all day erryday.  Which is weird, because I have a hunch Batman has been plenty emotive and vulnerable in the past.  And it didn’t take ten hours to happen.

But the sad thing is that in a lot of ways, there’s no point in trying to go for deeper explorations in Batman’s character or psyche in this game.  Setting aside the fact that it almost feels as if they’re trying to show just how much Batman secretly sucks (in the same way Man of Steel was made by people who hated and wanted to sabotage Superman), it’s impossible to go for any deeper meanings and themes when the Batmobile breaks the story over its knee.  The implementation of it -- the gameplay and story integration -- is absurd at best.

They didn’t have to create a scenario where Batman needed a transforming tank -- and even if it’s been done before, there’s still the fact that A) that was in an entirely different context, and B) it’s not something that hampers a story or our understanding of this iteration of Batman.  This Batmobile does.  It’s a vehicle that’s so obviously, blatantly lethal, but the game has to distort itself to explain away the thugs you careen into on the streets (they’re fine, they just got shocked and knocked aside!), the cars you knock aside (don’t worry, the drivers are definitely okay!), and the enemies you fight (it’s a bunch of drones, so no need for guilt!).  And while the game asserts that Batman fires non-lethal rounds against human enemies, it doesn’t explain away the sheer amount of property damage the player can and will do -- especially when it can lead to deadly explosions.

The golden rule -- however flexible -- is that Batman doesn’t kill.  But the player has no such moral code.  That might cause some problems, I think.

I don’t get it.  How can anyone spend years on this game and millions of dollars -- tens of millions, definitely, and hopefully not hundreds -- on a game with such glaring flaws that they HAD to have popped up on the drawing board?  How could the guys that made what’s hailed as one of the greatest superhero games ever created not even a decade ago have missed the mark by such a huge margin, least of all because they thought they could explain away issues that a six-year-old could point out?  Did they all get the talent sucked out of them?  Was there pressure from above?  Did they focus too much on “OPEN WORLD!” and “DEM GRAFFECTS!” to see the obvious problems?  How?  Why?  Why?

I guess what I’m getting at here is that AK is not the game for me.  I don’t want to call it a bad game, because there are things to like about it -- but even so, I have a hard time calling it a good game.  Chalk it up to biases, personal preferences, whatever; the intangibles built into the proceedings are ones that have been picked up by others, and more importantly shouldn’t be ignored.  They’re real issues with varying levels of severity, even if that’s only on a person-to-person basis.  Even if I can only speak personally, I have to be honest: this is far from Batman’s finest, and not the sendoff this franchise deserves.

So I have a question: where’s my Commissioner Gordon game?

I highly doubt this is the last we’ll see of the Batman games, especially one with the assets, skills, and styles amassed throughout the Arkham series.  So if they’re going to keep the money train rolling, then why not make a game where you play as the Commish, or other members of the GCPD?  It’d require some big adjustments to the stealth and combat sections, but the gains could be phenomenal.  Gordon and crew don’t have the resources or nigh-superhuman abilities, but they’re still men and women capable of solving crimes and beating the bad guys.  So make them be detectives.  Give them a bigger role.  Have them struggle against baddies in a way that Batman can’t.  Take away the dark knight’s toys and tricks for a more grounded, more difficult game.

It’d be a chance to contextualize things in a new light, or at the very least offer us a new character (and cast) to get invested in.  Gordon in AK has a full range of thoughts and emotions from minute one on, and is a lot more interesting to follow because of it.  I don’t agree with everything he does in that game (he cuts ties with Batman because he’s “responsible” for Barbara’s kidnapping, and declares he’ll save Gotham without Bats…somehow), but the fact that he does do stuff means that he should be allowed to do more in a game of his own.  Make him younger and let players go through a virtual Gotham.  Or keep him at his current age and create a sort of XCOM-style scenario where you take on missions with a slowly-developing GCPD.  There are possibilities that could and should be tapped here.

Failing that?  Just let me play a full game with Barbara.  Oracle, Batgirl, either one; she’s a cool-ass lady.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got.  I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again: I’d actually like to get into Batman.  I’ve got my preferences, but it’s not as if I think he and everything around him are an unsalvageable mess; even now there’s stuff I like about him.  But this game does him no favors whatsoever.  I might play it once or twice more to see if things get better, but right now I’ve mentally checked out of AK.  But I might not even make it that far.  It’s entirely possible that after this post, I’ll have given up and read The Dark Knight Returns instead.

No big loss, though.  At least it’ll get me away from the Riddler.  That guy can go suck a jigsaw puzzle. 

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