Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Batman: Arkham Knight and How You Only Get One Shot

The following article contains minor spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight, mostly related to the early game and side missions.

Batman: Arkham Knight, the third game in Rocksteady's Arkham trilogy had a rough launch to say the least. While the game was generally reviewed positively by the press, consumers found the game at launch to be buggy and plagued with technical issues. This was most severe on the PC, where even high end machines struggled to run the game, leading to Warner Brothers to eventually pull the game from sale on PC until it could be fixed.

As a primarily PC gamer these days and a huge fan of Rocksteady's treatment of the dark crusader's franchise, I was devastated. I've been a big fan of the bat since I was a knee high tyke running around in my bat symbol underoos. Having been introduced to Batman through the amazing and still worth watching animated series from the 90's (which I've written about previously here and here) I spent most of my life suffering through lack luster adaptations of Bruce Wayne's story in both movies and video games. Thankfully Nolan came along with a darker, more grounded trilogy and helped launch a new interest among the popular culture.

Which is where Rocksteady came in. Working with publisher Warner Brothers, they released Arkham Asylum, a fresh yet traditional take on the Bat, weaving together decades of characters and story lines into something that felt familiar and new all at the same time. The genius came not only in how they handled the characters of Gotham, remixing characters and storylines as needed, but in the gameplay as well. They wisely eschewed the beat em up past of previous Batman games in favor of a stealthy, cerebral metroidvania that had players filling the role of Batman as he explored the infamous Arkham Asylum, solving puzzles, battling goons and catching the bad guys. The sequel, Arkham City, expanded the concept into a small, pseudo-open world that featured a sub-section of Gotham as a hub, linking areas together and allowing the player to brood on rooftops like their favorite hero does in all those movie posters. Both were great games and left players with a taste of an open world that wouldn't be fulfilled until the final third act of the trilogy.

Rocksteady had a proven track record, had made two great games in the franchise and had built up a trust and respect among fans. There was no reason to suspect the third game wouldn't be anything but amazing. Then the reviews hit, the game launched and word began to spread. Massive frame rate drops, technical hitches, bugs, crashes, etc. Everyone was left to wonder what the hell happened, meanwhile the narrative of a bad, buggy game took hold. Fans like myself who were so desperately waiting to get a hold of the game pushed it away, disappointed and heart broken at what happened. We moved on, to other games, to other franchises, wondering what the next great super hero game would be.

Except, thing is, Batman: Arkham Knight is a great game, fully worth its place as the end of the trilogy. I picked up the game during a Steam sale and have spent the better part of last weekend tearing through it. From the opening intro of a cop wandering into a diner only to get overwhelmed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, to soaring over the rooftops of Gotham, Arkham Knight puts the player right back in the boots of the Bat, beating up bad guys, catching crooks and rocketing through the streets in your bat mobile. The game isn't perfect of course. I wish the controls were a bit tighter and there's one too many "jump out of the bat mobile just so you can hit a switch" segments, but the overall game is a wonderful blend of open world mechanics and the polished, loving treatment of Batman we've come to expect from Rocksteady.

First, let me say the Joker in this is an absolute delight. I was initially skeptical of the narrative device of having the Joker accompany Batman through the game as a hallucination, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Mark Hamil's delivery and portrayal of a character he helped define for a generation is perfect, backed by strong writing and decades worth of chemistry with Kevin Conroy, the definitive voice of Batman. But it's more than just the voice acting or the dialogue. Rocksteady goes all the way with the gag. The Joker doesn't just appear in cut scenes, he lurks outside of buildings, waiting to get in a verbal jab or two at the Bat as he leaves. He's a constant stream of jokes, insults and verbal stabs, constantly trying to get under Batman's skin. Observant players will even notice him causally sitting on rooftops as they glide over the city. The inclusion of such a beloved, well known character, for so much of the game not only gives fans a chance to see more of him than they would in the passing role of a villain, it gives us a chance to delve deeper into the character's relation to Batman and the history the two have shared.

How can you not love this guy?

But it goes beyond that, beyond being able to finally drive the batmobile at high speed through the streets of Gotham in hot pursuit of the baddies. There are clever touches all throughout this game. The way the main story gives you an excuse to go do side missions, to not feel guilty about leaving someone in peril while you tick a few things off your checklist. The absolutely genius way it handles side missions, disguising them as tracking down the bad guys. Let's face it, the Azrael no hit challenges, racing against Firefly's fuel, tracking Penguin's vans, all of these would be simple markers in any other open world game. Here's a racing flag, time to do the race side missions. They always feel so tacked on, so video gamey in other games. Here they are worked intelligently and seamlessly into the world and the experience overall. From solving Riddler's challenges and freeing Catwoman to tracking down a serial killer, the game never stops letting you feel like Batman. As an added touch of pure brilliance, when you finish a chain of side missions, you get to take the bad guy to jail, where they stay locked up for the rest of the game. In most open world games you get an achievement, a little tick on a box that says completed. Here you actually get the sense of closure of hauling them off to the local PD station.
Oh, and the police station. The Gotham City Police Department is my favorite part of this game. The whole thing is amazing. All of the cops you can talk to with real names and personalities, the bowl of Halloween candy on the bad ass Sergent's desk, the evidence room where you can hear little snippets about villains you've defeated in previous games. All of it works together so damn well to make you feel like the Dark Knight. The way the cops treat you with a mix of reference and suspicion. The sheer bad ass action of walking a big shot criminal like Two Face or the Penguin past their own locked up goons. It's brilliant and it's also home to one of my most beloved moments in the game, that of the corrupt cop.

You see, in Arkham Knight, you will occasionally find goons in the open world that are highlighted in a bright green to signify they work for the Riddler. Isolate them and you can interrogate them to learn where Riddler's hidden his puzzles around the city. So how is one to react when casually strolling through the Gotham City police department and you see a cop outlined in bright green? The game also features elements of Batman losing his sanity, of battling against the Joker's crazy. You have to wonder if you're seeing things, if it's some kind of glitch. The cop's just hanging out, talking to his buddies. You can even go up and talk to him and he's just like everyone else. Hit the interrogate button however and Batman will slam him into the wall, accuse him of working for the Riddler, only for the guy to confess. It's a great moment, not only from a gameplay perspective of using past taught mechanics to let the player discover something on their own, but in making the player feel like Batman, like the world's greatest detective.

There's a ton of other things I could gush on about with this game. The camera framing is wonderful. The little touches of a rescued firefighter hooking a thumb toward the horizon, toward the ruins of Arkham City in the background as he talks about it. The lovely art and set design of the varied locations, from Penguin's hideouts to the Haunted House at the movie studio. The way Riddler writes notes around his traps showing how he built them and providing hints to the player. Bruce Wayne's voicemail at Wayne Tower. The variety in Gotham from the seedy, trash strewn under city to the glamour of Founder's Island. The paintings and billboards scattered around. The whole city feels alive and fresh, despite being abandoned and run down. It's a wonderfully constructed world with some truly amazing design decisions littered throughout, both in gameplay and presentation.

But how many will play it? How many will remember the messy stories of a botched launch, of technical failures and hard crashes. It reminds me of Assassin's Creed Unity. A game that looked gorgeous leading up to launch, that promised living, breathing crowds and fast paced action set during the French Revolution. But no one remembers that. Ask someone to tell you about Unity and the first thing that comes to mind is the horrifying screenshot of the eye ball man. And yet the game is also capable of true beauty, of wonder artistry.

No one loves the eye ball man.

 Look at how gorgeous this is. 
Hard to believe they came from the same game.
Is Arkham Knight going to suffer the same fate? In this era of constant game releases are people going to revisit the Dark Knight's final chapter? Or will they remember all the stories from the launch? Of even mega powerful machines struggling to run it? These days the game runs fine even on a medium powered gaming laptop. The bugs have all been patched, the technical issues resolved. But the crowds have moved on to newer games, to better releases.

In such a fast moving industry, it really does seem like you only get one shot. I'll spare you the beaten to death Miyamoto quote, but it's a lesson that could be learned by a few more publishers. To wait and let your title get the attention it deserves, the praise it so easily could earn, rather than being tarnished by the scarlet letter of a broken game.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Doom 2016 In Translation: Tension, Horror and the Evolution of the Doom Guy

Earlier this year, the long awaited sequel/reboot/revival of the classic Doom series arrived to a cautious and skeptical crowd. The original Doom released in 1993 during the grunge heavy days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and cemented one of the biggest genres in video games, the First Person Shooter. You could forgive fans of their trepidation. Like most long lived franchises, the sequels and follow up projects to Doom had failed to capture the imagination in the same way. Doom 4 had languished in development, only to eventually be morphed, reborn into Doom 2016. In a pleasant turn of fate the fans ended up being wrong. Dead wrong. Doom 2016 was not only awesome, not only a stellar celebration of everything Doom had been and could be, it was also a damn fine video game.

It appears the making of the game, like most projects, was not without its own battles. Thanks to the great work of Danny O'Dwyer and his excellent noclip series, viewers are given an eye into the internal struggles the team went through in trying to decide the game's atmosphere, tone and gameplay style. One of things brought up frequently in the interview with Hugo Martin, the game's creative director (you can watch his extended interview here), is the inspiration that came from action movies and comic books. Ideas of tone and pacing that helped guide them in their vision of a new doom, something that was fast paced and bad ass in all the ways the original had been.

The shadows bathe the corridors. Lights, struggling to maintain power flicker and spark. A woman, dressed in a lab coat and business attire runs though the darkness. She reaches an intersection of once pristine metal corridors. To her left, light, salvation, to her right, only darkness. Two beady red eyes appear, attached to a hulking black shape in the shadows. The shape lets out an angry snort. The woman runs down the corridor, toward the light. Toward safety.

The thing that makes Doom 2016 so brilliant, so satisfying is not the action, not the push forward combat as defined by the creative team, but the tension. The tension that is formed by all of these things and feeds back into them. The art style, the animations, and especially the amazing soundtrack pump the player up, it gets their blood boiling until they need that release, until they are dying to punch something. We've all likely had that feeling before, when your blood pressure it up, when you're angrily pacing back and forth and you just want to hit something. Its a violent urge, an urge that must be controlled in a productive and safe society, but when you give in, when you let out that pent up rage it feels good, damn good. And that's exactly what the new Doom taps into.

There's a great scene in Breaking Bad where Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston goes to the doctor. He's fighting cancer, his life is a mess. All the tension, all the rage that has been building up inside of him is finally threatening to boil over.  He goes to the bathroom, chest heaving, face contorted, fists clenching. Finally, in an explosive release of anger he goes absolutely ape shit, beating the hell out of a paper towel dispenser. It doesn't sound like much, but it's an excellent scene, one of the most memorable in the series. That's in large part to that tension, that anger slowly building up in the character that we the viewers also feel. The act of losing control, of pummeling this inanimate metal object not only acts as release for the character and the audience, it shows how close the character is to losing control, and how dangerous he will be when he finally does.

She can hear it behind her. The massive, fleshy footsteps of the beast. The heavy, snotty breath. The doors are just ahead. The lights gleaming around the edges show it is still alive, still has power. The doors can still save her, if only she can reach them before the beast does. The doors open automatically, welcoming her, offering her their salvation. She gets inside, she slams her hand on the control panel. The doors shut, they lock. She's safe. The woman leans against the wall, her own chest heaving, breath labored. All is quiet. Then SLAM, the beast crashes into the double doors like a fright train. They hold. She lets out a breath. Outside the door she can hear it, hear the beast's snarls. It snorts and walks away, the massive steps echoing in the silent corridor. 

I have to admit, in this internet confessional, I have never much cared for action movies. When I was a kid action movies were big explosive things. The eighties era was winding down to a close, flooding old action movies into syndication. The nineties were still living in the shadow of the previous decade, struggling to find a voice of their own. Action movies were loud, vulgar things. Big guns, big explosions. The good guys were gruff, unshaven, beat down by the world. The bad guys were rich and sophisticated, trying to make a buck off of people's misery.

I never cared. Big dumb action guy fights hordes of less interesting storm troopers. They were invincible, walking tanks of pure destruction in human form. There was no tension, no fear. Not on the side of the hero and certainly not on the side of the bad guys. Everyone was so sure of their purpose. The good guys march forward into the face of certain death to rescue the girl and save the world. The bad guys who would inevitably exclaim "it's just one guy!" only to run out into the open and be gunned down. Set piece after set piece, explosion after explosion, it was all just meaningless noise to me.

Modern action movies aren't much better. Sure they put more effort into the story, sure they take the time to beat the crap out of the hero, but for every step forward they take two steps back. The stories in modern action movies are barely comprehensible, filled with more plot holes than you can keep up with and arranged by a spine twisting number of conveniences and coincidences. The music is instantly forgettable, blending in with a half dozen water downed soundtracks. And the dialogue, worst off all, has drifted from the era of iconic one liners to snarky, comedic quips that often don't gel with either character or situation.

And the action itself. Oh boy. Old action movies would take a zoomed out approach, set the camera somewhere far off and watch the hero run and gun, dive and dash as explosions reigned supreme. In the modern era, people wanted something up close, more real, more intense. What we got was shaky cams, blurry footage and a mess of sound effects and stunt doubles until you can barely manage to figure out what in the hell is going on. much less be invested in it. Somewhere along the way action movies forgot what they were about, the action, and have been diluted into some all purpose big budget thing that fails to capture anyone.

Breath caught, she pushes away from the wall. She's standing in some sort of locker room. Wooden benches without backs sit in the middle in neat rows. Tall, metallic lockers line the walls. All are shut but none are locked, waiting to be opened. She looks down, she's bleeding. Stomach wound. Lots of blood, won't last long. She pushes on. Devoid of the adrenaline of the chase, her steps are slow, breathing ragged. At the far end of the room is another set of doors. There are no lights on this door. No salvation. Cold and unwelcome, she presses on. 

Originally the protagonist of Doom was known simply as "the Doom Guy", a phrase that arose as a way to refer to the wincing face at the bottom of the screen. Over time "Doom Guy" and "The Marine" were fused into "Doom Marine" a phrase used interchangeably with Doom Guy. Now, in Doom 2016, we have the Doom Slayer, a mythic, legendary version to carry the legacy forward.

I think the evolution of the names is important, as it hints at a larger evolution in tone of the series itself. The original marine didn't need to be special. He was just some guy. The Doom Guy. Like the action heroes of the late eighties, of buddy cops and Die Hards, we didn't need him to be special. Then we have the rise of the Doom Marine. Even though he was always a marine, it is now addressed in name. He's not just a guy, not just some random person, but a soldier. A marine. A warrior meant to protect and destroy.

But here, in the modern day, is that really enough? After 9-11, after two wars in the middle east, does that term still carry the mythic weight it once did? Chances are, if you aren't a veteran, you know one. Likely more than one. While everyone acknowledges their bravery, their sacrifice and dedication, can something that common still be legendary?

The scientist punches in the code. The access panel blinks red. Wrong one. She looks back across the locker room, at the dented double doors. She can hear them out there, scurrying, screaming, looking for a way in. With one hand holding her wound, she uses her other to press in another code. Still red. She tries a third time, finger jabbing the buttons, hand shaking. Green. The doors open.

Enter the Doom Slayer. No longer a guy. No longer a marine. The Doom Slayer is now something out of the mists of legend, out of the fables and stories passed down through the ages. Something more than our everyday selves. The Doom Slayer exists not to protect, not to live but to kill demons. That is his role and that is what he does. The Doom Slayer is a symbol of human triumph, of fighting back against the shadows and driving them into the darkness.

It is in this that I am reminded not of the Doom Guy of yore, but of Master Chief, from Halo. In the original Halo, the character of the Master Chief was himself a space marine of mythic proportions. A literal super soldier meant to turn the tide against the aliens, against the monsters that people feared and to win the war for humanity. The irony, and one of the brilliant things Bungie did, was the aliens thought Master Chief was the demon, not the other way around.

The tall, tough Elites of the alien forces would run down regular space marines, would slaughter them in mass. But against Master Chief they would dance, side step, push and retreat. They knew he was a worthy advisory, something to be be feared and respected. The diminutive grunts had a strong reaction, out right running away in fear at the first site of the Master Chief. They would wave their little arms in the air and run in circles, crying and screaming for help until the faceless demon cut them down.

It's here that Doom 2016 does so well, executes so smartly. The demons aren't the enemy here, the Doom Slayer is. He's the thing to be feared, to run from. He's the unstoppable, uncontrollable, wrecking ball of a weapon that consumes all in its path. The Doom Slayer has no fear for the demons, he is the fear. He alone is the death bringer, not them.

The room is cold. Cold enough for the scientist to see her own breath as the door shuts behind her. Ahead lies some sort of stasis pod, standing against the wall. Large pipes and wires run into it, keeping it cold. On the right is a control panel awaiting a hand print. The scientist walks forward, stumbles, drops to her knees. She can't go on. The wound is too bad, too deep. She struggles, she crawls forward. Almost there. She reaches out. Not close enough. She curses, grunts, claws her way forward. At last she reaches up, her bloody hand finding the control panel. She places her hand on its surface and waits. The panel chirps and blinks green. The scientist lets out a long sigh, her hand slipping from the panel leaving only a trail of her blood behind.

There's a dual tension to Doom. A horror in two parts. The first is the one we are used too. Giant, hulking demons, snorting with flared nostrils and pointed teeth. We fear them, because they are familiar, yet different. Twisted animal forms beyond the normal pale that mean us harm. While we fear them, they fear the Doom Slayer and by making us the Doom Slayer, the circle is complete. The tension and horror flow freely until they are indistinguishable.

We run through levels, down corridors and across hellscapes. The music ebbs and flows, haunting and metallic, cautious yet loud. Driving us forward, driving us onward. The demons are huge, imposing, hulking. They hurt us, they out number us and they are without end. The horror, the anger, it all melds. It runs together as we pick up ammo, as we fire our gun. The tension builds and builds until at last we get close enough, we close ranks and we punch them. We punch them as hard as we can and they explode. Into health, into ammo, into the things we need to push ahead, to continue the fight. The tension is released. We enter the next room, the next corridor, rise over the next vista and there they are. Dozens of them, hundreds. The tension rises again.

This is what makes Doom 2016 so amazing, so refreshing. And it's exactly the sort of thing modern action movies are missing. Not special effects, not big explosions or cheesy one liners. Not impressive action sequences or witty quips. Tension. Pacing. Release. These are the things that action movies need to return to if they hope to catch audiences in the same way Doom 2016 was able rekindle that love its audience held for it. Maybe the action movies of tomorrow can learn from the Doom of today, just as it learned from the movies before it.

And a kick ass soundtrack. That definitely helps.

The chamber opens. Inside lies not a hero, but a man. Dressed in an undershirt and boxers, he looks small, weak. He steps out of the chamber and looks down at the scientist on the floor. Bleeding. Dead. He knows why. He knows why they have awoken him, what his purpose is. In the locker room he finds what he's looking for. His armor. Cleaned, polished. Ready. Piece by piece, he puts it on. No need to rush, they'll be waiting. Armor on, he stands not as a man, but as a Marine. A soldier ready for battle. He steps toward the dented doors, shotgun in hand. He knows they are out there. He can hear them. With one hand he punches the doors control panel, with the other he pumps the shotgun. The doors open. In the shadows beyond, red eyes gleam back at him. Dozens of them. He's ready. He steps out into the hall, shotgun leveled. No longer a man, no longer a marine. He is the Doom Slayer.