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.

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