Monday, July 20, 2015

Arkham Knight – Final Thoughts

I don’t know that I’ve ever been as excited for a video game as I was for Batman: Arkham Knight.

Maybe Super Mario Bros. 3.

I used to get really excited for the WWE wrestling games, too, but that excitement was always tempered by the knowledge that the newest game was just as likely to be bogged down with new features that were not better and inexplicable restrictions on old features that were fine in the first place as it was to be an exciting and fresh improvement.

But you guys – I bought a whole new system for Arkham Knight.

Unfortunately I bought that system a year ago when I thought that the game was coming out in October of 2014. If I’d waited I could’ve bought a neat-o Batman-themed PS4. Oh, well.
This game’s predecessors, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are my favorite games of all time, with City being my absolute favorite. I don’t play a lot of video games anymore due to a lack of time and, quite frankly, desire, and I have never had a history of finishing games. There are probably less than ten games that I have finished and less that I have completed.
To me “finishing” a game involves getting to the conclusion of the main storyline. 
“Completing” a game means that not only did I finish the story, but I also did all of the little side missions and whatever other extras the designers tacked on to increase value or expand on features.

I completed Asylum and City because both games were so good and so rewarding that I wanted to play them as long and as much as I possibly could. They were challenging, but for the most part not frustrating. I play games to relax and have fun, so as soon as I start to feel my body temperature rise due to some task that is taking more time or effort than I want to spend on it, I tend to check out. I’m not there to get pissed off. This is a habit that probably started when I worked for Video Game Exchange years ago and continued up through my employment with GameStop. At both places I had the opportunity to play whatever games I wanted at no cost, so there simply wasn’t an economic compulsion to finish games. When I got stuck or pissed off, I’d just get another game.

Game developer Rocksteady’s Arkham games have combined all of the elements of being Batman into a successful video game. The gadgets, crime fighting, rogues’ gallery, and even detective work – the most oft-overlooked aspect of the Caped Crusader – are all fun and compelling. Every element of the game is the best of Batman distilled into a modern video game setting.

Side Note: Arkham Origins was developed by a different studio and felt, to me, like a mis-step. The story was excellent, but the gameplay felt like a watered-down and limited version of Arkham City’s. Since discussing it on the Arkham Knight Needless Things Podcast, I wonder if I was too harsh. I plan on revisiting it – and the other Arkham games – soon.

I’ve been playing Arkham Knight since the day after it came out. As of this writing I have finished the story and have just a couple of Most Wanted missions left. I’m at 94%. I’ll get into details after the Spoiler Warning, but for now here’s how I feel, spoiler-free:

The game picks up basically where Arkham City left off. Most of Batman’s gadgets are intact and he’s even wearing the same Batsuit, which I like. It’s frustrating when a series makes you start from scratch every time and I appreciated this continuity. Barring the interruption of Arkham Origins, it felt like picking up where I left off. Everything works the same and I was gliding around the city and punching goons in short, satisfying order.

The two main portions of the game are the main story and the Most Wanted missions. The main story is the actual narrative of the Arkham Knight and their quest to destroy Batman. The Most Wanted missions are tied into this narrative but do not necessarily advance the plot (until later in the game). These consist of things like taking down portions of the Arkham Knight’s army, disarming mines laid throughout Gotham, and other goal-focused pursuits.

The big, new element of this game is the Batmobile. I am not a fan of driving games, so I was definitely concerned about this addition and about how much of the game it would be a critical part of. But I had faith that Rocksteady knew what they were doing. I found the mechanics of driving and combat to be solid and enjoyed driving the Batmobile immensely.
Until I realized just how much of the game required the Batmobile.

As far as just navigating Gotham City, you can use the traditional method of gliding or drive the Batmobile pretty much as you wish. It is easy to summon the Batmobile whenever you want and neither method has any real advantage from a pure travel perspective. As far as missions, it’s easier to find most things while gliding. As much fun as it is to drive, it generally is more practical to grapple and fly.

But there are many missions – both Most Wanted and within the main story – that require the Batmobile. And these get progressively more frustrating as the game goes on, I think mostly because you lose the versatility that Batman has on his own. One of the trademarks of the Arkham series is how open the problem-solving has been. As Batman you can actually develop your own style of playing – completing missions through stealth or direct violence. From time to time you have to do things a certain way, but for the most part the players’ personal style determine show things are done.

With the Batmobile, missions typically require one response and depending on the mission and its difficulty this can become quite a grind.

The next-gen graphics are beautiful and Gotham City is massive. I’ve been mostly focused on the missions and have barely even scratched the surface of exploring the new metropolitan expanse. But I have noticed something – Knight’s Gotham is not as full of life as City’s. There are riots in the streets that are easily dispersed by the Batmobile’s non-lethal armaments, but the rooftops are vacant. There are no random gangs of crooks up to no good for the Dark Knight to subdue. Sure – you can walk the streets on foot and dispatch the goons you find there, but not once will you experience that “OH SHIT” feeling of landing on a roof and realizing you’ve just startled a bunch of armed thugs.

To address the main story itself, here’s the spoiler-free version – it’s great. There are plenty of surprises, it’s massively compelling, the balance of gameplay types is spot-on (with a tad too much Batmobile at the end; but not nearly as much so as the Most Wanted missions), and it is a fitting conclusion to the series.

Arkham Knight is a lovingly crafted game that feels like a comfortable conclusion to a great video game series. If you’re a fan of Rocksteady’s Batman games, you must play it. The cracks in the Bat armor didn’t start to show until I was almost done with the story, and I’ll discuss those after the Spoiler Warning.

One piece of advice for those of you that haven’t played the game – take your time. Balance your story play with your Most Wanted play. Level Batman up and explore the city. I won’t say why here, but DO NOT let the mystery of the Arkham Knight’s identity drive you like it did me. I burned through the story far too quickly because I was worried about spoilers, and I wish I hadn’t.

I still had a wonderful time playing and highly recommend the game. For those of you that have played it or want to know more, it’s time.

From here on out, be warned. There will be

*SPOILERS*SPOILERS*SPOILERS*

I got very caught up in the story and pretty much ignored the Most Wanted missions. 
Rocksteady made something of a big deal about the identity of the Arkham Knight – going so far as to delay the release of the figure, supposedly because it contains spoilers. As a result, my game experience was less balanced than it should have been and I finished the game with a severely underpowered Batman and had used very little of the arsenal that would eventually be available.

Okay – now that we’re a paragraph past the Spoiler Warning, I’ll drop the bomb.

The Arkham Knight is…

Jason Todd.

In the least surprising turn of events since I ate at Arby’s and got diarrhea.

Look – it’s not bad. It’s not a let-down and it makes the most sense given everything that has gone before. Within the established history of Batman and given the way that the Arkham series has adapted that, it had to be Jadon Todd. But it’s not a big surprise and they totally hammer you over the head with the fact that it’s going to be Jason Todd, to the point that I thought that was way too obvious and came up with an excellent scenario where it was Barbara Gordon. As a matter of fact, it made so much sense to me that I was absolutely positive it was Barbara and had dismissed 

Jason entirely because there were whole cinematic sequences dedicated to making you think that it was Jason.

About a third of the way through the story, Batman watches as Barbara – under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear gas – shoots herself in the head. It’s meant to be horrifying and impactful and to raise the perceived stakes of the story and it worked.
For about five minutes, until I started thinking about the conditions of what had just happened and how it could potentially affect the game.

I simply couldn’t believe that Rocksteady – who have handled these characters so respectfully and have been so faithful to the core conceits that have been established – would err so egregiously in their depiction of Barbara Gordon. With everything that character has been through and her status as the heart of Gotham’s crime fighting elite, there was no way in the world I could buy that she would ever commit suicide. Out of three nearly perfect games, it was the one moment that rang jarringly untrue.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why they would do something so opposed to the nature of one of their characters. And I decided that I didn’t believe it.

I believed that Batman could believe it. It was established not only that he was also under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear gas, he was contending with the fact that the Joker had taken up residence in his head.

After Batman’s first face-to-face confrontation with Scarecrow, it is revealed that the Dark Knight has been infected with Joker’s chemically-altered blood, which is causing him to slowly transform into the Joker (this all makes sense within the story of the games). One of the absolute best things about this game is how Joker – voiced for the for-real last time by Mark Hamill making a surprise return – pops up in Batman’s vision to taunt him and be hilarious with the blackest of humor.

So Batman is pretty messed up in the head. I wouldn’t buy Batman at one hundred percent believing that Barbara killed herself, but Batman in the unstable condition that Arkham Knight portrays him in might.

I didn’t, and quickly started trying to figure out why Rocksteady would make it appear that Barbara Gordon killed herself, from a storyline perspective. The obvious answer was to remove her from the story. As Oracle, she is the nigh-omnipotent force helping Batman. To remove his external source of intelligence would create an obstacle. But we had Alfred filling that role, so that wasn’t the intent.

It hit me all at once that it fit perfectly for Barbara Gordon to be the Arkham Knight. This was prior to the Jason Todd flashbacks, but like I said – those were so heavy-handed that they actually reinforced my belief. At one point we see a flashback to the scene from The Killing Joke where Joker shoots Barbara, paralyzing her from the waist down. This might instill a resentment in her that Batman hadn’t killed the Joker before then. I could also see her being concerned about her father’s well-being given Batman’s continued refusal to put a more permanent tend to his enemies’ criminal activities, especially given the almost Batman ’66 levels of reliance that the Arkhamverse GCPD has on the Dark Knight. There’s even a scene early in the game where Gordon basically utters a Chief O’Hara-like, “None of us can handle this! Thank the Lord for the Caped Crusader!” type of line.

It seemed to me they were setting the stage for someone to resent not only the effect Batman was having on Gotham, but also the fallout for his associates.

The latter is actually a very strong theme of the game. Catwoman, Lucius Fox, and Robin are put directly in harm’s way because of Batman’s actions and Nightwing mentions several times the dangers of working with him. Again, this suggested to me that Barbara could be looking to end the overall threat he presented and the pain he personally represented.
And yeah – I could buy her going bad much more easily than I could buy her committing suicide.

As the game went on, I thought that my belief was being reinforced. Gordon is locked up “for his own safety” – being removed from harm’s way for story purposes so there was no chance he could be harmed by Barbara’s army. When he was released, he immediately went after Scarecrow, but essentially disappeared. I assumed Barbara had taken him prisoner and removed him from danger. It all fit together so well. She would have had the resources to build and army and to coordinate the villains as needed thanks to her work as Oracle and her relationship to the GCPD. Heck, if Oracle did go bad, I don’t know that I believe Batman could stop her. Especially if he was the target of her machinations.
And it would have made for a truly shocking and powerful twist because, like all great villains, she would have been right.

But as it turned out, Jason Todd was kidnapped, tortured, and brainwashed by Joker. This was all shown via flashbacks that take place in Batman’s Joker-possessed psyche, except that Batman believed that Joker had killed Jason. It all makes perfect sense and provides a much happier ending than my story because Jason is driven by madness and abuse while my evil Barbara would have been driven by rage and righteousness. Batman could allow a confused, beaten Jason to go free at the end, but Barbara would not have had a storyline motivation to give up her vendetta. It would have been a bleak, miserable ending for her and especially for her father. I like my Arkham Knight more, but Rocksteady’s provides a more satisfying conclusion.

Minor gripes:

When you look at the unlocked character model for Professor Pyg, he doesn’t have his mask on. What’s up with that?

I only encountered one glitch in the game. I dies and somehow fell through Gotham and ended up over four thousand meters beneath the city before I had to exit the game and start again. I didn't lose any data and it looked neat, so whatever.

I was totally expecting to have to sacrifice the Batmobile at some point. It happened, but thankfully Lucius had made a backup. It’s silver instead of black (presumably because it hasn’t been painted yet) and looks awesome, but is not available as a skin for some reason. There is a fourth Batmobile skin spot, but why wouldn’t it be unlocked after you finish the story? Also, you get an incredible Jokermobile, but it isn’t available for use in the story mode.

One of the sections of Most Wanted missions involves disarming mines that have been placed around Gotham City by the Arkham Knight’s militia. They start off as fun combat sequences, but escalate into frustrating, controller-endangering hassles. As of this writing I still have four left and I don’t want to do any more. For the first time in the history of Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise something feels “video game hard” rather than challenging in a more complex way.

Side Note: To me, “video game hard” means that something has been made more difficult in a thoughtless manner – adding an overwhelming number of opponents, limiting the usefulness of in-game tools, that sort of thing. Arkham Origins was rife with this sort of uninspired design and I hate to see it in a Rocksteady game.

Speaking of limiting in-game tools, the gadgets feel limited. It seems like you get to use certain items one or two times, then they become obsolete and you don’t get to enjoy them. One example is the ability to take over drones. Most of the time you can’t get close enough to download the code to control them.

In other story notes:

I loved the reveal of Professor Pyg as the serial killer. I totally didn’t see that coming.

There are several points where you get to play as someone other than Batman, and they’re all great. There’s a Joker solo mission, and also cooperative missions where Batman works with Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing where you switch characters on the fly. You also control Azrael for specific challenges. The Harley Quinn and Red Hood side stories are also very good. I could play a whole game as Harley. Her mechanics and style are so much fun.

Side Note: I suggested a “Battle for the Cowl” game as a follow-up to this one and I think it’s a great idea. The only problem is that it would probably end up being some kind of online multiplayer thing with a concept like that. I’d prefer just switching between multiple characters in an integrated storyline. There’s no reason we couldn’t have this massive, open Gotham City combined with gameplay similar to LEGO Batman 2.


In the end, Arkham Knight is about as satisfying a conclusion as I could have hoped for. If you’re a fan of the series it’s a must-have. If you’re a fan of Batman, but wary of video games, I say you should give the Arkham series a try.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting theory on Barbara. I completed the game and am working on getting all the Riddler trophies right now, but until the 'reveal' of Jason as Arkham Knight I personally had the theory that it was Talia. They throw in a lot of 'boo hoo Talia's dead you're so sad' stuff that I thought it was all hints. Oh well, so much for overthinking.

    I've balanced how I play the game (except for the excessive amount of Riddler Trophies - Jesus Christ does there have to be seventy thousand of those?!?!) and I feel the game flowed beautifully. But I can see it not being the case if someone were to skip side missions etc.

    I also loved the inclusion of Professor Pyg. I wasn't sure if the mass murderer would turn out to be him or Dollmaker, but I was happy he was the one we got to meet in this last (yeah right) Gotham outing.

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    1. I've got fourteen Riddler items left and three mines. I'm having a heck of a time with the mines and with the time limit trophies where you have to race across the cities. I don;t mind the number of Riddler challenges, but the balance of difficulty is ridiculous.

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