Tag Archives: Batman: Arkham

Batman: Arkham Knight Review – Batter Up

Batman: Arkham Knight

Rocksteady Studios return to the series is a fantastic one. In closing out the same tale that they started back in 2009, they have gone back to their already stellar framework and improved upon it in ways that probably few fans could have guessed (or even desired on their own). Batman: Arkham Knight is as much as a statement about Rocksteady’s pride and talent as it is simply a fantastic game.

Arkham Knight throws us back into the present day for Batman, one year after the events of Batman: Arkham City. Scarecrow is back and has forced a city-wide evacuation in Gotham with the threat of a new fear toxin. This leaves a vacuum in which his militia fills, an effort led by a mysterious Arkham Knight fellow who seems to have some sort of history with Bats, as well as all of the Big Bad Guys of Gotham.

The Dark Knight, however, is dealing with his own set of problems. Coming out of the events of Arkham City, our brooding hero has to deal with the death and absence of the Joker. (Slight spoiler alert ahead for Arkham Knight.) It begins to manifest somewhat physically as a brush with Scarecrow’s toxin reacts with the Joker’s blood in him and he begins to hallucinate.

This is easily the strongest component of the game. Its narrative is just top-notch throughout with some spectacular turns sprinkled all around. The singular flow of Batman: Arkham Asylum is missing, but it also fixes the broad and reaching plot of Arkham City.

But most importantly, it is thematically dense and significant. Batman and Joker have always been closer than the Caped Crusader would rather admit, but this game addresses it in an exceptionally potent way. Batman can throw around tough guy lines (like responding to a concern about the militia taking him down with a gruff “they won’t”) but the Joker that’s inside his head is voicing all the fears and doubts and insecurities that his gravel-soaked machismo hides.

Some of the twists are not even twists in the conventional sense, but rather that the game does a great job of building up to increasing degrees of “oh no oh no oh no” instead of a single “buhhhWHAT.” It cultivates a sense of dread of the inevitable that, unfortunately, will likely land under the category of Divisive.

Batman: Arkham Knight

The story, however, manages to inform some of the gameplay in interesting ways. For instance, just as Scarecrow has cobbled together the likes of the Penguin, Two-Face, et al. in an uneasy alliance, Batman has friends he works with. There’s a new Dual Play mechanic that allows you to switch between characters like Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing in combat and predator sections as well as outside of them.

It adds a much needed wrinkle to an old fighting system. That’s not to say that it’s not good (it’s just as great as you remember and a welcome reminder of how to do it right) but there certainly was a monotonous drone to it all as you reached the ends of the past games. Having you dip in and out of different move sets and teaming up for dual takedowns adds spice and variety to it all, reminding you to still have fun with it.

Other than that, though, the combat is still the Freeflow system. The difference is that Rocksteady has tweaked how you use Batman’s gadgets into a more manageable button structure as well as how they fit into reactions to certain enemies. That was a huge problem with Arkham Origins; at a certain point, it all got so convoluted that you just regressed into a meat and potatoes kind of fighter instead of a resourceful, skillful one.

Batman: Arkham Knight

A lot of that has to do with the enemy designs and progressions. There isn’t much of a tutorial to speak of—almost a self-aware recognition of this being “another” Arkham game—but instead relies on throwing complexity to you and have you figure it out. And it works because it’s intuitive. From preparing for encounters to strategizing the mixed use of combat and stealth techniques, it just makes sense.

Medics revive so you stop that, but you soon find out they can charge dudes up with electricity, a concept you are introduced to with henchmen with stun sticks. So now you have a similar enemy created preemptively by another one that can also bring them back. At this point, you have an idea of how to deal with the results and a priority. It’s a guidance that has a stunning lack of hand-holding that is most welcome.

Most of the game, actually, doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s better for it. From excising button prompts where most other games would harangue to letting you figure out how to find missions, it just puts you out there. There’s a bit early on where you are trapped as you attempt a rescue mission, and there’s no indication of what to do. For all you know, this is the end. But the solution teaches you how the game wants you to think about this pickles and how to get out of them: this isn’t just Batman anymore.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Namely, there’s also, like, a two-ton tank called the Batmobile. This is probably another portion of the game that will be divisive as hell, but it is handled deftly enough that it’s a welcome respite from punching people in the face and hiding in rafters. There’s pursuit stuff that has you chasing down cars (mostly okay), the Riddler race challenges (novel and pleasantly chaotic), environmental puzzles (strangely engaging), and the tank battles (superb).

Truly, the pursuits are mostly harmless palate cleansers for the other Batmobile shenanigans. You just chase other cars and try to lock-on with missiles. The Riddler races are more interesting in that you have to simultaneously manage the race track while maneuvering the Batmobile up walls and on ceilings and through the air.

And then there’s the battles. They have you up against an army of drones that require you to dodge shells and missiles while peppering airborne buzzers and blasting other tanks. It’s both frantic and measured in a way that the series hasn’t explored before. You’re keeping in mind timing and spacing and monitoring your secondary weapon gauges and anticipating openings and cover all at the same time. Save for the pseudo stealth bits where you fight Cobra tanks, it’s pretty great.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Side missions also make a return, which almost goes without saying since this is an open world game. But this time around, rather than being of the ilk of “go here, do this, come back,” each individual kind of mission plays into a specific subplot that feels wholly unique. From tracking a giant bat to helping out Catwoman to playing an entirely different character, it all feels substantially personal.

The way you touch base each time you switch between objectives is great, too. It adds context and immerses you at the same time. If you go from the main story to say you’re going to go track down gun runners, Alfred will chime in with something about Nightwing. Or maybe Batman himself will comment on the situation himself. It’s a little touch that works wonders.

There’s also a lot of times where you’ll get into a mission and that mission kind of sends you, well, nowhere. Or seemingly nowhere as there’s nothing to do there. Instead, you have to actually seek it out, kind of playing into the idea that you’re actually Batman searching for clues and not somebody playing a game and going down a checklist of objective markers on the map.

Batman: Arkham Knight

It’s not all gravy, though it does come very close. There were more than a forgettable amount of bugs from missed mission triggers to enemies getting stuck on geometry. (Note that this is the PlayStation 4 version being reviewed, not the stupidly broken PC version.) And it’s still hard to wrap your head around the idea of Batmobile stealth in tight quarters where everything it touches somehow crumbles like a dry sand castle.

There’s also a layer of endings after the story ending that is, well, either wholly disappointing or absolutely baffling, depending on your patience for collectibles. And that’s not to mention the main narrative’s linchpin twist and gameplay’s Batmobile bits, which already are splitting opinions like toppings requests in a dorm room. There is likely to be no middle ground on loving or hating those things.

Take those little lumps out, though, and it is pure, uncut, grade-A gravy. If you think you’ve had your fill of the Batman: Arkham games, you might want to give this one a try anyways. There is value to the masterful refinement of a craft, and Batman: Arkham Knight just might be that.

Batman: Arkham Knight

+ Fantastic and thoughtful narrative about Batman’s nature
+ Return and girding of a defining combat system
+ Batmobile sections work well at adding variety
+ Mixing stealth and combat elements makes both more contemplative
– More than a few bugs

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Knight
Release: June 23, 2015
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.batmanarkhamknight.com/

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Proof in the Arkham Pudding

Proof in the Arkham Pudding

Franchises tend to follow a somewhat depressing arc. Be it movies or video games or books, they have a habit of going through three distinct phases (especially if it’s a trilogy). The first, if it’s worth sparking a series at all, is usually full of surprise and life. It’s like a low-key discovery of fire, like holy shit we made something.

The second stage is when all the ideas that were too big or too ambitious make it in, hopefully with the creators’ ability to manufacture their desires keeping pace with their heads in the clouds. This means producers learn how to produce better and developers learn how to use their tools better while directors aim for big set pieces and game designers throw in gem after gem they had to throw in the trash the last time around.

It takes a mild step down, however, at the third part. It’s not quite a too-comfortable situation, but it’s close. All the gold got mined out of the brains for the second bit, and now they’re running on empty. They’re trying to paint bags of rocks rather than digging like they had for years before, pining for this project to be made. It’s more competent than ever, but the spark is gone.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

You’ll probably want to argue that last one—and rightly so—but the crux of it is true: it’s a step down. Take a look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Or what about SCE Santa Monica’s God of War or BioWare’s Mass Effect or Naughty Dog’s Uncharted?

With the exception of The Godfather, the third installment was still quite good and worthy in closing out a trilogy, but they also felt…sterile. Like a sigh of deliberating how to get through this. They’ve done it before at quite a remarkable level, so the blueprint is right there. Now they just need to get it done as opposed to wanting to get it done. (True or not, that’s how it feels playing or watching those things.)

The reason I bring this up is because of the Batman: Arkham series, the latest entry of which came out this week. It’s been doing quite well with review scores (we’ll have one up shortly), but it has been begging the question with a lot of writers and fans alike: was this game necessary?

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Perhaps not for any of us outside of Rocksteady Studios, the developers behind the franchise, but for them, it sure seems like it. The interesting thing is that while there have been four main releases in the Arkham lineup, the third one was actually made by Warner Bros. Games Montreal and is the only one not directed by Sefton Hill.

Before that, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City certainly fit the mold. Asylum was a tight little package that flowed well within itself, telling a taut story with an impeccable (and revolutionary) set of mechanics and gameplay. And then City blew it wide open by turning an island into a full-blown city and taking much of what players loved from before to another level.

And then Origins was, well, just kind of okay. It kind of just made the city bigger and added perhaps the single most unnecessary multiplayer component ever conceived. It wasn’t the usual third step down because the series runners ran out of steam or got complacent or whatever; it was because the reins were thrown into hands that had never ridden this horse before.

Batman: Arkham City

This is where I begin to believe that yes, Knight is necessary. It breaks so hard from the typical franchise quality arc that that single-handedly makes it noteworthy. It’s not developers diving back in for a fourth go-around as they figure out what new IP to cultivate and iterate on but is instead a studio reclaiming their title of steward to Batman.

I’ll get into more detail in the review, but Knight is both a refinement and an expansion on what we liked and didn’t like from City that Origins just seemed to miss, neglect, or actually exacerbate. The story is deft and drums up legitimate drama. Combat has new layers of complexity but streamlines it into a speedy little missile of rewarding, buzzing thinking of the frantic variety.

This is just as the stealth sections have entirely new wrinkles that make sneaking around vantage points and floor grates come across as simultaneously reengineered and reinvented. And they way they are presented to you through various framing devices, they actually affect how you tool around with it all. The encounter design, specifically, shames Origins as that game seemed to support pugilism even in the midst of choking someone out.

Batman: Arkham Knight

And that’s even while Rocksteady saw fit to add an entirely new and substantial thing to the game: the Batmobile. There are dexterity-demanding races and navigational puzzles and tank combat and bits that mesh Batman and the vehicle together as separate entities in the same environment for race-puzzle-combat scenarios. There are a lot of design concessions to fit the narrative and vice versa and the reception for its sections will be divided, but my goodness is it ambitious.

That is the quality that seems to always lack after a series goes past the second entry. It lacks the punch—that swing at a weight class far higher than its own—that makes the first two so potent. Rocksteady, however, didn’t get a third one and instead had to go for the fourth. While no artistic endeavor may ever be necessary from the viewing side, it seems that it can be for the artist. They’ve still got more to say.

Tagged , , , , ,

Batman: Arkham Origins Review: Old Bat in the Belfry

Batman: Arkham Origins

I wish I was more careful of what I wished for. Ridiculous, yes, but that’s where playing Batman: Arkham Origins has left me. My time with the latest in the remarkable built-like-a-fridge-vigilante franchise has opened my eyes, made me lucid to my desires. After finishing its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City, all I wanted was more. That’s what I got. Unfortunately.

No longer developed by Rocksteady Studios, Arkham Origins has been passed on across the pond from London to Warner Bros. Games Montréal. It tells the story of a younger and more reckless Batman, a mere two years into his career as the Caped Crusader. He, as a crime fighter, is still seen as more of a myth than reality in the eyes of the public.

The Gotham underground, however, knows better, so Black Mask organizes a manhunt. On Christmas Eve, he breaks out of Blackgate Prison and invites eight of the world’s best killers to compete for a $50 million bounty on the Bat’s head. And as he is wont to do, Batman decides it’s best to put an end to it on his terms so that no one gets hurt that doesn’t have to get hurt.

Luckily, the streets of Gotham are mostly empty. In fact, they’re strangely empty. Much in the same way as Arkham City contained nothing but bad guys in the streets and on the rooftops, everyone is fair game to get beaten to a bat-scented pulp, including members of the Gotham City Police Department. It is a major disappointment as 1) it is haphazardly explained away by the winter storm and warnings of danger in the streets, and 2) with the promise and fulfillment of a bigger open world, there was fair hope for seeing a living, breathing Gotham.

It represents the thematic problems with the game at its core, which is to say it’s sloppy. Sure, Batman is a little rougher around the edges this early into his return to Gotham, and sure, most of the cops in the city are corrupt, but he stills beats them around like they’re street thugs. And when you get the concussion grenade from the Batcave, Alfred says it’s so you don’t have to beat up policemen. But then you do anyways because the concussion grenade isn’t actually all that helpful in combat.

It’s meandering and imprecise. Arkham Asylum was about overcoming fear and becoming a better self. Arkham City was about the balance and necessity of good along with evil. Arkham Origins is about…Batman being kind of an ass? That’s not to say it’s a bad story, but it’s not as consistent as it should be and strangely relegates many of the eight assassins to side quests and cameos. The writing, however, is probably the best of the series, though Kevin Conroy is missed as Batman. (Troy Baker, however, is absolutely fantastic as The Joker.)

Batman: Arkham Origins

Mechanically, though, the game is still as taut as you remember. That’s because nothing has changed. The combat is almost entirely identical with some new enemy types, but you still attack, counter, quick-fire gadgets, and flip over dudes with shields. Sneaking around still leaves you in detective mode while hiding on vantage points and inside of vents while you lure guards into secluded areas one by one. It is all almost exactly as you remember.

And that’s great! It is still as manically fun and obsession-inducing to get a perfect combo in a massive group encounter; to do double and triple counters before summoning up a whirlwind of bats to sun everyone around you; and to cape stun a dude and then beat him into submission with a stunning and rapid succession of punches to the face. But it is still more of the same, and sadly, it shows the limits of the game’s framework. What else can you add now that you’ve maxed out controller usage (and, worse/better yet, cognitive usage)?

The navigation in the open world has also gone unchanged in Arkham Origins. Grapnel up to rooftops, launch yourself in the air, and glide away into the night. Grapnel takedowns were added, but that’s about it. It’s the same skeleton with a new skin, a new set of rooftops and buildings to infiltrate and stalk.

Batman: Arkham Origins

The problem is that it’s a worse skin. Traversing the world is a chore because half of it seems inexplicably impossible to grapnel onto. Fast travel is an ugly concession for a poor design; if the world and the game are worth it, players would be willing do the dirty work themselves.

Combat scenarios don’t get more intricate with challenging setups involving varying heights and enemies and instead just throw more and more dudes at you. All of your old tricks in the predator bits still work and they’re still just as tiring once you get into the late game. At best, some of the predator sequences happen outside and you don’t realize they’re stealth sections until you’re all up in them, which is a pleasant change of pace.

More interesting, though, is the fact that there’s somewhat of a switch in the plot about halfway through. (Trust me, this is not a spoiler, but if you want to go in completely unaware in terms of story, just skip this paragraph.) The game suddenly concerns itself with the genesis of Batman and the Joker’s strange, twisted, beautiful relationship. If you got all the case files in the past games, you might recall some of the mythos previously established, but seeing at least some of it play it is utterly delicious and warped.

Batman: Arkham Origins

But that’s about as change-of-pace-y as it gets. The collectibles are different, but they still amount to mild puzzles and trophies. Thinking about playing this back-to-back with Arkham City is heartbreaking because Arkham Origins is a good game, but it’s not a great game. If this was the first Arkham game, it would be an excellent first step. But it’s not, which lands it squarely in the Same Old bucket. Batman: Arkham Origins is more of the same, but more of the same thrown down a hill and told to stand up straight so no one sees all the bruises. But hey, I got what I wished for.

+ Still looks and sounds great
+ Fantastic voice acting and all-around quality writing
+ The parts involving The Joker are incredibly compelling
– A strangely high number of framerate issues and clipping bugs
– See more of the same gameplay highlights the limitations of the mechanics

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Origins
Release: October 25, 2013
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montéal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U
Players: 1 offline, 8 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://batmanarkhamorigins.com/

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Not Really Exploring Gotham

Not Really Exploring Gotham

The latest Batman: Arkham game came out last Friday to rather tepid reviews, although I say that only given the fact that Asylum and City both racked up a ridiculous amount of year-end awards and Batman: Arkham Origins appears to be poised only to get Most “Eh, It Was All Right” of the Year. I’m still working my way through it (few outlets outside of the big ones got advanced copies) and a review will be coming soon, but I have some thoughts on it as it stands now.

Asylum was a taut little adventure that felt like a simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic adventure, something like shuttling through a pitch black roller coaster and you can only sense how close the walls and rafters are as they zoom by your head. (It’s also one of my favorite games of all time.) City introduced, well, a city: Arkham City, in fact. It was a the result of former Arkham Asylum director Quincy Sharp becoming mayor of Gotham and turning the projects of the city into one big ol’ outdoor, poorly maintained prison.

It allowed the player to explore Gotham in a way we’d always wanted: freely, albeit a small subsection of it that is largely disgusting slums and dirty streets. Batman’s cape gliding mechanic from Asylum translated to the open world rather well, especially with the addition of the grapnel boost which allowed you to hook onto ledges and launch yourself higher and faster for sustained travel. It actually reminded me of how amazing it felt in Spider-Man 2, slinging webs and zipping around the city like a spandex-clad god. It is a comparison all open world superhero games aspire to make.

Batman: Arkham City

The single problem I had with the system was that right in the middle of the city was a huge facility, locked down the private military firm TYGER. It presented you with an immense impasse if you wanted to travel from one side of the city to the other, forcing you to go around because getting into it early would break the story’s flow. It was, needless to say, a gigantic bummer.

Now imagine that instead of one instance where that’s the case, they just made an entire city of grapnel roadblocks and gliding obstacles. That is Batman: Arkham Origins. A lot of people will casually call it polish or refinement, and though it is a horribly generic term when it comes to games criticism, it is still a true statement.

Origins comes from a new developer, Rocksteady Studios opting for Warner Bros. Games Montreal to take a crack at their masterful take on the storied property. And each time they failed to design or implement some structure to meaningfully allow you to traverse the city, they also failed to give you a satisfying experience. Not just because we have a game that does it better but because it is altogether frustrating.

Batman: Arkham Origins

It seems like half the buildings don’t let you grapnel up to the tops for no other reason than just because. And all those communications towers you have to solve to unlock fast travel destinations? Not a chance. Those are no fly zones even though their entire heights are so far below the grapnel’s range and half of them are shorter than the buildings surrounding them. I don’t even recall seeing the little red circle-cross in City, but it might as well be permanently affixed to the screen in Origins.

This may not seem like a big deal, but comprehensiveness is what makes an open world game. Spider-Man 2‘s decision to attach webs to the open air if it served the flow of locomotion was a critical one because it made the world feel complete. Getting from one place to another was slick, fast, and fun. Getting to the top of any building was just a matter of you understanding how to flip your way up there, not figuring out how to cheat the game.

Then look at Grand Theft Auto V. The previous iterations were great as well, but this Los Santos is undoubted the best city Rockstar has ever crafted because of the attention to detail. There are no roads that exist in that game that, as you approach them, turn out to be unattainable mirages. And all the small stuff from the rumble strips to the crumple barriers make the city feel like something you’re intimately familiar with.

Batman: Arkham Origins

Now we have Origins. Fast travel was ostensibly added because this game world is even larger than City, but I use it even when I have to travel just a few hundred meters because I know the frustration involved in bumping into the limitations of the game’s travel mechanics. If fast travel had been in City, I wouldn’t have used it because seeing that loading sequence would have broken the visage of a complete, real city. Now I just don’t care because I don’t want to be frustrated at a game that has a lot of other good things going for it.

Yes, there is a lot of good to Origins and I’ll put all of those thoughts (and more bad ones) into a review later this week, but this little nugget I had to get off my chest immediately. It’s a new developer, sure, and you can’t expect different and better at the same time (though it’s nice when we get it), but this is still an unfortunate turn. I like Batman: Arkham Origins, but it also took one of the best parts of Batman: Arkham City and turned it into a mess.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,