Tag Archives: Batman

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 , , , , ,

The Obvious Gotham

Gotham

Television pilots are terrible. They’re rarely indicative of the future of the show. Either through drastic shifts in showrunners, celebrity guest director, or hard swings in characterizations, the ensuing series often pivots in some not insignificant way. For instance, the first episode of New Girl was terrible and the show turned out to be quite fun.

The prominent mutation can usually be attributed, however, to the fact that the pilot has so much to do. It has to set up characters, motivations, and conflicts that will blossom over the course of the season and entire series. It’s full of so much stuff that is doesn’t have room to breathe and luxuriate in personality or subtlety. It’s rare you get a pilot like Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad and are afforded nearly feature length time.

That’s why it seemed like a rash idea to pass judgment on Gotham after it’s first go at broadcast. It had a terrible habit of treating the audience like drooling buffoons. Or it had no idea how to play coy, opting to spit on your face instead of throwing you a wink and a smile. It basically hit you on the head with its foreshadowing. (Penny Arcade’s expert skewering is dead-on.)

Gotham continues to do that, opting for an Independence Day-sized foreshadowing rather than a deft silhouette passing by the doorframe. It makes up for it by capitalizing on a rather talented cast (especially with Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney) and two hefty scoops of dark and moody, but Gotham has a larger problem that looms tall—even bigger than the signs it puts up pointing to Edward Nygma as the Riddler.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s go over quickly what Gotham is: James Gordon is still a detective at the Gotham City Police Department; Bruce Wayne’s parents pretty much just got murdered; and neither Batman nor any of his nemeses exist yet in the mature forms with which we’re far more familiar. It centers around Gordon as he attempts to fight back against the rampant and thorough corruption of the city while parading around big name villains like the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman.

Do you see the problem? There are so few ways to make this work and so many ways to make this fail, and unfortunately, it seems as if Gotham is going the way of the latter. As it currently stands, it appears as if the show is structured to shape up around Gordon’s vigilance and tenacity against the endless, crushing waves of dirty crime and dirtier politics. And there’s no compelling way that works out in the context of the greater Batman mythos.

Gotham

You see, all of those stories begin and end with Batman. Not that they only ever existed or need to exist while Bruce Wayne is capable of being Batman but that their impact on the city tightly orbits around the caped crusader. Even when we find out the backstory of the Joker or Mr. Freeze, it’s because we know what becomes of them that we care where they started, and what becomes of them is inextricably tied to the Batman’s existence.

Tying the bad guys solely to Gordon’s career at Gotham PD is severely problematic because then it impacts the both the necessity and impetus of Batman’s involvement. Consider that if Gordon is successful, he wholly negates the need for Batman. Even if he doesn’t entirely take down the villains, he can build massive cases that can bring about legal victory through the courts, also nullifying Batman’s utility. What need is there to don the cowl and cape when all of the baddies are already behind bars?

Further consider that if none of these incognito personas à la Edward Nygma or Oswald Cobblepot fully develop into their demented alter egos until Batman arrives in Gotham, then their dastardly deeds weigh fully on the Dark Knight’s shoulders. His coming into being actually symbiotically brought into existence the Riddler and the Penguin instead of leaving them to be a coroner and a garden-variety mobster.

Gotham

Any amount of driving narrative success from Gordon can only serve to inject doubt into our minds regarding Batman’s future guard of the city. Consider instead that the far meatier story would be Gordon’s golden resolve versus the temptation to fall to underhanded policing. We would, in effect, watch him fall.

We see him at a stalemate and lose butting heads with the seedy underbelly of Gotham. His victories are tantamount to saving lives but rarely thwarting crimes—and don’t even bother integrating the likes of Selina Kyle or Carmine Falcone. It’s demoralizing to him and it beats him down into the ground. Eventually we see the cracks in his formerly solid and taut gaze towards justice.

He stumbles. He’s clearly and understandably tempted to fight dirty. Each season he falls deeper into the delectable bargain of being and corrupt as his foes, spitting and clawing in the name of a safer city. The end state is for him to reach his breaking point just as Wayne returns to Gotham and takes up the mantle of Batman. That cape and that cowl are not only Gotham’s salvation but—more importantly—Gordon’s as well. He shows that Gordon’s faith and Gordon’s actions were not misplaced.

Gotham

Gotham is an obvious show. It’s not just about it’s on-the-nose references and painful elbows in the ribs about future villains and the like but it’s about the show’s core problem: even without Batman, it still fails to not be about Batman.

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 , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Antihero

The New Antihero

Pop culture goes through cycles. It’s called the zeitgeist for a reason; nothing remains the same forever. Tastes and conventions and cultural influences change on an almost regular basis. Fads come and go in fashion, children’s toys, and, somewhat surprisingly, narratives. The stories that people tell are very much informed by the world they live in because those, in some way or another, are the ones that people want to hear. They may not know it, but the things people desire feed back into the things that are given to them through art and agriculture and so much more.

The clearest example is the almost immediate success of Captain America as a brand new comic book property back in 1941. It was a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor but a year after the war started, so when the first issue landed on store shelves and showed Cap socking ol’ Adolf in the jaw, selling one million copies almost seemed inevitable. It was what the people wanted, so that’s what they got.

It’s not always so obvious, though, what sort of influences current national and world events have on the movies and books we watch and read, but they’re still there. It’s not always going to be as blatant as Rolland Emmerich making a movie called 2012 that’s about the impending 2012 phenomenon; sometimes it’ll be as subtle as the types of heroes being portrayed to us. Some of the most popular movies in the past decade have featured antiheroes because we as a country feel very antihero-ish. “Morally dubious” could sum up the entirety of the United States’ foreign policy since the start of the Iraq War, and the whole world seemed to follow suit in nuclear threats and deterrent flexing, energy and population bargaining, and so on and so forth.

2012

Watching stories similar to our own find resolution was comforting. It inspired to believe that a happy end was possible, even if it wasn’t in the same sense as the new king and queen living happily ever after or the hero riding off into the sunset with his recently rescued damsel in distress by his side. So we embraced our glut of antiheroes in our movies and television shows.

Video games followed suit. True enough, the industry has always had its fair share of Byronic heroes, but it may have all culminated in this past year. Two of the largest and most respected developers put out two of the biggest and most well-received titles this year, and they both feature antiheroes. (They’re also both just big ol’ escort missions, but that’s a topic for another time.) Irrational Games put out BioShock Infinite with protagonist Booker DeWitt as a former Pinkerton whose hands are caked in an ivory crimson blood and lingering in puddles of gambling debt and addiction. Naughty Dog just recently released The Last of Us, a game that features a man named Joel who tells a little 14-year-old girl to let of her morals or die and seems to come from a life bent on putting that axiom to good use.

SPOILER WARNING: I won’t go into plot specifics, but there will be light spoilers for The Last of Us (I figure BioShock Infinite has been out long enough to where spoilers don’t matter) regarding Joel’s characterization and personal traits. So if you consider those to be precious enough to the story—and they kind of are—maybe return to this at a later date.

BioShock Infinite

With Booker, you get everything you need to know about him from the first story impetus: “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” Well, heroes don’t 1) “bring” people to ominous pronouns but rather rescue them from said clutches, and 2) they don’t have debt. Traditional heroes are upstanding, morally right, and shining examples of what it means to be a good person. Just based on a note we find on a door to a lighthouse, we already know Booker is none of those things. I mean, he does do some hero-ish things—including one of the trope-iest things you can do as a protagonist at the end—but that doesn’t make the person an actual hero, just someone who happens to do something heroic.

Joel is a bit more complicated. He starts, as far as anyone can tell, a good man. He has a house and a daughter and doesn’t appear to be making money by killing people in his basement or slinging rock on the street corner. He just does honest work in a town in South Texas. Or at least he did until the Cordyceps fungus breaks out and infects humans and ruins the world as we know it.

But 20 years later (like 20 seconds later for the player), we find that Joel has changed. He is feared by many, his name spoken only in hushed tones in safe areas. At first we question what has changed in him and if he’s even the same man we knew before, but it slowly becomes clear that he almost definitely isn’t. He’s a killer now, if it isn’t evident by the trail of blood in his wake as he moves Ellie from location to location. But he’s proficient at it and experienced. He knows Hunters—groups of murderous folk that trick and trap “tourists” for the sole purpose of killing them and taking their clothes, food, and whatever else they have—and how they think because he used to be one of them. He shows no mercy towards them and little compassion to even those he knows like Bill. Once again, not heroic.

The Last of Us

Perhaps most of all, though, is that neither Booker nor DeWitt exhibit the single greatest quality of a traditional hero, and that is confidence. In a traditional story, the hero only suffers a crisis of conscience once just before the climax, but at no point through BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us do Booker or Joel show anything resembling an abundance of confidence. And I don’t just mean that they know they are capable of doing what they mean to do, but rather that they sure about what they’re doing. Every action and word is tinged with desperation and doubt.

Both men seemingly irrevocably missing their daughters and both men wary of taking another young female ward. Both kill by the drove and, while protecting the lives of their charges, do nothing to protect the youth of them. You can tell they want to, but they don’t. They’re unsure of their actions and their aim. Leaving aside the moral ambiguities of killing hundreds and hundreds of men and pursuing two of the most tragic stories told in recent memory, their lack of clarity of intent is what makes them most like antiheroes.

That is still reflective of our personal experiences on the world stage. No country seems particularly assured in its steps, but unlike these video games, those problems are still ongoing. The resolution is missing in real life, but the finite ends to these digital narratives are as close to a warm embrace and a pat on the head as we’ll get.

The Avengers

But it seems as if a shift is occurring. From the anti to the anti-anti, the zeitgeist may very well be moving beyond the Bookers and the Joels of our stories and back into the untainted good. Instead of a drunken and salacious Iron Man, we go back to the perpetually morally right Captain America. Instead of a dark and brooding Batman, we aim for the otherworldly iron constitution of Superman. The new antihero, the new symbol of counterculture narratives, is the plain vanilla hero.

Look at last year’s game of the year contenders where a story about a wandering fellow that can quite literally do no wrong in a beautiful landscape of sandy dunes and snow-capped mountaintops went head-to-head with a man, on his way to prison after being convicted of murder, must take care of a nine-year-old recently orphaned girl in a zombie apocalypse. Consider that one of the bright spots at this year’s E3 was Hohokum, a Sony indie game from Frobisher Says! that’s all about exploring its non-linear, visual beauty. Have we moved beyond the antihero and started to make the transition back into the undying adoration of the hero? Are we done with the dark and the indifferent of the Byronic? The answer, it seems, is as ambiguous as their morals.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Judicious Injustice: Gods Among Us Review

A Judicious Injustice: Gods Among Us Review

At last year’s E3, you couldn’t escape the Flash. I mean, you can’t really escape him normally but it was especially egregious wandering between halls in the Los Angeles Convention Center last June. Huge, spanning banners for Injustice: Gods Among Us dominated the entire airspace in the walkway between South and West Hall and all I could think was how much I disliked the character design for the ol’ Scarlet Speedster.

Nearly a year later and that much hasn’t changed, though after playing through the entire story, most of the side stuff, and a hefty amount of online multiplayer matches, I’ve decided to set aside my superficial qualms with the game and appreciate it for what it is: a rather fun and mostly unique fighting game with just enough hooks to keep you interested.

That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though, given the pedigree of the game. Led by Ed Boon, the Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios put out the Mortal Kombat reboot from 2011, which makes sense seeing as how Boon was co-creator of the franchise so many years ago. That was a fantastic fighting game with enough quality content in it for perhaps another one or two releases. The question, then, was how NetherRealm planned on setting Injustice apart from the latest iteration of Mortal Kombat and 2008’s inbetweener Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

For starters, the roster is wildly different; they’re all DC comic book characters. A purely 2D fighter (with some brief background interactions), Injustice features a cross-dimensional war between a prime representation of the DC universe and an alternate one. They are, ostensibly, the same universe save for one crucial detail: the Joker. In the warped dimension, he succeeds in nuking Metropolis, shooting Jimmy Olsen, and tricking Superman into killing Lois and their unborn child. This causes the Man of Steel (and Less-Than-Steely Resolve) to lose it, killing the clown and establishing himself as High Chancellor over the One Earth government where his might guides his rule.

As far as wackadoo comic book stories go, it’s relatively acceptable and even borders on dark and thematically complex (absolute power and whatnot). The tie-in comic miniseries is kind of hard to swallow once you understand how the Joker managed to do all this, but at least they justify most things, even if the justification is a haphazardly explained pill that makes everyone super strong and super durable.

The problem with all the non-fighting stuff is the character designs and development. Personally, I’m not a fan of the armored look on superheroes (I think it makes them look over-the-top and clashes with the idea that all they need are their skills and smarts to succeed). The Flash has claws and Batman looks like Big Daddy from Kick-Ass. And the female characters are, um, salacious, I guess you could say. Sure it’s a trope for fantasy and comic book women to dress in garb ill-suited for combat, but this is kind of ridiculous. Wonder Woman has two bounce houses on her chest and Harley Quinn is basically wearing half a napkin.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

Given the chance to reinvent some of these characters in a one-off and an alternate universe, they all feel a bit standard and stock. They seem to make a concerted effort to make Aquaman come off as more of a badass, but it never amounts to much more than some yelling and trident waving. Cyborg has always come across as a lazy character to me anyways and Injustice doesn’t do much to change my mind. The often muddy textures and flat-looking clothes and faces don’t help the matter, either, nor do the goofy monologues (the voice acting itself, however, is fantastic).

This is, however, a fighting game, so most of that is ancillary to the primary experience offered here. The story does have a nice, satisfying conclusion even if it is all the way predictable, but the gameplay is the meat, potatoes, and part of the dessert in fighting games and Injustice serves it all up rather well. It’s a three-button fighter with light, medium, and heavy attacks and, in a massive shift from Boon and Mortal Kombat‘s wheelhouse, uses back and crouch to block instead of a dedicated block button.

That little fact alone changes most of how the game feels compared to Mortal Kombat, though most of the special and combo moves feel very much like NetherRealm’s more gruesome offering. It’s a lot of down and back or back and forward with some stick presses tied in for combos, but it’s the speed that really makes Injustice go. It will look a lot like your average Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat match when everything is in motion, but it seems like Injustice wants its button inputs as fast as possible. Like, if you could put it in all at once, then it might be happy. This increase in speed on the player side translates to a massively different and much more hectic experience despite the commensurate output.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

That’s not to say, however, it isn’t accessible. The mechanics are simple enough that even newcomers to the genre can pick it up and have fun. Button mashing is a totally viable option for most of the story and, I’m guessing, most of the beginner-only multiplayer lobbies. But the layers beyond that are where it gets interesting. You have unblockable throws that have to be countered with your own throw, overhead smashes for blocks, meter burns on special moves that increase damage, environmental attacks, bounce cancels, and, not least of all, your character power button.

With the simple press of the button, you activate your character’s special ability. For some, it’s simple like with Superman where he gets bonus damage for a little while or Deathstroke who gets longer bursts of gunfire. Others are complicated and introduce pleasant complexities to the proceedings. Green Arrow, for instance, will instantly fire off a shot, but depending on other inputs, could freeze your opponent or set them on fire. Wonder Woman switches from a lasso to a sword and shield and all of her combos and moves change along with them.

All of the inputs for Injustice are simple and straightforward but the interactions between them all make it endless interesting. The one thing that doesn’t work quite so well, though, is the clash system. As your meter fills, you can execute a super move à la Street Fighter, or you can interrupt someone’s ongoing combo with forward + medium attack to initiate a clash. At that point, you select how much of your meter you want to wager in the clash, and the difference in the bets determines how much health the defender gets back or damage the attacker does. It features a nice little cinematic with custom dialogue that matches each duo, but it doesn’t really make for much fun.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

I’ve never had a match that hinged on a clash and instead frustrated me in either having to whittle an opponent’s health back down or charge back up my meter so I can do my super. And all I really want to do in each match is get out my super move because those are ridiculous. They may begin to wear on you after prolonged sessions, but that doesn’t stop them from being great. Aquaman has a shark come bite you in the god damn chest. Deathstroke kicks a freaking sword through your torso. It’s great.

The surrounding accoutrement mostly fits the previous Mortal Kombat template, which is pretty much a good thing. The S.T.A.R. Lab is a direct analogue to the Challenge Tower and is, for the most part, just as fun if lacking most of the ridiculousness. They get tricky, though, and to earn all three stars in the advanced challenges will definitely take skill and practice. Just don’t expect to get any of that in the tutorial.

And the online multiplayer stuff is solid and everything you would expect from a modern online fighting game. Eight players can band together to spectate and chat and fight amongst each other in either one-on-one, King of the Hill, or Survivor matches while an ESPN-like ticker of tidbits scrolls across the screen, detailing how many Nightwings have fought and how many suits of armor have been destroyed. There’s also a really neat little practice arena thing you can do so you can just dick around with other people that has onscreen frame data and favorited moves.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

I’m not sure how much lasting power Injustice: Gods Among Us will have, but for the time you play, it is definitely a good game. It changes enough up to where it doesn’t feel like any other fighting game out there and adds enough NetherRealm flavor to the broth that it still has some heritage. It’s fun to jump in on a fighting game before things get figured out and solved (Deathstroke is a favorite online because no one has figured out how to consistently get past his interminable gunfire), and navigating those wrinkles in this game means a lot of the Flash running around the world to uppercut Sinestro and Batman running you over with his Batmobile, so this just might be one game you don’t want to escape from.

+ It moves fast and plays into skillful hands just as easily as it does clumsy ones
+ The intricacies of interacting mechanics opens up to more nuanced fighting
+ Super moves are ridiculous and I love them all
– Sloppy textures and bland story don’t do much to bolster confidence in the unfortunate character designs
– Clashes seem to only serve to slow down fights

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,