Tag Archives: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

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/

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Trying to be a Game

Trying to be a Game

At some point, the umbrella is too small. You keep throwing things under it, hoarding definitions and references and landmarks, until it stops being an umbrella altogether and starts being a noose. The ones that hoisted the parasol as a banner start to resent the foisted structure.

Of course then the problem is one of nomenclature. What do you even call it if not this thing? This is a struggle that strikes all artistic mediums after a certain point of maturity. Once all the obvious bits are done away with, you have to start asking “what not” instead of “where to begin.” All the fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, has left the tree.

That’s how you encounter situations like the 240-hour Modern Times Forever, a Danish film that depicts how Helsinki’s Stora Enso headquarters building would decay over the next few millennia. Few would dare call it a film as something you could casually watch on your television, but it still is a categorical fit. (Strangely, though, it has a lot in common with many of the first films ever made including Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse.)

Video games are finding themselves critically and quickly at this point. Over the short span of 70-ish years, the industry has gone from figuring out what it needs to do to figuring out what it can do. It needed to give people an interactive experience. But what could it necessarily do beyond that?

The term “low-hanging fruit” has earned a negative connotation, but it’s not always a bad thing. The grasp and execution of it all lays the foundation for what lies higher up. Lower doesn’t mean it’s within reach; it doesn’t preclude innovation. In fact, it often requires it.

Certainly the earliest and most recognizable video games were of the needs variety. Consider Pong, a tennis-based game that took a simple and immediately intuitive competitive structure and gameplay loop into the history books. Then Asteroids and Centipede, two classics that arguably rode the space wave amidst the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle program into relevancy and, consequently, popularity.

Very quickly—relative to other mediums like music and film—video games wanted to do more, jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of higher and higher fruit. From simplistic coin-ops to the home console to the modern era of games, we eventually arrive at the like of Proteus and Dear Esther. Whole genres push the greater corral like interactive novels and, well, I guess you could call them experiments.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to bring up something that has been cropping up lately: Mad Max previews. First off, it’s crazy for any of the previewers to compare with or expect anything resembling the recent film Mad Max: Fury Road. Their mostly aligned release schedules seem to be more coincidence than anything else. It’s completely detached from the movie.

But the second part is that ignoring that first thing brings up some interesting considerations. Whereas the film was full of life and drama and implements that are exceedingly specific to what director George Miller wanted to achieve, the game appears to be a by-the-numbers affair, albeit a rather competent one. But lifeless it is by comparison.

It’s not that the game itself lacks content or life; on the contrary, developers Avalanche Studios (the folks behind the rambunctious and teeming Just Cause games) and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (the same behind the Batman Arkham franchise) seem to have instilled a lot of freneticism into the game. With that combined pedigree, it seems inevitable the kind of game they would make.

That inevitability seems to have trapped them, though. Instead of questioning what the game can be, they made what it needed to be. It reads like a checklist (car combat, melee combat, open world, outposts, etc.) and even more so when the layers peel back. Things like throwing up into the air trackable/countable achievements like yanked tires or freed territories. Jason Shreier of Kotaku made the astute and appropriate Ubisoft comparison.

Not that there’s anything even wrong with the 1 + 2 = Mad Max equation. The structure seems like a natural fit for the fiction and the universe, so it can hardly be blamed as a capitalization on a gift horse. But the described framework quickly became a prescriptive one where reach and grasp were easily met by fruit so low it might as well already be in the basket.

Mad Max

It seems like Mad Max is trying so hard to be a game that it never wanted to explore what else it could be. It seems almost comfortable under the umbrella, watching others push out into the rain and stumble and fall. In the expansion under the brim, you go further and further until a new shelter takes in your borders.

This is not to disparage a game that isn’t even out yet nor is it to put down the artists and developers and designers behind the scenes putting it out. This is just a statement—a plea to not always want to be a game but rather be whatever you need to be. You may not fit under this umbrella and others may not join you under yours, but that’s better than slotting into a mold that never quite fit.

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The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The Year in Review: #1 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

To talk about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, I have to first talk about Grand Theft Auto V, which also was number four in 2013’s Year in Review. The Rockstar opus is, perhaps, a game that singularly qualifies what it means to have an open world. It feels unbelievably full, like it’s about to burst at the seams with just stuff.

It is also something they have done before and continued to iterate and improve upon since the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. More than that, it’s something everyone else has been doing for quite some time as well. The urban fervor is ripe with possibilities in an open world. Steal cars, fire guns, and blow stuff up. The recipe is something we know well à la Mafia II, Watch Dogs, and Saints Row.

Bits and pieces change here and there, but the overall flavor remains the same. Even Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games and one set in a rather original time and place, still felt overly familiar. (Not least of all because it was another Rockstar joint, but we can get to that another time.) And then games that remix large portions of the framework like Infamous creates an open world with much to be desired.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Here is where we find Shadow of Mordor. It stands tall among others who attempt to imbue a digital landscape with some semblance of life by doing things drastically differently. Leaving the clichés of inner city freedom behind, we are in a wholly fantastical place of orcs, elves, and possessive yet empowering ghosts. The closest we had before this was the Assassin’s Creed series (which, admittedly, is structurally similar to a fault), but those were still tied to a reality of physical consequences and historical architecture.

A city is easy to fill, albeit if only in concept and not execution. Civilians freely wander the sidewalks, drive their cars, and go about their day. Cats, dogs, and birds can turn a park from an empty lot to a visual treat as you plow through on your blood-soaked rampage. Gin up some construction and place some choice incidents and you have a town that feels lived in.

A different time and place for Shadow of Mordor does not guarantee a better open world, as proven by The Saboteur (decent, but not great). In fact, filling up a fantasy world does not give you the opportunity to stuff the turkey with all the usual suspects. And if not a vibrant social or wildlife infestation, interesting gameplay has to make the sandbox compelling.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is why Shadow of Mordor is so interesting and so well worth playing. It makes its world of dark fantasy feel alive and worth exploring because its gameplay and mechanics make it feel alive and worth exploring. Its Nemesis system creates an entire living, breathing network of militant dynamics and social hierarchies. It injects your otherwise run of the mill encounters with fodder enemies something personal and unique.

Other games create a facade of a beating heart. Those people you run over with your car and buildings that you blow up with your bombs mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. You outrun the cops and you marvel at the indestructible construction of fictional cities. Most games are, if nothing else, but a facade for storytelling.

But Shadow of Mordor takes one more layer away from that mask by creating these customized and deserving foes. For each fellow that strikes you down, you create someone with a name, but it feels like he was there all along. As he rises through the ranks with each battle you fight, it becomes something perverse, drawing inklings of pride for your repeat offender.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

It is something that, programmatically, is nothing overtly memorable. Data like names and fight results are stored and analyzed by the terabyte every second in the fighting game community. But the presentation makes it so special. They hate you. They kill you. They remember you. It feels very much like you are walking a deadly walk into a world that existed long before you ever came around with your sword and dagger (which is also really just a sword, the second best part of the game).

By breaking the mold of what makes an open world feel like an actual locale of people and places and things, Shadow of Mordor creates something special. It’s unique for the genre and it is felt as unique by you and me as the players. The world doesn’t just feel alive but it feels like it is something that exists just for you. And it’s why Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is my number one game of the year.

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