Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Batman: Arkham Knight - Review

Batman: Arkham Knight is the end. Rocksteady are done, finished with Batman. This is the conclusion, the finale.

Ok, so it’s likely the Batman games will continue without Rocksteady’s involvement, but we do know that this is the final game in the developer’s trilogy, meaning there was always going to be a weight of expectation here. In an industry now dominated by lazy annualizations and copy-and-paste game design, it’s somewhat refreshing for a developer to turn around and say “no we’re done, this is it” and step back from their creation.

And that's something that needs to be stressed. Batman, in video game terms at least, is very much Rocksteady’s creation. Arkham Asylum completely overhauled not just Batman as a video game character but superhero games as a whole. For quite possibly the first time we actually felt like Batman, and boy was it mighty satisfying.  

So, credit where credit is due, Arkham Knight does feel like the end of a journey. This is a much darker, bleaker game than the ones that preceded it.

Picking up where Arkham City left off, Batman now has to defend the whole of Gotham City from Scarecrow as he launches an attack with his newly developed fear toxin. The death of the Joker meanwhile, hangs over the entire story. Despite being a rather underwhelming add-on, I thought Rocksteady did a great job capturing the right tone in Harley Quinn’s Revenge. Batman, for all his run-ins with the Joker, seemed to be in mourning for the demented psychopath and this mood carries over into Arkham Knight.

It’s a shame then that the game itself suffers from a few problems, and I’m not talking about the mess that is the PC port. The big addition this time around is the introduction of the Batmobile, and Rocksteady really, really want you to like it. Want to break into a factory? You’ll need the Batmobile. Looking to take down some armed thugs? You’ll need the Batmobile. Oh, look, a bunch of tanks that are conveniently piloted remotely. Best call in the Batmobile to sort them out by blasting the hell out of them.

A huge amount of Arkham Knight’s runtime is handed over to the Batmobile and it never feels quite right. The car-cum-tank is an all-round monster, capable of blasting apart the army of “drones” that Scarecrow sends your way over the course of the game. What this amounts to is strafing left and right, dodging the incoming fire that’s highlighted blue by the Batmobile’s computer, and then mashing the fire trigger until everything is a pile of molten slag.

It’s bizarrely satisfying in the way all of Rocksteady’s Batman mechanics manage to be, but something about it seems off, not to mention it gets pretty monotonous after a while. Is this really what Batman would spend his time doing?

These vehicle combat segments are expanded later on when you battle tanks instead. These manage to be even more underwhelming as you wander around playing “vehicle stealth”, creeping behind tanks and shooting them in their weak point. This also makes up what is really the game’s only real boss battle…

What’s worse, it means that the stealth and combat sections, the bits that really made the first two games, take a hit. There’s less time being Batman and more time spent playing as Tankman.

Level design is significantly less interesting this time around as well. The Metroidvania-like elements of the previous games, especially Arkham Asylum, are replaced with a more generic Ubisoft-style open world, where everything is a collectible and the main missions and side quests are virtually the same.

That’s not to say the whole experience is terrible, far from it, this is still Rocksteady after all. Some of the improvements are in fact great additions. Fear takedowns are a new ability Batman has when taking on enemies in stealth, allowing him to whip around in slow-motion and down a few guys before they can react. It needs to be recharged afterwards, and the noise will attract other guards, meaning there’s a risk versus reward element to it. Likewise, many of the game’s side quests have you teaming up with someone else, be it Robin, Nightwing or Catwoman, allowing you to flit back and forth between both characters with the touch of a button, performing dual takedowns whilst you do so.

There’s plenty do in Arkham Knight, it’s more a question of how much do you have the patience for. Many of the previous game’s villains are relegated to side quests this time around. Penguin and Two-Face show up in their own quest lines, which are rinse-and-repeat stealth missions, and don’t in any way intersect with the main story. Two-Face was one of the few villains that felt underused in Arkham City and it’s disappointing that this sequel doesn’t really solve that problem.

It’s the titular Arkham Knight that is the weakest link, however. The story as a whole has plenty of interesting elements, many of which I’ll talk about in a spoiler-filled post separate to this, but the Arkham Knight remains one of the game’s more underwhelming characters. Rocksteady overcook the “who’s behind the mask” element and anyone with a functioning brain cell will figure out who it is long before the flat reveal, even if you’ve never read any of the comics.

It doesn’t help either that the Arkham Knight is a whiny, annoying bore of a character. He wails and throws tantrums at Batman like he’s a fifteen year old anime character, and not even being voiced by Troy Baker can save him.

What’s worse though, is that, despite being the primary villain, Scarecrow has nothing to do. He’s a creepy guy in a shawl and that’s it. It’s not often you spend your time playing a game expecting it to “crash” but I was, waiting for Rocksteady to pull a Kojima-style fear gas moment on us. But it never comes. In fact, you’d forget Scarecrow was even in the story if he didn’t occasionally pop up on the billboards every now and then.

There’s a good game in Arkham Knight but it’s trapped behind a bunch of weird design decisions and odd writing choices. The story has some interesting themes running through it (more on that in another post), and the combat and stealth still remain as satisfying as ever. But for every great moment there’s an iffy game segment or rushed bit of writing that knocks everything off course.

It’s worth spending time seeing the conclusion to Batman’s adventures just don’t expect to be fully satisfied. This is an awkwardly paced, uneven finale to one of modern gaming’s most influential series.


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