Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Shittiest Game of the Year Award! "Batman: Arkham Knight" (PC-Steam)

To compensate for the lack of new titles in my library in 2014, I gave my GOTY to Two Worlds, a 2007 open-world RPG that I had the most fun with last year. In 2015, however, my GOTY is undoubtedly The Witcher 3 and it's a moot point typing five-hundred words about why one of the most celebrated RPGs of all time is a good game.

So instead, I'll write these words for the shittiest game I played this year. I'd originally give this to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but as disappointed as I was with that game, it did have solid stealth mechanics that entertained me for hours on-end. Fortunately, soon after I played another game and it was a real piece of shit.

Where does one even begin with Batman: Arkham Knight? How about the fact that, on the PC, the game was so broken that after massive complaints about its performance, it was pulled from the Steam Store a day after release? It returned to the Store three months later, with a patch that fixed fuck all and, even now, it's the only game in the entire catalogue (as far as I know) that users can refund regardless of how many hours they've played or how long they've owned it. Yes, you cannot refund The Slaughtering Grounds if you've played for more than two hours, but Arkham Knight? Here's your money back, sir!

I myself had to do a 270 Euros upgrade to play the thing. Okay, I did the upgrade regardless of the game, because my R7 260X was just not future-proof enough, but still that was a card that ran The Witcher 3 -after the necessary adjustments of course- at a good 40-50fps. Even after the upgrade to a factory OC'ed GTX 960 4GB, the game would stutter and freeze far too often with frequent audio drops.

Even so, a technical mess can redeem itself with good content. Fact of the matter is, Batman: Arkham Knight just isn't a very good game. We got the full Gotham City we were promised, it's just useless! Obviously a lot of work went into designing it, it's extremely detailed and I don't mean to take away from the effort the designers and developers put into it, but there's nothing to see in, do in or remember about it. We have two versions of Gotham in gaming; one in B:AK and one in DC Universe Online and the definitive one is in DCUO. It's just a lot more varied, more interesting, more memorable and generally a lot more fun to explore and traverse. Gotham in B:AK has some nice little references that hint to a larger, fictional universe, but in the end it's just a lifeless, ordinary city. The streets are populated exclusively with criminals, the only traffic on the road are criminals in stolen cars and the three islands that are available seem to exist purely to drag out objectives (like the Riddler trophies) and the traveling distance between them. In essence, there is nothing the full Gotham City in this game offers over the portion of the place available to gamers in Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Arkham Origins.

Free-flow combat makes its return and it's a lot more broken. Counters don't always register and enemies often attack during special take-downs and in the middle of PC animations that can't be interrupted. Combos break more often as well. The principle of free-flow is the harmonious movement of the character, by timing attacks and counters and chaining combos. Tilting the left stick toward a target and hitting the attack button launches the character from enemy to enemy, however far, to maintain momentum and keep that combo building up. In B:AK I found myself hitting empty air, because enemies would stay out of range. Enemy types also break combat, because of the sheer amount of work you have to put into them. There is one enemy, a brute with a special shield, that you need to take down by hitting him with the REC rifle, then disarming him, then stunning him and doing a beat-down. It's a lot of busywork that interferes with the flow of combat. Quickfire gadgets are also now a bit of a requirement and these things are (and have always been) legendarily inaccurate. Batman either shoots the wrong enemy or shoots the air, because the game offers no proper or functional auto-aiming. Manual aiming is off the table as well, because camera control is assigned to the right thumbstick (as it should be) and your right hand is busy during combat with the face buttons. Ironically, playing with the keyboard and mouse instead of a gamepad (which is what the game was made for) would probably rectify this issue.

Predator mode, i.e. the Arkham series' stealth mechanic, also makes its return and it lacks something as well. It's harder pinpointing the problem with this one, but generally I'd say that it doesn't have the proper flow. In the previous games, after scoping out the situation and planning a strategy, there was a constant sense of movement that's sorely lacking from B:AK. Because of the terrible level design and the enemy types that, again, lead to busywork, you spend a lot of time on railings or inside vents or on ropes waiting for openings. Enemy types like the frustratingly annoying medics that revive fallen enemies, or the mini-gun wielding brutes that require a special beat-down and attract attention, force the player to once again sideline what's entertaining about the mechanics until these annoyances are out of the way. Difficulty isn't an issue (I wager I had a lot less deaths and retries in B:AK than I did in the previous titles), but there is much less of an incentive to experiment with different methods and with the environment.

The crowning jewel of disappointment, however, is summed up by one word: Batmobile. Using the same basic design as the vehicle mode of the recent Transformers games, the Batmobile is a car that turns into a tank. For the bulk of the game, the thing is forced on the player, in order to solve platforming puzzles and to blow a lot of tanks up. The process is repeated ad nauseum and it's a process that grows old and repetitive in the first hour or two of the game. There is very little excitement or legitimate challenge, even when they force a pseudo-stealth section while driving a god-damned tank and if I seem very cross about free-flow and predator is mostly because there was very little of both in the game for the good sections to outweigh the bad. The Batmobile should've been limited to car pursuits and driving around a more interesting Gotham City, or at least used sparingly and mostly in side missions rather than occupy the bulk of the main campaign's gameplay. I understand it was this game's biggest and most promoted feature, but it's better to have little of something you can appreciate and savor than a lot of something you hate.

Seeing how this was supposed to be the epic conclusion to the Arkham series, I could've forgiven a great deal of the above, if the story at least delivered. The plot goes something like this: Scarecrow escaped from Arkham Asylum at the end of the first game and with the Joker dead, he threatens to use his fear gas to turn the entire eastern seaboard into a hell-hole. The mysterious Arkham Knight provides him with the armed support he needs, from well-trained militia to tank and flying drones. They take over the city and Batman has to take it back.

The story wasn't written by Batman alumni Paul Dini and it wasn't written by the staff of Sekretagent Productions, who penned the -as it turned out- underrated Batman: Arkham Origins (their writing credits also include Assassin's Creed). The story was done by Sefton Hill, in house at Rocksteady. Whatever Hill's talent or writing experience (his Twitter profile lists him as a game director and co-founder of the studio), it's fairly clear his familiarity with Batman comes primarily from Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the previous Arkham games. Under different circumstances, the slow, uninspired plot and terrible narrative pacing could have been excused, because in all fairness, there are a lot of great themes that he seems to want to explore in the story.

The meat of it lies in the idea that Batman, as a symbol, is a toxic embodiment of heroism that falters. The Scarecrow wants to tear the symbol down, while Batman himself seems tired and depressed and walks the fine line between being an incorruptible hero or becoming, essentially, the same kind of freak that he fights in the streets. The problems are many, primarily in that the Joker's death seems to be the catalyst that turns Bruce into this husk of his former self. There doesn't exist the necessary background or framework to explore that relationship, their deepest connections as characters and this installment gets too busy and too convoluted to successfully do that on its own. They use a bullshit comic book explanation about why Batman is being haunted by the Joker. The clown had infected several people, including Batman, with his blood effectively turning them into him. As Batman gets gassed with the fear toxin, he starts hallucinating the Joker, because he's scared his fallen nemesis' blood is going to change him. It's a thinly veiled metaphor and I would've appreciated a more straight-forward look into Batman's psyche myself.

Batman finds himself in a position where he realizes that he has done a lot of harm. Or does he? This is the subtext, but there is never any acknowledgement, thus shooting the notion of character development in the foot. Every decision he takes that may relate to that is basically forced upon him.

*** SPOILERS ***

The identity of the Arkham Knight turns out to be the second Robin, Jason Todd. Even leaving aside the stupidity of the twist of redoing the Red Hood storyline, Todd hadn't been a part of this series in any way, shape or form and, as mentioned earlier, the story is too busy to accurately establish, in depth, his role in the Batman lore. The great reveal of the Knight's identity doesn't resonate, which is in fact too bad, because his existence also ties in with the fact that maybe Batman is a villain in a way as well.

The grey lines that the writer seems to want to explore rarely show, because of the story's poor structure and its narcoleptic pacing. The nauseating ending resolves absolutely nothing, it's merely a big event, because it just must make a definitive conclusion to the series. It's also, on a fundamental level, ripped straight from The Dark Knight Rises. Batman is unmasked and (more than likely) stages his own death and that's it. No real reward, no nemesis beaten. Batman does win, in a fashion, in the end through a very imaginative and satisfying mind-fuck sequence starring the Joker. His conflict, however, up that point had been framed via a silly device and as such feels hollow. If the subplot about the Joker's blood was absent, his victory over his fears would've been less about Batman being the triumphant hero and more about Batman coming to terms with who he really is.

Ironically, I'm positive that this is exactly what it's supposed to have happened, but the narrative switches between the psychological and the superficial comic book story far too often to set the tone. Jason Todd's existence only complicates matters in that eventually, he too turns out to be a very poor framing device. It would've been far more interesting to see Batman's intended inner conflict after the Joker's death in the idea that the Joker had taken away from him his adoptive son and Batman never saw justice delivered for that very, very personal crime. He didn't even exact it himself and even though he has a no-killing rule, there is a reason why needs that rule. Alternatively, there is a lot of meat in Hill's approach, but to express it better, the story would have to do one of the two: either shed the pretense and welcome the psychological into the story, into the context or bury it beneath the surface and speak entirely through the comic book metaphors. As it stands now, the constant shifts in tone cheapen the point and the writer's intent and make it look poorly-slapped-together. It's a pity, because upon examination it's clear that a lot of thought went into it.

Batman acts often out of character and the worst thing about it is that there is no real context for any of it. There is a lack of cohesion in the series as a whole, as the Batman of the first two games acts like the comic book Batman, completely differently than the Batman of this game.

All the complicated story stuff aside, the product's presentation and feel have been dealt a fatal blow as well, courtesy of both the narrative and the gameplay. This is a Batman game that you spend most of your time doing very un-Batman-like things to very un-Batman-like enemies. You ride a tank, you blow things up, you do car platforming and you go up against militia instead of colorful villains and their two-bit thugs. Batman's wearing an Iron Man-style armour of a suit, the Batmobile looks like an armored military vehicle and the most colourful thing in the game world is the Joker's jacket.

The strongest point of the earlier games was that they made you feel like Batman, that cool, larger-than-life hero from the funny books. B:AK opts out of that and chooses instead to force the player into a run-of-the-mill one-man-army, who time and again will remind us that he's "at war". Switching Batman in this title with Solid Snake would've made very little difference. Furthermore the game chooses to narrow the scope of the world and limit it within the Arkham series. Like the Dark Knight Rises heavily implied (if not outright stated) that Batman only had these three adventures and then "died", regressing the universe that was implied at the end of Batman Begins. Similarly, B:AK regresses and limits the breathing, constantly changing, fictional world that was implied at the start of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Overall, I really didn't enjoy the 40 hours of gameplay I forced myself into, outside maybe some of the DLC. Objectively, it's not the worst game I've played this year (it's not technically worse than, say, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark), but it's the most offensive and infuriating one. Rocksteady lost a great deal of good faith they had built with this series. I believe they're still a good studio and the clearly put great effort into making this. It wasn't a cheap cash-in, it wasn't something they only did for the money, they genuinely worked hard on this. It's also clear to me, however, that they probably should've stopped after they peaked with Batman: Arkham City. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

Happy New Year!

PS: Dear, Rocksteady/WB, please do patch the DLC Batmobile models to be fully functional in the game. Forcing the players to switch to the shitty vanilla version, because the alt models don't have a battle mode is bothersome and makes the DLC practically useless. It's not a free update, you asked people to pay money for this, so please do rectify this. Thank you.

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