as the bat glides

Arkham Knight was finally patched a few days ago, and subsequently I was finally able to finish the game, after being stuck at a point where the performance issues got so bad I had to just give up for the time being. Thus, within hours of the patch rolling out, I was glued to my controller once again.

My one-word review for the now-playable Arkham Knight: Unfulfilled.

To be fair, it’s hard to top a game like Arkham City. While Arkham Asylum tapped into my Batman geekdom and piqued my interest with the dozens of nods to lore and mind-bending riddles, City took it up to addict levels, reaching out of the screen to slip an IV into my arm when I wasn’t looking, eventually leaving track marks in the form of a constant subconcious obsession with the gameplay strategies and Riddler’s various contraptions.

Arkham Knight takes off from that springboard, introducing a bigger, more detailed game world, a Batman at the peak of his ability, a smorgasbord of villians lining up to bring him down, and a plot that builds and builds and builds…until it reaches the climax, at which point it drops the ball.

To start, the new Gotham is gorgeous. The visual style has been refined to near-perfection, littered with glowing neon signs and numerous variations on neo-gothic, art deco and modern architecture filling the landscape. The city was redesigned after Rocksteady realized the map used in City was too cramped for the Batmobile, and while I wish they had simply adapted the old map rather than build anew, I’ve found that I cared less about it the longer I played. More specific details never cease to entrance. Batman picks up a new suit at the beginning that is just incredible to look at. It (perhaps fittingly) resembles a suit of plate armor, with folding plates and scales, and even the bat-symbol on chest flexes as he moves. The Batmobile is equally stunning, using designs like the Tumbler as a starting point and taking everything up a notch until you have this all-terrain Swiss Army Batmobile that can power machinery, execute ramp jumps of over a hundred meters and even lower itself into bottomless pits, all in a day’s work.

Gameplay is a mixed bag for me. Batman begins the game with several advanced devices and combat moves immediately available, eschewing the trend of using an anti-deus-ex-machina to force the player to start from square one in each of the previous games. It ends up feeling more natural, and shows that Batman is already prepared to kick ass. The combat flow is further improved on City and Origins; when they know what they’re doing, players can be absolute juggernaughts. Outside of combat, the Dark Knight is equally adept. This time around, you can use the disruptor to not only disable enemies’ guns and ammo, but sabotage nearby sentry drones, medics’ equipment, and more. Few things are as satisfying as entering a room, sabotage the medics, then initiate combat and watch them incapacitate themselves attempting to revive a fellow soldier. The hacking device can now also be used to trigger overhead doors, escalators, and generators to take out enemies, often with humorous results. A new gizmo is the voice synthesizer, which can be used to fake a villain’s voice to order troops specific locations to set up takedowns; sometimes, however, they get wise to the act, forcing the player to adapt.

Some tweaks were made to gameplay, which I don’t care for. Previously, the left bumper (or L1) was used to switch into and out of detective mode; now this button summons the Batmobile to a nearby location. Detective mode has been moved to D-pad up, which feels awkward to me. The other D-pad buttons are used to bring up the missions, gadgets and challenges screens. Gone are the days of fluidly switching between gadgets–while the gadgets screen does stop the game while it’s up, it still feels like it’s breaking the flow of gameplay for me. And I don’t see why the challenges and missions screens couldn’t be placed alongside the map screen like in previous games. But maybe my glasses just need cleaning.

And for the big one: the story. After Arkham City‘s stunning conclusion, Knight had big shoes to fill. Rocksteady chose not to bring back Paul Dini for this one, which was a mistake in my view. The story just doesn’t hold up, it feels less like a sequel to Arkham City and more like it’s trying to be a sequel to Arkham City. Once again, the city is cleared of civilians by a plot device, leaving only criminals, villains and supervillians for Batman to contend with. With Gotham under lockdown, two powerful evildoers take over the city with a well-armed militia and the singular purpose of destroying Batman’s legacy and Gotham’s hope. (Does this sound familiar?) Scarecrow finally makes his return–after missing since his downfall in the first Arkham game–having allied with a mysterious new heel calling himself the Arkham Knight, and in the chaos, several of Batman’s previous relations come out of the woodwork to sow discord and generally hasten his demise. On top of all this, Batman is still trying to cope with the fallout from Arkham City, which is wreaking unforseen consequences.

Arkham City was like a sampler plate of villains, giving a brief glimpse at the various inhabitants of the Rogues Gallery, but nothing so in-depth as to distract the player from the game’s main story. What I wanted, personally, was the full buffet…villains with mission chains that rivalled the core plot and really made it feel like Gotham was on the brink of being lost to any number of insidious parties. But that isn’t what this is. You get to stop Two-Face during a series of bank robberies, but the final showdown doesn’t hold a candle to his climactic encounter in Arkham City. Likewise, Batman foils Penguin’s attempt to traffic illegal weapons through the city, but once again, the finale feels hollow and the individual missions feel like they were concieved purely as a way to inject Nightwing into the game. Among the more interesting is one mission chain which involves finding a series of mutilated bodies around the city, which I found more engaging than most of the others. Azrael and Hush both appeared in Arkham City, and both their missions hinted at far larger plots in the future, but in this game their roles are no larger. Hush in particular disappointed me, as he was a character I very much wanted to see explored more; alas, he only gets an appearance in a single mission, and it’s over all too quickly. In both City and Origins, I did considerably less sidequesting, as the main story felt much more pressing. In Knight, the pace was almost lesiurely, despite Scarecrow, the Knight, and Riddler constantly usurping the public-address systems to taunt and lure me.

But my real beef with the game is the Arkham Knight himself. He was touted as a new character, an original creation, and the majority of the game focuses on Batman’s continuing search to find out who he is, and being foiled at every turn, and even headed off by the Knight on a constant basis. But when the big reveal comes, it turns out to be not only an existing figure, but someone who already has a story. To me, there is no reason whatsoever for this person to become the Arkham Knight. And despite being a central character (and one who is consistently underutilized in my opinion), Scarecrow lacks presence, with nothing like the masterfully done “nightmare” segments from the first Arkham game. After building up to it for hours and hours, the denouement just doesn’t have the impact of Asylum or finality of City. It’s like he just agreed to put his brand on the game, without actually putting his product into it. That said, John Noble does a fantastic job of voicing the character, sounding sinister and threatening while at the same time minimal, without too much embellishment. I would be quite happy to hear his voice in a future Arkham game, or DC Animated film.

But we can’t ignore the game’s technical issues. It took Rocksteady almost three months to fix the problems that Iron Galaxy left in the game, which rendered it unplayable on a great deal of machines. My computer is by no means a powerhouse; I run an FX 6300, Geforce GTX 650 Ti and 16GB of memory. It’s quite capable, but I had to play this game on low just to maintain 30 frames per second. (Although, to be fair, even low graphics still look pretty damn good). These problems led to WB suspending sales of the game while Rocksteady worked to fix it, and on top of that none of the DLC has been released on PC yet. WB has quite easily taken the crown of Most Fucked-Up Game Development. It will be a long time before I see a game released in quite such a sad state as Arkham Knight. At least, I hope it will–if someone else manages to top this anytime soon, it will be depressing indeed.

Overall, the game just didn’t connect with me. Several moments in Arkham City gave me chills (and still do, in the case of the final cinematic), but despite a number of similarly-tense scenes, Knight just didn’t make me care as much about the characters or events. That said, it’s still an Arkham game, and it’s still fun as hell. I’ve only yet scratched the surface with the various challenges, and I only have just over half the riddles, yet already I’ve sunk over 40 hours into the game. Despite its flaws, Arkham has managed once again to tap my inner addict.

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