falling, with style

Batman: Arkham Knight was finally re-released on PC four days ago to…well, maybe great fanfare isn’t quite the phrase. Moderate flourish might suit it better. They don’t exactly want to be trumpeting from the mountaintops that they’ve finally fixed one of the most broken, distasteful pieces of software yet pushed out by the game industry.

Arkham Knight was pulled from the market over four months ago, owing to horrendous performance and correspondingly dreadful reviews. Rocksteady then dropped everything and spent months working on fixing the game, also putting the scheduled season pass DLC on hold until it could be ready for mass consumption again.

Now, it’s back, and the fans couldn’t be happier…or, maybe they could. Performance issues still persist, and it’s not made any better by the fact that WB used subpar testing methods on its pre-release builds in the first place, then simply didn’t respond to them. Apparently SOP for Warner Bros these days is to simply ignore things until they go away on their own. And if they don’t go away, do everything except actually fix the problem. Even now, there are still recognized issues with the game, the shining beacon of which is a “hard drive paging issue” which, for Windows 10 players, can only be avoided by equipping a whopping 12GB of system memory.

Being off the market for months cost WB and Rocksteady money as well as publicity. The current sales figures for Arkham Knight show that the PC version has sold a miniscule 80,000 copies, just 2% of the total. A comparison with another recent release, The Witcher 3, has a more healthy 350k, around 10%. Assuming each copy of the game costs $60, that’s about $16 million WB is missing out on; include season passes and that figure approaches $30 million. The sad part about this I’m willing to bet WB will turn around and point to the dismal sales numbers as proof that PC isn’t worth developing for, and start cutting back.

Neglect, visualized in bar form.

But this is a more disconnected, wider view than I intend to convey here. What follows is my personal take on the long-awaited DLC. The short version: It’s just like the base game, loaded with promise and consistently disappointing.

First up (according to the game, anyway) is the Harley Quinn Story Pack. Storywise, this consists of Harley Quinn taking on the task of breaking Poison Ivy out of prison in Bludhaven. In total, there are two combat encounters separated by a predator section. It took me just under half an hour to play through, including the final combat piece which involves slowly burning down Nightwing backed up by a squad of Bludhaven cops. While playing as Harley showed some promise, with her twist on detective vision and mayhem mode, it was over all too quickly, and even though this DLC was released with the game to start with, it feels like an afterthought. In a less tangible sense, the specific element that stood out to me here was the model and animation work–while Tara Strong brings her great voice work back, the animations for Harley’s mouth and face movements don’t seem to match her voice…in fact, her face barely moves as she talks, and it clashes badly.
Then we have the Red Hood Story Pack. In this episode, Red Hood undertakes to bring down Black Mask and stop shipments of illegal weapons from entering Gotham. Again, Red Hood brings a fun twist to combat, using takedowns and finishers that include gunshots to the face and make some of Batman’s tactics look softcore by comparison. The characterization lives up to his historical grittiness, but like Harley Quinn, it took me less than a half hour to complete and there is no side content whatsoever–no collectibles or riddles to find, no extra objectives, nothing to flesh out the game world–what little there is of a world.
As the penultimate piece on the platter, A Matter of Family is far more deserving of the title of “DLC” than its brethren. In a story set some years before the events of the first Arkham game, the Joker takes Jim Gordon and several hostages into a theme park built on an old oil rig in Gotham harbor, prompting Batgirl and Robin to take matters into their hands. The gameplay is mostly par for the course, with Batgirl playing more or less the same as Batman, with the exception of being more acrobatic and having fewer gadgets available–although, it’s worth noting that Batgirl’s hacking tool adds a unique variety, allowing her to shut off lights or trigger carnival machinery to startle opponents and set up takedowns. Unlike its kin, A Matter of Family features an open environment, and there are plenty of collectibles to hunt down during and after completion. Perhaps the most interesting (and moving) element of the story was in the form of easter eggs. By finding and completing several games in the theme park, the player can hear the story of Edward Burke, a businessman who built the park for his dying daughter, only to fall to a tragic fate in the end. Other than that, the story is mostly unengaging, sustained by combat with hips and hair. That said, this version of Batgirl’s suit isn’t bad.
And for the finale (for the time being), GCPD Lockdown manages to fall flat on its face pretty gracefully. Shortly after the events of Arkham Knight, Penguin calls in his boys to break him out of the lockup, and Nightwing responds to stop them. Like the first two packs, this one is sparse, consisting of two combat segments bridged by a predator encounter. It was actually fairly challenging, taking me almost 45 minutes to finish. Other than the length and lack of depth, my biggest complaint is that the difficulty feels artificial, as though the developers decided players were having it too easy and threw in a smattering of enemies with armor, knives, stun batons and assault rifles. In particular the final combat section feels like it ramps up the difficulty quite a bit, becoming rather unforgiving of even minor slips.
All of these “episodes” feel like they were just tacked on by a team of geeky marketing agents who thought “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool to play as <character> taking down <villain>?” In Arkham City, the player could switch between Batman and Catwoman freely, playing as both within the same game world–in this, there is no such option. Each episode is entirely self-contained and separated from the main game, narratively and thematically. Despite Nightwing’s story pack taking place within the same GCPD as the main game, there’s no link whatsoever between them besides characters. And with playtimes of half an hour, the shorter bits almost feel like they’re teasers for the game itself.
What disappointed me the most was A Matter of Family‘s story. In the Arkhamverse, the events of The Killing Joke are acknowledged as having taken place, and are a significant plot point in Arkham Knight. But where is this story? An adaptation of Killing Joke in an Arkham game could easily be a 5-10 hour DLC, and be far more engaging to players, particularly to the Batman geekdom the games cater to so much. These are like shorts used to bookend films or special edition blu-ray releases. They barely qualify as “expansions”.
Released along with the story packs was a plethora of alternate skins for the Bat-family and our beloved car. Unfortunately, the alternate Batmobiles cannot be used in combat in the main game as they lack the Arkham Batmobile’s…unique flexibility, let’s call it, but they’re still fun as hell to drive, and their matching themed courses certainly looked like the developers had a lot of fun designing. These actually feel more worth the wait (nevermind the money) than the “story packs”. (But why is it I still can’t use the Jokermobile, even in new game plus or themed maps?)
But the story still isn’t over. Supposedly, a number of DLC bits are still floating out there in the nether, bringing a deluge of villains to the forefront such as Killer Croc, Mister Freeze, and Mad Hatter, and Catwoman should be getting her own story in which she seeks revenge against the Riddler. Of course, it seems to be a coin toss as to whether we will actually see these, as Rocksteady has stated that some PS4 content will never be released on other platforms. Either way, these other DLCs are only rumor at this point, existing merely as disjointed pieces of code dug out of the game files, and it’s still up to Rocksteady whether they want to develop them further or not. In all, I have no doubt that Rocksteady is more than ready to walk away from this franchise, and this game in particular, and forget it ever happened.

on causality

A few days ago, Treyarch’s Jason Blundell revealed that the studio’s upcoming Black Ops 3 will feature a singleplayer campaign with all missions unlocked from the start. This is a considerable departure from the status quo, in that a great deal of games, particularly those with strong narrative campaigns, force the player to proceed sequentially. If you don’t finish chapter four, you won’t get to see chapter five. As usual, there has been a great deal of hubbub about the gaming community, spanning the spectrum from one end to the other. Most of it concerns consumer rights and player freedoms, which I can fully understand. Alas, that is not the rub.

The part that concerns me is this:

The unlocking level system is an archaic mentality we’ve had since we did bedroom development back in the day – you do this, then go on to the next one.

I’m curious to know why this is so “archaic”, as Blundell calls it.

Most of the counters to this involve invoking the “interactive art” codicil. I’m perfectly accepting of this view, as I consider games a valid form of art myself. But some are drawing a straight line between the two and claiming that this is a direct comparison to books, TV shows and other noninteractive media. I don’t see this as a legitmate comparison, personally, because I don’t see how the disparity gives it credibility.

To me, it’s not about the fact that a game can be played in a nonlinear or unpredictable fashion. If there is a story present, there is undoubtedly an intended way the story is meant to be experienced. Maybe there is more than one way to get from point A to point B, but there is almost always the “right” way. The same happens with extended series of books, films and TV shows.

But it’s not like the “right” way is always the obvious way. Particularly when it comes to TV shows, things get fuzzy–do you watch the series in production order or chronological order? Those two can make a big difference to the viewer’s perception of the show. I personally have always preferred production order, as prequels often contain minor spoilers or references to works that take place later, and the overall approach can change drastically depending on how the sequence is arranged. While our means of consuming media makes the concept of an enforced sequence feel archaic, that doesn’t mean that the concept of a linear narrative is archaic.

Yes, things have changed a great deal with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services. Netflix-produced shows are released as a complete season all at once, allowing viewers to binge all the episodes or watch them however they please, no more waiting to consume them piecemeal. But what’s the point? You can find out what happens at the end, but then you don’t get to experience the journey to the end. You lose context and meaning. There is a reason why books are more than just the first and last pages, and it’s not just some outdated superstition.

This is not to ignore other issues of game content that have been building over the years. There was a time when content was locked to provide incentive for players to do things in the games–sometimes just play the game, sometimes specific actions were needed. Achievements took the form of more tangible rewards like alternate costumes and new characters.  Now that extra content more often than not is sold as DLC. You don’t so much “unlock” new things as you simply buy them.

In terms of the narrative, I would definitely love to see a little more expansion made in that realm. Concept for game stories have become almost suffocatingly one-dimensional; developers concieve of one story with one path and that’s it. Older games like Hitman featured multiple methods to achieve the same ultimate ends, but these days it’s often just a matter of progressing from one cutscene to the next. The beginning, middle and end are all the same; the only difference is the rate at which a given player progresses. It makes referring to games as “interactive” somewhat ironic, when you think about it. Regardless, players will often find ways to break out of the bounds imposed upon them.

Ultimately it’s up to the player. Their experience is their own. And as much as I’d like to transform this into a soapbox rant, that’s about all I can leave this to.