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.

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.