Music in pubs and restaurants is too loud and apparently all my childhood toys are being made into terrible movies. I guess I must be getting old. To test what effect this has had on my appetite for serious gaming, I'm throwing myself into new gaming experiences. This time around: Batman, Arkham Knight, on PC.
So... yeah. Hmm. Really not sure so far.
I've been looking forward to playing this game for a very long time. I really enjoyed the first two games. Arkham Asylum was brilliant but made me long for the freedom to explore Gotham proper. Arkham City was almost as good but made me long for the confined spaces of the asylum. I'm obviously conflicted.
Arkham Knight is fairly linear, at least so far, so I won't bother recounting the first hour in minute detail. It can basically be summed up as cutscene, fight, Batmobile, fight, cutscene, fight, plot exposition. Instead, I'm going to talk about the aspects of the game that struck me the most, for better or worse.
This game is dark. I'm talking literally, rather than in terms of tone. It's raining in Gotham City tonight, and everything's kind of blurry. I feel like I should be wearing glasses.
Batman himself is more tight-lipped and wooden than ever before. He also looks a little weird. There's something wrong with his lips. It's like he's constantly pouting, or that they put so much effort into them that they're just too visible. The rest of his face doesn't seem to conform to normal human standards either - it seems to slope outwards from his forehead down to his chin.
Gotham City doesn't look very big, which I'm trying not to be disappointed about. To be fair, I've barely explored it at this point, but scrolling round the map reveals three or four moderately-sized islands connected by bridges and not much else. Sure, there'll be plenty of indoor environments to explore and the map may get bigger later on, but for now I'm not excited to explore my new world that much.
Driving along in my batmobile
I have to be honest - if there wasn't a Batmobile in this game, I probably wouldn't care anywhere near as much about playing. It turns up almost immediately, which is good, and it does more than serve as a simple transport mechanic, which is also good, but there's something odd about driving it.
Driving should be fun, but the Batmobile is apparently indestructible, so driving it at speed somehow isn't thrilling. I've literally driven it off the roof of a building with no consequences, so chasing after criminals at high speed... well, what's the worst that could happen? I don't know. I guess I might hit something and stop. I might try seeing what happens if I drive it off a bridge. Will it float?
It has a battle mode, where it turns into a whizzy strafing tank thing, but I have to hold down a button to make this happen. It's not a problem so far, but I can see my fingers getting tired eventually. Why not just use the button to toggle between driving and tank modes? Seems like an odd decision.
Navigating is hard
The menu structure seems to have been designed for consoles first. For example, when changing graphics settings there's no 'ok/cancel' option at the bottom of the screen, instead you press ESC to cancel and BACKSPACE (of all things) to save. Speaking of odd keys, I'm pretty sure early in the game I was required to press '=' to do something important, despite that being on the complete opposite side of the keyboard to all the other keys I've been told to use.
The upgrade menu is laid out in a confusing way. Rather than make it hierarchical, it's a sort of spidery web of hexagons that presumably makes sense once you've unlocked more than a couple of items. Some upgrades can be clicked on, some can't. That makes sense, but there's little feedback when I click on something regardless of whether I'm allowed to or not. Has my upgrade been saved?
Another menu, either the current missions or objectives menu, is a circle. You can't rotate it and there doesn't seem to be any reason for it to be circular, except that it probably looked nice to a designer. It confuses and frightens me.
My disbelief is not being suspended enough
One of the most important aspects of being Batman in a game is that I want to really believe that I'm Batman. I want to sneak through the shadows, terrify my enemies and drink in the feeling of hidden invincibility as I appear from nowhere and dispatch some hapless goon. The first two games were totally engrossing in this respect, despite some of their more ridiculous aspects (like City's Riddler puzzle rooms, which would have taken a team of engineers years to construct. Is there some private construction company that handles clandestine building projects like that?). Will Arkham Knight live up to this expectation?
Well, kind of. Not so much so far. There's been quite a lot of short cutscenes, and a really fairly pointless bit early on when Batman arrives at the beseiged GCPD police station. You can walk through it and see various police officers going about their business. You can even talk to them, but they just say one thing, there's no real interaction or point to it. It's like being in a town in Skyrim, when the guards keep walking past and telling me they're thinking of joining the Dawnguard. Again and again and again. It doesn't feel very Batman-y.
The game is very linear in the early stages, which may be intentional, as it tries to introduce key mechanics (working with the Batmobile, for example) but so far it hasn't felt particularly fun. Figuring out how to get past an obstacle doesn't feel like I'm Batman trying to find a solution, it feels like I'm trying to spot the next thing I have to interact with that the game designer has put in place.
When you're out and about in the city the villains are able to talk directly at you. In the first game that was explained - Riddler had his own private radio frequency and Joker was talking over the asylum's speaker system. But we're outside in a city now. Am I expected to believe that Scarecrow found time to install speakers all across Gotham, just so he could talk at Batman throughout the night? The boys from Clandestine Building Services™ must have pulled an all-nighter to get that one done.
Batman now has a wrist mounted holographic projector so he can talk to his allies. It serves no useful purpose other than looking nice. I keep expecting him to be attacked while he's distracted by using it. And can someone explain to his friends about security on communications channels? They keep calling him 'Bruce' or 'Mr Wayne', which even if the line was totally secure would still not be a good reason for letting their guard down as anyone within earshot would still be able to hear them. Unless Batman is using headphones, I guess. But there's still a risk they could be recognised - it wouldn't take a genius to join the dots if they saw Batman talking with the head of Wayne Industries.
Speaking of Batman's allies, we finally get to meet Oracle in the first hour of the game, after two full games of hearing only her voice. I guess this means she's going to be kidnapped later on or something. All the bad guys keep dropping hints about it.
There's so many keys and buttons to remember! I would be lost without the keyboard hints at the bottom of the screen. Actually I still am. My erratic clambering around scenery would entirely fail to inspire fear in my enemies were they to witness it. “Why is Batman repeatedly climbing up and down that wall?” “Is he stuck to that ladder or something?”
I'm frequently hitting the wrong button and bringing up a menu. That seems to happen way too often. I also keep getting lost trying to find my way to the next objective. If you're facing away from where you're supposed to go,there's no indication that it's behind you. Unless you're driving the Batmobile, in which case the entire road is lit up with a bright path of closely spaced arrows. That seems inconsistent.
I also have to point out that the combat isn't particularly complicated. Sure, there are loads of different techniques for dispatching bad guys from the shadows, but when you get into a brawl, all I seem to have to do is point the mouse in the right direction and left click furiously. I was going to mark the game down for that, but honestly, if I had to remember a set of commands for fighting on top of all the other stuff, I'd just give up now, so the one-click combat gets a thumbs up from me, bizarrely.
Michael bay called
So far, the plot is a little thin. Scarecrow (a second tier villain in the first two games, now apparently promoted) has threatened to set off a chemical weapon in Gotham city, so it's been completely evacuated and is now full of criminals. I have some problems with this.
- Are all the criminals in on Scarecrow's scheme? If they aren't, then they're risking their lives. If they are, then it clearly proves there isn't going to be a chemical attack, so why is anyone worried?
- If everyone's left the city, isn't Scarecrow's plan now redundant? At least, his stated plan. I guess there's more to it than that. I hope there is, at least.
- In the real world, if anything like this happened, the government would send in the army. This even happened in The Dark Knight Rises. So why is Gotham PD so clearly under manned and outgunned?
The game is now slowly introducing the Arkham Knight and his particular approach to taking over Gotham. I appreciate the need for each new game to be bigger and more spectacular than the last but it's starting to feel like there's a danger it's going to detract too much from the point of Batman. I feel like I'm in a war zone with all these tanks running around the place. Batman, the core of Batman, isn't about driving a tank around and blowing things up. While it's good to have variety in gameplay, I hope the focus shifts back to what Batman is really all about.
I need to take a moment to talk about Riddler trophies. This was fun in the first game, “ah... okay, I guess...” in the second, but now it just feels tired and ridiculous. Are we really supposed to believe that Batman would spend any time collecting small green trophies for the amusement of the Riddler? They don't do anything. They're not worth anything. Why does every game try to be Pokemon now?
You even have to waste your time interrogating thugs just to find out where they are. Yes, Batman would rather solve Riddler's puzzles than find out useful information, like where he is. Just think about the logic of that for a moment - oh wait, you can't, because it makes no sense whatsoever.
Bugs and crashes abound
In case you're unfamiliar with the history of this game, it was pulled from sale not long after launch due to massive technical problems on the PC. Not just little bugs here and there - huge, game destroying errors. Reportedly a lot of work was done to correct these problems, but not enough.
I managed to get almost an hour in before encountering any problems. It was around the time I got the new Batsuit and started running through some of the training tasks. The game crashed twice without warning. It seemed to happen when saving, which happens automatically (so I guess it's going to happen pretty often), but at least the save itself seemed to be intact.
The crashing problem unfortunately got worse after that. Having not played for a week, I fired up the game, got to the menu, chose to start playing, and got kicked to the desktop. Not only that, but it had messed up the zoom settings in Windows and crippled my Start menu. I had to restart the whole computer.
So, enough is enough. I've set all the graphics options to their lowest, which seems to have helped - I was then able to play without crashes for another half an hour session. Strangely the game doesn't seem to look any the worse for it, but I'm sure side by side comparisons would show the difference. We'll see if this fixes it long term, but for now, no more crashes.
I'm (not) Batman
My most recent experience of gaming was Skyrim, where your character starts as a blank slate and you get to choose (to some degree) the person you are. Here, that isn't the case - Batman is a defined character.
I'm finding that a little weird in a way that I'd not noticed in the previous games. I'm not Batman, but I'm controlling Batman, except for the moments where the game takes over and Batman talks or interacts with things, which so far has happened quite a lot.
It feels like I'm only temporarily Batman and all the while the real Batman is sitting beside me, waiting for the controller, rolling his eyes silently as I let him get beaten up for the nth time. Batman wouldn't make as many mistakes as I'm making. Batman wouldn't get himself shot because he forgot what key to press to climb down from a ledge. Batman wouldn't dunk the Batmobile in Gotham's river while attempting a Dukes of Hazzard off the GCPD building. And so on.
Too early conclusion
This game is definitely making me feel old. Understanding the menus, remembering all the keys and combat techniques... it's hard. All of this experience is gleaned from maybe three or four play sessions, totalling an hour or two of play, and so far, I'm not hooked. The first two games did that right from the outset, but this time around is different. I'm not enthralled. Gliding through the night, deploying gadgets and sneaking up on people, it's not thrilling yet. Beating up the next group of thugs just feels like a chore.
I want to keep playing to explore more of the story, but at this point it feels like I've already experienced most of the gameplay on offer. I really hope that isn't true, but I'm worried it is. I'll definitely keep playing, probably, but right now I'm putting off loading up the game even just to take screenshots for this article. That's not a good sign. That's not even a good Bat-signal.