I'd previously scrawled some hasty thoughts about Batman Arkham Knight in a vague effort to document whether I'm getting too old for this sort of thing. Join me for part two, after I've played the game for another few hours.
All right, I'll admit it. It's getting better.
I've just reached the three hour mark and after what felt like an extended tutorial, interesting things have started happening. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were fundamentally decent games but what really made them stand out for me was the level of extra polish drawn from the rich Batman universe. I'm talking about the flashbacks and the hallucinations, the unexpected environments, the way Batman and the world around him developed as the games progressed.
And of course, the sudden plot twists, which brings us back to Arkham Knight. To be fair, the plot is entirely ridiculous, and riddled with possible holes (which I won't get into just yet) but to be honest I'm so pleased that something interesting is finally happening it doesn't really matter.
How are we doing
So let's recap. In the first part of this article, I was struggling to enjoy the game, weighed down by poor menu structure, a confusing keyboard layout, frequent crashes and limited suspension of disbelief. How are things now?
I'm still confused by the menus, and I still keep bringing one of them up accidentally when I'm trying to do something else, but they've started to make sense. Well, I understand the upgrade one now, sort of. The others I'm just avoiding for the moment, which means I'm not doing any side quests right now.
The keyboard controls, while feeling like they were mapped from a gamepad by simply pushing the one against the other, are beginning to get familiar. I'd still be completely lost if the hints ever disappeared from the bottom of the screen, though.
Having turned down all the graphics settings I can report that the game hasn't crashed since, which is good. I'm still nervous it's going to happen again, but so far, so good. And it still looks alright as well. The game still has bugs, but only two, so far. Once I was unable to interact with someone I'd just rescued, and once I tried to do the same with another individual only to find myself catapulted across the room for no reason.
I'll grudgingly admit that my disbelief is a little more suspended than it was. The plot is still ridiculous, and I need to complain about it, but I've started to buy into the characters and what will happen to them a little more.
An opening world
The key difference in the game now is that it feels like it has opened up. I'm now free to explore Gotham and investigate a (sensibly limited) number of quests available to me. The game is even encouraging me to undertake them a bit at a time, by limiting progress in some missions until others are complete.
This is slightly odd, because the city is overrun with criminals and tanks, so dealing with things like the Riddler's convoluted puzzles instead of, you know, saving the city, seems a little unrealistic. But this is where the game feels more like Batman - scrambling across rooftops and dropping onto unsuspecting thugs, rather than tooling around in a tank blowing up robots. This is definitely better.
Plot and characters
The Arkham Knight himself has now appeared, and unfortunately he's not very interesting. He just wants to kill Batman. That seems to be it. There's vague mystery about who he is, but so far he's just a bit stroppy and impatient. It's a shame, because from all the buildup I expected him to be Batman's perfect nemesis - everything Batman is, but a bad guy. Also I think I've guessed who he is, which means I've also guessed some of the things that might happen later in the game, which has probably spoiled some of it already. But I could be wrong.
The other problem with the Arkham Knight is that he is unbelievably stupid. If he knows Batman so well, he'd know that the best way to stop him would be to attack him with tanks manned by people. Batman doesn't kill, so... yeah. That would probably do it. Here's another few suggestions.
- after Batman manages to get into ACE chemicals despite part of the bridge being destroyed, just, y'know, destroy the rest of the bridge? He might still get out, but he'd have to leave the Batmobile behind.
- put a remote trigger on one of those big landmine things, Batman goes near it, boom.
- point a sentry gun in a sensible direction?
- maybe try stop talking and just shoot him?
I'm now going to take the opportunity to rant a little about what just happened in the ACE Chemicals plant. If you've not played the game, mild spoilers, so skip to the next section. Basically, the whole of the game to this point has been building towards the threat of Scarecrow setting off some kind of toxic superbomb that's going to not only wipe out Gotham but everything for miles around. And then Batman just stops it. No big disaster, no big drama, he just uses a computer, makes an antidote, and it's all over. And he does all that from inside the room Scarecrow was using to prepare the bomb. That such a thing is even possible suggests a real lack of planning or knowledge on Scarecrow's part. Seriously, it's like he wanted to be stopped.
And all of this happens to the backdrop of moving music and the suggestion that this is the end for Batman, when it clearly isn't. Nice job, but I didn't buy it for a second. If the game's only three hours long and ends with Batman dying in an explosion, I want my money back.
I've now reached the point in the game where Catwoman has appeared. I was expecting it, but with a kind of gentle dread. She wasn't portrayed particularly well in Arkham City. Unfortunately, so far she's pretty similar.
It's hard to describe exactly what I dislike about this interpretation of the character. I could make a general comment about how all the women in this game seem to be fairly shallow, mostly on show only to wear revealing clothing and to come across as a bit slutty and pouty (Poison Ivy, for instance, is generally awful).
All of this presumably in order to appeal to the more juvenile end of the demographic. I can say that I find it quite the opposite, to the point of being almost offputting. It would all be quite terrible except for Oracle, who seems to be a real person rather than a thin stereotype. Oracle gives me hope. We'll just have to see.
I'm getting the feeling that this game is too easy. It's likely that nothing too taxing has been thrown at me so far, so I may end up eating those words. Having played through the first two games I should vaguely know what I'm doing, but I'm still left with the concern that I'm not so much playing a game as reading a book - as long as I keep turning pages, I'll get to the end eventually.
The hardest part of the game so far has been simply figuring out what I'm supposed to do next. Everything else - combat, scaling buildings, driving - has been far too easy.
That concern is exemplified by two aspects. The first is the Batmobile. It's kind of fun to drive, but it feels like it's pretty much indestructible. That takes the thrill out of it.
The second is slightly less obvious and it took me a while to understand. Driving around the city is easy, but so is grappling around and gliding as Batman. It seems like regardless of where I am I can always look up and find a ledge to grapple up to. This is clearly a deliberate decision, but it means that whatever situation I find myself in I can always zip away from it in an instant to complete safety.
That might not always be true for the indoor locations, but I find myself longing for a little more challenge when simply navigating the city. Batman is human, but there's no penalty for falling off a height - there's always something to grapple to, and even if you don't choose that option he always throws his cape out at the last second and drops lightly to the ground. Presumably his cape repels physics.
The other thing about making the city easy to navigate is that it automatically makes it feel smaller. There's no sense of achievement for making it to the top of the tallest building. It's just another thing I've zipped up with my magical grappling line.
Combat and AI
I'd previously complained that melee combat was basically just button mashing so I'm actually pleased to report that I managed to get Batman killed in a fight recently. The melee fights are getting a little more complicated thanks to the introduction of new enemy types, and there's definitely nuance to the combat, but I'm still basically button mashing and getting away with it.
There does unfortunately seem to be a problem with the AI of the enemies during the 'predator' sections of the game, where you sneak around dispatching a group of enemies one by one.
After the first game, enemies were granted the ability to look up and thus be slightly better prepared for Batman dropping onto them from the rooftops, which made things a bit more interesting. A lot is made in this game of how smart the enemies are supposed to be - Arkham Knight never seems to shut up about how well trained his men are. They might be intelligent, but they have a tiny memory span.
Here's an example. I was faced with a group of armed men, so I took to a tunnel that ran under the floor. After I'd popped out of one of the many handy grates and taken down one of the men I returned to my hiding place while the others ran over to investigate. They guessed, correctly, that I was under the floor, and dropped a grenade down to deal with me (which missed). So far so good. Except then they all split up and continued walking near the grates. At one point I was even spotted inside, but as I moved out of the way quickly enough the man relaxed, reasoning that "it was probably just a rat or something". C'mon guys, I'm not asking you to make a superhuman AI, but at least have the dialogue line be "I saw Batman, but I've lost him!" or something.
Needless to say, I managed to take down the rest of the group using exactly the same technique. It's a real shame, because the game gives you so many ways to deal with enemies that there should be plenty of variety in the combat. Maybe it gets more difficult later, but right now it feels a little like I'm winning at Streetfighter 2 by just doing one move.
Slightly more informed conclusion
Grievances aside, the game's designers have earned their pay, because I now want to keep playing. Hooray. I am not too old for this game (although I'm sure I'll continue to complain about it).
I'd also like to take a moment to acknowledge that a huge amount of effort has clearly gone into it. It's very easy to criticise but there have obviously been thousands of hours of work involved. It has its shortcomings, but as the world of Gotham opens up to me I'm beginning to appreciate the level of detail and care that has gone into bringing it to life. While there are aspects of the city that look worryingly like a Joel Schumacher movie there are also interesting places that I want to explore more of.
I have also now found out what happens if you drop the Batmobile into the river. It just resets back where you started. Shame.