Oh Arkham Knight, what happened.
In a world of cookie cutter sequels and grey First-Person Shooters, Rocksteady’s Arkham series has been like a beacon in the fog, a light at the end of the tunnel. A comic book superhero series that merges multiple genres, and some of the most beloved characters into a beautiful experience for comic book fans. Before 2009’s Arkham Asylum, I had never played a game that felt so true to its source material. I probably still haven’t. Well paced, well written and lovingly designed, I still think it’s one of the greatest games ever made.
A sequel was inevitable, and while I didn’t love Arkham City quite as much, (perfection is hard to reproduce) the same attention to detail and affection for the characters was felt throughout. The series went open world, but the same attention to pacing, the same respect for restraint, the same care permeated every decision. Arkham City was a more ambitious title, and it lost a little cohesion in the process, but it knew what worked in Asylum and it tried to build on that. Even Arkham Origins, developed by WB’s side team managed to work with the formula and strike out in a few original directions. It was clearly a B-List title, but we all knew when Rocksteady got their final chapter out, they’d blow us all away again. Be careful what you wish for.
It has been three weeks, and I’m still blown away. I’m blown away by how misjudged Arkham Knight is, I’m blown away by how such an anticipated game can be such a catastrophe on PC, and I’m blown away by how much of a mess the game is, even when it’s working how it should. How did the game get this way? In a word; Batmobile.
Batman’s iconic car has made a couple of appearances in the series before, but never as a playable vehicle. Perhaps anticipating series fatigue, in the run up to release, Rocksteady started shouting about the Batmobile to whoever would listen. It was playable, you could drive it anywhere in the city, call it at any time, use it in combat. What they didn’t tell us was that you would be forced to do all these things, all the time. All the bloody time. And more, a good third of the game is actually a tank combat game, forcing you to blow enemy tanks to pieces. Of course, Batman doesn’t kill, so the game goes to great lengths to remind us these are “unmanned drones” in a gratuitous example of writing a game around a stupid decision. The Batmobile permeates every part of the game. In the past, the Riddler set the Dark Knight fiendish riddles and complex brainteasers. This time around, most of the “puzzles” are basically race tracks. Occasions where Batman would pull down a beam or a pipe with a belt gadget have now all been replaced with lengthy car sections in which Batman must open doors and lower ramps to that he can use the winch on the car. It is no understatement to say that the Batmobile is Arkham Knight’s single most prominent feature. It is the focus of the game, it is a Batmobile game every bit as much as it is a Batman game.
And it’s such a shame because the Batmobile can be fantastic. Calling it at any time, using it to trump obstacles in an unscripted situation is exciting, and very rewarding. But when it’s forced upon you, it feels more like being forced to take your little brother with you to the mall. Nobody wants it around, and you can’t have any fun with it there, but you’re stuck with it. And like your cringe-inducing parents telling you what a great time you’ll have, the game itself keeps trying to sell you on the concept. Gliding over passing goons and nine times out of ten you’ll hear them discussing just how cool the Batmobile is. It has the effect of making Rocksteady sound massively insecure about the whole thing while all the time they’re cramming it down your throat.
If you want to see it for yourself, here’s me “enjoying” one of the first extended Batmobile sections:
Game developers are in a difficult position. Customers want sequels, they want their favourite properties to keep going, but nobody wants to play the same game over and over. The players, and the press, demand “innovation” and the publishers and the marketing department wants new gadgets to throw on the box. It can be hard to get the balance right, but the most successful franchises (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, etc.) have been those that found ways to innovate without disrupting the core formula. When they do (Assassin’s Creed III, for example) sales often take a hit, but it’s hard to think of a sequel that has changed the formula as much as Arkham Knight has.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that somewhere, underneath the tires of the Bat-Tank, there’s a very good game in Arkham Knight. Not on PC, of course, but if you’re lucky enough to play on consoles, then at times you’ll see some of the best set-pieces in the series so far. There’s a character driven sub-plot that, while the ending is super-obvious to anyone who has read a comic recently, is really well handled. The voice acting is pretty great, and there’s a first-person opening sequence that really captures the feeling of Gotham in Rocksteady’s eyes. There are long, extended sections where you aren’t allowed to take the Batmobile (and you’re supposed to feel sad about this) where the game really comes alive. Unfortunately, another tank combat sequence isn’t far away.
But in the end Arkham Knight is not a good game. It’s like a great painting with cartoon ducks scribbled over the top, and they’re nice ducks, and one or two ducks look like they’re part of the picture, but the rest of the ducks cover everything up so you can’t appreciate the painting, and they’ve painted in a sign saying “look at those fucking ducks.”