Wednesday, August 19, 2015

This is How the Batman Died: Not With a Whimper, But a Bang - The Batman: Arkham Knight Take Your Time Review

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Quick Note: Though the Batmobile can be hit or miss at times, the city of Gotham has never been bigger nor felt more alive. Whether beating up thugs or tearing up the streets in the car, it feels good to be the Bat. A few story beats fall flat, but this is by far one of the best Batman stories told by Rocksteady and one of the most fun open world experiences out there.
 
At the start of development of Arkham Knight, Rocksteady set out to make the largest, best Batman game the studio thought possible to end the trilogy with a bang. After reaching 100 percent completion in the game and letting the ending movie and credits wash over me, it dawned on me just how successful the studio was in creating that game. Though Arkham Knight has a few misses, this is the perfect game for Rocksteady to go out on and the perfect game to make you feel like you ARE the Batman.

Though I will not spoil the newest game, there will be some spoilers for Arkham City littered throughout this review. I'm sorry. It's been almost four years. You had your chance. Anyways, Arkham Knight takes place on Halloween one year following the events of Arkham City. The Joker is dead and the biggest, baddest villains of Gotham have been preparing for this moment. Without the element of chaos that the Joker brought to the underworld, the rogues have finally decided to combine their efforts and take out Bats once and for all. Under the guidance of Scarecrow and a newcomer named the Arkham Knight, the group initiates their plan to take over the city. While the villains storm the streets, the residents of Gotham are evacuated as Bruce steps into the batsuit to save the night. 

Scarecrow has gathered many familiar faces to take down Gotham.
There is an awful lot that happens in Arkham Knight, and it's ultimately better to simply avoid talking too much about the story. However, I want to touch base on how enjoyable it is as a Batman story, especially being the hardcore fan of the Dark Knight that I am. The overarching themes of stressing Bats to the breaking point and his desire to burden himself over asking for help have been tread before in other mediums. The big difference is the approach that the studio takes to tackling these themes, and being in the shoes of Batman and watching his foes overwhelm him, both mentally and physically, is really rewarding in Arkham Knight. 

Plus, Rocksteady has, in a way, redeemed Scarecrow as a competent and powerful foe of Bruce and the Bat Family. Sure, Arkham Knight, his army of drones and the military trained cohorts tend to steal a lot of the lime light, but I found the motivation and intensity of Scarecrow to be far more rewarding payoff than the secret identity and motivations of the newest rogue.

Many voice actors return to reprise their respective roles, including Kevin Conroy's iconic voice as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Grey Griffin as Catwoman/Selina Kyle and of course, Nolan North as Oswald Cobblepott, aka the Penguin. Other famous actors include Troy Baker, who is voicing Two-Face, and Johnathan Banks, an actor famous for his role as Mike in Breaking Bad, who voices Commissioner Gordon and Ashley Green, who voices Barbara Gordon. The Hollywood talent does a surprisingly good job, considering the transition from on-screen to off-screen acting can be difficult for most, but it's the traditional cast that truly shines. Conroy will forever be my Batman, and his voice has added a level of authenticity to the Arkham franchise that has really let it sink in for me. And seeing as this is the most introspective story of the games, it's great having him voice Bruce.
 
Kevin Conroy just makes Batman come to life.
But the story is only part of the reason why so many look forward to the Arkham games. Game play is king, and the game play in Arkham Knight is by far the best of the franchise. The staples are all here: counters, critical hits, combo meter specials, and weapon takedowns. However, these are not the only abilities in the utility belt, as Rocksteady has also added some new abilities, such as environmental takedowns that act as one hit K.O.'s when activated. Don't think this will simply work as an easy win though, because the studio has added more enemies than any of the previous games. Different enemy types also appear much earlier in the story than in previous titles and add complications to combat. There are even new enemy units to further complicate things. These include new brutes that have access to shields, knives and electrical gauntlets as well as a medical unit that can not only revive knocked out enemies, but super charge them so that Bats can't touch them. The variety of enemy units and the number of units Bats takes on at one time make the combat in Arkham Knight the most satisfying of the franchise, with The Dark Knight often taking on anywhere between 10 and 25 units. 

A small glimpse at Catwoman in action during a dual mission.
Every now and then, Batman will come across one of his allies and be able to fight alongside them. This marks the first time in an Arkham game where players will be able to take up the mantle of particular characters from the Bat Family, and though it's fleeting, the time spent with them feels very cool. Rather than racking up a combo meter to unless a special attack alone, players instead will build up to a Dual Takedown. This new technique allows Batman and a companion to take out a thug while also switching the players control from Batman to the companion. Though while playing outside of the Riddler challenges the ability is simply fun to do, it's required to take down the master of enigmas. It's a far cry from being able to explore Gotham as Catwoman of Nightwing, but it is still fun nonetheless.

When it comes to stealth combat and predator mode, there are also a few new moves available to Batman. With a new suit that allows him to attack faster and harder than before, Batman now has access to Fear Takedowns. Once initiated, Batman will throw himself on top of one enemy and time will slow, giving you the ability to aim towards the next target. This new takedown also act as one hit K.O.'s to enemies and can be used on a single enemy or up to five enemies once fully upgraded. And once again, this is not a 'win' button. The number of enemies during encounters has increased, and once a Fear Takedown is initiated it will take time before it is possible to use another. And enemies are not defenseless. Aside from being able to mine vantage points and track Batman's Detective Mode much earlier in Arkham Knight than in previous games, enemies also have access to drones that can be flown around the area, hunting down the Dark Knight, as well as automated Sentry Guns and a new Heavy Gunner enemy unit that can only be taken down with counters. These new additions fit in perfectly, and clearing a room of 15 goons in predator mode has never felt so gratifying.

With all of these new additions, it is important to note that the tools available to Batman haven't changed a whole lot since Arkham City. Don't expect Batman to get a shiny new toy from Alfred you haven't seen in the previous games, because there isn't too much added to the armory. However, the smoothness and responsiveness of the combat just seems to get better, and new techniques help make up for the lack of new toys, so it's hard to be nit-picky about not having a them to play with. 

So I don't think anyone was afraid that Rocksteady was going to screw up how Batman plays. However, for those who were afraid of how the Batmobile would be used, you can set aside most of those fears. The Batmobile is the real new innovation to the Arkham universe and it is a lot of fun, once you get used to it. 

The Batmobile (in the '69 Skin) in all of its glory.
The Batmobile has two modes of combat, similar to Batman. The first is the default, which is what I will lovingly refer to as 'car mode'. In car mode, the Batmobile controls like a normal, well, car. Using the right trigger (R2) to accelerate, it's possible to tap the brake (Square or B) and zoom around corners. While in car mode it is possible to initiate high speed chases to take down Arkham Knight's militia as well as race against The Riddler's clock to solve his puzzles. Batman can also fire immobilizers by focusing on a vehicle in front of him long enough to target it properly. 

Ultimately, this is the mode that took the most time for me to get used to. I don't particularly like driving in any video game, but early on it becomes very apparent just how involved the vehicle is. There are quite a few missions and sidequests that involve chasing down enemies or racing against time and it can be rough until you get a handle on the controls. Some outlets recommend changing the control scheme for driving, though I found the original to work much better than the change up. Essentially, car mode works well once you've mastered it, but it may take some getting used to. It's faster than gliding and really the only way to get some of the nasty timed Riddler Trophies. 

Outside of traditional driving, the Batmobile also has a battle mode, which I will lovingly refer to as 'the Battank.' In this mode, the controls shift considerably. The Batmobile has two guns on top, one a large cannon and the other a turret of sorts, that are used to take out the unmanned drones that have swarmed the streets of Gotham. Rather than propelling the vehicle forward by pressing the gas, the Battank instead moves like a hovercraft without any of the delay. Simply pushing forward on the joystick propels the vehicle. Pressing left or right on the joystick allows the Battank to strafe, which is very useful for maneuverability and combat. Moving in between tight corners or in a precise direction is as simple as strafing left or right. It also comes with a dodge that is very useful for avoiding enemy fire: simple tap X or A. To initiate this battle mode (using the original control scheme) it's as simple as pressing and holding the left trigger (L2). All of these controls feel well adjusted and tested, making each drone battle tense, but fun. Add on to the fact that the Batmobile gets upgrades of it's own, including new weapons like an EMP blast, and I think most people will find the Battank mode a worthy addition to the arsenal.

And for those worried that the Battank mode will destroy your living foes, worry not. The bullets fired at human targets are rubber, the drones are all unmanned and anytime Bat's vehicle collides with a human target, it simply shocks them away. Let's just sidestep this logic and move on...

The main take away about the Batmobile is that the two modes combine into a much smoother experience than I was expecting. Like I said before, I don't like driving in games, but by the end of Arkham Knight I was zooming through the streets of Gotham, tearing around corners and through fences and street lamps to get to my next destination. Having the ability to switch to battle mode by holding down the trigger made it that much easier to readjust myself whenever I was stuck on a corner or in a ditch was a life saver on some of the tougher races around Gotham. And the change of pace the drone battles brought to the game really helps break up the story and game play. Sure, it was a little less 'Batman-y', but I really loved the variety that the Batmobile brought to Arkham Knight and started really looking forward to taking on the army of drones that Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight would throw at me. 

I also just want to take a second to point out that the Batmobile is also the perfect vehicle to show players just how beautiful and technically impressive this game is. Environments are now far more destructible, with the Batmobile being able to tear through small environmental pieces with ease. And watching the rain slick off of Batman's cape is jaw dropping. The artistic design is similar, but the different districts of Gotham are fairly distinct, with a surprising amount of color and neon to help distinguish each area. There is no doubt that this game is only possible on the current generation console. 

Soaring across the different districts of Gotham is breathtaking and still so much fun.
Outside of the story there are a plethora of extra missions to take on. Riddler is back with his trophies and riddles as well as some new side missions where Bats may find a feline friend. Two-Face shows both of his faces while his gangs try to take the banks by storm and Penguin is once again smuggling weapons around the city. However, the real stars of the side quests have to be the unexpected ones. Rocksteady has really dug into the Batman mythos and pulled out some great characters we haven't seen yet while also bringing back some characters that haven't had enough spotlight, including a surprise or two from Arkham Origins. I will not go too much further into this, but I do want to say that the developers really put some time and thought into how these missions are found and how they are resolved. More than once I had an expectation for who the final foe was on a side quest only to be pleasantly surprised at the end. Of all the rogue-based side quests there was only one that left me wanting more, and that came more from the build up from Arkham City and less from the actual mission itself. There are also a few side quests tied to the Arkham Knight himself that add a bit more variety to the game without using the iconic villains, and though some fans will undoubtedly be let down on the number of Arkham Knight Militia side quests, I for one could not stop myself from diving into every single one of them. Which leads us to the final point of consternation: the ending.

For some odd reason, Rocksteady decided to put the ending of this game behind some barriers. The game technically has three endings: one where you confront the big baddie, one where all of the side quests are completed EXCEPT for Riddler and his trophies (as you need to collect all 243 of them in order to finish his quest) and finally an ending for obtaining 100 percent completion of the game. I, for one, had absolutely no problem with this setup. I think that these games only truly shine when you take on the side elements along with the main campaign. I don't think you can really feel like Batman if you're ignoring the crimes around you, even when a gigantic event is happening in Gotham. That being said, there are plenty of players out there who simply want to move on with the story and be done with it. To all of you I say, still play the game, but there are plenty of YouTube videos to show you the different endings. That does not absolve Rocksteady of this glaring flaw in the game, but it is a solution that we gamers can take upon ourselves to fix the problem for ourselves.

Once you've mastered the story and captured all of the Rogues Gallery, there are still AR Challenges to take down. The AR Challenges feel very different from the Combat and Predator Challenges of previous Arkham games. Rather than being a more open ended experience where players figure out how to achieve the goal required, the AR Challenge goals are very specific and up front, requiring the player to complete one specific task at a time. This is hit or miss for fans, depending on how you felt about the previous challenges. I for one prefer the AR Challenges because of how exact they are, which allows me to hunker down and focus on this one specific task or move onto one that's more manageable if I'm having trouble, but I'm sure there are plenty of fans who will miss the open-endedness of the previous challenge modes. 

But aside from the ending confusion and the divisiveness of the Batmobile, Arkham Knight encompasses everything Rocksteady has brought to the Batman franchise. Being the Bat has never felt so good, and feeling the actual threat to Gotham grow and take on Batman in this game is really rewarding. I would recommend sticking it out and grabbing everything to see the finale, because it is definitely one any Batman fan would not want to miss out on, but even those who want to simply play through the main story there's plenty to love here.

9.5 out of 10

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