Sunday, October 23, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight

   I've played every Batman Arkham game from the debut title, and each one has been an overall solid experience. We're at a point in gaming consumerism where almost all games are good. That's the absolute baseline here. Go ahead and look up a list of the most disappointing games of the PS3/X-Box 360 generation. Most of the games on the list are at worst, mediocre. They aren't disappointing because they're terrible games (usually), they're disappointing because, well, they didn't meet the overhyped expectations. My point is, the Batman Arkham series has a general standard of quality, and comparing a new title to previous ones is usually just a moot point- picking nits, and such.

   I've seen a lot of reviews calling Arkham Knight underwhelming, and I just don't get it. Maybe they were sold on expectations that I didn't hear or didn't buy into. I used to have a friend who wouldn't shut up about how amazing this game was going to be. I hope my opening paragraph wasn't misleading, the game isn't disappointing or mediocre- but it also isn't revolutionary. Having said that, it's easily my favorite Batman game thus far. It builds upon the foundations that the first two established, and expands on that in an organic and impressive way. It's wonderfully atmospheric, the combat is smooth, responsive and engaging, and the set pieces are fantastic.

   Arkham Knight marries the strictly cinematic trappings of the Uncharted franchise, with the richly detailed open world and robust gameplay of the Assassin's Creed franchise, and it's a marriage made in gamer heaven. The game isn't perfect, but simply put... this is the Batman game I have always wanted. Tearing through the streets of Gotham in the Batmobile had Molossus playing in my head. And gliding over the gothic architecture and swooping down to terrify some thugs, had the Danny Elfman theme echoing in my ears. Point being, my love of Batman actually stems from the movies instead of the comics, and this game felt like the best parts of every Batman movie.

   The combat with the Batmobile feels gutsy like it's from Batman V Superman, as does the melee combat. (Though arguably that comparison should be reversed...) The city's intimidating architecture feels like a smart blend of the Gotham cities from Batman, Batman Returns, and just a smidge of the neon cityscapes in Batman Forever. It's a perfect representation of Gotham City, and it feels alive in every way that matters. It's one big playground full of vantage points, hiding spots, secrets, and a fight waiting for you around every corner. I loved getting into a fight with ten or so thugs, and then tapping a button to call in the Batmobile, and watching them get scared as it comes barreling towards us like rolling thunder.

   The story is nothing new for Bat-fans, and the identity of the Arkham Knight feels less like a major revelation and more like a "Duh." moment. It's telegraphed from the outset, and anyone familiar enough with Batman mythology to get at least 50% of the references thrown at the player throughout the game, will probably accurately guess who the Arkham Knight is within their first few hours of playing, if they didn't already guess before they even put the game in. Despite all that, there's some moments where the story works despite itself. There's some genuinely gripping emotional moments in here, and I didn't expect that. The stories of the previous games were always well done, but I don't remember them affecting me so strongly.

   But, still, the story isn't great. It feels stubborn almost. Batman has Oracle, Robin, Nightwing, and Gordon all helping him, but Bruce insists on a ridiculous lone wolf mindset that might work for the broader concept of Batman, but feels regressive as the fourth story in a gaming franchise. The story tries to angle the idea that Batman's greatest fear is losing the people who help him, and then feeling responsible for their deaths. It works more often than it doesn't, but still. The Batmobile's cockpit only fits one, passengers are relegated to... what's basically a hi-tech trunk. Yeah. Robin doesn't go on patrol with Batman in this universe. Bruce spends the entirety of the game turning down help, shoving friends away, and finding out around every turn that this is a stupid idea.

   My absolute favorite part of the game was where you actually get to fight alongside Robin, and it's there that the game shines so brightly you'd swear it wasn't night for once. Batman and Robin have an excellent dynamic with each other, and the game itself lets you seamlessly switch between playing as either one of them. In another area of the game, it employs the same mechanic between you and Catwoman. In short, Batman is most interesting when he's interacting with others. As pleased and happy I am with this game, I am also already looking forward to the future of the franchise. A Gotham City that you patrol with Robin, leaping over rooftops alongside Nightwing, being able to call in backup at a moment's notice. This is definitely something I want from a Batman game.

   I'm not entirely sure what's left to do though. Arkham Asylum, City and Knight make a near-perfect trilogy I wouldn't want to see spoiled by the same idiotic franchise-milking that spoils every game franchise these days. Arkham Knight is an excellent Batman simulator, and not only does it let you feel like Batman to the fullest extent modern gaming technology has to offer (short of the VR experience I've been hearing abour) it lets you pick which one you'd like to be.  Like I mentioned earlier, my love for Batman originated with the movies, so imagine how friggin pleased I was when I found out you can play as the Michael Keaton Batman, the Christian Bale Batman, and even Batfleck himself. And then they had to go and let you use all of their unique Batmobiles as well? Hot damn. I'll say it again... this is the Batman game I've always wanted.

   Any and all flaws this game has is completely forgiven because I can terror-ass through Gotham in the Burton-Batmobile, as Keaton-Batman, while the Danny Elfman theme plays not just in my head... but through the spotify app on my console. As the epic theme crescendos, I launch Batman out of his sleek transport, glide through the air, and land threateningly in front of a group of Thugs™, and in that moment, this is the perfect Batman game. The following thirty seconds of bone-crunching, beat-em-up gameplay is absolute bliss. Mileage may vary for the more critical gamers, but this was (very nearly) everything I personally wanted from a Batman game.  Now excuse me as I change into Bale, activate the Tumbler, and queue Molossus to start playing...

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