Rocksteady Losing the Passion for Batman in Knight's Open World Activities

(THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ARKHAM KNIGHT AND ARKHAM ASYLUM.)

The one thing that Arkham Asylum holds over its successors is a contagious admiration and respect for the property that its based on. Every inch of that game oozes fandom and passion: from the wealth of villains who cameo their way into the main narrative thread, to the core narrative conceit, to the nuggets of tertiary Batman characters who still get their mentionings in the deepest, darkest corners of the asylum. From hidden gems like an ol’ timey radio belonging to Jack Ryder to a pair of see-saws with children’s caps homaging to Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum: Arkham Asylum is practically indulgent in its love, and it tries its darnedest to pull players into that indulgence. Part of this is thanks to the games setting, part of it is due to the scale, and part of it is simply a product of game design.

When you compare this enthusiasm to the optional content in the most recent release, Arkham Knight deviates in a way that would be incredibly disheartening to the 2009 Rocksteady. Where is the problem? Well, it certainly isn’t with the game’s audiovisual components. They are probably even more indulgent than its predecessor (just look at the game’s masterful, almost pornographic camera work). It’s all in the design, its accompanying UI, and its self-imposed narrative limitations.

The Ubiverse & Open World Activities

I can’t speak to the goings-on at Rocksteady during development, but I’d wager that the design team and their higher-ups were laser-focused on packing the game full of a variety of generic open world activities. This push feels like a response to severe time constraint, solved by mimicking how other successful open world games have tackled open world content. Significantly more than any other Arkham title, Arkham Knight feels like it belongs in the Ubiverse catalogue: glueing together a collection of fragmented pieces in an incoherent and padded whole. The design team clearly had the reigns, and every other department had to be as agile and lean as possible to react to a game in constant flux. It’s a development studio completely out of sync with itself.

Let us take a look at any random activity. The heists, I guess. The design team wants to pump the game full of optional stealth-oriented activities. Bank heists make sense: it’s a quintessential villainous activity in most comic book worlds, and it opens up opportunities for cool new stealth spaces. For the most part, I think that these activities work from a gameplay perspective. They let the player toy around with the stealth mechanics in a somewhat more chaotic setting. The real problem here is that Rocksteady clearly went into these side activities with the notion that the Arkham series is only made better with a greater cast of villains. So, they point to a seemingly-random villain in their catalogue and assign them to this activity. In this case, it’s Two-Face.

First off, there is virtually nothing iconic about Two-Face relating to banks. If you want to tackle Two-Face, you play to what makes him special: his twisted sense of justice as it relates to chance, or you could play more directly to his history with Bruce and the legal system. In this case, he’s exclusively being positioned as an opportunistic gang leader. The next major issue with this approach is that so many of these villains are used as crescendo, final-act wrap-up to this particular chain of activities. What does this mean for Two-Face? You have a slightly more difficult heist encounter, in another forgettable bank environment, that just so happens to be populated with a named character who operates like any other thug. You dispatch him like a generic thug (I mean, just look at how underwhelming this takedown is), mission is over, and you tie the bow on this activity chain by driving him back to the GCPD. The constraints of highly orchestrated game design start to show here: there is virtually nothing that separates this bank heist from the last one, besides the named figure.

To make matters worse, each activity is copy-pasted an arbitrary number of times Rocksteady is happy with the padding (three Firefly chases, four Penguin stalk-and-punches, etc.). In the case of Dent, there are three bank heists in the game. You dispatch his crew two times, then Dent arrives on the scene by the third robbery and Rocksteady does very little to differentiate this encounter from the previous two. By sticking to the encounter formula established, and feeling the compulsion to pad the world with as much content as possible, Rocksteady transforms what could be a unique and dedicated villain experience into something that the player has seen many times over.

Rinse and repeat this across every other formulaic activity for every supporting villain (who, again, is only tangentially-related to the content that they’re attached to), and you can start to see where Arkham Knight is failing to make good on its world and cast. Rocksteady, over the course of the game’s side content, consistently turns what should be iconic and memorable villain encounters into filling out a quotas.

The UI: Checking Boxes

The “quota” feeling is exactly what is wrong with the game’s UI. The game has a clean, straightforward mission UI that conveys so much information in such a tried-and-true radial menu. So what’s the problem? Every side mission has a dedicated space on the radial menu, and the interface is dead set on keeping players informed on their completion percentages. So, as you spin your analogue stick around the mission wheel, you see that you are 30% done with Two-Face, 60% done with Firefly, 35% done with the Riddler, etc..

I’m not entirely sure why these individual percentages exist in the game. The game has a generic game completion percentage that is spotlighted on the main menu, but that is commonplace nowadays: it feeds completionists with a desire to see and do everything in the world. The individual percentage bars are what is baffling. It reminds me a bit of the booming popularity of RPG mechanics in shooters last generation (as brought on by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). It gives the impression that, like Call of Duty, Rocksteady does not have a ton of confidence in the core mechanics of the game being able to hold the player through to the end. After all, you know what’s more satisfying than filling up a single progression bar? Filling up like ten or fifteen of them!

The other possible explanation for this bizarre inclusion is giving the player a sense of scope and scale. The player, at all times, knows roughly how many more encounters that they’re going to have with Dent’s men, or how many more times they need to tackle Firefly to the ground before he’s finally dealt with. Rather than seeming like an insurmountable breadth of content, the game becomes more realistic and digestible. The question then arises: why bother bloating your game in the first place?

The game also gates most of the open world activities behind frequent main story barriers. You need to finish X-mission before the next batch of Y and Z activities are open. The game’s UI lets you know when no more open world activities are available until you progress the main story some more. It is so kind of the game to let you know that Harvey Dent isn’t going to surprise you for the next little bit. The game wouldn’t want to surprise the player in any meaningful way, right?

For me, this is the crux of the UI issue: it makes the experience fundamentally predictable. I know exactly how many more times Dent is going to strike by looking at his percentage. I know how many more side missions are going to pop up along my adventure by looking at the empty spaces. Hell, I even know that I won’t have to worry about bank robberies in the next little while. Sometimes less is more when it comes to keeping the player informed. At the very least, Rocksteady is consistent. The UI makes the villain encounters more predictable, and the open world activity design makes the villain encounters more predictable.

No Room for Narrative

So what tools do they have left to salvage their optional villain experiences? Well, I guess they have narrative. The narrative conceit of this “Arkham” is roughly the same as all predecessors: its a single evening and Batman is locked in a particular location until he can lock up a variety of iconic villains as they rip the space apart for their own pleasures. So why does it feel so different?

Straight up, the design team has given basically no room for the narrative side of things to make up for rigidity. Each side mission is stuck in its own formula (chase a guy in the batmobile, stealthily take out these bank robbers, etc.), and at no point is the design allowed to break from the previously-established mould with thrilling scripted sequences, or non-combat encounters. Only a select few side missions come with premium cutscenes to heighten the villain encounter; most of the time, it’s just a quick close-up shot of a villain taunting Batman before returning to the core gameplay of that activity. The worst offenders of this are the Firefly and Manbat missions; both have to be taken down several times, and each sequence is almost exactly the same as the previous one--same cutscenes, animations, and all.

About the only medium open available to the narrative is voice over work. And boy, does Arkham Knight relish in that singular method of narrative delivery. Every single villain in the side content is loaded to the brim with taunts, quarreling exchanges, and insults. It’s actually kind of impressive when you think about how many lines of angry, one-direction exchanges that Troy Baker had to record (he had to voice both Two-Face AND the Arkham Knight after all). By the end of the game, the player is so exhausted from hearing generic snarks and taunts over the radio that they have likely turned on a podcast to drown out the game’s optional narrative content.

I feel like all it would take is a single memorable, unique environment with some sort of unique encounter with the villains to make these villains truly sing. There is one standout side activity that really leaves its mark on the player, and it has very little to do with the activity itself: Professor Pyg and his “The Perfect Crime” finale. It is a horrifying, memorable boss battle in with unique enemies (the Dollotrons), unique mechanics (Pyg and his Dollotron’s invulnerabilities), and an environment that really pays homage to what makes this villain iconic (his laboratory/captive chamber beneath his beauty parlor). So why does Rocksteady give Pyg an excellent outing sequence when Dent gets a generic-fucking-takedown while robbing a random-ass-bank?

From Asylum to Knight to Asylum

Going back to what I opened with, I just want to bring Arkham Asylum back into this equation. Batman isn’t Batman without his incredible cast of antagonists. In Arkham Asylum, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Bane, Joker and Killer Croc are the positioned in the foreground as primary villains. Each has a dedicated space of the asylum that feels distinctly “theirs.” Each villain is given so much time and space to breath and torment our Bruce. For the tertiary villains who do not make it into the game, Rocksteady can’t help but at least acknowledge their existence as beloved characters in this world by filling every corner of the asylum with their memorabilia. More than that, they use riddles to guide the player toward these lovingly crafted homages.

Arkham Asylum is not bloating with generic open world content that feels like is purely in service of the “perceived value” of their retail box. Instead, Arkham Asylum is bloated with an uncontrollable love and affection for its source material. Every villain is given their time and space to shine in the way that feels distinctly them (even if this sometimes leads to gimmicky boss battles). Rather than be berated over the radio by forced VO narrative for every villain imaginable, the player collects patient interview recordings of the game’s cast to better understand their pathologies. That feels so authentically Batman.

In looking at the side mission content in Arkham Knight, I can’t help but get the impression that Rocksteady has lost its passion for the Batman property. As a really big Batman fan, it almost breaks my heart.

(I can’t believe I made it to the end without mentioning Deathstroke. For fuck sake. He’s like the quintessential example of Rocksteady clearly not giving a fuck about these characters. Ugh. Cutting this off now.).

8 Comments

Guild Wars 2: Tossing out the old

What Guild Wars 2 tosses out the window...

I was sort of offended by Jeff's comments on the most recent Bombcast. It was almost as if he dismissed Guild Wars 2 as being yet another MMORPG. Granted, he played very little of it, but I'd argue that dismissing the game as being too traditional and mostly irrelevant by today's standards is wholly unfounded.

The MMORPG genre is known for relying on conventions a little too strictly. Developers aren't taking a lot of chances, and when they do, they fail miserably. I thought I'd take the time to outline the conventions that Guild Wars 2 dismisses entirely (or, at least, almost entirely). If you care about Guild Wars 2, you'll probably already know all this stuff; if you don't, well you'd better sit down and pay attention: these are the reasons why people are so goddamn interested in this game.

So without further ado, here is what Guild Wars 2 throws out the window...

Questing

In its traditional form, questing is gone. To give you a little purpose for killing mobs, there are four alternatives to the traditional questing model in Guild Wars 2:

Dynamic and meta-events make zone structure a nightmare to design, I imagine.
      1. Dynamic Events - Dynamic events are area-specific quests that spontaneously pop up around the world, often having several objectives that contribute to their completion. You’re awarded gold, karma, and experience based proportionately on your contribution to the event. Dynamic events can chain together, leading to other dynamic events based on the successes and failures of previous events. Example: you’re walking by a harbor, and a dynamic event springs into your interface; as it turns out, you must defend a submarine from being attacked by an underwater enemy faction. If destroyed, a new event may require you to repair the submarine.
      2. Meta Events - Meta events are a string of related dynamic events that affect the world in a meaningful way. Each zone has several meta events that fundamentally change each section of a zone. Some meta events lead to massive world bosses, others create or destroy NPC hubs. Example: a centaur force ravages the northern area of a zone. At one end of the meta event chain, centaurs have captured all NPC hubs, at the other, they’re pushed back into their stronghold and are ultimately defeated.
      3. Hearts - Hearts are NPC vendors scattered around the world and displayed on the map (if you talk to a scout). These are social NPC hubs where vendors open up shop for your karma currency if they like you enough. Each hub has many activities to engage in, from drinking games at a tavern to milking cows. They exist to guide you around the world, as traditional questing hub progression ceases to exist in a ‘dynamic’ world. Here's a video of Totalbiscuit starting off by doing some Heart tasks (which he believes to be a dynamic event), but quickly stumbles into a event, followed by a meta-event chain. It does a solid job showcasing the natural flow of content exploration and how the three main open world questing types interact.
      4. Personal Story - You have a unique, instanced personal story similar to the first Guild Wars. Initially based on your race, your story develops and changes based on the decisions you make throughout your adventure, and when you create your character. Each time you begin a personal story quest, you’ll be brought into your own singleplayer adventure and participate in heavily-scripted, story-driven encounters. If you like, you can invite friends to play through your story cooperatively. Think of this as a more moldable version of The Old Republic's class quests, without the awkwardly limiting instanced doorways. On a related note, you also have a home district in your race's home city; this is an instanced place that evolves and changes based on your progress and decisions. In this video, you'll see a player navigating Divinity's Reach, heading into their home instance, and engaging in a personal story quest from within that instance. Shows off how varied ArenaNet's personal story encounters are, and how effectively they link encounters with narrative in a filler-free system.

      Holy trinity

      You've probably heard this one a fair bit, and I'm sure you're quite a skeptic. From a design standpoint, ArenaNet effectively removes the ability to specialize into traditional combat roles in a variety of ways:

      No more needing to wait around for a specific role? Yes please.
      • There is no traditional aggro mechanic, no taunting
      • There are no direct/targeted heals other than self-heals
      • The strongest heals in the game are self-heals
      • Heavy use of the cooldown forces players to not become reliant on a single skill/set of skills; this encourages players to interchangeably fulfill roles relative to their cooldowns
      • Dodging and control skills give everyone the ability to mitigate damage, regardless of resilience
      • Distance-as-aggro mechanic allows all players to quickly gain enemy attention, and swap with other players
      • Every class has the ability to heal, every class has the ability to mitigate damage
      • Skills can be swapped around out of combat, allowing players to swap in and out of various strategies and compositions out of combat
      There is next to no penalty for playing with other players.

      Solo play

      You can still play by yourself. But everything from loot to crafting resource nodes is instanced and generated specifically for you. If you’re on an adventure and find a vein of ore with another person, there is no rush: you can both mine it, and the rewards will be instanced for the both of you. There is no mob tagging, experience is given out fully so long as you contribute enough to the kill. Following other players, even out of a group, leads to a cooperative, enjoyable adventure as opposed to a headache. The only real benefit that group gives you is the UI addition to track their health more easily and the private group chat.

      Loot rolls

      If you and your higher leveled friend kill a level 14 mob, you’ll get gear and money appropriate to your level, and he’ll get gear and money appropriate for his level. When a mob dies, each player loots unique gear for a kill, scaled to your level. No more rolling, no more ninjas, no more walking away from a boss kill without getting something.

      Leveling

      You’re probably thinking: well, there’s nothing stopping a level 80 from one-shotting level 2 mobs and walking away with handfuls of level 80 gear with this before-mentioned system. Actually, there is. You scale downward to the content that you’re doing. If you walk into a level 14 area, you’ll be scaled down in power to match that zone. Sounds like a bummer, but all the loot and gear is scaled up to match your level. What this means is that a level 79 player can quest in any zone across the whole map, even with his level 2 friend and still have a fun, productive time. Levels only exist to gate you from higher level content, but even then, you can freely sidekick up to match a buddy’s level (and all that gear will be level-appropriate scaled downward as well).

      It wouldn't be an RPG without leveling. But the downscaling and the lack of an exponential leveling curve means that your level feels a lot less obstructive and limiting to your gameplay experience.

      Gear-grind

      There is no traditional gear grind. Simple as that. Instead, ArenaNet’s end-game is a little more varied: collectibles everywhere, exploration, achievements, titles, PvP, community stuff, and many other things. Gear is entirely absent from PVP matches, and only plays a minor role in World vs. World.

      Raiding

      Paired with the above, there is no traditional raiding. You’ve got 5-man dungeons that all have “hard modes.” And of course, you have absolutely massive meta-events across the entire world to engage in. Some of the larger world events and bosses require at least 50 players to tackle--so sure, there’s still raiding. It’s just a bit more dynamic, and much larger in scale. I, personally, think this is the right way to approach world bosses. They're complex encounters that you could directly compare to traditional MMO raid encounters... just a bit, well, bigger.

      Subscription fees

      ArenaNet funds their content through box sales and harmless cash shops. They believe the subscription fee is simply something that stands in the way of new players, and forces players to squeeze every hour out of their monthly fee as possible. More than that, a lack of a subscription fee means they don’t have to artificially drag players along a treadmill (like gear-grinding).

      Rotations and Priorities

      You only have a set number of abilities on your bar at a time (sort of like a deck of cards), most of those abilities have a cooldown and a variety of tactical uses. What does this translate to? Combat is reactive and dynamic instead of practiced. You could equip yourself with an ability that throws down a massive wall of fire, powering up allies with buffs, and setting enemies ablaze when they walk through. More than that, powers interact. If a ranger shoots an arrow through your wall of fire, it’ll light up and deliver burning on anything he hits.

      In essence, ArenaNet condenses down your traditional rotation into a single damage button (which some loadouts don't even have--like the Mesmer's staff set), and a variety of situation-specific abilities that should be used at opportune times, rather than used as frequently as possible. What does this do? Well, it forces your eyes off your action bar, and back up onto the battlefield.

      Shards

      By shards, I'm talking about the traditional MMORPG server model. You log into a server, create a character, and generally have to pay to switch servers. It's a problem when it comes to playing with friends, but not a problem in Guild Wars 2. Basically, you choose a home server, and this will act as your semi-permanent server for all your characters. This will be the home team that you will represent in World vs. World gameplay. At any point, you can freely 'visit' any of the other servers to play with friends, or do as you like. Quest up, do some organized PVP, whatever you like. At the end of the day, you come back to your home server while retaining any of the progress you had made with your friend. The only limitation with this system is that you can't engage in World vs. World PVP while visiting another server. And they've stated that you'll be able to reallocate home servers with microtransactions if you want to.

      Where do you want to go exploring?

      Obsolete Content

      The game has one faction, scaled loot, and scaled player level. What does this mean? There is no obsolete content in the game. At any level, you can travel to any zone, play with any player, and still have an experience that is completely relevant to you. Scaling down won't be worth entirely the same experience as non-scaled content, but it'll certainly be rewarding enough to not discourage you from exploring lower leveled areas. If there's a massive world boss in the Sylvari 1-10 area, a level 80 Charr can travel to that region, take on that boss, have a hell of a time killing it, and walk away with some 75-80 gear as a reward. Add to this the fact that ArenaNet doesn't need to split their content available to you in half with a second faction, and you end up with a ton of content available to you at any level.

      Quest Rewards

      The game has a karma currency system. As you participate in events and do stuff around the world, you accrue karma. By fulfilling hearts around the world, you open up unique vendors that sell you karma goods. They effectively open up a large window of karma goods, and allow you to spend your karma on whatever cool gear you want. You're never forced to choose between two options that you couldn't care less for. You only spend karma when you want to. Personal story tasks still give you traditional quest rewards, but they aren't the primary form of questing... so it doesn't really count, right?

      Server Queues

      A neat little feature, won't spend too much time on it. But there are no server queues. When you try to log into a full server, you'll be pushed into an overflow server. You can do events, kill stuff, and whatever you like. When it's your time to join into the game, a dialogue box will pop up and ask you as to whether or not you'd like to start playing with the main server population. Simple as that.

      PVE / PVP Server Distinctions (+open world griefing)

      In traditional MMORPGs, you generally have server rule-sets. Some are PVP, some are PVE. This distinction typically divides communities with debates (an issue our very own Kessler Run and Good Luck Have Bothans had to deal with). In Guild Wars 2, there is one server type. All PVP content is accessed via a queuing system, and PVE is player-grief-free. Without multiple factions, it is rather difficult to have open world PVP after all. Obviously the brilliant inclusion of World vs. World content was created to offset this design challenge. I mean, ArenaNet knows that if players don't get to stab others outside of a controlled environment, people are going to rage.

      Fashion Disasters

      I love this skittle Trooper.

      Okay. Well, there are still going to be fashion disasters. But the dye system in Guild Wars 2 allows you to set a colour scheme, change it at any time, and all your armor will match that colour. This isn't really a new thing, DC Universe Online had a similar system. But it's a welcome addition that we often don't see. Beyond the colour schemes, you have the ability to apply any gear's stats to any other gear's cosmetic look. It also gives players another delicious collectible to obsess over: dyes! Basically, dyes are account-bound when acquired. So building up a dye inventory will drive OCD types bananas!

      Honourable Mentions

      • Homing ranged attacks
      • Elevation being combat-irrelevant
      • Linear skill acquisition
      • Talent trees
      • Commitment to particular crafting specializations
      • Resource mechanics (save Thief's initiative)
      • Single-objective tasks
      • Targeting

      --

      So there you have it. They clearly give no fucks about tradition, and personally, I think they should be applauded for that. Questions, thoughts, corrections? Go for it.

      50 Comments

      What a gem...

      Browsing the marketplace, looking at the higher-end (ratings) of the games on demand. Stumbled into Sacred 2: Fallen Angel. Man, this game is an absolute gem. Everything from the campy CGI intro to the infinite depth of the gameplay systems--I'm probably 40 hours into the game, and I still feel like I don't understand everything. 
       
      The game has such a uniquely European charm; I mean: 
      a) I discovered that there's a certain class customization option that breaks the game completely--permanently making you invisible, akin to the Oblivion perma-stealth 
      b) rather than fixing certain broken professions, the game developer simply removed them 
      c) some of the clothing options look ridiculous--in the most comical ways 
      d) your character's unique commentary on combat scenarios feature some golden examples of horrid voice acting 
       
      Ugh! I love it. 40 hours in and I'm about 30% through the content. I'm level 26 (of a 200 level cap). Honestly, if anyone has $24.99 to spend, I'd highly recommend this massive, open-world, Diablo-styled RPG. What a gem.

      9 Comments