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Posted by project343 (2897 posts) -

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

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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.

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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

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.).

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#1 Edited by Humanity (18586 posts) -

I had the same agonizing "thats it?" moment during that final Two Face robbery. Did a glide kick and a take down and was kind of shocked that this isn't going to be a unique encounter. Just like Firefly, just like everything else outside of the main story progression this was an arbitrarily copy pasted set of events that culminate in exactly nothing. The main game has some issues but is otherwise fairly interesting and somewhat varied when they're not beating you over the head with how a single thing works - here is the Batmobile, the next 2 hours are full of only Batmobile puzzles; here is the decoder, the next two hours are full of decoder puzzles. The side content is so depressingly empty of narrative and creativity that I can only imagine they ran out of steam, time, or both.

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#2 Posted by Shindig (4835 posts) -

I started replaying Origins the other day and, whilst they never really made good on 70% of it, they set that game up nicely with the assassins. Shame they splurged all that promise inside the first couple of hours and thinned out the villain pool.

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#3 Edited by poobumbutt (951 posts) -

THIS POST CONTAINS MENTION OF THINGS THAT WILL PROBABLY MAKE YOU LESS HYPE ABOUT CERTAIN PARTS OF ARKHAM KNIGHT, BUT NOT NECESSARILY SPOILERS.

Mine was definitely Deathstroke. Fight him in the WORST sequence type of all: a Batmobile fight. And when you just get down to you and him, you can literally play "Ring Around the Rosie" with a building to constantly get shots on his side and guarantee an easy escape route. Did that mission with NO damage. After that, Deathstroke jumps out of his tank in a properly dramatic fashion to attack you head on... At which point you jump-attack him, push him into the B-car and stick a fork in 'em. This is Deathstroke! A guy who has somewhat of a history besting Batman in close quarters combat. Between this and Origins, did they forget, is this a different universe, or is someone on the Rocksteady/WB Montreal villain plan team just a butthurt Bat-fan?

In Origins, you at least had a fight with him; a super easy, QTE fight, but still. Now he's reduced to being taken out in cutscene and taunted about "letting his guard down". He's Deathstroke, Bruce. He's basically you plus super soldier serum, so you can fuck right off with your aloofness.

At least when I took out Harvey, I did so with an inverted takedown, so there was a LITTLE Batman flair.

I don't know, I feel so conflicted about these. For example, I think the Manbat intro was fucking hilarious (it got me; then again later when Joker did it. I know, shut up.) and the video you watch when you get to his lab is genuinely creepy. I half expected Bat to just jump through a wall and scare me half to death. Furthermore, even though Manbat ends up being nothing of a threat at all, turning on Detective Vision to see a giant skeleton soaring through the air above me is super creepy. Reminds me of Mothman. It makes me think that if RS wanted to, they could probably make a good horror game. Maybe not true survival horror: low bullets, slow pace, etc. but something with some legit atmosphere for sure. Anyway, point is, for a lot of these, they get the "feel" right I think. Short as it is, the "Fox is Missing!" Quest was pretty cool while it lasted. But the flipside is that the execution - obviously in a game like this, the most important thing - falls very, very flat. The aforementioned quest is solved, literally, by the press of a single button. Like, what?!

But the result of this - and I'm a little ashamed to say this 'cause I feel like I'm praising mediocrity - is I still think back on those missions, like the Murder Mystery, Manbat and so on and think "they really nailed the feel of those. They made me scared, inquisitive, angry etc. when they wanted to. They were cool." I don't think of how the gampeplay of those sequences turned out and come away with a positive outlook. I feel like I've been duped or something. Like I'm forgiving a half-cooked burger because of some pretty good barbecue sauce. Hm... Yeah, lets go with that simile, sure.

Bah. I can't be distracted by this. I need to find all those Riddler trophies! *sobs quietly*

Edit: "Rissler"? Dammit, me...

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#4 Posted by Falconer (2124 posts) -

I'm not saying you're wrong... But every time I turn my Xbox off after a session of Batman, I come away saying "FUCK YEAH BATMAN!"

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#5 Edited by project343 (2897 posts) -

@poobumbutt:The Deathstroke stuff was actually some of my favourite parts of Origins (granted, I never actually finished the game--felt way too samey for me). A cutthroat battle of reflexes is actually how the whole Batman vs. Deathstroke thing should go.

Manbat, for me, was a huge letdown. It was such an easy objective. Introducing him the way that they did was pretty novel, but then he just sort of casually flaps away. The video footage at the lab works pretty well as origin material, but boy does it feel convoluted and forced. What are the odds that this extremely thorough footage of the Manbat origin was playing on loop in his laboratory? It's the sort of side mission that really gives you the impression that they were short of time. They wanted to desperately include him in the game, but didn't have the time to flesh out even partially developed encounters with him.

Fox is Missing/Friend in Need was one of those neat little moments that felt on-par with the main campaign. They had a cool idea, executed it well, and the payoff worked out great. The only problem is something that you mentioned: it was way too short. There was little for the player to actually do with this one. It was a quick, 5 minute scripted narrative sequence. Again, it sort of feels like their ambitions got the better of their development time. Hush deserves a little better than a quick exchange like that; I sort of wish that there was a prolonged, gadgetless infiltration of Wayne Tower with some subtle hints along the way.

@falconer said:

I'm not saying you're wrong... But every time I turn my Xbox off after a session of Batman, I come away saying "FUCK YEAH BATMAN!"

The game fucking rocks. Totally on my GOTY list. I'm just making the argument that a lot of the side content is a bit half-baked, and doesn't respect one of the most important aspects of Batman: his incredible and varied cast of accompanying villains. It sort of makes the game feel like Assassin's Creed: Gotham sometimes.

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#6 Posted by JCGamer (770 posts) -

@falconer said:

I'm not saying you're wrong... But every time I turn my Xbox off after a session of Batman, I come away saying "FUCK YEAH BATMAN!"

--yup, this is the exact same feeling I have about the game as well (except on the PS4)

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#7 Edited by Jesus_Phish (3766 posts) -

The "fight" against Deathstroke almost made me put the controller down and just turn the console off as soon as I saw I was going to be in the Batmobile and then when I realized it was just the same fight as the Arkham Knight that feeling sunk even deeper. But then I thought "No wait - maybe what will happen is I'll blow up his tank, and then we'll go into a melee". But no. That never happened.

I think this game would've been better if they removed almost, if not all, of the side content. Great write up. I completely agree with it.

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#8 Edited by Brodehouse (10812 posts) -

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..

Holy shit, that's terrible. Imagine the Witcher telling you you're 36% done a story quest after you see the first twist or false end. There's no way to build any sort of drama or sense of verisimilitude, that innate feeling of existing inside a setting, when it is so relentless about making everything seem slight, fake and a foregone conclusion.

My mouth literally dropped reading that. Now that I think about it, I think Arkham City basically did the same thing. Throwing completion percentages for narrative sequences in people's faces is 100% against the entire point of having an open world. The open world is supposed to give you the sense that anything can happen, and that you might stumble upon something unexpected. Reading that is so disappointing, that seems like it's the result of a lot of focus group meddling. 'Research indicates people are happier when they know how long a mission will take and how many they will have to do and what will happen in them'.

It seems like it's been a million years since they made the superlative Arkham Asylum.

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#9 Posted by LaudaSolem (178 posts) -

Finished AK a couple days ago. Now just wrapping up the tedious task of 243 riddler trophies (did it have to be 243? 200 would've been more than enough). Loved the game, the presentation, the atmosphere. The environment was more fleshed out due to next-gen hardware. AK gives you a lot of value for its price. I spent about 40 hours on it, my kind of mileage for a $60 game.

Parts I disliked: arbitrary way of doing missions and missions that were arbitrary in themselves. Jack Ryder's suddenly been captured by a crazy cult? Time to rescue him. What the hell? The Firefly thing was stupid, and I don't care for Firefly as a villain anyway. It was lame to keep putting out the fires, waiting for him to emerge, taunt you, and lead you on a chase. I did like the Manbat b/c it looked so damn creepy. The Penguin and Two-face missions were likewise uninspired albeit fun. Professor Pyg was prob the most fun I had given how wacked out he was and the cool murder mystery that led to confronting him.

In sum, AK was a blast and Rocksteady should be praised for the amount of work it took to make it.

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#10 Posted by Lazyimperial (486 posts) -

Nice thread, topic creator. I agree with a lot of your points, though my Two Face takedown was actually rather epic.

Well, kind of. I didn't know that we could hack escalators until I accidentally did it to Two Face. The first time I did it, I stared in bewildered awe as it hitched back and forth before hurling him downward. "What a total dick move on my part," I thought. :-P When he came to a stop at the bottom of the steps, I was sure he was done... but nope. Instead, he got up and growled out a threat of revenge as he walked right onto another escalator. I actually felt bad about the second one, but I had to know. Turns out that two is all it takes. Incidentally, he was Two Face after all. Kind of makes numerical sense in hindsight. Guffaw.

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#11 Posted by 49th (3886 posts) -

I was disappointed with most of the side missions, especially Deathstroke as some people have mentioned. The Batmobile stealth sections were the worst parts of the game and to have such a dangerous villain reduced to a tank battle was a shame.

I actually had a pretty amazing encounter with Two-Face; I took out everyone first, then sabotaged his gun, dropped down directly in front of him and let him explode.

There was a ton of potential for interesting boss battles and none of it was fulfilled.

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#12 Posted by Nasar7 (3223 posts) -

In my world Batman doesn't respect Two-Face so taking him down like the common criminal he is is exactly what he deserves. Too much shit is going down that night for him to waste time trying to appeal to Dent's sane half. Ditto for Deathstroke. While the fight was lame, I really don't care about the character so having Batman take him out like that was, while anticlimactic, ok with me. Especially after him and all the other villains taunting you over loudspeaker all night. Like, no, fuck you, I'm Batman. That all said I'm probably a huge Batman fanboy. I do agree that the side missions are overall very lame. More egregious for me was the hack job that was the main story, especially in regards to Jason Todd.

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#13 Posted by hippie_genocide (2417 posts) -

I think WB may have patched the Two-Face fight because on my first playthrough I took him down fast and it faded to black, but on my NG+ playthrough I did the same but still had to take out all the henchmen. I don't think that makes it materially better, but well there it is. Overall, AK is pretty lackluster compared to the other Batman games. It's fairly apparent they were out of ideas after Asylum and City, so they said um well here's the batmobile. There's one interesting side quest (Professor Pyg) and two interesting story sequences (Ace Chemicals and Panessa Studios duo with Robin). Visually and mechaincally its great, but the whole thing feels soulless. So much so, that I'd rank it as the worst of the Arkham games, and not just ones made by RockSteady. I could launch into a whole rant about how I think the backlash against Origins is unjust, but I'll save that for another day.