We didn't have Batcode for Batman: Arkham Kerniggut [official site] until yesterday (perhaps because of issues with the PC version), so Adam's full verdict is a little way off yet, but as both he and Alec have been playing it when they can, they had a chat about what's working and not working in their experiences so far. Does the transforming, deathdealing Batmobile open up or limit the Batman simulation? Could the wonky voice-acting be deliberate? Can a mere human really hope to master all those combos? All these things and more are dicussed, but one thing that isn't is the kerfuffle about performance problems in the PC version of the game. We wrote plenty about that yesterday, so wanted to concentrate on the game itself for this particular piece.
Alec: THE BAT-LIKE MAN IS RETURNED.
Adam: I missed the Bat-like Man. I didn’t realise I’d missed him until I was fairly deep into the game though. A couple of hours maybe.
I’m apparently 45% of the way through the story now and it is throwing more and more ridiculous scenarios at me and almost all of them are entertaining. I’ll say right here, before going any further, that the Arkham games (Origins aside) are probably my favourite triple A things, partly from an abiding yet dwindling love of the setting and characters that goes back to childhood, and partly because I find Rocksteady’s systems really fun to play with.
This, when it settles into its groove, is far better at accommodating the open city aspect than Arkham City was. I initially, particularly through the trailer barrage, felt that it would be too big, in terms of story, spectacle and space, and I’d still love a quieter, smaller Batman story, but this is spectacle done right. I’m really impressed. But enough of my blathering. What say you?
Alec: I’m going to play the part of Doubting Thomas (Wayne), partly because you’ve played a whole lot more than I have and partly because there is some stuff that’s concerned me. I’m maybe two hours in, and I’m finding the spectacle of it all to be glorious. And, while I keep quiet about in the name of looking all high and mighty, I had my own Bat-phase as a young ‘un and know exactly who everyone is and whether they’re being faithfully presented or not. So don't tell anyone, but I’m getting kicks out of that side of things. The game's not clicked for me yet. I know it's early and all's subject to change, but I’m particularly struggling with three aspects.
1) The voice-acting. I know Arkham City set a precedent for dodgy accents, but quite a few of the actors here sound stilted and artificial or even embarrassed to be there. Poison Ivy, Commissioner Gordon, whoever’s under the Arkham Knight’s vocoder… It’s at odds with the EVERYTHING IS VERY SERIOUS AND EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE tone, and unlike the Schumacher joints I’m not convinced it’s deliberate.
Adam: Before we move onto the second point, let’s agree on this one. Gordon’s biggest problem, for me, is that he sounds too much like Batman. It’s as if he’s decided that they’re having a gruff-off and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t win it. Doesn’t work. Although he has a good shouty bit. Maybe he should just shout all the time.
And Arkham Knight sounds like a goof. I’m hoping, foolishly, that there’s a point to that. I want the computer-voice disguise nonsense to fall away and - OH MY GOD - it was intentionally so ridiculously out of character for whoever is revealed to be under the cowl-that-is-not-the-cowl that it’s all worthwhile. But, no, it is a bobbins voice.
I love love love Scarecrow’s new Vincent Price-esque horror villain campness though. It’s wonderful. I hadn’t realised John Noble was doing the voicework this time around until you mentioned it yesterday and it’s so obvious now. Great addition. There’s a wonderful moment when the Penguin’s accent gets the kicking it deserves - along with the very obvious statement that he’s putting it on to sound well ‘ard, but it feels like the game’s trying to make a joke about the fact that the voices are a bit crap. So, yes, I broadly agree on that. Second point is going to be the Batmobile, isn’t it?
Alec: The second point is that the rain does not fall at an accurate angle for that part of North America, and thus the game should be pulled from sale. No, yeah, it’s the Batmobile. Agreed on Scarecrow though - John Noble makes many bobbins things eminently watchable - and I have a whole bunch of theories about who the Knight might be which could possibly redeem him/her, but still, I wish the game would either consciously tilt into Oh Hey Let’s Do 60s Batman or do what they did with Scarecrow and just cast everyone over again. Making excuses isn't cool if you're still making people listen to hours of guff. And poor old Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad as Gordon is just mourning that he hasn’t got a film career yet and has to do this shit instead, isn’t he?
Anyway, Batcar. I don’t hate it and I can see its potential, but I wish it had turned up later on. This ties into my third point, but there’s so much to learn and do, and the mobile steals so much focus immediately that I don’t feel I know the fundamentals of the game yet. However, I’m torn, because on the one hand there are puzzles which involve making the Batmobile robo-walk slowly across rooftops which somehow don’t collapse, and on the other hand there are puzzles which involve making the Batmobile robo-walk slowly across rooftops which somehow don’t collapse. It’s awful and it’s glorious. Right now, overall though, I wish the Batmobile was just a car, rather than a Michael Bay Transformer. It can do too much, too much of my exploration seems to depend on those abilities, and it feels too front and centre given I’m here to be Batman rather than a robo-car.
Adam: I’ll take the slightly long way around here - up a building, into robo-crawl mode and then back onto the road with some kind of response.
I get overfaced very easily. If a game throws lots of things at me, icons everywhere, subplots and sidemissions, I tend to scrabble around in the dirt trying to do them all even if I’m not enjoying myself. I won’t move on from an area until I’ve cleaned it up, although it often seems like a chore to do that.
The first hour of Arkham Knight seemed like the worst of all possible worlds. As you say, the Batmobile is not only thrust front and centre, the dialogue, missions and everything else seem desperate to justify its inclusion. Every random thug has some comment about how FREAKING AWESOME BATMAN’S CAR IS. IT’S LIKE A TANK. It eventually sounds like a focus group trying to convince me that I really do want the car and the car is great and the car is mighty. When I realised I was going to spend so much time in its company (and it feels like a secondary character, particularly with the remote control that lets me be Bats and the car as separate entities, solving puzzles together), I was miffed.
And then there were side missions popping up, distractions and The Sodding Riddler. I hated it, felt completely overwhelmed and underwhelmed simultaneously.
After the first major story mission (ACE Chemicals), I felt everything settled into a good rhythm though and I was surprised by how naturally the side missions fit. There’s a really small but brilliant modification, different to City and most other open world type things, in that missions aren’t always available. You’ll check the screen, see that there are things to do but there’s often no lead. Then, through radio chatter, a lead appears and you can follow it up. Fail, and you wait for the lead again - or explore independently in some cases. So the icons, those dreaded Ubi-quitous icons, have a flow built into them that helps the pacing and my need to do everything all at the same time. I’ll stop typing for a while but will say a little more about the Batmobile before the end.
Alec: I’m optimistic about the side-missions. My favourite bit so far was the serial killer case, which as you say dries up immediately because there are no leads, then as I’m randomly winging across the city I hear opera music, which means there’s another body nearby. So the case naturally resumes. Though it was a bummer that Bats and Oracle had to go into OMG IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED mode. Yes, I had noticed, and I felt clever about it, and now I don’t because you feel you need to tell me everything. But I hope there’s a bunch more stuff like that, where I’m the wandering crime fighter but it isn’t the constant distraction and grasshopper mind of Arkham City: I’m making decisions about what’s a priority rather than being pressured into constant course-changing.
What about that Batmobile, then?
Adam: If finds its place. It’s just that the place for it definitely isn’t the bloody beginning of the game. What’s interesting is that it’s used in two specific ways that work and a couple that don’t work quite so well.
One of my big concerns going into the game was the entire military presence in Arkham. Drones and soldiers and ugh. Rightly or wrongly, I want Batman to be fighting the wicked and the weird, not the military-industrial complex or some revolutionary force with no real purpose. The Batmobile tips the balance, however, by demonstrating that Batman is a military force when he wants to be and some of the non-story missions I’m playing right now, ramming APCs off the road and tumbling through tunnels and graveyards in pursuit of the Knight’s lieutenants, are completely different to anything in the series before. It’s a new thing to do and it works well, particularly when all the bridges have been opened and chases take off dynamically across the entire city.
It also works for the character, I think. Shows that the money and the preparation are being put to good use. Military occupation? OK, sure. I have a massive car. The other way that it works is in the puzzling sense - The Riddler stuff irritates a lot of people, I know, but there’s some smart and totally optional car shifting puzzles. How do you get a massive vehicle across a complicated series of obstacles? I enjoy it.
As a way to travel around Arkham, it’s an odd thing though. The gliding is so much improved that I feel that the Batmobile is unnecessary. It’s slower than traversing by air and rooftop most of the time. But it’s incorporated well in the sense that smashing the city and its traffic to bits is fine in the context of the occupation. Then there’s the combat, which took a while to click with me but I am enjoying a great deal now. Wait - that’s three things I like and one thing I’m unsure about. My initial calculations were way off.
I like the car.
Alec: I think thematically there’s some Dark Knight Returns stuff going on, isn’t there? Batman’s become hardened and more excessive due to the events of the last game, so he’s gone full military/full fascist with the Batmobile. Shock and awe rather than silent predator. He’s clearly straight-up murdering people with its machineguns and whatnot, which the dialogue tries to deny with assorted hand-waving, but come-on. That’s a deathmachine and he knows it, and in a way I’d be more interested in an exploration of what happens when Batman becomes GTAman than how he beats the baddies again. I don’t think Arkham Knight is especially interested in that, as it seems consciously pulpy, but we’ll see.
My third point was more generally about complexity, which clearly is something you’re enjoying, but as a parent (as 90% of my sentences now begin) without too much spare time on my hands it is genuinely frightening to look at that list of moves, already far, far longer than before even without the Batmobile stuff thrown in and know that I a) have to learn all that stuff, and somehow make my inept hands activate all those intricate combos b) cannot stop playing for more than a day or two or I’ll forget it all. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, as it’s kind of great that there’s a game which is so unapologetically demanding and game-y in an era where most action titles of a similar budget try to do everything for us, but a big part of me wants to be able to just be Batman rather than have to do almost as much training as it took Bruce to become him.
Adam: The move list is ridiculously overblown - half of the things that it separates out as distinct actions are just the same thing in a slightly different context. Although that’s not to say the game isn’t full of things to remember and learn, I’m just flabbergasted that someone made the decision to throw that massive honeycomb of actions at people within the first few minutes. I suppose it’s intended to say “look at how much you can do!” but I just thought “there is no way i will ever be able to do all of that”.
Have you tried playing on easy? Serious suggestion! I don’t think you need to know half of the counters, or at least you don’t need to be quite so precise on the timing of them. Also, just park the Batmobile near every fight and use the combo takedown with it, partly because it’s hilarious but also because it’s easy to charge.
The hilarity of throwing somebody into the air and then shooting them with a remote riot gun is a neat enough segueway to militant/fascist Batman. I don’t think the game is going down that road too far because - and I will not spoil anything here - it has a different take on Batman’s state of mind. I don’t know how much you know but it’s an absolutely ridiculous development that I love and it leads to some of the best character-work anyone’s done with these Batfolks and their Batfiends for a long time. Arkham City’s story was so big and overblown, and this one is as well, but they’ve remembered to make it personal. Daft nonsense but daft nonsense that cares about pushings its characters forward rather than just knocking them down so they can get back up again.
Alec: I look forwards to that. It’s completely inhuman at the moment, bar a bit of Oracle muttering “what would Dad say if he knew I was still here?” Like I say, I’m more partial to Batlore than I let on, but I could do with some emotional focus, if only to feel like something more than earning Waynetech points is at stake.
I dunno about Easy. I think this is a major life decision/crisis I’ve got ahead of me now: it may be the only way to play as many games as I want to play, but it feels like I’m cheating. More importantly it feels like I might be missing out on what makes action games mechanically interesting. Like, if there was an easy mode for Dark Souls or Bloodborne, I’d be negating the point of playing it at all, right?
These are my grievances so far, at any rate, but they haven’t combined to stop me playing. In fact, I’m trying to think how I can justify going to play some more during worktime right now. As you say, it’s just so good to be back in black, doing the city-gliding thing, that pristine punch-counter-punch rhythm of the combat, solving environmental puzzles on sight, wondering which ultra-goon you’ll run into next. I sorely miss the tightness of Arkham Asylum though: it still feels so much more like a Batman simulator than City or Knight so far did. The recent ones seem fixated on being All The Games almost more than they are on being The Best Possible Batman Game.
Adam: The Batmobile has started to feel like an extension of the character in a natural way now, for me. From finding it an uncomfortable, forced intrusion, I’m amazed by how well it fits into the flow of the game for me now. In that sense, I think that Knight might (and hopefully I’ll know by tomorrow, with Full Judgement) be a very good Batman simulator but it’s definitely a different Batman to the one in Asylum. I think the brilliance of that game was in the desperation of the situation to a great extent. It felt like Batman was threatened as much if not more than Arkham itself. He had to save himself before he could concentrate on saving everybody else.
City and (to an extent) Knight are more about the Batman who is in control of the conflict, rounding up goons and saving the day. I’m sure a breaking point is coming but it’ll likely be a moment, whereas Arkham Asylum felt like a game set entirely at that breaking point. Maybe it’d be too much to try and go back and Knight, much more than City, is helping me to see the sense of exploring this side of the scowl.
Oh, and Dark Souls on easy? The difficulty is less important than the learning process, so I reckon it’d be a good thing. But that’s an entirely different conversation…
Alec: Anyway, we’re agreed that you’re going to babysit my daughter for a month so I can play all these games properly.
Batman: Arkham Kerniggut is out now, though be warned that the PC version's shonky and you might want to wait for a patch. Adam's full Wot I Think will follow in the next day or two.