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Arkham Identity – Exploring the world of Batman gaming.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Tap Repeatedly here

“People think it’s an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It’s never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.”

Batman, Identity Crisis, 2004, by Brad Meltzer

Arkham Asylum

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

That quote more than anything, sums up the character that will form the centrepiece of this article, and one who has transcended printed page, cinema and television screen, and now onto gaming consoles and PCs. Batman has, over the years, become much more than just a comic book hero – he’s become an icon, a symbol of what can be achieved through sheer willpower and inner strength. He’s also become the protagonist of a series of games that have have brought together hardcore fans and gamers alike through storytelling, gameplay and a vibrant, rich universe.

 

The latest installment in the Arkham franchise looks to be the most formidable of all. Batman: Arkham Knight is now one of the most anticipated release titles of 2014. The trailer heralding it’s impending arrival was one of the most technically detailed and cinematic teases of recent years, and follows up three other games which have, in their own right, been successes that have given the character and his world the kind of depth that can only be achieved with years of painstaking storytelling and continuity.

But is Arkham Knight a step forward? Many a comic book geek will be glad that one of their most notable heroes is the face of a recognisable and successful franchise, while gamers can be pleased that a series that has so far successfully married both hand to hand combat and stealth is going from strength to strength. It’s also got to be said the source material’s moral code – Batman not being a killer and refusing to use guns – takes it away from games that are all too eager to tempt you into pulling the trigger, even when you don’t need to.

The drawback is that with success, comes compromise. Arkham Asylum was an out and out Batman adventure, with little expectation attached to it. It was only when it had been released, and the free flow combat system that would become the hallmark of the Arkham games was witnessed, did people outside of the Dark Knight’s traditional fanbase take notice.

Ask any non Batman fan prior to the release of the game what Arkham Asylum was, and most would be nonplussed. Rocksteady gave Arkham a life of it’s own, with architecture and geography that leapt off the screen. The tunnels, sewers and interiors of the buildings all had their own unique atmosphere, straddling a fine line between comic book design, and real world grittiness. The Asylum was alive, with trouble lurking around every corner. Compact, tight environments adding to the sense of being isolated on the Godforsaken island, were countered by open rooms where fighting, grappling, stealth and use of Batman’s gadgets were all essential to progress through the narrative. This isn’t a game with a structured path however, and the open parts of the island become more accessible as you upgrade your character. Part of the satisfaction of completing the storyline also came from making a note of trophies and collectables on your first walkthrough, tantalisingly out of reach, then returning with your completed arsenal at a later date and unlocking the puzzle.

Arkham Tunnel

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

 The storyline though, was pretty simple, but when integrated with Batman lore, made for an immensely satisfying experience. Batman brings The Joker to the Asylum for him to be interred, only to find out that his captive is one step ahead, having already organised a breakout and a plot to drive Batman mad. The Dark Knight then finds himself alone on the four quadrants of Arkham Island, forced to play The Joker’s game lest he detonate a series of bombs he’s hidden in Gotham City itself. If there’s any criticism, it’s that boss battles come in the form of thugs and inmates infused with Titan, an experimental drug the Joker wants more supplies of, turning them into juggernaut style behemoths. There is one glorious exception, but it’s more about getting Batman to move quickly and precisely, using his gadgets to his advantage, and learning when to attack, or stay out of sight.

Key to genre fans though, were the often chilling depictions of the Dark Knight’s traditional enemies. Bear in mind the game was released after the big screen depiction of Batman had moved away from the neon lights of Joel Schumacher’s vision to the brutal, harsh, violent reality inhabited by Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne. That world though, had no room for the the more outlandish members of Gotham’s rogue’s gallery. Yes, Heath Ledger by that point had provided what many people would consider the definitive big screen portrayal of The Joker, but for another generation, there was nothing better than seeing Mark Hamill’s voice, and laugh, coming out of the leering grin of Asylum’s evil clown.

The Joker

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

His Joker was not a terrorist, and while psychotic, he isn’t the chilling, unwashed lunatic of The Dark Knight. He’s a foppish clown with a nasty streak, fond of exploding false teeth and cracking one liners as he prepares to cave Batman’s head in. It’s that marrying of those two types of Joker that fits perfectly into Asylum, part Cesar Romero, part Ledger. Add to that a more outlandish version of The Scarecrow, a musclebound Bane true to his Hispanic roots, a terrifying mutated Killer Croc, a sexy and threatening Harley Quinn and a Poison Ivy that put Uma Thurman to shame, and you have an extensive list of enemies that Bat fans could look at with a big smile.

 

But therein lied Asylum’s problem – for a game that had garnered such plaudits for it’s gameplay, there was the potential to serialize the game, but how to do that and retain the core fanbase while giving new fans something they could latch on to? How many passing gamers played Asylum, thought it was cool, but actually knew the history of any of the characters, and were thus itching for an appearance from Ra’s al Ghul or Black Mask?

Rocksteady then had to balance a fine line with the release of the sequel, Arkham City. If you’ve never played it, then it is quite rightly hailed as a modern classic, which recaptures existing fans, but widens its scope to include those who never heard of Batman or his nemeses. City was inevitable after Asylum’s success, but it isn’t flawless. Gone is the claustrophobic setting of the first game, replaced by an even bigger open world that dwarfs the quadrants of it’s predecessor.

Arkham City

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

 Taking on the premise that “Evil Professor” Hugo Strange has convinced Gotham’s authorities to wall off a huge section of the city to create a gigantic prison, it allows Batman the freedom of movement that recalls inFamous and Spider Man 2. Batman eventually finds out that Strange is a pawn in a far more malevolent character’s plans, while all the time contending with being infected with a virus that is slowly killing The Joker too.

 

That’s the first of City’s problems – it can’t really decide who it wants it’s main antagonist to be. Hugo Strange is a pretty niche character, who again most mainstream players who had learned more about Bruce Wayne’s alter ego after Asylum, were probably left thinking “who?” when Strange was announced as the bad guy here. But as mentioned above, Strange eventually ends up being the fall guy for a more well known Batman villain, who had already had some screen time and was an integral part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Then there’s the Joker issue. Despite the impending doom that Strange’s benefactor is threatening, Batman gets drawn into a far more personal struggle with his perennial foe, and at some points that’s the detriment to the plot overall – it’s easy to get caught up in the fact this is Batman trying to save himself from being poisoned, rather than him trying to save Gotham. It’s almost as if Rocksteady were afraid to not put The Joker in the game, and the Strange plot wasn’t enough. But then again, was that the influence of making this game appealing to casual fans and gamers?

City does have far more interesting side quests than Asylum, making it feel much more of a world than the previous game. Here, The Riddler has his own missions separated from the main narrative, along with his trophies and riddles to be solved all over the map, while there are additional diversions from less well known villains like Hush and Deadshot. These are arguably included to please hard core Bat fans, and add to the longevity of the game but are sadly too brief, providing little context for why they do what they do, or their motivations for colliding with the protagonist.

The combat system remains from Asylum, but is upgraded to include achievements and unlockables for being innovative with your fighting skills. The game rewards you for creativity in the middle of your fights, encouraging you to use Batarangs, the Batclaw, freeze grenades and smoke bombs to increase your XP and therefore unlock more weapons. The gratifying part of this is that once you become adept at the controls, Batman becomes an extension of you. Therein lies the fun: Picking a group of enemies and knowing how you can incapacitate  each one before you even lay a finger on them gives you a real sense of Batman’s capabilities, and also makes the gameplay all the more satisfying. Being set on by a group of Two Face’s thugs at one point actually makes you feel like a challenge you have a chance of overcoming, rather than a daunting task that may depend on a quicktime event, luck, and precise timing.

Arkham City combat

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

 If City does have one weakness, it’s a lack of innovative boss battles. True, they are more varied than Asylum’s endless waves of Titan thugs, but compared to the rest of the game, they lack the inventiveness and challenges of the regular combat. Yes, each one is unique, but it’s a case of jumping out of the way, then using ranged attacks, little employing the wide and varied hand to hand combat styles that make random clashes with gangs of thugs roaming the streets such fun, and fulfil the experience.

But to overly criticise City would do it’s conclusion a disservice. If anything, it gets it’s ending completely right, providing a fitting conclusion to the story arc that has developed over the two games, and encapsulates the relationship between Batman and the Joker, and the lengths that both would go to in order to justify their actions. Without giving anything away, watch the opening shot of the game (the DLC version), and the final one, and you will see a wonderful closing of the circle. Even to casual gamers, Batman’s last action carries a note of poignancy, and the sad realisation that the greatest hero is defined by the actions of his villain. There is no fist pumping to be had at beating the game, no shout of elation or feeling of satisfaction. It’s very much an ending to be endured, and while this might sound like an anticlimax, when put in context with the unfolding storyline, it carries a resonance that will stick with you long after you have exited the game.

It would seem like a logical conclusion to leave the franchise there, but again, the Arkham series’ would prove to be a victim of it’s own success. Market success and the new wave of third generation consoles meant that Warner Brothers, the overall owners of the games, couldn’t afford to let the opportunity go, but Rocksteady passed on developing the third episode, particularly in such a short space of time (we know now why, as they’ve been putting their resource into Arkham Knight), and Warner therefore commissioned their own studio in Montreal to put together another game – but this one would be different.

Arkham Origins has been compared unfavourably to it’s predecessors, and part of that is the feeling that Rocksteady have cornered the market on the gaming version of the Dark Knight. Part of it is also down to the glitches not present in the previous two entries, that have frustrated console players. WB Montreal’s attempt though, is far from the mess some make it out to be, but it is by far the runt of the litter.

Rather than reboot the series – knowing that Rocksteady were working on the sequel to City, and couldn’t afford to tread on those toes, diluting the market – WB Montreal went down that other well trodden path – the prequel. Origins depicts Batman just out of vigilante school, still new to his chosen vocation. Hence, he isn’t familiar with his line up of enemies yet, and doesn’t know their strengths and weaknesses. This leads to a very different look for the protagonist, who dons body armour and far less subtle weaponry scavenged from some of his foes in order to make it through one Hellish night.

Arkham Origins combat

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

 The criticisms, and praise, for Origins, can be drawn into two distinct categories – storyline and gameplay. Initial trailers for the story hinted at a radically different approach from the previous two installments: Rather than averting some terrible fate about to befall Gotham, Batman himself is the target. Roman Sionis, otherwise known as the gangster Black Mask, puts up $50m as a bounty to anyone who can kill The Batman. Eight assassins take up the challenge: Electrocutioner, Bane, Copperhead, Deadshot, Deathstroke, Lady Shiva, Killer Croc and Firefly. That’s a mixture of completely new characters and old favourites reimagined as their younger selves. Batman has to fight his way through them in order to get to Sionis, while at the same time earning the trust of the Gotham City Police Department who at this stage of his career consider him a dangerous criminal.

 

However (and spoilers ahead if you haven’t yet played the game, but there’s no way to critique it without giving parts away), that initial premise doesn’t translate well to the actual game. If you thought this was going to be a series of exciting missions with eight distinct boss battles, think again. Croc is more of a tutorial at the start of the game, Electrocutioner is a one punch battle designed to show how inept he is, Deadshot and Lady Shiva are side missions with no connection to the main narrative, save for their desire to cash in on Sionis’ bounty. Deathstroke, Copperhead and Firefly are unique challenges not encountered in the series so far, and are both enjoyable and challenging, but on the flipside of that are two boss battles with Bane, one largely similar to the other, apart from the ending. Those two fights are very difficult compared to the rest of the boss battles, but there is an argument to say that with eight villains to choose from, why use the same one twice? Granted, this Bane is far more impressive than in the previous two games, and lends heavily from Tom Hardy’s interpretation in the Dark Knight Rises. He does however provide nothing new in terms of storyline, and I’d go as far to say that exploring an equally dangerous character like Deathstroke would have given the game far more depth and made it unique.

Bane

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

The biggest criticism though, is coloured purple and green. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that The Joker has abducted Sionis and is posing as him, putting up the bounty as a way to draw Batman out to confront him, and get to know his new “friend” a little better. Black Mask is a well rounded character in his own right, with a vicious streak and a very dark sense of humour – he would have made a fantastic antagonist in his own right. Did Origins really need The Joker to be the villain again? As it’s a prequel, it could have easily been set before The Joker even surfaced, and Batman could have tested his mettle against a new foe who had only been seen briefly and not even interacted with in previous Arkham games. It seemed like WB Montreal played it safe, sticking with familiar characters and interpretations, and the likes of Deathstroke and Firefly are interacted with all too briefly when they could have had a much larger role which would have expanded the universe without treading on the toes of it’s chronological descendants.

 

Familiarity is a watchword for Origins, as the gameplay just feels too safe, and offers no new challenges. The stealth sections are heavily reminiscent of Asylum’s stalk and takedown rooms, only not as challenging as if the player has played the previous two games, they already know exactly how to deal with the issue at hand. The free flow combat isn’t enhanced or changed from the previous entries, and the gadgets, with one exception, are similar if not identical to the ones found in Asylum and City. The Riddler trophies found in previous games are also far easier to pick up, and can be pretty much picked up straight away without any upgrades, except one. Some also present the exact same challenges that trophies in Arkham City did, and again, anyone with prior knowledge of how a particular puzzle worked would have no trouble solving one of Origins’ brainteasers.

Simple technical criticism has also been levelled at WB Montreal, with console gamers in particular complaining of Batman falling through the map, and the autosave system not allowing them to return to a previous checkpoint, loading issues that have corrupted save files and made people restart the whole game, and enemies getting stuck in walls or doors and preventing completion of objectives.

Origins glitch

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

 The other issue is multiplayer – something that Rocksteady deliberately avoided in it’s first two installments. They wanted to focus on the single player campaign, both to create an immersive experience and also to foster the “loneliness” of Batman (plus, who wants to be a gun toting thug when you can be Batman?). Origins chose to jettison that, and include a multiplayer mode where you can either be one of The Joker’s thugs or Bane’s. The fact the servers now seem chronically deserted tells it’s own story – the Arkham setting doesn’t lend itself well to the multiplayer scenario.

 

Origins isn’t a bad game – played before the other games it is a worthwhile entry in the series and provides an intriguing backstory to Batman and some of his foes, and for a beginner, there is no better foe to go up against than The Joker, given his polar opposite approach to The Dark Knight’s philosophy. The problem lies when it is compared to Asylum and City. Having already played those two, gamers returning to the franchise will find a game lacking in invention and creativity. They’ll find retreads of existing gameplay techniques and little to take the experience to a new level – they might also be frustrated at technical issues that could taint their opinion of the franchise as a whole.

That skepticism may well be tempered by the impressive trailer that foreshadows Arkham Knight, which should, logically, be the end of the lengthy tale of this incarnation of Batman. Given the reigns are once again being held by Rocksteady, hopes are high. The almost cinematic trailer is very, very reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, with a distinct lack of some of the more cartoonish elements present in the previous three episodes.

Technically, Rocksteady have courted controversy by saying that the game will only be available on PC, XBoxOne and PS4. Their rationale is that previous generation consoles contain insignificant power to deal with the level of detail the graphics on Arkham Knight will demand. A look at the trailer confirms that, with Batman’s suit alone said to take up as much processing power as the whole of the Arkham City game. Add that to an expanded, fully realised Gotham City that is said to make Los Santos look amateurish, and a drivable Batmobile, and it creates massive expectation.

Batmobile

Image via DC Comics/Rocksteady

 

Rocksteady have also been wise to delay the release of the game until the next generation of consoles have had most of their kinks and patches sorted out, and they can be confident their creation will not fall victim to the same problems that have plagued still-to-be-released titles such as Watch Dogs.

 

Arkham Knight also seems so far to have taken the step of removing The Joker from the game completely, and while the game’s true enemy was initially thought to have been The Scarecrow, it now seems the true villain of the piece will be a play on the title of the game. The Arkham Knight is said to be a completely original character, created by Rocksteady and DC writer Geoff Johns, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that persona merely being a cover for a more familiar face. Both The Penguin and Two-Face have been seen in the trailer too, along with The Joker’s muse Harley Quinn, all looking far more “weathered” than in their previous appearances in this continuity. All appear to have left behind the half real world, half animated look that defined them in City and Asylum. In this way they have borrowed somewhat from Origins, which gave Bane and Deadshot in particular far more grounded appearances that in the other two games.

Batman himself also borrows from WB Montreal’s effort. Gone is the more comic like Batsuit from his last two chronological outings, replaced with a far more aggressive, armoured suit that evokes the Origins costume and Christian Bale’s outfit from the latest cinematic depiction of Batman. Batman is said here to be at “the peak of his powers”, which you would hope means that enemies would provide more of a challenge, knowing that this is no novice stalking them on the streets of Gotham. The promised addition of extra gadgets and different ways of traversing the potentially huge map, either stealthily on foot or going in all guns blazing in the Batmobile promises more variety than the other games, and Rocksteady will be keen to go out on a high. The reason I said above “should be the final installment” means that while Rocksteady want this to be the conclusion of their trilogy, there’s nothing to say WB will not commission Montreal to do a follow up to Origins, but many fans will still believe that Arkham Knight will be the true, spiritual ending to the Arkham Series.

Batman has grown in popularity over the last nine years. His visibility has increased tenfold since Batman Begins hit cinema screens in 2005, and the Arkham games have proved to be just as influential. The marrying of the celluloid and comic versions of the character, creating it’s own unique world where a clown with a mallet can pose just as much of a threat as a commando with an assault rifle, has given the character, and his creators on this continuity, many plaudits – quite rightly. Arkham Asylum took Batman and made him a gaming icon, City reinforced that, Origins added to the myth, Knight looks as if it will be it’s grand conclusion.

The games have also brought together people who would not normally have crossed genres.  Call of Duty fans will treat Arkham Asylum with the same reverence as one of their own shooter – despite Batman never picking up a firearm – when the very mention of stealth in those games is considered boring. Similarly, those using used to creeping around and taking out enemies with barely a whisper, respect and admire Arkham City for it’s ability to blend the activities they excel at with combat they rarely get to experience.

Batman has defined generations more than once, and while the Arkham Games haven’t changed the gaming landscape in the same way a Grand Theft Auto or a Metal Gear Solid has, the truth is, it’s just a video game. But in the words of the Dark Knight himself – sometimes… the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more.

This article originally appeared on the excellent Tap Repeatedly here
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