I was going to write a blog post about how I don’t think it’s okay for the Ask EL James hashtag to have been hijacked by people just wanting to be abusive, but then I decided, ‘nah, I’ll write about Batman’.
Everyone is aware that I like games and I like superheroes, so it’s no surprise that I like games about superheroes. The best of these games (not that there are that many) is the Arkham series from developer Rocksteady. There is also the one that the publisher made themselves with their own development studio, but that was a bit rubbish, so we tend not to mention it. But I will mention it. Later.
First, we had Arkham Asylum, which took the gaming world by storm, appearing out of the blue from a little known studio with only one other game under their belt. It had Kevin Conroy, THE voice of Batman; it had Mark Hamill, THE voice of Joker; it had you play as the goddamn Batman (I don’t know why I enjoy quoting that so much). It wasn’t just the best superhero game ever made, it was one of the best games. It had the comic book, animated series feel about it, but was darker and grittier than anything a lot of people had seen from the franchise.
Next came Arkham City, where Batman took to the…well, the city. Rather than being cooped up in the Asylum, he was free to exercise his cape and glide about a large portion of Gotham. Fears that it wouldn’t be able to match up to the original were quickly allayed as it turned out to be even better than the first.
So the news that Rocksteady’s third Arkham game would also be their last was bittersweet. Although it would mean no more Batman from the studio who handled him so well, it also meant that the series was sure to go out with a bang (and that something very exciting might come next). Okay, hearing that Scarecrow would be the main villain of the game was a little bizarre, but with him would come a brand new villain – one that had been created alongside DC Comics themselves: the Arkham Knight.
This mysterious new villain seemed to have styled himself after Batman and looked as though he would be the ultimate match for the Dark Knight. Early trailers showed the Arkham Knight getting the upper hand in fights with Batman, and he seemed to have similar tricks and gadgets. We were all sure it was going to be good.
Well, the short version is: it wasn’t good. In my opinion, anyway.
The long version can’t really be put across without spoilers, so I’ll be sure to mention when they’re coming and start with the non-spoilers. As usual, there is no real structure to my ramblings, so let’s just start with, uhh…
This looked like a promising addition to the series. The Batmobile is an iconic part of Batman’s arsenal, and so far we had only seen it in a few cutscenes in the other games (or game – I can’t remember if it was in City). Arkham Knight was going to take place in a bigger area than City and so Rocksteady were able to bring in the car. Car/tank, that is. The new Batmobile is one designed for this war that Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight have waged on Batman, and it transforms from car to tank in a fancy second. All the better to deal with those pesky drones driving and flying about (drones – i.e. conveniently unmanned so that Batman can blow them up).
My immediate thought was that the Riddler challenges that were sure to reprise their place in the game would be Batmobile-heavy. I was right. In fact, the entire game is Batmobile-heavy. To the point that several boss fights take place purely between your tank and theirs. Finish enough of the side missions and a new, unexpected villain appears to challenge you. One who is so sure of his skills, he would certainly give you a good fight and definitely wouldn’t cower inside a…why is he in that giant tank?
Yes, taking the place of the unique and varied boss fights is driving about trying to get behind powerful tanks to shoot their weak points, then doing pretty much the same on the boss’ tank. Except that each shot to the boss’ tank has to be followed by driving away very fast because it can somehow keep up with your jet fighter on wheels.
And that’s it. That accounts for most of the boss fights. There are two sneaky, ‘predator’ sections later on against two villains, but as far as I can recall, that’s it. Well, there is the Riddler fight too, but you’re not really fighting him in it. But THAT’S it.
It felt like Rocksteady spent so much time with the Batmobile that they couldn’t bear the thought of it being underused by players, so they forced us to use it over and over and over. In very uninteresting ways. Either that or they spent so much time on it they forgot they had to make the rest of the game.
It shows just how important it was to them that it gets damaged and worn over time, but Batman doesn’t. In the other games, his suit and cape get more ripped as the game goes on, they get dirty, his face gets bruised and cut. Not so in Arkham Knight. Not until the last 5% or so of the story.
I also can’t help but feel it’s a little stupid that you can drive into people, but it’s okay because they’re tased. Yes, tased by the front of a tank driving into them at 100mph. They’ll be perfectly fine. Even though Batman just reversed back over their unconscious bodies multiple times.
Not too far into the story, something happens that causes Commissioner Gordon to get all stroppy with Batman and, at the time he needs the Dark Knight most, tells him to stay the hell away from his family. Makes sense. What also makes sense is that Gordon then disappears for most of the rest of the game. Only in the last two sections of the game does he reappear, with no sign of the temper tantrum he threw earlier.
Something similar could be said of other supporting characters. Nightwing, Robin and Catwoman all make an appearance and are all only in very small sections of the game. Robin has an excuse for most of his absence, but Nightwing is out there in the city, yet only appears to help beat up Penguin’s men and then disappear again. Catwoman is used only as bait. As a damsel in distress. Which I’ll complain about in a minute.
This is war. Batman is being targeted by an army. Where the hell are his allies? He had more help in Arkham City.
Scarecrow was an odd choice. It was weird from the start. He’s not one of the more menacing villains in the Batman universe, is he? Maybe Rocksteady wanted to change that. Maybe they were just cashing in on how much people liked the Scarecrow fear-toxin-induced sections in Arkham Asylum. Who knows. They did make him a little more unpleasant this time, but they also made him a lot more sane than he seems to be in anything else – including Asylum. He has a very clear plan, a very clear goal and, it seems, a very clear mind.
But Scarecrow isn’t really the main villain, is he? Or is he? I can’t tell. I thought he was more of a backdrop for the Arkham Knight, who is working for him, but then the Knight seems to take the place as the backdrop. I think the real villain is the demon in Batman’s head. I’ll rant more about the Arkham Knight himself later.
[Potential mild spoilers here] Other villains were in the game – Two-Face, Penguin, Harley Quinn, Firefly, etc. – but they were very badly used. And under-used. They were were the result of completing some side missions. Stop a few bank robberies and Two-Face will show to take you down. There’s not even a boss fight: just take out his men and then do the same for him, just like any other enemy. Destroy enough of Penguin’s weapons caches with Nightwing and he’ll show (in a pretty ridiculous way, I might add) to teach you a lesson. Press one button and he’ll be the next one you’re driving to GCPD. It’s pretty pathetic.
Riddler is both the best and the worst of these side-villains. The others are minding their own business until Batman involves himself, but Riddler comes after Batman, just like he does in the other games. Except this time, he has built a very elaborate series of underground race tracks. Because those count as riddles, right? That’s the way to show that he’s smarter than Batman: make him drive the Batmobile round and round irritating courses. But at least there’s some form of boss fight with him…kind of.
Be The Batman
That’s how the game was marketed. It was probably how the other games were marketed too, actually, but whatever. The idea of Arkham Knight was that it was going to be the ‘ultimate Batman game/experience’. Yet, no Batcave, no meetups with Alfred for sage advice, no well-paced, meaningful encounters with other series characters. In fact, the whole game seems rushed. Not in the sense that they rushed to get it made, but that the player is rushed to get to the end. And not in a sense of urgency kind of way. Just in a ‘we can’t really be bothered to write anything much, so go and beat up the next person’ kind of way.
I think the biggest problem of all is down to…
No Paul Dini?!
Paul Dini was a writer for Batman: The Animated Series – the cartoon that is, to this day, considered one of the best animated series ever made. And for good reason. It was dark and scary, despite being for children, and really got the world and atmosphere of Batman across perfectly in those 20 minutes or so.
Paul Dini knows Batman. He knows the supporting characters. He knows the world. He knows how to write! The same, it seems, cannot be said for the writers of Arkham Knight. According to Dini himself, he asked Warner Interactive (the publisher) about doing the third game and was told that they might not be looking so much to freelance writers for the next game. He took it to mean that if he had anything else interesting coming his way, he should take it. It sounds, then, like someone – whether Warner or Rocksteady – had already decided that they didn’t need to hire Dini for the last game. And what a massive mistake that was.
The writers of Arkham Knight actually wrote the other two games alongside Dini. It seems from this one though that Dini did all the heavy lifting. The writing here is incredibly weak, unsatisfying, nonsensical and lacking in substance and quantity. It feels like they wrote a game half the length of the game they actually made. It’s not just the writing, though; the directing is off a lot of the time. But then, the director is also one of the writers.
Even from the start, something felt off (I only later discovered that Dini hadn’t written it). The game just kind of…is happening. It doesn’t seem to start – you’re just playing. Things happen without explanation, characters know things that they have no reason to know. For [spoilerific] example, Scarecrow kidnaps Oracle at one point, but he doesn’t actually tell Batman she’s been kidnapped. He says ‘Let me go or she dies.’ A quick call to Oracle shows that she is still okay until the feed cuts off with her screaming. Which part of that says ‘kidnap’? Yet Batman starts talking about her having been kidnapped. Not to mention that atrocious writing where Oracle ignores Batman telling her to get out. She just tells him no one knows she’s there. What a moron! She’s Batgirl. She’s Oracle. She’s been Batman’s friend for a long time. She should not be so incredibly stupid and she should know better than most that when Batman shouts at you to ‘get out now’, you get the absolute hell out!
In short, the game was hit badly by Paul Dini’s absence.
Yes, when I noticed something on Google about the game’s sexist treatment of women, I rolled my eyes and assumed it was probably Anita whatsherface spewing more hate and lies at anything that will get attention for her. But the more I played, the more I began to agree. ‘Sexism’ might be too strong a term for it – one that people love to use as much as possible for the smallest things, thus diluting it – but it’s certainly bad use of female characters. There are only three female characters of note in the game: Oracle/Barbara Gordon, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn. Harley barely counts, because she’s in it for a very short time. That said, the DLC that gives you 10 minutes playing as her does have her telling Penguin where to stick his umbrella more than once, so that’s…something, I suppose.
[Mild Spoilers] Catwoman is so badly used it’s almost laughable. She is there for no other reason than some weak justification for starting the Riddler’s challenges. He has taken her captive and will detonate a bomb collar around her neck if you don’t complete his challenges and help her get a series of keys to deactivate said collar. So she sits there while her Dark Knight in dull spandex armour goes off, heroically…driving his car round and round underground racetracks.
[Still Mild Spoilers] She does at least help you beat up some of Riddler’s robots, but even her part in some of the ‘riddles’ is as helper. Then as soon as you’ve freed her, she disappears. She comes back to help fight him at the end, but that’s it. Even her dialogue isn’t what it could have been. She tells Batman to be careful and thanks him at one point I think (in a roundabout way at least), which just doesn’t fit her character.
[BIG Spoilers] Oracle is the worst though. I already mentioned one part of her awful writing. But even that bit goes a little beyond just bad writing. It’s making her the stereotypical helpless, oblivious female character who doesn’t realise the danger even though it’s being practically spelled out for her. Then, of course, getting herself hurt/killed/kidnapped/whatever. It’s the moronic ‘You’re in danger, you have to run!’, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m fine’ kind of nonsense trope. But it gets so much worse.
[Still BIG spoilers] Let’s not forget that Oracle – aka Barbara Gordon – was Batgirl until Joker shot her through the spine. So to have her kidnapped so easily and then dragged away without a fight is just ridiculous. Yes, she’s in a wheelchair. So the hell what? The character of Oracle has been, as far as I’m aware, something of an inspiration to comic book readers with disabilities. Being wheelchair-bound might have changed her life, but it didn’t destroy her. It put an end to the Batgirl alter ego, but gave birth to Oracle: the leader, among other vital roles, of her own team of superheroes. She makes people pay time and again for underestimating her either for being a girl or for being in a wheelchair. Rocksteady decided to brush that aside and make her just another damsel in distress, whimpering and screaming as she’s taken away.
[Still BIG spoilers] The best she could do while being taken away was cause the car to crash, giving her a chance to leave a clue for Batman. That’s it. No doubt had Rocksteady decided to show us that from inside the car, it would have involved her slapping and scratching the driver ‘like a girl’. But the worst was still to come. When Batman finally caught up with her, [Seriously BIG, BIG spoiler!] Scarecrow releases his fear toxin to make her fear Batman. In order to stop him ‘getting her’, she shoots herself in the head. Now, [Even bigger more seriously BIG spoiler!] I know that later on, it’s revealed that it was actually Batman who was under the influence of the toxin, and she didn’t shoot herself, but that happens so much later that the player is left with that impression of an incredibly weak and pathetic version of Oracle ingrained in their mind. Not to mention Batman should have known she wouldn’t behave like that.
The Arkham Knight
I’m running out of steam, so let’s talk/ramble/rant about the biggest let down. The Arkham Knight is a ludicrously weak villain. From my first encounter with him, I was underwhelmed. Rather than the anti-Batman that I expected from the trailers, he just sounded like a whining, spoilt brat. He didn’t really get the upper hand on Batman, save for one time that had no repercussions at all. For the majority of the game, he just became one of those voices on the other end of the enemies’ earpieces that get on your nerves quite quickly, always throwing insults and empty threats at you – oh, they’re going to kill me this time, just like the last five times you told me that? He was a pitiful, disappointing character as the Arkham Knight and it only got worse once his helmet came off.
I wrote an article about who the Arkham Knight could be. My favourite idea was that he was actually Batman himself. The Dark Knight’s worst fears realised – an evil version of himself. The idea of Scarecrow’s fear toxin creating the villain was an intriguing one, but the moment the two interacted, it was obvious my already far-fetch idea was wrong.
[The BIGGEST spoilers!] I did, accidentally, mention the true identity though. It turns out that the Arkham Knight is none other than Robin number 2, Jason Todd. Which…is absolutely ludicrous. First, there was no mention of Todd in either of the other two games, even though Rocksteady said they had laid down their plans for the entire trilogy from the start. Second, and most important, Jason Todd is already Red Hood! I dismissed the idea as ridiculous, not only for this fact, but for the fact that Red Hood would feature in DLC for the game.
[Still the BIGGEST spoilers] Rocksteady did a stupid twisty thing, where this is kind of Red Hood’s origin story. He comes back as the Arkham Knight (thanks to Joker brainwashing him, rather than killing him), and then goes on to become Red Hood – because Batman talks to him for 10 seconds. It’s insanely stupid and weak. And if I hadn’t been so sure that Rocksteady wouldn’t be that stupid, it would have been blatantly obvious that it was Jason Todd. Not only from all that the Knight knew, but from the fact that Batman keeps seeing flashbacks of Todd in his mind.
Not the end of the article/rant, sorry. The end of the game. I won’t even bother going into detail. I’ll just say it is absolutely atrocious and mildly insulting. There’s not even any proper closure to it, and it even gives rise to questions. Worst of all, it pretty well destroys any chance of an eventual Justice League game, which a lot of players were hoping was the long term goal. And why didn’t Superman have a cameo?!
The Good Bits
Naturally, it wasn’t all rubbish. Just most of it. The switching between characters mid-fight was pretty good, though kind of pointless at the same time. I think they just needed to add new features. The Batmobile was a good addition, just far too heavily featured. The fear takedowns were also very good but, again, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to put them to good use.
[Joint BIGGEST spoiler!] The best thing of all though, was the Joker. Yes, the Joker is dead, but he also lives on in Batman’s mind. A combination of the tainted blood Joker injected him with in City and the fear toxin. Although it gets a bit much at times, his scenes are mostly pretty good. And while I thought the series was over-saturated with Joker, I found myself not minding the way he was in this game. Again he was kind of the main villain, but in a far more interesting way: trying to take over Batman, trying to make him kill.
So, although I really don’t understand how it got so many 10/10s (I think I’d probably give it a 7 at the most), at the end of the day, you get to glide about being vengeance. Being the night. Being Batman.