Requisite fanboy shield: I’m going to nitpick the game quite a bit here. This does not mean the game is bad or that you shouldn’t like it. This is an exercise in comparing different art teams and design approaches. Rocksteady made the first two games, WBGM made Batman: Origins, and I find it interesting to see a property being handed off like this. Some of my complaints will seem small or trivial, but they’re part of a larger point that I’m making. It pains me to have to waste a paragraph on this, but I can either put this disclaimer here, or put it in the comments when someone freaks out because you’re claerly a hater who just wants to nitpick every little ting b/c this game is hella fun for true fans and besides it scored good on Metacritic so you must be a bad journalist so STFU because you couldnt do any better.
What I’m NOT going to nitpick: I’m not going to fuss over voice acting, continuity, the story, or Bat-Lore. I know that’s usually the kind of stuff I’m on about, but that’s not what I find interesting about this game. Like I said last time: I think the “origins” idea is a result of the requirements created by the previous games. I think Rocksteady kind of painted WBGM into a corner story-wise, and a lot of story-based criticism would wind up as some sort of extended blame game between the two developers.
Instead, let’s focus on mechanical and artistic changes. I have a big list of items that I want to talk about. Some are good, some are bad. I don’t think I’m going to cover them in any particular order. And today’s entry is only one item. Let’s talk about…
|You can tell we’re on a ship because there’s a 3.5 meter blade slowly pushing air out of this dead-end metal box and into the corridor, and it’s got a J.J. Abrams brand LENS FLARE™ light behind it. Just like on a real ship!|
What’s the old saying? “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone because the game was given to another studio who couldn’t quite keep up with the artists that created the original title?” Something like that. I never realized just how spectacular the Rocksteady level designers were until I saw another team attempt the same thing.
I know I’m always yammering on about Half-Life 2, but I only do it because it’s such a good example of environmental flow: You’re drawn through the levels by the shape of them, and you’re always left with the (completely false) impression that there’s more to the environment than what you saw. There was another door back there. There was a thing to crawl under. There was a side-tunnel you passed by. But you choose the most interesting route first, and it’s not until your second play-through that you realize the door is fake, the crawl space is just an alcove, and the side-tunnel just loops back to the main path. And through it all, it feels like this is a space that follows the logic of the gameworld.
Arkham Origins does not achieve this.
A good environment does the Half-Life 2 thing and leads you down one clear path while tricking you into thinking you’re choosing one of many. A lesser environment is obviously linear, but still leads you from one area to the next. The worst environment is both completely linear but also completely muddled so that you have no sense of where you’re going, how to get there, or how the place fits together.
The indoor sections of Arkham Origins are paradoxically both linear and convoluted. Often I would find myself running down a tunnel only to hit a dead end. What? Did I miss something? I’ll look around, find a grate, and spend two minutes fumbling around trying to figure out how to reach it. Then when I do I find the way in, it’s a dead-end with some collectible stored in it. The real door was way back the passage, dimly lit and recessed slightly so it felt like a “scenery” door and not a real door. In the end, the secret hidden item was more straightforward and obvious than the intended route through the level.
|A trap door in the floor of the morgue, which leads to the vast underground dungeon / sewer / boiler room that runs under the city. I’ll bet new employees trip over that handle for days before they get used to it.|
I think most of this confusion is the result of places that just don’t make any sense. I understand why Batman is always sneaking through sewer tunnels, boiler rooms, and ventilation ducts. What I don’t understand is how everyone else in the world gets around. Does everyone enter the casino through the boiler room? Why is there a medieval style trap door in the middle of the modern morgue? Does Penguin climb over all these pipes just to get to his office?
The answer to all of these questions is “Don’t over-think it, it’s a videogame”. And while I agree that some contrivances are needed to make a videogame world work, a good artist can hide these seams instead of drawing attention to them. The environment doesn’t need to make perfect sense, but shouldn’t be obviously ridiculous. Having environments that are intuitive and and sensible adds to that all-important “immersion” thing designers are always searching for. Traversing a place that feels real is just more fun and interesting than muddling through an arbitrary obstacle course of disjointed elements.
|Why does the MAIN ENTRANCE of Penguin’s casino ship lead to tightrope-walking over a pit of burning wreckage? Is this really how guests enter? It’s like the level designers forgot what they were supposed to be making and just dropped into “dungeon building” mode. While they weren’t perfect, Rocksteady was much more careful about building their spaces with some basic coherence.|
These contrived environments lead to a lot of player disconnect. Batman will announce he’s heading into [building] and then my map marker gets moved to some nearby area. I fumble around, looking for a way into the nearest building before realizing that the map marker was actually pointing me to a manhole cover. Batman somehow knew that the manhole would lead to the sewers where he could blast open a wall into a boiler room that would lead through a basement and into a tunnel where he could ascend a derelict elevator shaft and climb through a vent into the desired building. Batman somehow knew this, but he never bothered telling me about it. In previous games, I usually understood what Batman was doing and where he was going. In this one I was often just along for the ride, doing as I was told and wondering where we were going to end up.
|One hour ago: You boys! Go down and guard the unused platform between the river of ice and the raging fire. I don’t want guests sneaking in there and stealing the baseball bats you’ll be using to guard the… baseball bats. Anyway, I have no idea how you’ll get over the fire. And I doubt you’ll ever escape. And keep an eye on that fire. You know how flammable steel and ice water are.|
You might argue that the “mystery” corridors where you don’t know where you’re going are gameplay, although if that’s true they are never acknowledged and happen at the worst times. At one point Batman needed to defuse some bombs. The game said plainly they were at the base of [structure]. Batman even said that he needed to reach the BASE of the thing. But the real path the game has you take is to head indoors and go UP an elevator. From there you go through hallways, ducts, boiler rooms, open rooms, shafts, and confusing bits of vertical infrastructure. I kept hitting dead ends and running around lost thinking AREN’T WE PRESSED FOR TIME? DON’T WE HAVE BOMBS TO WORRY ABOUT, BRUCE? After running one of these mazes it turned out the bomb was in a public place. So why did we need to crawl through the Tomb of Horrors to get there? There’s even a train car filled with civilians. Did THEY enter through the duct-work too? No? Then why didn’t we use the door they did? And come to think of it, where would that door be? If I was a civilian and I wanted to visit this train station, where would I go in the city? There’s no such place when you’re out in the open world.
|Hey look, it’s a sheer wall of naturally occurring vertical ice, because that’s how ice works, right? (In Arkham City there were also ice walls, but that game also had Mr. Freeze to explain them.) This thing isn’t even near flowing water. It’s just a random unexplained hunk of ice because the game designer decided it was time to have the player blow something up.|
Good level design is more than just connecting hallways and building a habitrail for the player to run through. You have to know where the player is going, where they are looking, and remember that they are probably dragging real-world assumptions into your gamespace. You need to make sure the player knows where their goal is. You use lights and areas of high interest (lots of things to look at) to draw their eye, and darkness and lack of detail to guide them away from the dead ends, invisible walls, and other necessary contrivances.
I don’t want to give the impression that the entire gameworld is a pile of nonsense. The GCPD level looks fantastic and makes about as much sense as anything in the previous games, while Penguin’s Gunshop Fight Club Casino Cargo Ship Headquarters is boring, repetitive, confusing, disjointed, and makes absolutely no damn sense. I’d love to know the cause of this. Was the casino one of the last areas built, and thus rushed for a release date? Or maybe the casino was one of the first places built, back when this new team was still learning the tools and nailing down the specifics of the final game? Or maybe the GCPD and the casino were given to two different art teams, and one of them just produced higher quality work than the other? Maybe the producer just didn’t value verisimilitude, but the GCPD artists did? It’s impossible to know, but I am curious.
These environmental problems were exacerbated by some other design decisions, which I’ll get to in the next entry.
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