Usual flame-shield disclaimer: I've been nitpicking the game pretty hard in this series. 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 might have seemed small or trivial, but they're part of a larger point that I'm making.
|Okay, push the yellow button a whole bunch… now the blue one… now the… no no no! Wrong button! That’s not how I decided you will win this fight! Try again!|
I’ve never been a huge fan of the boss fights in the Arkham games. The fights with Titans in Arkham Asylum were pretty shallow old-school vidogame stuff: Wait for the big brute to charge you, then jump out of the way so he hits the wall, then punch him in the butt a few times and run away. There’s one way to beat the boss, and you just do the right move at the right time to beat him down. It’s all very… Zelda? I guess?
These sequence-based fights are the weakest parts of the gameplay. You lose your agency as a player and are shoved into a fixed set of actions with a simple pass/fail outcome. There’s nothing to do but do what you’re told.
The one fight I liked was the Arkham City fight against Mr. Freeze. You had lots of freedom on how to approach it, and it used the mechanics you’d been learning since the game started. It was like a final exam for your sneaking and ambushing techniques.
|Use your Batclaw, player. I know you like Batarangs, Bat-grenades, Bat-explosive gel, and Bat face-punching, but when I designed this fight I decided you’d be using the Batclaw here. You can use those other things in the other fights. You know, the ones that don’t matter and don’t advance the story.|
But Arkham Origins goes even further into the sequence-based combat. The sequences are longer and more rigid, to the point where the fight is nearly a quicktime event. You dodge until he does A, at which point you respond with B, then he’s stuck in C, so you do D, then button-mash through quicktime event E and you’ll chip a little bit of his health away. If you mess up, then you’ll probably take some damage and shift back to an earlier stage of the sequence. The bosses have larger health bars in this game, meaning the fight is an exercise in belaboring the point.
But the worst sin of the boss fights is that all of the really important stuff happens in cutscenes. The game designer will let you have your interactive “fun” chipping away at the boss health bar, but once the bar is empty you’re shoved aside so the designer can give the fight a proper finish. In a pre-rendered cutscene the bad guy – apparently unscathed from the beating you’ve given him – will pin Batman and cackle over him. (And remember you the player just won this fight during gameplay and then “lost” in the cutscene by designer fiat.) Then Batman will do some bullshit that’s not possible during the normal course of the game. There will be backflips and flying and Michael-Bay style gasoline explosions. And THEN the Batman wins.
This is pretty offensive. This is not the player defeating the boss. This is the game designer beating the boss. It’s like a roleplaying game where the DM pits his ultimate sword against the ultimate badguy, and the players contribute by fetching and holding the sword. It’s just game designer wanking. The game designer knows how to defeat Bane “properly”, and they don’t trust the stupid scrub players to get it right.
We’re just adding an exciting cutscene for you to watch! What’s the harm in that?
To the game designer it’s a trivial change. All they did was insert a bit of trailer-friendly action schlock. But adding this cutscene changes the entire perception of the combat in the minds of the audience. Instead of defeating Dr. Evilpants in gameplay, you have to overcome the gameplay to reach the point where Evilpants is defeated by something else. (Not you.) Nothing is accomplished in the gameplay sections. The only meaningful damage done to the boss is in the movie.
But the earlier games ended fights with cutscenes!
Actually, the earlier games followed-up fights with cutscenes. The cutscene was for dialog between characters once the combat had ended. Again, the distinction to a game designer is small: The fight ends in a cinematic either way. But for the player, it shows them that the fighting they did was meaningless and also it denies the player the chance to score that last hit. I can see the writer wants to land the final punch. But so does the player, and the game is supposed to be an empowerment fantasy for them, not the writer. The writer can go play some other videogame if he wants to feel empowered.
|Get out of the way, player. Your gameplay is getting in the way of the game designer’s movie.|
Here’s another good example, which is also a spoiler. Skip the next block if you want to remain un-spoiled.
The last fight tries hard to re-create the awesome Freeze fight from Arkham City, but it’s muddled and arbitrary and annoying and Alfred spends way too much time haranguing you while you’re trying to guess at what the game expects of you. But after a hard-fought victory Batman calls Alfred and announces that he’s defeated Bane. Which of course causes Bane to leap back up and grab Batman, thus negating the entire previous sequence.
The worst part is the quicktime event that follows. The game slows down, aims your crosshair, and tells you what buttons to push. Then Batman fires a Bat-line that trips and electrocutes Bane. But I had no idea what was going on or how pushing the buttons would help me. I was playing the unironic version of the Stanley Parable: I was doing what the prompts told me to do without understanding what was going on. This wasn’t a payoff of some earlier-established mechanic, or pulling the trigger on Chekhov’s gun. It’s just a quicktime event that turns the player into a viewer instead of an active participant.
The rule in movies is “Show, don’t tell”. The rule in games is “Do, don’t show.” The writer is yanking control away from the player at the very moment they want it most: The moment of victory. I realize it’s not as exciting for a viewer to sit there and watch the fight end in button-mash beat down #7, but this is a game, not a movie. The focus should be on making something fun to do, not just fun to watch.
Enough venting. Let’s talked about something that really worked.
|Enter detective vision to re-create the crime. Ostensibly it’s so we can figure out what happened, but I see it as a chance to watch this dude get blown up over and over.|
The whole “detective” aspect of Batman never seems to work outside of comics. Reading about how someone unraveled a crime is fun. Watching them do it in an action movie is going to be less interesting because of the time constraints and lack of an inner monologue. But having the player solve a crime interactively is… weird. I mean, it would require the player to be able to solve a crime. What if they miss a clue? What if they don’t possess some real-world knowledge required to make sense of the clues? What if they don’t have a head for this sort of puzzle-solving? It would be like a mystery novel where you can’t continue reading unless you’re capable of keeping up with the protagonist.
This isn’t a problem limited to Batman games. The crime-solving in LA Noire was filled with compromises to allow the clueless player to proceed. And the last time I looked at a Sherlock game it was to crime-solving what Super Mario Galaxy is to plumbing.
The Arkham games took a stab at solving this problem and the result was shallow but admirable. As Batman you have “detective vision”, which lets you switch to this VR-styled rendering of the environment and look around for highlighted items. Sometimes you’ll find some blood and Batman will use his space magic DNA scanner to ID the blood and create a breadcrumb trail for you to follow to your next goal. It’s not crime solving, but it was the closest a game had come so far.
Until Arkham Origins.
|Step carefully through the guy getting blown away and look for more awesomeness. Nitpick: If this guy was blown through the wall when the keypad detonated, then shouldn’t the keypad be… detonated? In the game, it looks shiny-new and is apparently none the worse for wear after exploding.|
In Arkham Origins, Batman’s more primitive but paradoxically more powerful crime computer is capable of re-creating crime scenes and reconstructing events. If you find a dead dude outside a broken window, the Bat-computer can run a simulation to rebuild the original crime scene. You can replay the murder, shuttling back and forth through the event, seeing where the victim was standing before they went out the window and watching the crime play out from as many different angles as you like. Information is added to the reconstruction as you uncover clues, adding more people to the simulation and filling in specific details.
Sure, it’s preposterous. But it’s interactive and interesting, which is what we need from crime-solving gameplay. The investigations now last a little longer, which gives Batman more time to narrate his thinking, which makes the payoff more rewarding and Batman-esque. The player needs to do more than just find the obvious glowing item in a static scene, and solving a crime now requires several passes over the area. WBGM took the investigation idea and ran with it, turning Rocksteady’s busywork into actual gameplay and creating a more satisfying and interesting mechanic to represent the whole “detective” dimension of Batman.
Going back, the Rocksteady “Bat Vision” now seems strangely incomplete without this more robust investigation gameplay.
|MORE ANGRYFACE BATMAN.|
So that’s Arkham Origins. It’s not nearly as strong as it’s predecessors, although it’s still basically a fun game. A lot of its problems are the result of being painted into a corner by Rocksteady. The rest of the mistakes seem to come from WBGM being afraid to stand in the shadow of Rocksteady.
I hope rough, unshaven ANGRYFACE BATMAN was just a one-off here and isn’t the new face of the series. I really miss stoic, professional Batman, because the angry young man in this game is a brute and a jackass. The whole “Batman is a fascist thug” joke becomes a lot less of a joke when he’s got real anger problems, treats his allies like peasants, and seems to enjoy the bone-breaking a little too much. We have PLENTY of young, angry brutes among videogame protagonists. Let Batman be Batman.
The WBGM mis-steps are annoying, but they don’t ruin the series for me. WBGM has proven they can use the tools. They’ve got a great vocal team. They have solid mechanics to work with. Now they just need to get the tone right, stop using the QTE crutch, and fix those goofy environments.
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