I want to stress that the game isn’t nearly as bad as it might seem in these first three entries. Remember that we’re deliberately zooming in on stuff that WBGM changed and seeing how it worked and how it compared to the original Arkham Games.
Last time we talked about a change that probably resulted from giving the same task to a different art team. This time we’re talking about a change that someone made on purpose…
The core gameplay of the Arkham series involves large brawls against groups of mooks. You hit a guy, then spin-kick the guy behind you, then punch the guy behind him, then stun a forth, then back to the first guy for a follow-up. The longer you chain strikes together, the faster you go and the more damage you do. If you stop moving or someone hits you, then the combo is broken and you have to start over. It’s trivial to build up a big combo in the early stages of the game when you can punch dudes in any order, but then you start running into special foes. A guy with body armor needs to be stunned before you can strike him. A guy with a shield can only be attacked by jumping on his head. A guy with a stun baton can only be attacked from behind. If you fail at any of these and attack somebody in the wrong way, your combo ends and Batman slows down.
And then there’s countering. In order to keep the combo going, you have to counter incoming attacks. When a mook is about to hit you, warning lines appear over his head. You have about a second to hit the counter button, which will cause Batman to block and counter-attack the mook. If you’re too slow, you get hit. Batman can do this counter at any time. Even if he’s winding up to punch some else, he’ll interrupt that attack to do the counter. One of the great achievements of the Batman series is that this transition looks pretty seamless.
In Arkham Origins, the team took away Batman’s ability to interrupt his own attacks, meaning that if you’re already committed to a move, you can’t perform a counter. You just get hit, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Now, if the timing is right you can finish your current attack and mash the counter button afterwards, but sometimes there isn’t enough time for that. On top of this, mooks seem to have more reach. If you jump away, the attacking mook will kind of slide over to you so the attack hits anyway. That’s fine, inasmuch as Batman does that all the time, but this change makes the previous change worse, since you need more distance to avoid those annoying gotcha conditions where you both start attacking at the same time.
|The blue lines mean that this dude is about to punch me. The fact that I’m in the middle of punching somebody else means that I can’t do anything about it.|
This breaks the central feedback system of the combat mechanics. In previous games, it was always clear what you did wrong. Maybe I overlooked an attack warning, or punched the wrong guy, or failed to stun somebody first. But now it’s not at all clear what my mistake was or when I made it. Clearly I shouldn’t have been in the middle of this attack when that guy punched me, but how could I have avoided that using only the information available at the time?
I’m on my second trip through the game and I’m still running into situations where I begin a strike at Mook #1 at the same time Mook #2 begins a strike on me (in programming we call this hazard a race condition) and when this happens there’s NOTHING you can do. You get hit, end of story. The Batman slows down, which lets foes crowd you, which increases the chance of it happening again. Success depends on whether you can get Batman up to speed without running into those unfortunate concurrent attacks.
It’s now way harder and a lot more random. Sometimes I’ll flawlessly ace a fight without getting touched, and the next fight will be a fumbling brawl where I get nailed every time I start getting into the flow. The game rates fights based on “threat”, but the rating doesn’t actually correlate to difficulty because the key factor now is numbers. The game claims that five ninjas is a “extreme” threat, but it’s not hard to ace that fight. But the “moderate” fight with seven random mooks with a couple of knives and shields? That’s now a pain in the ass because there are SO many people that the odds are high that some opportunist will punch you in the butt while you’re hitting someone else.
This small change had a huge impact on the difficulty of the game for me. I actually think a new player might have an easier time with Arkham Origins than an a returning player, since you won’t have all those hours of muscle memory working against you and you won’t just jam the counter button impotently when you’re about to get punched.
This change basically makes most of the attack warnings useless, since by the time they show up it’s usually too late to make a decision about what you want to do. I don’t know if I’d call the game harder in the sense of getting more game over situations, but it’s harder in the sense that I got hit more often and couldn’t see how I might have done things differently to avoid it.
Why was this change made? Is this to sell the notion that this more inexperienced Batman is a bit of a clumsy brute compared to the later version? Is this an attempt to make the game harder for the hardcore? Did the game designer just feel that being able to change your mind mid-attack was too “cheaty”?
|Shield dudes can’t be counter-attacked. Counter-attacking a knife mook just dodges without countering, unless you have a special upgrade. Stun batons can’t be countered but you can jump over them. Armored dudes can be countered, unless they have a knife and you have the upgrade to… hang on. Are you getting all this? Maybe we need a flowchart.|
I can’t even tell how intentional this change was. If there’s a way to avoid the simultaneous attack problem I haven’t discovered it, and the game certainly hasn’t commented on it. Avoiding race conditions is now the most important key to success in combat, and the game doesn’t discuss or even acknowledge it.
I have no idea why this was done, but now I really despise the straight-up brawls. Playing Arkham Origins feels like playing Arkham Asylum in a situation where some asshole keeps slapping the controller out of your hands every eight seconds. It’s infuriating. In earlier games I’d fight just for the fun of it. In Origins I find myself avoiding combat because it’s so frustrating.
But fine. The game is less satisfying now and you get those rewarding free-flow situations less often. I guess the game is just supposed to be harder now?
About two-thirds of the way through the game Batman gets this new ability to shock dudes as he punches them, and it completely trivializes the combat system. Shield mooks? Shock baton mooks? Armored mooks? Knives? Doesn’t matter. Just mash the attack button mindlessly without worrying about positioning.
So combat is hard and frustrating until it becomes easy and boring. This makes me think that WBGM messed with the core of the Rocksteady combat system without knowing what they were doing or understanding why the old one worked so well. That was incredibly unwise. I would have been a lot more tolerant of the rest of the game if the combat hadn’t eroded my patience.
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