Let’s talk about a video game so good that it has one single problem. A game called Batman: Arkham Knight.
Polished is the rubbish video game word I would use to describe Arkham Knight.
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think Batman: Arkham Knight might be the most polished game I’ve ever played.
Ok. Rewind. There’s hyperbole there, but a shred of truth: there are other video games that feel more polished than Batman: Arkham Knight, but none have the same level of ambition.
Let me rephrase: very few games are simultaneously as ambitious and as polished as Batman: Arkham Knight. It really – truly – is an incredible video game.
I want to make that clear before I start criticising it.
Now I’m going to start criticising it.
If I had to sum up my issue in a single sentence it would go something like this: Batman: Arkham Knight doesn’t trust me to make good decisions.
Here’s another: Batman: Arkham Knight is a Batman simulator that’s afraid you are going to be a terrible Batman.
Sans the gritty ‘adult’ themes and Bat-angst, Arkham Knight is the kind of game I’d expect Nintendo to make if they suddenly decided super-violent open-world video games was a thing they wanted to do. The Arkham series has more in common with A Link to the Past or Metroid Prime than it does Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto. It sits comfortably at the crossroads between those two classic games.
Arkham Asylum, with its tightly designed environments and loop-back design, most resembles Metroid Prime. Its successors – Arkham City and Arkham Knight – are closer to A Link to the Past, replete with open, explorable spaces, punctuated with ‘dungeons’: areas where you must use your items to progress in a series of puzzle-lite scenarios. Areas where you get to feel smart.
More specifically, areas where you get to feel like the world’s greatest detective.
Simply put: the Arkham series, in a sense, aspires to that Zelda thing. That tightly knit universe where every lock has a key — providing you, the player, with a series of specific gadgets or tool. Setting you inside a space where those tools are keys that necessitate progress.
But Batman: Arkham Knight never really trusts you with the tools it gives you. It hovers over your shoulder like an overprotective Dad. He’s given you the power drill, but he’s ultimately terrified you’ll drill a big ugly hole through the skirting board.
What I’m trying to say is this: all games of this ilk have a ‘tutorial’ section. You are being taught how mechanics work, how to approach different situations, etc. But in Batman: Arkham Knight it feels like you never leave that tutorial. Like you’re constantly being told what you should be doing in every single situation. Almost as if the game is afraid that YOU WON’T SOLVE THESE PROBLEMS LIKE BATMAN WOULD.
It takes way too long for Batman: Arkham Knight to get to that point: to the point where it says, ‘okay, you’re Batman, you have all these tools. Time to be Batman’. It takes too long to get to that moment.
And it’s a moment that is constantly being subverted (and delayed). Too often I found myself approaching a situation thinking, ‘this would the perfect time to be Batman and use this existing gadget in my repertoire’ only to be explicitly told that no, you won’t be using that item here, you’ll be using a completely new gadget that you have to relearn. There is no reason why that other gadget couldn’t be used. No reason why I couldn’t be resourceful and use this thing I already have. Nope. Here’s another thing. Here’s how you’ll be solving this problem.
Too often the internal consistency of Arkham Knight’s world is undermined by the search for ‘cool Batman moments’. Too often interesting scenarios are bypassed via Deus Ex Machina leaving the player feel a little powerless, and that’s not what it feels like to ‘be’ Batman. That’s the opposite of what it feel like to be Batman.
I maintain that the best Batman simulator ever made is Metroid Prime. Arkham Asylum runs a close second. Both feature worlds with that aforementioned ‘internal consistency. Both are games where the universe and the player are constantly in-sync. Where you can approach problems with a set of tools that solve specific problems and advance in a way that makes sense, in a way that rewards players for their resourcefulness.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a fantastic video game on almost every possible level, but it only flirts with granting you that kind of freedom. That freedom that comes in glorious bursts; later sacrificed at the altar of spectacle.
Which is fine, but ultimately feels jarring.
The Batman universe itself is partly to blame. Players have a list of boxes that must be ticked for a Batman experience that feels ‘authentic’ and it's Rocksteady’s job to make sure these moments are accounted for. The tone of Batman also presents problems: how do you create a world designed specifically for the tools you are given that still makes sense from the perspective of Batman’s fiction. How does that all hang together?
It’s a conundrum. It might be the conundrum when it comes to making games like Batman: Arkham Knight. I’m not sure what the solution is other than ‘be more like Metroid Prime’.
But I would say this: maybe Batman: Arkham Knight needs to trust its players more. It needs to believe in us as ‘Batmen’!
We know Batman. We love Batman as much as you do. We can totally be good Batmen.
We’ll be good. We promise.