Let's gather and talk about the newest Batman game. All of it. In the most spoiler-riffic fashion.
Last night I got together with my fellow Kotaku writers Kirk Hamilton, Luke Plunkett, and Chris Suellentrop to talk about Rocksteady's latest interactive Batman saga. We'd all finished the game, and although Chris had already reviewed it for us, we wanted to go deeper, and to leave no spoiler unturned. So that's what we did.
HERE IS YOUR WARNING: The following discussion goes in-depth with the entirety of Arkham Knight's story. We discuss the beginning, middle, and end, and no spoiler is sacred. Warning complete!
Evan Narcisse: Arkham Knight is unquestionably the biggest Batman game to date. It's had more stuff to do, more characters and more plot twists than its predecessors. Some of those elements came as surprises and some, probably, as letdowns. Let's start with the good stuff, then.
Kirk: Do we have to?
Evan: It can be quick, Eeyore.
Kirk: I'm mostly kidding. Though it has been kind of weird how a game this good (and it is good!) still has this odd storm-cloud hanging over it. For everything nice someone says about Arkham Knight, I get the sense there's a criticism or complaint waiting in the wings. I'm not sure why that is. The stuff with the PC version? Something off-putting about the way WB has promoted it?Anyway, like I said… good game! I just plowed through my remaining main story missions last night.
Luke: I've found that strange too! Granted, I've been lucky in that my PC copy had worked flawlessly from the start, but the game itself has been terrific from beginning to end for me. And yet everywhere I look online, there seems to be this weird hesitation from people to really praise it, like something is gnawing at them they either can't or won't articulate. And no, "the Batmobile sucks" isn't it.
Evan: Part of it is the WB stuff, I think. They have increasingly been delivering good games that still manage to poke at things that irritate the people buying them, whether it's bad PC versions or the nagging sense that players are getting nickel-and-dimed.
Kirk Hamilton: Which is a shame, because you can tell a shitload of heart and hard work went into this thing. It's a real labour of love.
Chris Suellentrop: It's a good game! It's just not the best thing video games have to offer in 2015, which is what some people were expecting, and what some early reviews were touting. Not that I'm sure what the best thing video games have to offer in 2015 is. Is this where I get to say that I liked Mark Hamill as The Joker without putting bold text around it?
Kirk: It is! I think we're already past the spoiler warning. Though in case we need another one… YOU GUYS, WE ARE GOING TO SPOIL THE SHIT OUT OF THE ENTIRE GAME, SO YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Anyway, I liked Hamill, too. Loved him, even.
Chris: I thought he saved the game after a pretty dull and by-the-numbers first act.
Luke: Easily the highlight. Not just in terms of vocal performance, but in what that character brings to the story and the game. He's a narrator, he's a spirit animal, he's a waypoint marker.
Kirk: Right! Turns out Batman desperately needed a less dull inner monologue.
Evan: Joker is basically Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite. With less tears.
Kirk: And a better musical number.
Evan: Oh, man, that was so great, right?
Kirk: So great.
Chris: The musical number is my video-game highlight ofso far, my very favourite thing in any game this year.
Luke: Well, it's a little smarter than that. Notice there aren't many narrative cutscenes in the game? Normally the only time they take the camera away from you is for a briefing. The Joker lets the game tell you a story, develop a character and keep you moving while, well, keeping you moving.
Kirk: I think the camera in this game is incredible. Not like, the "game camera," which sometimes gets wonky and can be frustrating, especially in some of those Batmobile chase sequences. But the cinematic camera… the way it swoops and spins around batman, the way it zooms in on combat takedowns and sweeps out when you launch off of a building. The way it pulls in when you get out of the Batmobile and you realise how MASSIVE that sucker is. It's seamless, and at its best, it's extremely impressive. It takes the brilliant work Naughty Dog has done with cinematic cameras and pushes it to the next level, at least technologically.
Luke: The sequence getting in and out, or summoning it and flying into it, or blasting out of it and gliding, and the camera pans out to give you scale then moves in to give you control...ungh
Evan: It even works during the Dual Play switching, which I thought would be a real challenge in terms of keeping a smooth visual flow. So, ok we have to talk more about Joker and what he means to this game.
Kirk: Yes! The Joker. The…. Joker. Mr. Jokesalot. Captain Jokemaker.
Evan: Before Arkham Knight came out, Sefton Hill at Rocksteady said that Joker would NOT be at the center of the game.
Kirk: Well, of course he did.
Evan Narcisse: Which wound up being kinda... true.
Luke: From, a certain point of view.
Evan: He's not the big bad in the real world. But he's certainly the biggest threat Batman's facing in the game.
Chris: [Presumably in Yoda voice] Your father, he is.
Evan: Don't take Thomas Wayne's name in vain!
Chris: I got the sense you were supposed to walk and listen to the Joker in your head during certain scenes, but I always wanted to just sit there and listen to him, or sit atop a building with him and gaze at the zeppelin.
Luke: But yeah, I wasn't surprised to see the Joker turn up. What did surprise me was just how central he became to the game. Yes, early on they establish that he's such a foe, such a big part of the universe that he can star even in death, but by the end, the game itself is almost about Joker instead of Batman.
Kirk: Evan and Chris, I believe you both played Arkham Origins. One of my favourite sequences in that game is where you go inside the Joker's brain and live out his astonishment at having just met Batman. The best stuff in Arkham Knight channeled that, I thought. It was REAL good, especially toward the end. Joker has always been Batman's best foil, not because he's such a fun villain (though he is) but because he's the Yin to Batman's Yang. The psychological stuff in Arkham Knight explored that wonderfully, I thought.
Chris: Yes. And let's praise Arkham Origins! It's the Die Hard of video games, the action Christmas game you didn't know you needed. Punching out people to the sounds of "Greensleeves" never gets old.
Kirk: Such an underrated game, as I've already written.
Luke: In Akham Knight, the dream/nightmare sequence for Joker, with all the stone Batmen, packs more meaning and is more enjoyable than any number of "dead parent" flashbacks or other crisis Batman faces.
Kirk: It made me jump, too!
Evan: The most intriguing thing about the way the Joker lives in Batman's head is that it works in multiple ways. Either Batman's possessed by the literal disembodied psyche of his archfoe or the Joker is just the form his own doubts and fears take. It's, like, "damn, sure he's the evil-arse Joker but he's kinda right about some of this stuff he's saying, Bruce..."
Kirk: I really liked how Batman would totally ignore Joker… right until he didn't.
Chris: What Arkham Knight does better than Arkham Origins is exactly that, Evan. Get inside Bruce Wayne's head and give you at least some sense of who this man is, beyond the monotonous brute who occupies most of the first act.
Kirk: Speaking of that, I have to say that as much as I like Kevin Conroy as Batman, I felt like he was a bit mismatched by some parts of this script. He's so dignified, you know? This batman was a bit rawer, and more of a mystery. Maybe it was just me.
Luke: No, it's not just you. This performance, the way Batman breaks down as the night goes on and gets very WHERE'S THE TRIGGER, seemed to not quite fit Conroy's voice.
Evan: I love Batman but the most frustrating element of his more modern iterations is this dogma that any hint of his emotional complexity has to come from how he interacts with other characters. He'll never just say how he's feeling to other people.It's all interior monologue or others interpreting it.
Kirk: It's tricky, too, since due to the open-ended nature of the game, one minute you'll have Batman watching Oracle kill herself, and the next minute he's having a casual chat with Alfred about how he's "gonna pay Penguin a visit and say hi" or something.I'm not sure what Conroy could've done better, given what he was working with.
Chris: Can we talk about Oracle? As a Batman devotee, Evan was bothered by her death scene. I was shocked by it, but in a good way. And I was disappointed by her return at the end of the game.
Luke: I was too! It undermined what could have been a very powerful moment, even if it did play into the whole "comic book" style the ending went for, where everything happens to everyone and it's all a little *ahem* batshit crazy.
Chris: I also found Commissioner Gordon's actions leading up to the climax difficult to believe, or not in keeping with what I know of his character.
Kirk: I was a bit disappointed with all that, too. On the one hand, I predicted it'd happen, and it was nice to get to see Oracle exact some measure of revenge on the jerks who'd held her captive. On the other hand, it was so predictable… and yeah, Chris, I thought Jim's actions in the final act w/r/t The Scarecrow were ridiculous. So were Batman's, for that matter. I was so much more invested in the inner-space stuff with Joker than I was with the "Surrender Dorothy" crap going on with Scarecrow and Bats.
Evan: Before the game came out, I wrote about how Scarecrow is one of the lamest Bat-villains and, while he's used well here, I still feel that way. He's always a walking plot device and, here, he's just a runway for the Joker stuff.
Kirk: Though I will say that John Noble was great. Because John Noble is always great.
Luke: John Noble, in any other game, would have won "best voice actor". He lends so much gravity and weight to a character who, as we've said, is normally The Worst.
Kirk: I got a bit distracted once I realised it was him, but I didn't really mind. Though I will say that I don't think a person would sound like Scarecrow does if they had no lips!
Evan: Going back to the climax for a quick bit, I got really annoyed by the false endings in the third act. There were at least three times I thought the game was over.
Chris: I don't even want to speak of the drill.
Luke: Let us not speak of the drill. Or the rooftop helicopter fight, for that matter.
Kirk: God. You guys, I just… I really disliked around 50% of the missions in the last act.
Luke: The Arkham Knight takedown was not fun either. Really tedious implementation of stealth combat stuff that you'd already done better dozens of times throughout the game already.
Kirk: I liked so much of the ending narratively, but god… those missions. The checkpointing on the stealth mission against the Arkham Knight, the drill sequence, the big tank fight… >_<
Luke: It says a lot when the most enjoyable part of the game's ending that you actually PLAY is the Joker FPS section.
Evan: Which itself was pretty shallow, mechanically, Luke.
Luke: Mechanically, yes. But it sure was satisfying shooting Penguin in the face.
Chris: But Kirk, the stealth tank sequences that men play live after them, the punching and kicking is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Batman.
Kirk: Hahahaha ok, if you say so.
Chris: I really enjoyed cleaning up all the watchtowers and the militia checkpoints after the story was over -- just great Batman fighting and sneaking. But then you're supposed to fight Deathstroke in a tank and I just turned the game off.
Kirk: I haven't gotten to that stuff yet, though I actually do think I'll go mop up sidequests. I like a lot of them. Those Two-Face heists, in particular.
Chris: The Two-Face heists were pure Arkham Asylum, little contained battles that reminded me of why that game is still my favourite Arkham game.
Luke: That's funny, Chris, because I uninstalled the game five minutes after finishing the campaign. I've always found it weird cleaning up side-missions once a main story is done, and the way they frame it in particular here only makes it more bizarre.
Evan: Finishing sidequests to get more narrative payoff is a real turnoff. I'll do it here, because Batman, but I won't like it.
Chris: Yes, Luke. Everyone mutters about how you're really playboy Bruce Wayne.
Kirk: Do you really have to finish them all? The game is telling me I have to do seven, which I don't think is all of them. I think I've already cleared one or two, I guess.
Chris: All of them, Kirk. Even the Riddler trophies.
Luke: Or, you can search "Batman Knightfall Ending YouTube" on Google
Chris: Yes, that's what YouTube is for.
Kirk: I thought YouTube was for watching Kinder Egg unwrapping videos.
Chris: I've learned a lot about how to apply eye shadow.
Evan: So we've talked Scarecrow and Joker. Let's discuss the Arkham Knight. Another instance of misdirection here since, if I recall correctly, he was talked up as an all-new character.
Kirk: Surely I'm not the only one who called it early on.
Evan: Nah, I called it as soon as I saw the design.
Luke: I'm not a HUGE Batman comics fan, so I didn't know right away, but the second you got those Joker flashbacks with Robin, it was pretty clear.
Kirk: Yeah, I mean I even thought it was Robin before I knew about Jason Todd. I just figured it was actually current-day Robin. Who else could it have been?
Chris: They telegraph it, and I guess they had to because otherwise, many players -- like me -- would have responded to a reveal of Jason Todd with, "Who?"
Kirk: Yeah, it was a little weird to tie the twist to something that happened outside of the first two games.
Evan: And I kept hoping to be wrong. "Maybe it's Ra's Al Ghul! He's always coming back from the dead. Plus, he's got the League of Assassins..."
Kirk: I'd assumed he at least got funding from Ra's! But I guess not. Overall I thought the Arkham Knight was kind of lame, both as a character and as plot device. And as a guy you fight against in a lot of shitty tank battles and instant-fail stealth sequences.
Evan: I mean, I loved the needling he was giving Batman throughout. The whiny tone of his scripting was **very** Jason Todd. This is why fans voted to kill you, Jason. This shit right here.
Kirk: Poor Jason. But yeah.
Luke: He seemed there only to justify his goons, if that makes sense. "Oh, we need to fill this city with tanks and soldiers...let's create a military-looking guy in armour"
Chris: He was extremely boring. Combining him with the Ace Chemicals plant was a dangerous, stream-crossing boredom cocktail. Speaking of the empty city, couldn't they come up with something different this time? It always feels ungenerous to want more, but I did want more. I'd like a living, breathing Gotham, one that's closer to what San Andreas in Grand Theft Auto V felt like, a city with a sense of place, with neighbourhoods and with citizens who aren't thugs and supervillains.
Kirk Hamilton: It's that Spider-Man thing, right? Like, wishing the game let you actually play as your alter ego.
Chris: Yeah. The Atari 2600 Superman game let you play as Clark Kent, if memory serves, and it was not very exciting.
Luke: I'd imagine that the systems inherent in a brawler wouldn't allow for the flexibility of a GTA-style game.
Kirk: Sure, though I'm not sure I'd want that. But something… I guess something creative that lets you do a few sequences as Bruce Wayne. Even standalone stuff. It'd be cool!
Evan: I'd always wanted Rocksteady to somehow make a co-op Batman game, because I love the idea of gruff-arse Batman assembling a family around himself. So this game was disappointing, not because it wasn't co-op, but because it didn't really show how Batman's allies can be his best asset.
Chris: Even though the theme of the game is how Batman doesn't trust his allies, and how that costs him.
Evan: Yeah, that didn't pay off really. There's a nice moment with Nightwing after you finish the Penguin questline, but I wanted more.
Chris: I liked that Nightwing moment, and I really liked the middle section with Robin. I thought that was the strongest part of the game.
Kirk: I wish you could call in Nightwing or Catwoman to back you up in the open-world fights. (You can't, right?) As it stands, the most reliable companion Batman has is the Batmobile. Which, yeah. Not all that heartwarming.
Luke: I did appreciate the steps made to make the Batmobile feel like a character, though. How it growls like a dog, and how the camera lingers on its "death" scene so you can get upset about it.
Kirk: I already made this joke, but a lot of Arkham Knight is like Papo & Yo, only instead of your alcoholic father, it's the Batmobile.
Evan: Hahahaha! Kirk, I totally thought they were trying to channel the horse-dying beat Shadow of the Colossus in that moment when the Batmobile gets chewed up.
Chris: Oh, way to remind me, Luke! The Batmobile's resurrection was the second back-from-the-dead moment in the game that I found disappointing and irritating.
Kirk: Especially because it preceded a tank fight where I immediately died. Kind of an anti-climax.
Luke: Yes! I was hoping for an endgame reliant on swinging and flying and good old-fashioned Batman legwork. Instead, "oh, here's another Batmobile, and btw, this one's totally OP"
Kirk: And white?
Evan: The winter Batmobile.
Chris: Lucius, why have you been hiding this way cooler Batmobile?
Kirk: I want the one with the crazy Joker face on it. Is that some pre-order skin or something? I want that Batmobile.
Luke Plunkett: So good
Chris: Batman: Twisted Metal
Luke: IT HAS A BOWTIE
Evan: Those hands are creepy as fuck.
Luke: THE BOWTIEMOBILE
Kirk: Well, I'm out of time, so I'll have to fire my grappling hook and take to the sky. I trust you all will carry on without me, and finally get to the bottom of the "is the Batmobile good or bad?" question. Just kidding, there is no easy answer to that.
Chris: Farewell, Batmobile apologist.
Evan: I think we handled the Batmobile stuff a bit before but I will say that, while I liked it, it made the game feel less "Batman." As evidenced by its primacy in the last boss battles.
Chris: I literally have no idea where to take this after THE BOWTIEMOBILE.
Luke: I loved the Batmobile. Fuck the haters. It gave the game scale and variety, and is probably now the gold standard for console game tank battle controls/design. The way it controlled like a Halo tank, but then added in cool features like the predicted shot arcs (so you could dodge and weave) made the tank battles some of the most frantic and enjoyable in the game, especially since I found the actual hand-to-hand combat a bit lacking in a post-Shadow of Mordor world.
Chris: I literally never drove it once my Batsuit was powered up enough to fly quickly across the city. Though I did like defusing those bombs. The dodge manoeuvre was fun.
Evan Narcisse: OK, time for final thoughts, guys... It's weird how Batman: Arkham Knight feels throwback in some ways. It's an narratively focused open-world game focused on a sole grim protagonist. But it also bears many of the occasionally unpopular ideas that AAA publishers are implementing to try and survive in a shifting landscape. I think that I was surprised that, overall, I liked it. I do wonder if games like this will continue to get made in this specific way, though.
Chris Suellentrop: This game is built on such a solid foundation that it would be hard not to like it. And as frustrating as I found the force-feeding of the Batmobile early on, Luke's right that it added variety to a series that some players thought had grown stale. Mark Hamill delivers another brilliant performance as the Joker, and that was enough for me. If they do another one -- and they will do another one -- they need to find a way to shake up the formula. Maybe it's a Shadow of Mordor style system that involves more searching for your nemeses (sorry) in an open world, and less following a trail of breadcrumbs.
Luke Plunkett: This felt like a good way to close out a trilogy. You can see that in places the team tried to make this as next-gen as possible (the toxic smoke, the scale), but in the end were hamstrung by the need to make another Batman game which played and controlled the same as the last three. Given that, I'm thankful this is a sequel that was genuinely better than the games that came before, and I'm excited to see what they take on next
Evan: And we're done. Thanks for making time to chat, guys!