06 March 2014

Batman: Arkham Knight

Two days ago, when Rocksteady suddenly revealed their next and last installment in the Arkham video game series with a four minute story trailer, I didn't have time to react properly. Which is to say, I freaked out, watched it several times in a row, shared it on social media with the caption "You're welcome" (as if I had something to do with it), and got back to grading papers.

Now that grading is momentarily caught up, I feel the need to explore my reaction more thoroughly. I think it might be therapeutic. Though it releases this October, the game is next-gen only, so it will be much longer before I actually get to play it. Rather than bottle up and carry all this enthusiasm around for the next months/years/however-long-before-my-wife-lets-me-buy-a-PS4, I'll dump it off here. (That's what blogs are for, right? I'm still not sure.)

I never actually took the time to review the last installment in this series, the notorious Arkham Origins that released only this past October from a different studio (Warner Bros. Games Montreal). This is partially because it took me so long to finish the story, and I'm actually still working on the side missions. (What do you want? I don't play as often as I'd like.) I remember being disappointed with the story at first, particularly many characters' throwaway roles (Barbara Gordon, Killer Croc, Alberto Falcone, most of the assassins) in favor of the Joker's big reveal. I was looking forward to Black Mask's assassin story per the wonderful set-up in the first official trailer:

However, once I made peace with that misdirection I actually really admired the story. The Joker and Bane were both wonderfully persistent, and the Blackgate finale was surprisingly satisfying. I agree with critics that the game felt a bit too easy because of certain new gadgets; I started in hard mode and never missed a beat, my slow (infrequent) progress notwithstanding. But I also agree that most boss fights were interesting and challenging -- Deathstroke's in particular. (Man, it's been fun seeing him on Arrow.) The voice acting and score were both wonderful and it was exciting to hear Quincy Sharp announce the plans for Arkham Asylum, setting up the rest of the series in true prequel fashion...not to preclude the possibility of Origins sequels produced by the same team. The Blackgate handheld spin-off is also coming to PlayStation Network this April, and I'll definitely download Mr. Freeze's "Cold, Cold Heart" add-on content.

So the thing is, I'm enough of a Batman fan now that I come into all interpretations with my own ideas for what they should be. I have favorite characters and favorite adaptations of those characters, and while I stay open to new and improved (or at least "different") versions, I live in fear of changes that are too little or not enough. As something of a completist, I hope to see every character from the Batman mythos incorporated into each retelling, and hope to be wowed anew. My big hope for The Dark Knight Rises was that it would at least pay homage to other villains not yet used in the Nolanverse, the way they did with Zsasz in Batman Begins -- the Penguin in a club, the Riddler in a computer hacker role, etc. (I had to make due with Daggett and a very underused Talia.) In other words, and as strange as it sounds, for me the worst thing a Batman arc can do is promise an ending, especially one that may not fulfill those hopes and expectations that I bring along. If it keeps going, that hope lives on.

Arkham Knight is sort of TDKR of the video game franchise because it's Rocksteady's finale. I'm not necessarily saying that's "strike one." I'm a fan of trilogy storytelling and can admit that every retelling has to end in order to make room for the new one. It just means that my expectations are higher. So how might it fulfill them (because, you know, it's all about me)?

The Good:
  1. Developed and directed by the people responsible for the first two games.
  2. We can finally drive the Batmobile. According to Game Informer (via Batman-News.com), this is one important reason why next-gen technology is necessary, which means they're trying to make it as good as it can be.
  3. It only takes place one year after Arkham City, already avoiding a serious mistake on the part of TDKR, which jumped to eight years later in a vain attempt to invoke Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (about an old, retired Batman).
  4. The title doesn't disappoint. A little thing, I know, but I was really let down by "The Dark Knight Rises," which, however thematic and appropriate, is still much less original than the other two titles in that series.
  5. Improved gameplay, graphics, etc. (Though as you can see, I'm more about the story.)
The Promising:
  1. Scarecrow is back. I missed him in City, but I'm also not sure what I think of him as the main villain, since he had a fairly prominent role in Asylum. It's a possible missed opportunity to use someone new. I'll also be annoyed if he's just a front for the actual main villain ala Black Mask in Origins, Hugo Strange in City, and Bane in TDKR.
  2. Oracle will make an appearance (again according to Gamer Informer). This could easily go in the above list except I'm waiting to see how prominent her role will be. Every game so far has taken place before or after Barbara's stint as Batgirl, and since she's one of my family's favorite Bat-characters, that's something of a sore point. I'm holding out hope that an Origins sequel or add-on will tell her story.
  3. The return of Two-Face, who might prove more interesting than he did in City.
  4. The possible (though as of yet unconfirmed) resolution to certain plot points from City, such as the return of Hush and Azrael, the fate of Talia, or Batman's strange mourning of the Joker. It's possible these were addressed by comic book tie-ins, but I hope that won't mean they're left out.
  5. Speaking of the Joker, he died in City. Presumably, that means this will be the first Arkham game without him. I'm not sure if it's that or the possibility that's he's not dead and will resurface (like so many comic book characters do) that worries me the most, but I think I'm hoping for the first. The Joker isn't vital to a Batman story.
The Worrisome:
  1. Apparently, "Arkham Knight" is not only the game's title, but a reference to a new villain. Maybe that's Azrael, but it has also been said that comic book bigwig Geoff Johns created the character specifically for this game. I'll wait to be won over by this idea (maybe it will play out like the animated film Mask of the Phantasm), but for now, I'm skeptical.
  2. I don't love the return of Harley Quinn and her Arkham-verse costume. Uhg.
  3. The trailer, called "Father to Son," includes a voiceover of Thomas Wayne's will. I hope this theme isn't so heavy-handed in the actual game because it smacks too much of Jor-El/Superman's relationship. In both cases, you have to wonder why the fathers are more important than the mothers.
  4. Gotham City will be evacuated (like No Man's Land?). Will we never get a Batman game that shows him operating in regular old Gotham rescuing regular old citizens? I had the exact same complaint about TDKR, by the way.
What Else I'd Like to See:
  1. Though we know it's single-player, bring back other playable characters like Catwoman in City. I would love the chance to play as Oracle (so what if she's in a wheelchair?), Robin, Nightwing, Huntress, etc. in story mode and not just challenge mode.
  2. More Killer Croc. He has been in every installment (if you count his Easter Egg cameo in City) so it just makes sense.
  3. Man-Bat! ...But without repeating the mechanics of the Origins boss battle with Firefly. I kind of doubt this one, though. He was teased in Origins, so maybe WB Games Montreal will use him later.
  4. Maxie Zeus! Come on, he was in the graphic novel that inspired the first game, so it only makes sense.
  5. Justify the name "Arkham" as more than just a reference to the original game. The story of and haunting by Amadeus Arkham gave it a depth and tone that was missing from the other two games, and I would love for Arkham Knight to revisit that legacy somehow. (Maybe Quincy Sharp is the Arkham Knight!)
Considering the game comes out this year, there are likely to be more trailers and announcements soon, meaning any of the above lists could grow or shrink. But I've accomplished my goal of dumping my enthusiasm on the Internet so that I can let it go for a while...or at least until the next piece of news.

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