Batman: Arkham Knight, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Batmobile

It’s all in the details

By: Rocksteady/WB
Platform: XBOX ONE
Released: June 23, 2015
Minutes Played: 3854
Total Points Achieved: 427

The Batmobile is good, and if you disagree you played the game wrong, probably through no fault of your own. When we started playing it, nearly everyone I talked to (and all of these people are Very Good At Games) had gotten to a point in the game where they became so frustrated that they refused to carry on. I think this comes down to the high likelihood for unfavorable distribution of upgrades throughout the game.

Based on the way the people around me have described their experiences, the main problem comes from the hurriedness of the narrative conflicting with the metagame; there’s an intensity and urgency to the story that drives you to prioritize completing it; however I strongly suspect that the game is balanced so that it expects you take a break from the story and engage in at least SOME of the side missions to grow your abilities and equipment — and if you don’t do that you come up against nearly impossible challenges. I base this off of the fact that I listened to my co-workers talk about their frustrations with the game, and then realized that if I did nothing BUT the side missions until I was forced to progress the narrative, and poured nearly all of my points into body armor and Batmobile upgrades I would be able to stay ahead of the challenge curve. This proved accurate — I didn’t hit any moments where I couldn’t easily deal with the game’s challenges — in fact I grew to love the Batmobile related challenges and dread the free-flow combat challenges because my vehicle was so strong and the free flow combat had become so complex.

I think that the real issue people have with this iteration of Batman is players are going to find the challenge is randomly about 10% too great at any one time. There’s a careful line between a sense of reasonable challenge and total frustration and Arkham Knight stands just on the other side of that line, taunting you like one of the maniacs that constitute the antagonists of the game. It’s not as much a power fantasy any more — the structure of the previous Arkham games guaranteed that you would be able to kick exactly as much ass as you needed to at any one point and frequently scrape by the skin of your teeth. That careful balanced seems to be ever so slightly upset this time.

Even the Batmobile Platforming challenges — the ones that require you to precisely drive your batmobile on a rooftop or in a cave become easy on the second playthrough. Again an indicator that the challenge was too significant initially and some easing into the complicated aspects of the design would have gone a long way towards mitigating. This is something that Rocksteady has traditionally been very good at (it is the core reason why Asylum was such a success), so it’s a surprise to see them stumble in this, their alleged swan song in the world of The Bat.

It’s understandable that players would generally tend to push forward in the narrative at the expense of the side missions. The narrative tropes that drive you — the Damsel(s) in Distress, the City in Peril, the Constant Race to Stay Ahead of One’s Own Looming and Seemingly Inevitable Decline into Insanity (Personified By A Vaudevillian Clown That Taunts You on a Near Constant Basis And Is a Broken Mirror Reflection of Oneself) — are very powerful and compelling reasons to hurry through the story. The story is well told and certainly well performed if not a little overly fantastic and melodramatic.

There’s also the problem of too many open world games taking too much time. With hundreds of hours of Witching, Light Dying, Metal Gearing and Auto Thefting vying for your time, it can be very easy to give up and move on to something else — particularly when if feels like a game may have already shown you it’s whole hand.

In terms of feel the Batmobile is amazing, and the work of masters at the top of their form. It’s perfectly integrated into the philosophies that drive the Batman series: Press a Button and Something Awesome Will Happen. You Have The Coolest Stuff. Be The Batman. When you press the button to summon the Batmobile, it shows up and there’s a rad camera angle and you jump into it and it’s really cool. You can go really fast and jump far and turn into a weird buggy with total freedom of movement at the press of a button. I love it.

While I understand the need to do it, setting the default control scheme to have Tank Mode on LT and brake on X (I play on Xbox One, so that’s the star button or whatever to you PS4 players) breaks with decades of convention and muscle memory. I can see the rationale; this thing should have the equivalent of Aim Down Sights but also be able to handle at high speed, and e-brakes are traditionally mapped to the X button, so it almost works, but it’s really hard to adjust — especially in moments of extreme concentration when psychological flow takes over and muscle memory is all you have. At it’s best, it seamlessly creates an environment which allows the player to treat the vehicle as an extension of the self in its virtual world, but the little moments where the outcome of the controls don’t map to intent are jarring and disconnect you from the experience.

The cat-and-mouse style challenge of fighting against the Cobra tanks is a lot of fun, particularly when there’s a time pressure associated with it. There’s an upgrade that lets you direct the focus of the Cobra Drones; they’ll go and investigate where your shot lands — a great game mechanic but one so nonsensical it would be reality breaking if the grimdark pulpy reality of the game weren’t already so broken. Adding a timer for Rival Points makes it that much more engaging — escalating extrinsic constraints shape the challenge to emphasize specific elements of the controls, further emphasizing the sensation that you are controlling the batmobile.

The challenges that require you to manage waves of enemies are also quite tense and enjoyable when you are at full power — you’re constantly having to choose when to dodge and when to stay in the same place, and if now is the time to use your hacking capabilities or wait until you’re at full power and can take over more enemy tanks faster. This is compounded by the scoring system, which rewards streaks of avoiding damage — so the more successful you are the greater the tension becomes.

I worked for Sid Meier for a summer about 15 years ago — I didn’t learn much because I was a 21 year old, and a self absorbed idiot, but one thing he did tell me that stuck is that a game needs to be fun in its first 10 minutes or it fails (i’m paraphrasing, i’m sure his exact words were much wiser). I’ve learned a few things since then, but I think the lesson here is that a game has to inform you how it’s going to be good in its first 10 minutes. A game like this has to entice you with the promise of what you’re going to become as you go on a journey together, and never make it feel impossible to be that thing.