With the Arkham series, Rocksteady Studios has managed to catapult themselves from an obscure maker of exactly one mediocre shooting game into one of the most admired developers for current gen consoles. By the looks of the stunning trailer, Rocksteady will likely outdo themselves with Arkham Knight. This entry will be the final piece of an amazing trilogy that raised the bar for third-person action games and licensed games in general.
However, just because Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were amazing does not mean that they were perfect. In fact, because Rocksteady absolutely nailed some aspects of design so well, the lingering shortcomings stick out like a sore thumb. Nagging things like pacing and level design only make me think of the potential for these games to transcend the medium of interactive storytelling to new levels — well, more than they already have.
With these nitpicks in mind, here are some ways that Arkham City can avoid the problems of games past and become one of the best video games of all time… *Spoiler warning for earlier games*
Let the Joker Stay Dead
While I thought the final moments of the Joker’s arc in Arkham City were not terribly well handled, his contribution to the story added a much-needed emotional element and some decently high stakes.
It also let Batman villains do what they do best: form and break hazy alliances with Batman and other villains. The shifting from bad to neutral makes Batman tales interesting, especially considering Batman’s obsession with moral absolutes.
So Rocksteady overall did a decent job killing the Joker. Too bad Warner Bros. Games Montreal couldn’t stand to let it last. Chalk it up to being insecure about their story writing skills, but they probably should have avoided rehashing well-worn territory. Even Arkham City made a point to cast the Joker as something other than the primary antagonist.
Treading down the same path yet a fourth time would likely induce groans and feel like opportunity was being thrown away. Get creative, Rocksteady, and use that noggin of your team to come up with something juicy. The fact that Paul Dini is no longer involved could hold them back, but I have faith in their abilities.
Make the Ending Not Suck
I never played Arkham Origins, but my opinion of the last ten minutes of both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City is a big fat thumbs down embellished by a fart sound. Through the entirety of both games, the plot is building up to a grand finale. Every opportunity the game gets, they remind you of the looming danger of the Titan invasion or Protocol 10 in dialogue and over the loud speakers. Hugo Strange even makes a good show of it by counting down the time periodically after set intervals.
Yet, when it comes time for Protocol 10 or “Joker’s Party” it’s just more of the same. A few cutscenes are peppered in, but most of the actual in-game content is business as usual. Joker as a generic Titan boss that you only have to yank down three times from a platform was legendary in its awfulness.
Clayface as a boss was decent, but why the unimaginative “twist” and reveal? You only think Joker’s healthy for all of two minutes. Yes, it kept me guessing but not in a way that blew my mind after they told me what was going on. Essentially, both endings pretend to lead up to a vigorous climax only for the player to realize that Rocksteady blew their load about halfway through.
The core problem is that the plot dangers are thwarted by Batman mostly in cutscenes. Without any tense in-game sequences where Batman must disable X, Y, or Z before Gotham gets screwed, the player just watches passively until the next henchman mob/ boss fight.
Protocol 10 was particularly disappointing because I never understood what the hell it was supposed to be. When I checked a FAQ about it, apparently Ra’s just wanted to kill everyone in Arkham City.
Killing criminals en masse in a prison? I feel like that wouldn’t take much of a to-do. Some well-placed bombs would suffice. I get that the plot had to be complex because “video game,” but not having Gotham in the line of fire made it feel like I missed something.
Worst of all was Batman’s “boss fight” with Hugo Strange. He kicks Hugo once in the chest, who falls down and goes “You will never stop me!” Then, Batman places a thingy on a computer that says Protocol 10 and nothing else on the monitor and tells Oracle to “shut it down.” The entire plot is resolved in two seconds without any tension whatsoever.
Please don’t make this mistake with Arkham Knight, Rocksteady. Make us think that the plot is resolved then throw another wrench in the works. Keep us gues sing. Ramp up the tension all the way to the end. Even Azrael hints at the possible epicness of the next game’s plot in an Arkham City side mission when he tells Batman:
Dark days are coming, Batman. The Prophecy is coming true, you are the warrior who will close the gates of Hell, you are the one who will save this day, and in doing so, events will occur that you cannot stop, from the ashes of Arkham the fires will rage and Gotham will burn, and you, you will burn too.
Hopefully, Rocksteady will be able to deliver on the promise of those foreboding words.
Work on Pacing in General
Part of the problem with the endings of the Arkham games is that the pacing in general is highly inconsistent. Whereas it should feel like a steady build into harder, darker and more intense sequences, the actual progression is all over the place. Excellent, dramatic set pieces are interspersed with long, boring stretches or repetitive sequences that take us out of the story.
Arkham City in particular felt like it had a razor-sharp focus on just making the beginning good. Perhaps this stemmed from Rocksteady wanting to show a badass demo at E3, but they should have kept up the level of quality until the end. Fun set pieces like the shark attack at the museum and the Mr. Freeze fight were memorable, but other boring sequences bogged the game down.
One disappointing moment I felt was after following the ninja assassin into Wonder City. You stumble into this beautiful, lost world enshrined deep beneath Arkham. And what do you do there? Scan robot people and they explode. The art team spent all this time coming up with a gorgeous, lush theme for an area and all the dev team decided to do with it was make us use detective mode again.
Instead, Arkham Knight should intersperse the entire game with memorable set pieces and sequences throughout. Challenge us with new takes on the traditional formula, such as taking away the grapnel gun for a segment. Create interesting scenarios with the environment rather than taking us through the same industrial setting we’ve seen a million times. The game should have so many twists and turns that, like a good Metal Gear Solid title, you are still playing long after you suspected the game was going to end.
Give Us More Insight into the Universe
One of the things that the Arkham games have done so well is to completely immerse themselves in the Batman universe. All of the villains are already established, and subtle nods and cameos are real treats for long-time Batman fans.
While this handling of the materials is a breath of fresh air compared to movies that insist on introducing villains to audiences every single time, you still miss out on a solid build. In films that are giving an origin story, you are constantly learning new things about characters and Batman at the same time. In the Arkham games, since everything is taken for granted you kind of miss out on that type of character growth.
Instead, the game should let us more inside the heads of the characters. Mr. Freeze in Arkham City did this for a moment, as did meeting Talia al Ghul. But what I want to see is something different than just chasing down a villain, beating up their henchman then dispatching them after a boss fight. I would rather the plot take an interest into what makes the person tick, and how it relates to Batman’s struggle with his personal demons.
Rather than Arkham Knight feeling like a guided tour sprinkled with nods to Batman ephemera, I wish that the game could take us on an emotional rollercoaster filled with gut-wrenching pathos and hair-raising tension. The more backstory we can get through these types of in-game scenes the better. After all, if the game won’t bother to take a deep interest in its characters then why should we?
Might as well cram my list of villains I would love to see right here while I’m at it: Man-Bat, the Ventriloquist, Killer Moth, Alberto Falcone, Hush (hinted at in AC), Azrael (ditto)
Don’t Let the Batmobile Mess Up the Map
The Batmobile looks cool as shit, but it could easily break the world design of the entire game. A high-speed vehicle like that would need large swathes of open roads to get up to speed and be worth using. However, these areas should not be giant empty patches like the roads between cities in the Assassin’s Creed games.
Some reviewers loudly complained that moving from a tightly crafted Metroidvania world map into an open world ruined one of the best things about Arkham Asylum. While I do miss the joy of puzzling around Asylum’s map and waiting for new abilities to unlock new areas, I prefer the freedom of gliding around the city.
Perhaps Arkham Knight can meld the best of both worlds? They can have small areas that can only be accessed out of curiosity, but still give us the same massive skies to traverse in one of the most gleeful movement systems ever developed.
As long as Rocksteady puts effort into cramming in as many usable environments in buildings and throughout the city as possible, this shouldn’t be a concern. Having densely-packed level designs but enough room to zoom around in the ultimate overcompensation vehicle could be a tricky balance to strike, but one they are certainly capable of achieving.
Keep the Good Stuff
For all the things I have whined about, there are so many amazing things about the Arkham games. If Rocksteady decides to make any major changes, they should be sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The best thing that can be said about the Arkham games is that it feels like you’re Batman when you play it. Swooping around on rooftops, divebombing your enemies then disappearing, ripping a weapon out a bad guy’s hands then tossing it aside to use your fists, all of these moments scream the Caped Crusader.
To preserve these elements, Rocksteady should take stock in everything they got right. This includes:
- Brooding, immersive art direction
- Jaw-dropping character models
- Great voice acting by some of the best names in the business
- A commitment to using Batman characters in appropriate ways
- The best, crunchiest brawling combat ever felt in a 3D game
- Adding only combos and gadgets that fit within the atmosphere of the game
- Incredible easter eggs that cast light on obscure Batman tidbits and hint at content to come
- Excellent boss fights from Mister Freeze and Deathstroke
- Great mixture of stealth and brawling sections
- New enemies that force us to adjust our strategies
- Smooth environment traversing that only got better with each sequel
Taking the time to list every single aspect that Rocksteady hit out of the park would take all day. The important thing to remember is that while there is plenty for Arkham Knight to improve on, there is also a legacy of solid design in the past to uphold.
What would you like to see different or the same about Arkham Knight? Any villains you want to see in particular? Let us know in the comments below!
Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English alumnus and a freelance content writer. He collects old video games and IS THE NIGHT!