Friday, October 16, 2015

The Dark Knight's Darkest Timeline

Rocksteady's Arkham series is the best video game adaptation of a superhero to date. Nothing else captures so many aspects of a character so perfectly, much less a figure as iconic, nuanced, and macro-mythic as Batman. Fans have had towering expectations for each version of the game and Rocksteady's titles have crushed them every time. (WB Game's Montreal's prequel offering, Arkham Origins, fell short in many ways, but it also has a much worse rep than it deserves. Very solid writing.)

I have so much faith in the franchise that I bought the PC version at launch, without waiting for any kind of reviews, only to have to wait several months for the second round of fixes to make the game playable. The nightmare port could be a post unto itself. Apparently WB outsourced it with almost no time left, and didn't bother to do enough Q&A to wait for a Halloween release, which really would have been so much smarter for so many reasons. Even after the second major patch, it's still not perfect, periodically suffering from graphical stutters and mass-slow down, but none of that stopped me from playing it in 2 to 6 hour binges. (In the course of writing this, I discovered a new patch has been released with more fixes and support for all the DLC. So yay!)

The game has stellar mechanics, beginning with combat that blends pseudo-Quick Time Event style brawling with the opportunity to deviate and improvise via movement, gadgets and special combo abilities. Getting a good flow going feels amazing. It feels like you're the goddamn Batman. On top of that, you have the incredibly liberating ability to zip through the city with his grapnel gun, sling-shotting yourself into mile long glides over Gotham. The combat and flying could get monotonous, and I think some of my friends have leveled that complaint against the game, but clever puzzles that require careful use of your gadgets, and compelling detective side-quests kept things fresh for me.

This game's signature wonderful toy is the Batmobile itself. You get to rocket around Gotham in a car that transforms into a tank, which you can use to get into shoot-outs with unmanned military drones. It strains disbelief a bit to believe that thugs and criminals you hit at 100+ miles per hour are merely "stunned" by the car's taser field, and weird to have Batman blasting tanks, but the gameplay is ridiculously fun, grafting an entire secondary combat system into the game's DNA. You also get a surprising amount of puzzle mileage out of the hulking video, via remote control and grapple cables.

All of that would be meaningless if the story wasn't stellar. Fortunately, the Arkham universe combines the best of the incredibly varied Batman mythos into one experience (save for Damien Wayne - nobody is perfect). You have Mark Hamill voicing the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman from the animated series. Barbara Gordon as Oracle (and Batgirl in the DLC), Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake from the comics. Lucius Fox from Nolan's movies. And between all the titles in the series, you get to face every villain from the best rogue's gallery in the history of all comic bookage.

What's more, the series takes risks with canon. It breaks rules that the movies and comics cannot afford to, for fear of alienating entrenched fans or scaring off new ones. Spoilers to follow until the final paragraph, but please read on if you won't be playing game.

The second game in the series, Arkham City, ends by killing off the Joker. Arkham Knight begins with you cremating him. Some people thought that the ol' Clown Prince of Crime was actually Clayface in disguise--a theory I dreaded might be true. But no. Joker really is dead. Dead but not gone. If you will recall, Batman was infected with Joker's blood at the end of the last Arkham Game, and thanks to the magic of comic book logic, his blood slowly starts to possess everyone infected with it. What does this mean for gameplay? Hamil's Joker appears as a hallucination in Batman's head, talking to him throughout the entire game, savagely (but hilariously) taunting him at every opportunity, and urging him to abandon his code and succumb to violence. There are a couple moments where Batman loses control too, giving us a glimpse at the most terrifying villain ever: Bat-Joker. So the net result is a prolonged exploration of their relationship. It doesn't really go deeper than any prior analysis, but it brilliantly illustrates the point that Joker subsists entirely on Batman. And there is also a nod to the theory that Batman depends on Joker, as the game suggests Bruce is finally making some preparations to hang up the cowl (via side missions where you play as Azrael, training to inherit the mantel).

That's only one stunning part of the story. The first fifth of the game ends with the fear-gas induced suicide of Barbara Gordon. Which, I mean, holy fuck. They say this is the story about the end of Batman, but I didn't believe it until he watches his already paralyzed, brilliant young protege blow her brains. She is trapped in a glass room which he doesn't enter, for fear of inhaling fear gas. At that point, Batman has already lost. He has lost so hard that no matter how hard the story plays out from here, there is no coming back. They make her death all the more destructive, by making her and Tim Drake into a romantic item, and having Batman tell bald-faced lies to him about her death; which is a legitimate aspect of the character that is rarely explored outside the comics. Batman keeps secrets that hurt his loved ones. You also get to see Jim Gordon discover his daughter's involvement with Batman for the first time. It's so brutal, and so unfair, that I actually had problems with it. Part of it was the feminist gamer in me, mad that they killed one of the few female bat characters, and one of the best heroines in comics, but the real issue was, it was genuinely upsetting. More so than deaths in the comics, because those have been proven, time and again, to be temporary setbacks. But the Arkham series started out as a trilogy, it would end, and that will be it.

Unfortunately, they cop out. It's all a hallucination. Batman was influenced by fear-gas. Babs is okay. Scarecrow had her stashed away to manipulate Jim Gordon. The funny thing is, I was simultaneously hoping they would find a way to rescue her, and that they would stick to her guns. My relief that she survived wrestled with my disgust that they didn't commit. Ultimately, I think it was the wrong call, but I was so relieved that I still love the game. And Batman still failed. He succumbed to fear and selfishness when he watched her die, instead of breaking into the glass room and rescuing her, hallucination or not. It is still the Dark Knight's darkest timeline. He got lucky instead of being good, and Batman should always be the best.

The most predictable part of the story is the Arkham Knight himself, who is inevitably, Jason Todd. The only thing that threw me off is that Red Hood had a separate, distinct costume and action figure with his own level pack and everything in preorders and promotions. But once you hear him addressing Batman as 'old man,' and talking about his tactics, it could really only be one character. Worse yet, despite laying siege to Gotham, and being party to Barbara Gordon's apparent murder, Jason is redeemed by Bruce through fisticuffs and a heart-to-heart that's about seven words long. I know, I know. How else would it end? Personally I would hope for an ambiguous heroic sacrifice, leading Bruce to wonder if Jason is dead again, just after he is effectively resurrected.

Narrative rough patches aside, Arkham Knight is still the definitive Batman experience. I can't see Rocksteady topping it, and I earnestly hope they don't try. Tackle a Wonder Woman game instead. Or Flash. Or Cyborg! Even Aquaman. Hell, these guys are so good they might be the ones to finally figure out a Superman game that doesn't suck.

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