I mostly finished Arkham Knight.  (See the first part of the review here.) That is, I defeated Scarecrow.  I’ve locked up a bunch of supervillains, but there’s a few more to go, and approximately one gazillion Riddler trophies.

Let's test your graphics card with particle effects

Let’s test your graphics card with particle effects

Overall: I have some major reservations, but it’s mostly good.  There’s a conceptual unity to the story that I have to respect.  The other Arkham games were dark but comic-bookish: a really long and difficult night for the Bat, with not much indication that his career choices ever get him down.  He’s dour and a he’s a bit of a dick to Robin, but that’s as far as it goes.  In AK piling on Batman’s weak points isn’t a joke or a side issue, it’s the main thing. It’s a relentless exploration of the idea that Bats needs his friends, pushes them away because of the danger, and gets them in trouble anyway.  And it all comes back on him in one night.

You can quibble with this story or its resolution, but it’s clearly the story Rocksteady wanted to tell… it’s not really useful to say you wanted a different story. There’s a million Batman stories out there, take your pick.

There may be spoilers from here on out; run away screaming if that’s what you need to do.

Storywise, I wasn’t sure I liked the reappearance of the Joker, but in retrospect I see what they were doing. He may be a delusion caused by Joker blood, but the idea that he could take over under the influence of Scarecrow toxin is clever, and pays off very well at the end. Plus, heck, it’s fun to hear Mark Hamill again, and way more fun than the other two villains’ taunting. (I guess you have to have a lot of self-confidence to be a supervillain, but don’t they ever learn that boasting about how dead Batman is going to be starts to sound hollow as the night goes on?)

Will you like the big reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity? I dunno; I have to confess that I don’t know enough Batman lore to have guessed, or to be bothered or impressed.

In terms of gameplay, there are a number of What Were They Thinking? problems.

First: the goddamn car. There was one sequence I could barely get through– Arkham Knight and his excavator. You have to get the excavator’s attention, then drive like a maniac down a tunnel, avoiding various obstacles, and if you screw up by a microsecond you’re toast. It’s not fun and it doesn’t fit with either the combat (which rewards careful, non-panicked attacking) or the predator bits (which reward patience and opportunity-seeking). It’s like a twitchy Mario level snuck into the game.

One of the Riddler challenges is just as bad; I haven’t beaten it and I don’t know if I will. It involves driving on the wall with precise positioning and split-second button presses, and it pisses me off. It doesn’t help that the Batmobile handles terribly, and the wall-driving thing is incredibly sensitive to the path you start on, so if you almost get it on one try, your next try is likely to be way off.

Edit: I did get this one, and freed Catwoman.  Still, my feeling is “I’m glad I don’t have to do that again” rather than “That was fun, let me see if I can shave 5 seconds off my time.”

There are also endless tank battles, and they just pile on the tanks and missiles to make them harder. The only ones I ended up liking are the Cobra battles, where you have to drive up behind the tanks to take them out. It’s tricky but it at least rhymes with the predator challenges.

Second: why did they mess up the best part of the previous games, the challenge maps? In Arkham City you could take them on four times, for four playable characters, and sometimes I’d play ’em all night, ignoring the main game. In AK you get just four combat and four predator maps, compared to 12 each for the previous games.  You get just a few more if you spring for DLC.  And then you can only play each of them with one character. It’s just a stupid decision– “hey, let’s totally get rid of the most addictive and replayable part of our game!”

And some of them are locked till you figure out the weird things that unlock them. E.g. there’s one where you are supposed to run off a roof and go immediately into a dive. I’ve tried it a dozen times, so far as I’m concerned I did just that, and no unlock, nor any indication of what I did wrong. I hate when games hide what they want you to do.

Third: the treatment of Catwoman and Oracle. There are a few bits of AK where you can switch to a different character, and it’s always fun. And again, it’s like Rocksteady decided, to hell with fun, let’s limit those elements. Why can’t we wander the city as Catwoman or Robin or Oracle?

Finally: you have to do all the side missions to get the full ending, yet they make it incredibly tedious to do so. Sometimes you can follow a marked route to get somewhere, which is fine. But often you have to just wait till you run into the element, and the city is big enough that scouring it in this way, for a dozen side missions, is no fun. Once I wanted to get all the militia watchtowers on one island. I’d gotten some, but there were 2 left. I found a walkthrough with maps, made a diagram, and checked out every watchtower location. And didn’t find anything. From playing later, it seems that some towers are added later in the game. Ugh.

I understand, I guess, developers’ resistance to providing map locations for everything right off. They want us to explore. But not knowing where things are is really not the gameplay funapalooza that developers seem to think it is. I’d be happy enough if there was a discovery mechanism that unlocks at some point, like the Collectible Finder in Saints Row 3, or even the Riddler informants in AC. (They’re back in AK, but of course they’re no help with finding the next militia point or whatever.)

Edit: Eventually you get ‘intel’ on missions, which gives you waypoints; Still can’t find two checkpoints, at 91% game completion.

A more minor complaint: you start with pretty much the same skills as in the earlier games, but then they add about a dozen new tricks and keystrokes on top of them. Honestly, I can’t even remember them all. On the plus side, I didn’t need most of them either.

I don’t know how many Riddler trophies I have, and I really doubt I’ll find them all.

Still, I ended the game feeling much better about it. What’s right with the game?

For one, there’s some really neat and gorgeous bits. When the Cloudburst appears, for one: it changes the look of the whole city, it looks awful and apocalyptic and yet somehow beautiful. The final confrontation with Scarecrow is also really well done. It has a nice callout back to Arkham Asylum, and it combines both the Scarecrow surrealism and the Joker crazy-murder into one package.

And despite my complaints, I appreciate that AK tried some new things– unlike Arkham Origins which was too much of a retread of the previous game. Some don’t work, but some do: having a place to accumulate arrested enemies; the remote hacking device; silent takedowns from a more forgiving angle; the medics; the fear takedown; quite a few neat levels and puzzles. Even the car, though I didn’t like it very much, represents an attempt to shake up the formula and try new things. And there are many missions that are genuinely fun, like the Nightwing ones, and stopping bank heists.  There’s also a couple of Chekhov’s gun moments I admire.

Arkham Knight tells me that I’m 42% done, so it’s time for an in-progress review.  By now you’ve probably heard about the overall setup: the Big Bad is Scarecrow, assisted by a very cocky Batmanlike named the Arkham Knight. You play as Batman.

I have to bring Robin along?

I have to bring Robin along?

Before we get any further you probably want to know: is it fixed? Mostly. It only crashes for me once an hour or two. Crazily, I have to play at high resolution but low everything else in order to avoid the AMD grappling gun crash. But it’s playable.

Overall: it’s good, and I’m enjoying it, with some complaints. It’s the most gorgeous Arkham game yet, and it’s got Kevin Controy and Mark Hamill back. It definitely shows Arkham Origins as an inferior copy of Arkham City. Rocksteady isn’t afraid to mess with its own formula, adding new combat moves, new puzzle types, and of course the Batmobile.

I have mixed feelings about the wheels. Mostly, it doesn’t quite fit with Batman– playing it feels much more like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can run over pedestrians, destroy cars, blow up tanks, knock down just about anything that’s not a building… it seems way too careless for the Bat. (They put in handwaves to explain that he’s not actually killing anyone, but still.) It’s hard to steer, and even the expanded maps feel too small for the car. But, eh, it does add variety and it’s certainly not terrible.

Curiously, the combat feels mostly easier than Arkham Origins, and there seems to be less emphasis on boss fights, which is fine by me. Unaccountably, they’ve messed strangely with the challenge maps. One, it takes forever to unlock them– I bought some of the DLC packs just to have something to play. Two, you can only play them with the character they’re designed for, which immediately removes a lot of the replay value. Three, the combat maps come in just one round, and with most maps it seems extremely hard to get three stars. The one plus is that you can win special red icons for extra effort (e.g. surviving longer in the infinite-thugs maps).

There are a couple hundred Riddler trophies, of course. They seem strangely hidden though… in Arkham City you’d at least see them all over. There are a number of side missions. of course… my least favorite is chasing APCs, since I haven’t figured out how to reliably hit them.  (Ctrl key, but it’s not at all clear when you can fire it and if not, why not.)

Cute bit: you can’t see into (but can’t access) what was once Arkham City:

Look at the little courthouse!

Look at the little courthouse!

The first screenshot above is from DLC, the Batgirl + Robin adventure.  It’s a good meaty adventure, and I like their version of Batgirl; it’s a pity that you can’t play more Batgirl, even in the challenge maps.

Minor spoilers ahead, though nothing important.

The plot is a frenetic mess, but who cares, it’s what we expect from an Arkham game. One big misstep: the villains kidnap Oracle and Catwoman.  So, their best two female characters become damsels in distress, ugh.  I know it’s an old trope to have Batman’s allies attacked, but why the two women over, say, the five men among his close allies?  It’s particularly annoying in that there’s a model close to hand where both characters were used splendidly: Arkham City.

Part of the story is exploring some of Batman’s neuroses… however, so far they seem to be saying contradictory things: first, that people too close to Batman are endangered… second, that Batman foolishly keeps people from helping him.  Um, maybe #2 is in order to avoid #1?  But I dunno, the “Batman being a dick” thing made a great joke in Arkham City, but the comics usually make him a rather more empathetic (and talkative) character.  It makes no sense either in terms of character or gameplay that he trains Robin and then doesn’t use him.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

Finally got to this one.  It’s the second DLC for Dishonored, finishing the story of The Knife of Dunwall.

Not steampunk at all!

Not steampunk at all!

My one complaint about Knife was that it felt incomplete; well, Knife + Witches is nearly as long as the original game, and in many ways it’s far more interesting.  Daud is a better and darker protagonist; the witches make for an accelerating threat (unlike the end of the main game which just offers a shitload of guards), and there’s no attempt to whitewash the corrupt, nasty place that is Dunwall.

I played it all Low Chaos, a path which annoys the Outsider.  This game, I finally made use of the stop time ability… it’s often the best way to deal with the witches, who are far more formidable opponents than the guards. I clumsily used every one of my sleep darts on the final mission, but hey, nobody died.

The story is a little convoluted, as there are a couple missions devoted to finding a way to get to the Witches. But the missions themselves are good stealthy fun.

One weird thing: the last mission has coins and valuables scattered about… why?  You can’t buy anything…

Anyway, if you liked Dishonored and weren’t sure about this, go get it.  Then we wait for Dishonored 2

So, after a mere 4 months, I can play Arkham Knight. I had to upgrade the power supply and graphics card for my computer even to start the game.  (I have an AMD Radeon R9 380 now.)  Then, even with the re-release, I could start the story, and then the game would hang and crash as soon as I tried the grapple hook.  This seems to be a common unfixed problem for people with AMD cards.

Gotta admit it's pretty

Gotta admit it’s pretty

I found a fix that works for me, crazy as it sounds:

  1. Open the AMD Catalyst Control Center.
  2. Select My Digital Flat Panels.
  3. Turn on “Enable virtual super resolution”.
  4. Select Desktop Management, then Desktop Properties.
  5. Select 2560 x 1440 resolution.  Exit the app.
  6. Now run Arkham Knight, and change the resolution to 2560×1440.

Weirdly, turning down the resolution, even as low as possible, didn’t fix it, but turning it up to a higher resolution than the monitor actually supports does.

Anyway, so I can play now.  I’m about six hours in; I’ll have more of a review later.  It’s very pretty, and it’s fun as usual to beat up thugs and flit among the high points.

The biggest new thing is the Batmobile. I’m undecided on this.  The Batmobile sections feel a little like Grand Theft Auto, which is a weird stylistic shift: you can knock into things, smash down streetlights, make the pedestrian thugs run for cover.  And blow up tanks and planes, which we are helpfully informed are unmanned drones, but it’s still a bit weird for Batman to be shooting up the place.

Plus I miss Catwoman.  I understand she turns up later, so judgment reserved.  I played the short Harley Quinn challenge– kind of fun, but I dislike the way the game makes its low opinion of Harley known.

We actually get to meet and see Oracle this game.  What’s more baffling is that even as the situation escalates into a paramilitary uprising, Batman refuses to let Nightwing help.  Dude has issues.

Edit: What also has issues, still, is the game.  It crashed about four times tonight, in as many hours.

Plus… there’s a lot of annoying bits.  Riddler’s Batmobile challenges are really fiddly, and force you to replay long swatches if you fail them. Batmobile chases are about as horrid as GTAIV chases.  It’s dispiriting that the plot can’t think of what to do with its female characters except to kidnap them. Plus, I dunno, does Bats have to be such a complete dick to his helpers?  Arkham City’s Batman had a hint of a dry sense of humor, at least.

No, not to my actual apartment.  Burned structure next door that could collapse; no gas or power; basement flooded.  But I was able to go back to rescue the PC, so I can write a review of the last game I played, Gone Home.

Maybe the next drawer will have a wicked laser rifle

Maybe the next drawer will have a wicked laser rifle

Let’s get this bit over with quickly: Gone Home is not a shooter. It’s also not a platformer, not a MOBA, not a puzzle game, not a simulator, not an RPG. It can loosely be called a point-and-click adventure game. It’s mostly an unusual vehicle for telling a story, a story about a single family.

The setup is that you are Katie, a college-age woman returning to her family home in Oregon after a year’s trip to Europe. Only it’s a new home (the family moved while you were away), and nobody’s home. There are no overt quests, but figuring out why no one’s home is part of the game.

The game mechanic is that you move around the house, finding documents and objects that tell the story of the family and the house. You can pick up many things and examine them; other things are short documents to read; a few trigger voiced memories (though, thankfully, you are not prevented from doing other things while these play). The main story has to do with your younger sister Sam. I think the story is best experienced in-game, so I won’t describe it further, except to mention that part of the theme is that being a teenager sucks. It has awesome parts but the sucky bits seem to be in a conspiracy to prevent them.

Does it work? I think so, though I like attempts to do new things in games. The main story is interesting, though not earth-shattering. In some ways the half-stories you get about other characters are more intriguing. Dad and Mom have their own stories and problems, plus there may be a ghost.

The setup of exploring your own family’s home is clever. As Katie, you’ll see references to yourself, or have reactions to certain items; and then there’s your own room– completely packed up in boxes. They didn’t even make the bed for you.

The mechanic is nicely done. You can move, crouch to get a better look at things lower down, and interact with a wide variety of things. You can decide which rooms to check first and what to look at, though obviously you’ll only experience the story if you pretty much look at everything. (It’s surprising the family keeps as many secrets from each other as it does, given everyone’s propensity for dropping revealing documents all over the house.) There are some minor puzzles to solve that unlock parts of the house; on the meta level these are really there to enforce some order to the story.

Overall it’s much like Sunset, though I think many things are better handled here. More things are interactive; you aren’t locked in place while you read Sam’s journal; they just don’t have you do things they don’t have the animation budget for. Plus it’s far shorter, so the wander-and-touch-things mechanic doesn’t wear out its welcome. Also, I think the limited venue is more of a virtue in Gone Home. On the other hand, Sunset at least made a model of the player character, so you don’t entirely feel like a disembodied being, and it offered alternative actions.

It has a neat mechanic that I’d like to see in other games, such as Bethesda’s: when you’re holding an object there’s a “Put back” action so you can place it where it came from rather than dropping it on the floor.

Just a few things to criticize. One, I think the story cried out for a “Two years later…” endcard. I guess I’d say that the story provides an emotional closure, but not a practical one. The final events would have produced more repercussions that we don’t get to see.

Second, we learn a bit about Katie, but not enough, I think. I’m not sure we even learn her major. Maybe this is a vestige of the notion that PCs ought to be underdetermined, so we can identify with them. But very precise PCs work great; we’re not bothered if we can’t mold our own Lara Croft. They’ve already provided Katie with a face, a voice, a close relationship with her sister; it would have been nice to get to know her at least as well as we know the parents.

Finally, and related to the last two points: Katie can’t influence the story in any way. Which isn’t essential for a game, but for a very intimate story like this, it feels like a lack. (If they didn’t want to get into Katie getting involved in the denouement, there’s at least one relevant action she could take: hide certain documents from the parents!)

Will you like it? If you only like shooters, no. If you like point-and-click adventure games, maybe, but be aware that it’s not a puzzle-solving game and there are no real choices to make. Also, it’s short (it took me two hours) and the list price is $20, which is maybe steep; I got it on sale. But it’s different, and well put together.

One thing I learned at the gym: ponytails don’t work as video game animators think they do.

Press F at just the right moment to avoid gruesome death

Press F at the right moment to avoid gruesome death

In video games, ponytails like Lara’s mostly bounce up and down. Playing games before, it looked all right to me. (You can get an idea of how Lara’s hair behaves from this video. It may not be immediately obvious, as her hair is also affected by the wind, and movements of her head.)

Actual ponytails move left to right. The range of motion is surprisingly high– if the ponytail isn’t too big, it’ll go through more than 180 degrees while its owner runs. (You can see this in this video.) A thicker or longer ponytail won’t move as much, but the motion is still left/right. Not surprisingly, it follows the motions of the arms. (If the woman is walking, there’s much less movement, but what there is remains left/right.)

Not a big deal, but a fun physics fact.

I bought a new graphics card this week, since new games require more graphics juice than the old one could provide.  I can now start Arkham Knight. (It still crashes regularly, so I’m waiting for the next patch.)  I’ve also been replaying old games to see if the graphics are better.  I got to playing Saints Row IV, and then thought, why not do more of the same and pick up Gat out of Hell?

Hell's business district. Capitalism really is Hell

Hell’s business district. Capitalism really is Hell

Rock Paper Shotgun recently anointed SR4 as the best action game ever. I’d put Arkham City first, personally, but SR4 is pretty close to the top.  It’s fun, reasonably challenging, completely unserious, and yet has a certain unexpected heart.  It’s one of the few games where the protagonist’s companions really start to feel like her friends.

The setup of Gat is simple: ill-advisedly playing with Aleister Crowley’s Ouija board, the Boss (aka the President of the US) gets taken to Hell where Satan wants to marry her to his daughter.  (The game imports your SR4 save so you get your own Boss. Satan doesn’t seem to notice or care that the Boss is female.)  Then Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington jump into Hell to save her.  Amusing bit: Gat convinces the Ouija board to make a portal by shooting it.

The overall mechanics are the same as SR4.  You get superpowers, the NPCs give you missions.  You can drive the battered-up cars if you like, but you won’t because you can fly.  At least they didn’t bring back Steelport– “New Hades” is a new town.

The imagined urban hell is fun.  Damned souls– husks– wander the streets, naked but sexless, moaning, or drive around endlessly.  There’s one on a stripper pole.  The most amusing conceit is that some enterprising damned souls have made their own little fiefdoms, most importantly Dane, who was the evil CEO of Ultor in Saints Row 2, but also Vlad the Impaler, Blackbeard, and William Shakespeare.  (He sold his soul to the devil to be good at writing, you see.)  These become your allies against Satan. As in most pop culture, traditional theology is mined for ideas with no attempt to take it seriously… this is Hell like the Saints are an investigative report on street gangs.

The best part of the game is the flight power.  It’s like SR4’s gliding power but not quite, the most important difference being that you can steer up and down using the mouse.  It took me a bit to get used to it, and then I loved it.  Zipping around Hell’s airspace is a lot of fun, and there are special side missions that concentrate on it.

The challenge level is variable.  I got really frustrated with the rescue missions you get at one point.  But after leveling up some more I got a gun called the Gallows Dodger, which basically makes all fights cake.

You can play either Gat or Kinzie.  The creators have a weird belief that Gat is their best character.  They took this lightly in SR3 (the giant Gat heads were hilarious), while they made a huge thing about him in SR4– although the other characters had become interesting and quirky enough that Gat fell flat.  I think it’s great that their ultimate badass is Asian-American… but I played as Kinzie, who’s a lot more fun.  It’s just a pity that for cutscenes and for the climax, they go back to Gat.

It also feels very un-Saints Row to be playing a character you can’t change.  There aren’t even any stores, so you can’t dress Kinzie or Gat up or give them a tattoo.  They have the technology, so it’s not like they saved a lot of work.

Vlad's not so bad

Vlad’s not so bad

The game is short– it took me just 11 hours– but at least it’s less than half the (original) cost of SR4.

All in all: if you liked SR4, you will like this.  Just don’t think of it as a completely new thing, or it will seem like a trifle, too much like the original.  Think of it as fancy DLC– better, in fact, than any of the actual SR4 DLC.

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