Crooked Cops, Judge Dredd, and Arkham Origins
Jaybird: Last year, there was a little trifle of a movie that came out called “Dredd”. Based on the Judge Dredd comics, this movie was most notable, to my mind, for being competent. The plot was nothing flashy, the characters were archetypes, and the world was more or less a cliché. And yet… a story such as that, told competently, is downright refreshing when many other movies pull the “everything you’ve been told so far is WRONG!” rug from underneath you, or try to put forth the journey of being a jerk to being less of a jerk as character development, or has, like, Adam Sandler being “funny” in it.
Why do I bring that up? Well, I’m on record as saying that if they made a Dredd every year, I’d buy a ticket every year. So what’s the video game version of this? Well, it appears to be the Batman Sim.
Batman: Arkham Origins much the same experience as Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.
And you know what? That’s what I hoped when I picked the box off the shelf.
Ethan: I’m also a big fan of “Dredd.” I just checked its Rotten Tomatoes meter actually, and the movie currently sits at 78%, exactly one point below “Iron Man 3.” Not to shabby considering the cast was largely filled with B actors, its sci-fi dystopia didn’t take itself ultra-seriously, and everything from the special effects to the sets lacked the kind of polish movie audiences have come to expect in the age of multi-million dollar blockbuster budgets.
Which, I think you’re right, makes it an interesting and useful prism through which to view Arkham Origins. Both require the audience to somewhat recalibrate its expectations, something that’s extremely difficult in an era rife with sequels and franchise annualization.
Almost everything, at least in the AAA space, is iterating on an established series. As such, I think we’ve become accustomed to a certain level of “growth” with each new installment: how have the graphics improved, how has the story become more epic, what are the new bells and whistles hanging off the core gameplay loops?
And yet Arkham Origins, for the most part, is just Arkham City in a slightly different time and place. In this way it feels quintessentially “comic book-y.” If you’re a fan of Batman, and his deep, disturbed, and convoluted comic book history, I think the game delivers as well as any other game in the series has. For those who are more a fan of the Arkham series itself than the subjects it has adapted, I can see why Origins would feel like a trip to far down the rabbit hole without enough of the expert game design that developer Rocksteady provided in the earlier two games (since Origins is the product of WB Montreal).
Jaybird: Well, one thing that I’m sure we’re all familiar with is the whole “last movie he fought N bad guys… this movie he should fight N+1 BAD GUYS!” phenomenon that has contributed to any number of bad superhero movies.*
Throwing in too many baddies can dilute the movie experience and turn it from being a spectacle into being a Hot Mess… ironically, this isn’t something that really happens with video games. It turns it into being another kind of level or another chapter. For example, the fact that Arkham Origins has 8, count them, 8 assassins going after Batman has me downright tickled… of course, a decent chapter to a video game will take a little more than an hour which is, now that I think about it, about as much time as a movie would need to have with a bad guy to make for a decent story.
So maybe the issue is that video games, all things considered, have more time to play with you than movies do… and video games/superheroes share a kineticism that makes for an experience that makes it easier to forgive a bit of a mess than merely sitting in a chair would allow.
*(To rectify this, I’ve written a Spider-man movie template that goes something like this: Movie starts in the middle of a fight. Spider-man vs. 2nd Tier Bad Guy. Rhino, maybe. Scorpion. The Vulture. One of those guys. 12-15 minutes worth of pure CGI mayhem. Spider-man wins. Spider-man realizes that the victory comes at the cost of getting to class/job/date on time. Oh Peter! Anyway, the movie proper starts now. We have interactions with Aunt May, with girlfriend, with classmates, and with secret identity of Main Bad Guy who will be the Main Bad Guy for the rest of the movie. Green Goblin. Doc Ock. Lizard. VENOM. And we devote the rest of the real part of the movie to Spidey vs. one of his quintessential baddies who doesn’t have to share time with anybody else. (Note: this formula also works for Batman. Suspect it works for everybody. Need to test.[/efn_note]
Ethan: Interestingly, the villains in Origins were actually its biggest disappointments for me. While I, unlike most, really enjoyed just about all of the game’s boss fights, the characters themselves felt at once shallow and overexposed.
The Joker runs his mouth constantly and the game is all too happy to indulge him. The game is meant to be an origin story for Arkham, but rather than use the Joker as one means of exploring what that institution is, and how it was formed, it offers an unsatisfying causal chain wherein the Joker just IS crazy, leaving the idea of Arkham to languish as a mid-credits after-thought.
You know what was awesome though? That Deathstroke fight. I played the game on hard, so that battle in particular took a long time. A long, long time. Two hours of do-overs by my last count. But when I finally completed it, I felt like I had accomplished it through some combination of skill, grit, and luck, and the game had done a lovely job of making me feel land look like a bad-ass while doing it.
Regarding your Spider-Man formula, that seems pretty sound. In fact, I’m not sure that games are particularly well suited to being overstuffed any more than movies are. At least not certain kinds of games. And this I think is perhaps where the Arkham series, and Origins in particular, got into trouble with critics.
The first Arkham game was a remarkably smooth fusion of development on both the gameplay and narrative fronts, at least from a design perspective. While City was more polished, its open world structure made the seamlessness of the early game almost impossible to replicate. But it made up for that by separating most of the big story beats from the arbitrary confrontations with random villains that makes up 65-75% of the rest of the game.
Origins on the other hand is actually a pretty linear game spread out and stretched over an even larger open world. Between the increased reliance on cutscenes, the lack of puzzles, and the sometimes weird flow between areas designed for brawling and those designed for predator-mode, Origins feels like a game that tries to borrow from City’s structure while seeking to emulate Asylum’s story.
Wow, I’ve already gone on way too long, so I’ll simply end by saying that the majority of Origins feels to me like it would be a lot more successful (at least in other people’s eyes) if it simply stuck to the Mega Man formula: eight bosses, eight distinct locales, and a third act that aims to bring each of those elements (loosely) into harmony.
Jaybird: I’m even deeper into the game than I was when I wrote my first post and want to say that the game has done nothing but keep scratching my Batman itch. You encounter crime scenes, solve the crimes, find the guy responsible, beat him up, tie him up, then call the cops and tell them where to find him. You encounter crimes in process, beat the guys up, and grade yourself on whether they got in a shot or not. You encounter Major Baddies and Get Upgrades. Dude. This is yet another video game explaining what it means to means to be The Batman.
Now, I’d not say that it’s a particularly good entry point for the series… but, as third games in the series go, it understands why you bought the last two. More importantly (for me, anyway) it assumes that you did and that you don’t particularly need a whole lot of “allow me to give this monologue for the umpteenth time” that one might have needed in the first couple.
My criticisms, actually, have to deal with the sorts of things that Mike Schilling (shout out to Mike!) complains about. This is not only a world with fantasy crimefighters, but a world with fantasy *CRIME*. I mean, I got called in for jury duty a few years back and the judge came into the room first thing and explained to us all how important our civic duties were and how great it was that we were fulfilling them and then he nodded and admitted that most of us would be dealing with DUI and domestic violence cases. Arkham Origins? You get to deal with crooked cops! And crooked thugs! The system is so corrupt that you can’t count on anything to get done right so you might as well give these guys a knuckle sandwich before they make bail in less than 24 hours! From the small-time guys who say such things as “The Bat won’t care about two time guys like us” before you beat them up to the big guys who are responsible for the state of your outfit by the end of the game, this is a game where Right and Wrong are as easily distinguished from each other as Black and White and there’s nothing even particularly weird about dressing up before beating hundreds of people up on Christmas Eve.
And if you don’t think about that, hey. You’ve got several hours in a universe, as crazy as it is, that still makes sense.
Ethan: “Fantasy crime” is a good label for it. And people going into a Batman game, or movie, or comic book, thinking it will in any way resemble the Dickensian grit of something like The Wire have been terribly misinformed.
The “crooked cops” thing has always been a cheap mechanism for half-heartedly trying to justify brazenly indiscriminate violence. It didn’t work well in Max Payne 3, where “police corruption” becomes a blanket rationale for Payne to shotgun São Paulo’s finest at point blank, and it shouldn’t work in Arkham Origins.
For some reason though I think it does, perhaps only in the context of the game’s other shortcomings, but still it works. Batman is supposed to be extremely delineating. While Batman may in fact be a fascist, part of the case for why he might not be is that 1.) he’s a super-smart detective and so 2.) always “gets his guy.” To the degree that the character has powers that are nontraditional (e.g. “always winning,” etc.), one of them is certainly that he never beats up the “wrong people.” And though it would be interesting to have that expectation/understanding subverted more often, they way it plays out in the Arkham games is that any entity the player is allowed to assault necessarily “had it coming.”
That would be too convenient (and maybe still is) if the caped crusader were only ever brutalizing bums, hooligans, and dangerously insane psychotics. But the fact that Origins has him go after the police as well helps take the logic of his “detective super power” such a necessary but ludicrous end point as to subvert the entire convention. Whether it’s because the Batman of Origins is still just starting out (one particular mess-up late in the game reveals just how much farther he has to go before he’s “really” Batman), or the game is trying to showcase a “pre-Batman” Gotham in which the lines between good and bad have yet to be effectively drawn, I think the narrative decision helps open up the possibilities for interpreting the hero and his counterparts in ways that the previous two games did not.
Either despite the game’s lack of polish and cliché story, or perhaps because of them, I felt like Origins offered me a much more “objective” position from which to observe the game. In laying some of its artifice so bare and trying so hard to dehumanize Batman (he might as well be Robocop), it felt easier to play as Batman instead of getting lost in actuallybeing him. I guess then Jaybird that I actually had something of the opposite reaction—Origins felt the least “immersive” of the three games to me, even if that turned out to be one of its strengths.