On… Arkham Knight: A Matter of Family and the Problem With DLC

Potential spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight – A Matter of Family DLC follow…

I finally got around to playing the A Matter of Family DLC for Arkham Knight yesterday. For those who don’t know, it’s a story-driven add-on for the main game that centres for the first time in the series around Batgirl, specifically the Barbara Gordon version of the character. Set at some point prior to the events of the original Arkham Asylum game, it revolves around Batgirl – assisted mostly ably by Time Drake’s Robin – attempting to rescue her father from the clutches of the Joker.

Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking suitably Bat-ish and girl-ish.
Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking suitably Bat-ish and girl-ish.

When it came out a few months after the release of the main game, AMoF came in for a fair bit of criticism. In some respects it’s easy to see why: it’s short and, for an add-on that’s meant to be story-focused, doesn’t really have much of one. There’s no real explanation given as to why Joker has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon. There are some mutterings about him trying to provide a ‘Valentine’s Day present’ for Batman by killing Batgirl and Robin, but that would seem to suggest that Joker at least knows who Batgirl is, and I didn’t think that he did. And aside from the fact that it makes for an interesting environment, it’s not clear why Joker felt the best place to keep Gordon is in an abandoned theme park.

Playing as Batgirl was quite interesting, though in truth she’s very similar in style of attack to Batman, albeit slightly more vulnerable and with fewer gadgets. There’s supposed to be more of a focus on hacking, which makes sense given that Barbara eventually goes on to become Oracle. Unfortunately again this seems a little undercooked, as apart from a neat bit involving a fibreglass octopus and a giant skull, all you really do is exchange some passwords and move a couple of cranes.

The DLC is short: I completed my full story playthrough in a little over two hours, and doubtless someone who is less incompetent with a controller than I could do a lot better. I wasn’t that bothered by the length, though. The DLC only costs around £5, which does seem worth it to me. I think the problem a lot of people have with DLC is that they compare it in price to the full game, where invariably it pales. If you’ve paid £40 for a game that’s provided 30 hours of entertainment, another £5 for an additional two hours seems a little mean. Still, you’d pay double that for a DVD film that lasted only 90 minutes. It’s all relative, I guess.

My real issue with AMoF was just that it didn’t do enough to differentiate it from the main game. As already noted, Batgirl plays very similarly to Batman, and the missions involve the same mix of random bad guys to beat up and predator encounters. They’re as fun as they ever are in the Arkham games, but you’ve done it all as Batman before. There are a couple of neat tricks you can pull with hacking devices to ‘frighten’ criminals and make them more vulnerable, and these are good but since they’re used so sparingly in the short campaign they don’t register a lot. It’s a real shame, as it’s obvious a lot of work has gone into the DLC. The theme park setting is neat and very well realised, fitting nicely into the Arkham style (though given how grotesque some of the exhibitions were I doubt Disneyland was ever worried about the competition). Equally, Batgirl’s animation and design are wonderful, really making me hopeful that we might get to see more of her sometime. It’s also neat seeing Harley Quinn in a costume that’s much more reminiscent of her original look in Batman: The Animated Series than the rather hypersexualised outfits she’s had in Arkham Knight and City.

The Joker and Harley Quinn in her 'Animated Series' costume.
The Joker and Harley Quinn in her ‘Animated Series’ costume.

Speaking of which, the final fight between Batgirl and Robin against Harley and the Joker is a lot of fun too. It’s over rather quickly, and won’t be much of a challenge to anybody who has beaten the main game, but it’s emphasis on the ‘tag-team-combat’ that Knight introduced and only used in a handful of occasions makes it great fun.

So… would I recommend this as a purchase? Yes, but only if you’re happy to accept the short length and still consider it worth your money. I don’t regret buying it – I did have fun playing it. However, it could have been so much more.

On… Gotham series two (so far)

— Warning: Spoilers for the first three or so episodes of Gotham season two —

With all the ballyhoo that Channel Five could muster, Gotham returned to UK TV screens a couple of weeks ago. The first season I had found to be watchable but a little tedious in places, particularly during the mid-season. The characters of Fish and Barbara were also two of the most annoying ever committed to genre television (almost, but not quite, at Neelix-level). For season two, though, the makers seem to have dialed up the bonkers-o-meter, and any semblance of realism the show may have had has been thrown out of the window along with all the nameless criminals Jim Gordon suddenly seems to have developed a penchant for defenestrating.

The focus at the start of the season is the ‘rise of the villains’. This is demonstrated in the first few episodes by the re-appearance of the he’s-a-bit-like-the-Joker-but-obviously-can’t-be-the-Joker-because-we-really-shouldn’t-know-too-much-about-the-Joker Jerome (played with gusto by Cameron Monaghan), and a number of other Arkham Asylum escapees including the now-criminally-insane Barbara. Now, for most of the first season Barbara was so dull you felt that her scenes could be used as a surgical anesthetic. The writers must have realised this  and thus had her kidnapped in the last few episodes and forced to kill her parents. I admit that, never having committed parricide, I’m not entirely sure what impact it would have on your mental health, but it does seem a bit odd that suddenly Barbara has flipped to be a psychotic, nymphomaniac criminal who seemingly has no issue with random murdering.

But, hey, at least she’s more interesting now, right?

Well, yes and no. Her actions are certainly less boring, but because her motivations are entirely unclear (is she doing this because she has literally gone mad? Is she driven by jealousy over Jim Gordon and his relationship with Hot Female Doctor?) I find it hard to get invested in the character. I don’t really care whether she makes it to the end of the season or suffers some doubtless-grissly demise. And, also, why on Earth did the dress code in Arkham Asylum include this Hamburgler-esque ballgown?

Gotham-Rise-of-the-Villains-Arkham-Asylum-900x440

The current Big Bad is the excellent James Frain (you may remember him as Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors or some other historical figure in The White Queen) who is making the best job he can of a rather confusingly written role. Again, his motivations aren’t exactly clear and even when he does given some explanation as to why he wants to cause mayhem and destruction it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

In fact, very little in this series so far seems to make sense. Jim Gordon has gone from being the kind of police officer who you imagine fills in all his paperwork on time to, as noted before, the kind of police officer who randomly throws people out of windows. At one point in the first episode he says to Hot Female Doctor that he’s ‘done a bad thing’, which makes it sound like he’s soiled his nappy rather than anything liable to get his badge taken off him (again).

So far, the show’s most interesting characters – Bullock, the Penguin and Nygma – have been given precious little to do. Bullock starts off working in a bar snarling ‘I’m never coming back to the force!’ approximately six minutes before he comes back to the force. The Penguin seems to be discovering that being ‘King of Gotham’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and mainly appears to involve sitting in a room watching TV, drinking wine and being visited by members of the GCPD. Following on from his sympathetic killing of Miss Kringle’s abusive boyfriend, Nygma has developed a split personality. There’s been little shown of this so far, but it does at least suggest something intriguing for later in the season.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne continues his inevitable rise towards being Batman. In honesty, it’s hard to see at the moment too clearly how this will happen, as the character is still written as a bit overly wishy-washy, seemingly more intent on chasing after Selina Kyle (who makes random appearances in a variety of scenes, as if no-one is quite sure what to do with her). David Mazouz continues to play Bruce with aplomb, though, and he does such a good glower that I wish the storylines would give him more excuses to use it.

In the first two episodes, Bruce, ably assisted by Alfred discovers the proto-Batcave kept by his father. This is neat, though does make you wonder whether it wouldn’t just have been easier for Thomas Wayne to have kept everything on a USB pen that was really well hidden. Sean Pertwee is excellent as ever, bringing a suitable mean streak to the erstwhile Wayne family retainer whilst also showing the deep care he has for his ward. Lucius Fox also makes a reappearance, though seems to have all his lines written with the stage direction {Omnious] scribbled at the top.

The main problem with Gotham, as I and a million people have said before, is that Batman isn’t in. With the exception of a few villains, most of the characters in Batman are only interesting because of the shadows he casts upon them. There isn’t a scene in Gotham that wouldn’t be better if Batman wasn’t in it. But he isn’t, and Jim Gordon isn’t fleshed out in an interesting enough way to carry the show, which probably explains why the second season has lurched into craziness so swiftly.

Still, I’ll keep watching it because, well, it’s like car-crash TV in a way.

On… Mad Max

Over the festive period I finally managed to complete Mad Max. Really, this should have been called Mad Max: The Videogame in the style of an 1980s Ocean release to differentiate it from Mad Max the film, Mad Max the book and Mad Max the, um, Max. But it wasn’t.

Mad Max (the game) is a rather sprawling open-world affair published by WB Interactive and very much follows the template laid down by various Ubisoft titles. Playing as Mad Max (the person) you drive around the barren Wasteland going to icons on your map, completing activities and ticking things off on multiple on-screen checklists. The Wasteland is, oddly, rather beautiful, full of the kind of sun-drenched desert vistas that make you yearn for global environmental catastrophe. It’s pretty empty, and switching between this and GTAV really makes you notice how quiet Mad Max (the game)’world is. This is presumably all intentional: it’s the Wasteland after all so you wouldn’t expect it to be chock-full of skyscrapers and shopping malls. Unfortunately whilst thematically it makes sense, this doesn’t really make it any more interesting.

It doesn’t help that everywhere you need to go and everything you need to do is either highlighted on the map from the get-go or can be discovered using the Ubisoft-tower-style balloons that Mad Max (the person) can. strictly vertically, take to the skies in. There’s no sense of exploration, really; you just go where the game tells you.

Mad Max (The PIcture)
Mad Max (The PIcture)

All of this sounds negative, I realise, which is a bit unfair because Mad Max (the game) is actually pretty good. Videogamer.com (Videogame Website of Champions) described it as the best 7/10 game ever, and that’s a fairly accurate assessment. Everything about the game is good but just not that good. It doesn’t help that most of the components are borrowed from other games, but the standard is not as high as the better examples of them. The combat, for instance, is fundamentally the same as that in the Batman Arkham series and Shadow of Mordor, but isn’t quite as fluid or as much fun. There’s an extra sense of brutality to it, which is nice, but to me there seemed more times when I was fighting against the controls than I remember in those other titles. Most of the activities in the world are very similar to those in the later Far Cry titles, with you infiltrating camps and performing set objectives (all of which boil down to blowing something/beating someone up) . The problem is that there are too many of them and they’re just too similar. Once you’ve infiltrated your sixth camp you’ve pretty much seen most of what they’ve got to offer, but the game insists on making you do more.

The game’s map is split into four major segments, each one ostensibly ruled by a warlord. Each has a base that acts as a local hub of operations and provides a handful of optional and compulsory missions. There’s also a threat level associated with each map segment and Mad Max (the person) can reduce this by performing numerous activities within the area. Depending on the size of the map area and the activity carried out, the threat level can reduce by a fractional amount, and again it all adds to the feel that you’re just filling in a giant checklist set by the developers.

From all the pre-release marketing, it was clear that Mad Max (the stand-out feature) was its car combat. My experience of in-car fighting from the various GTA games and similar titles like Watch Dogs hasn’t been a very good one; it’s just too often too cumbersome using a controller to drive, aim and shoot at the same time. Mad Max (the game) gets around this by cheating a little bit: whenever you use a weapon in a vehicle, time slows to a crawl and you can freely aim and fire without needing to worry about driving your car into a ravine. Whilst this works and does make the combat fun, it also renders it a bit too easy. There’s no limit to the amount of time you can spend in slow-motion aiming mode, and once you’ve progressed a bit through the story and got the ‘Thunderpoon’ weapon there’s precious little challenge. Still, kudos to the developers for the thought they’ve put into this part of the game.

Mad Max (The Other Picture)
Mad Max (The Other Picture)

For all it’s visual beauty, I did find Mad Max (the game) ugly in terms of its world and storyline. This is a personal thing, but I just didn’t enjoy the post-apocalyptic setting and found the characters mostly reprehensible people. The story itself is quite flat; there’s a few beats to it but nothing that will surprise, and – without giving away too much – the ending does make you feel like it was barely worth you bothering with the whole thing.

Again, a lot of what I’ve said seems pretty negative but that’s not really fair. I enjoyed Mad Max (the game) but just constantly felt that I could be playing something better.