22 July 2015

Post Thoughts: Arkham Knight


I don't really think there's much to say to introduce one of the biggest and most successful game series in recent years. Arkham Knight was developed by the original team behind Arkham Asylum and City but not Origins. Some people decry Origins and City as being inferior to Asylum and I think they're right if you take it only from one perspective: Asylum was a very limited experience and as such provided a very self-contained and explanatory story and environment which an open-world game can not hope to achieve (at least not without significant investment and even larger teams of developers).

Think of it like this: Half Life 2 provides a certain kind of experience compared to Morrowind or GTA San Andreas. Knight exhibits this same behaviour when compared to Asylum - the world and experience is a little stretched and strained but it's still a fantastic game and story and I think that's the take-away message that'll bear out below.

What ya' gonna' do when he comes for you?

Story:


What's interesting about the Arkham games is that, for the most part, their main stories are a bit of a mess if you stop and think about them too much. Huge plot holes, logic failures (looking at you City!) and lots of busy work are the defining features of the first three games. In contrast, and maybe this is because I haven't had time to think it all through yet and absorb it, Knight actually has a good plot that has some real, genuine climactic moments.

The game also has several points where I looked at the screen and thought: that's not what batman would do... However, the developers have given themselves a great get out of jail free card in the plot development from the events of City whereby it turns out that being infected by Joker's Titan blood turns people into a version of Joker themselves. So kudos to the developers and writers for that bit of genius! (Unless it's completely by accident in which case I take it all back!)

Scarecrow has unleashed his fear toxin on a part of Gotham that I haven't seen before (just how many islands is Gotham situated across anyway?!) and Batman swoops in to save the day. Somehow, it turns out that Scarecrow isn't really bothered about releasing the toxin at all but is more interested in revealing that Batman is a fraud and can be scared - in which case he thinks the general populace will lose heart.

This is a bit of a weak premise to my mind because it is demonstrably untrue: Batman is human and thus can be afraid of things, Scarecrow has interacted with Batman before and knows he can be scared using the gas and the populace of Gotham would be just as not-scared/scared if the police force or part of it were killed or captured. In a nutshell: I just don't get what it is that Scarecrow wants to accomplish that he doesn't already know... Maybe he is just insane.

On the other hand, Scarecrow has hired the Arkham Knight - a character that appeared out of nowhere (in the game world) with a huge army and several billion dollars' worth of funding and advanced technology and the infrastructure to power it. To be honest, this was a pretty big plot hole in the story and although many people and writers point out that 'lampshading' is used as a technique to address these things (and this is the case with the Arkham Knight and his army) I really don't like it as a concept. Just because something doesn't make sense doesn't mean that lampshading it makes it go away. Lampshading should be left for the cracks between plot elements and changing character behaviours - not trying to cover up lazy writing and justifications of huge arcs of the story/backstory and character abilities or resources. No one is perfect, there will probably always be slight mis-matches and mis-alignments when you put together a complex story but to start the whole premise off with this idea? It's a bit sloppy, in my opinion.

However, following on from that the story is pretty solid and free of holes.

My only regret... is that I have clownitis...

Moving on to the Joker-infection: I felt that this was really well done - even the inevitable switcharoo regarding the 'immune' person. It makes sense that it's a mental illness rather than an actual change in biology as that also means that there is a reasonable explanation as to why Batman and co haven't found a cure - it also gives a reason as to why Batman is able to mentally defeat Joker as, presumably, any mentally strong person would be able to.

One of the things I thought was really glossed over was Robin and Oracle's relationship and also Batman's relationship to his colleagues/wards/friends. There's no arc to anyone or the story apart from "Batman defeated the bad guys again but got unmasked this time". Otherwise, everyone's pretty static and it would have been nice to have something to a relationship in turmoil due to Batman's needless secrecy among his most trusted friends - what's amazing is that this never comes back to bite him in the ass at all. I don't remember him being called out on it even once! You'd think that would be a general story talking point but, no, apparently not.

In fact the main theme in this game was Batman's control versus Joker's chaos. Yet again, it's Batman versus Joker even when he's primarily fighting Scarecrow and Arkham Knight and not his own sanity. Yes, there are whispers of a theme of fear and Batman's fear of losing control but at the end of the day the fear aspect isn't pushed at all because you never see or hear Batman being scared or fearful of the supposed inevitability of him turning into Joker - even at the end when Batman is overloaded with fear toxin he's not even shaking or anything. At his worst, Batman is merely confused by everything - disorientated rather than afraid. You can see this in many places where he thinks he's doing one thing but is actually doing another.

This isn't bad, per se. It's just counter to the theme of fear that you would think is reflective of having the Scarecrow as the main villain and the fear of Batman's identity being unveiled. As it stands, Scarecrow doesn't serve any purpose being the main villain of this game. It could just as easily be any antagonist from the long list of them in the Bat computer's archives who knows that Batman wants to protect people - especially his wards.

Causing Batman to fear or feel pain? Seems more like the latter to me. Batman isn't really afraid of his wards being harmed otherwise he wouldn't have brought them onboard, had them stationed in the city during crises or allowed them out in the open at all!

Then we have the ending - if you were lucky enough to unlock it! (I had to watch it on youtube but more about that later) The Wayne mansion blows up after Bruce Wayne walks inside with Alfred and there's a scene some unspecified time later with parallels to his parent's death in the alleyway after going to the theatre/opera. A Batman-like figure appears behind the muggers after they have some banter about no one being around to stop them any more which then morphs into a nightmarish figure that appears to be the influence of fear toxin/gas that Scarecrow uses.

In some ways I think that they didn't need to include that second scene unless they're releasing all that extra story as DLC(?) in which case I think it's a little bad to have the hook into the DLC that finishes off the main storyline like it was unfair to continue on Mass Effect 3 as if the player had played the Arrival DLC for ME2 (or maybe I encountered a bug on my playthrough...). If you paid for the game then you should get the story and its resolution. If, on the other hand, it's a hook into the next Batman title... well, it doesn't really make sense to include it here when it would be better served as marketing material for that title and as an introduction to it.

Speaking of introductions, I felt that the first person view of the cop in the diner was a really interesting scene and introduction to the game. I really enjoyed listening to all the small conversations and looking at all the literature, posters and art assets. It was a great way to put the player into the world and establishing "normality" before the shit hit the fan and everything descended into chaos.


... and now for the inevitable musical number. I mean, where else has the series got to go from here on out?!


Characters:


One of the strongest things about the Batman franchise is its cast of easily recognisable and interesting characters. Not just because their characterisation is so fleshed out but because most of them also bring their own themes and intrigues into any story or set of missions they're on. Unfortunately, Knight has the fewest of these little interesting sojourns between Origins, City and itself and, frankly, it feels weaker as a game for it.

As an example: One of these side stories has Lucius Fox held hostage by a guy who's essentially Bruce Wayne's double and a childhood friend. How long does this mission last? Approixmately 5 minutes of cutscene and one button press. Yep. That's a whole side mission too.... the completion indicator jumps from 0% to 100% after that empty bit of nothing. In fact, I felt like it was a bug at first because it makes no sense that the developers would put in so uninteresting and uninspired a mission... especially for such an interesting antagonist as the one they were using!

Scarecrow is a bit bland as well in this one and, although the character was okay in the animated series and in the Nolan movies, he's always been the least fleshed-out in the Arkham series. The interactions with Scarecrow in Asylum were perfunctory at best and focused primarily on gameplay - since then, he's been absent from City and Origins and so has had very little chance to garner any sort of characterisation beyond enjoying experimentation on people because he gets an insight into their minds and personalities caused by exposure to his fear toxins.

This is a shame because it means that the antagonist in Knight is a vague mishmash of Scarecrow, Arkham Knight and the doomsday devices they wield. It's not clear why Scarecrow wants to do what he's doing. It's not much of an experiment to decimate the population of the Eastern seaboard (IIRC!) by releasing the fear gas from Ace Chemicals, if I'm honest - as a scientist I'm pretty qualified to state this, and his back-up plan is... well, was that always the plan? I mean, sure Scarecrow and Simon Stagg had this deal going on but what benefit did it really hold for Scarecrow... what benefit did either plan hold for Scarecrow? He's never been shown as being chaotically insane like Joker, more a demented scientist with no ethics but he always (at least my observations of the character from the movies and animated series) did things because he was interested in the result or had to in order to protect himself or his employers/allies.

What's most sad about the Scarecrow character is that he has basically been repurposed into being Joker. Joker is the character that would release fear toxin over the entire Eastern seaboard for no apparent reason from Gotham other than to taunt Batman and cause that chaos and suffering. However, they killed off Joker in City and so had no ability to use him as the primary antagonist (though they did a hugely great job of using him as a secondary antagonist!!). It's like the writers sat down after Asylum, City and Origins and pondered over how they were going to get a big, bad, end-of-world scenario going without Joker being alive anymore and, probably subconsciously, turned around and took an underdeveloped character (from the perspective of the game series) such as Scarecrow and assigned him the "Joker of the month" position.

One thing they failed to do was establish any sort of motive for the entire events of Knight and at the centre of that failure was Scarecrow.

Revenge on Batman for being a dumbass and getting evicerated by Killer Croc? Makes logical sense. Hey, lets also kill off an entire coastline of the USA while I'm at it!

This was also continued for the supporting cast of villains, all of them are mere charicatures of their former selves; a brief pit-stop tour of villains they had previously established. No great dialogues, intrigues or motivations here other than the very basest forms of the villain in question unlike we saw in the vignettes in City and Origins:

Penguin? He sells guns and gets rich off the proceeds, storing his ill-gotten gains in identical vault rooms across the city... like a dumbass. The only redeeming part of this sidequest is that Batman gets shown-up by Nightwing - which was awesome. Would have been more awesome if he'd had dialogue along the lines of " Yes, but I knew you were there".

Two-face? He robs banks with rubbish trucks and his mob.... but gets distracted by Batman's involvement every. single. time. Make it interesting developers! I mean, have one of his trucks leave before it's full or when Batman reaches the requisite percentage of thugs taken down. Make us change location, track/pursue these guys or whatever.

Firefly? He's just a poorly explained chase scene - switched out from one of the army commanders in the armed red and white APCs. You have to wait until the time limit (he removes his own 'armour' rather than you having to destroy it as per the APCs) to take him down. Worse than that, his storyline is actually split across two of the 'side missions', meaning that there's actually one less of them... and his lines of dialogue feature less than 1% of interaction with Batman and the story beyond 'I like to burn things and I hate you for stopping me'.

Azrael was actually an interesting side mission after you got through the boring, no-brainer no-hit fights. It's just a shame it wasn't explored a little more.

Even the bomb missions and the watchtower and roadblock (seriously, which roads were they blocking?) were all cheap padding. Let's see out of 15 "objectives" on the mission select screen we have:

- Lamb to the slaughter (1 fight, no story)
- Gotham on fire (3 chases, no story)
- Gunrunner (5 fights, 4 'chases', no story)
- Riddler's Revenge (usual amount of tonnes of riddles to be solved [i.e. collected] but the main part of the interaction between you, Catwoman and Riddler is really well written)
- Occupy Gotham (21 watchtowers/fights/predator interactions, no story)
- Campaign for disarmament (14 road bombs/ static drone fights, no story)
- The perfect crime (one of the most interesting side quests but ends in one fight - the most use of the 'detective' skills in the game!)
- Friend in need (a bit of walking and one button press)
- Heir to the cowl (two endings to a sidequest? Inconceivable! Either way - four no-hit, not particularly difficult static fights, little dialogue until the end but at least there was a story in this one!)
- Armoured and dangerous (9 vehicle chases, no story)
- The line of duty (16 firefighter rescues, 16 static fights... very little dialogue or storytelling until the very end and, somehow, Batman puts 3 and 9 together and gets Firefly in league with the chief of the FDGC!)
- Two-faced Bandit (three predator missions, no story)
- Creature of the night (two chases, one crime scene [crime scene was very well done, IMO!] again, very little dialogue or development)
- Own the roads (20 militia checkpoints, no story)

That's approximately (not counting all the riddler trophies as there are many puzzles which were actually pretty cool) 80% padding (fights/chases), 15% storytelling and 5% detective scenes.

Are you wasting my time?
In comparison to City and Origins this is a terrible step down in terms of story and character quality/development and world-building in favour of fights that don't even utilise the new features of the combat 80% of the time. Sure, in both City and Origins, all the side quests involved fisticuffs at some points but we also had weird and wonderful experiences to ponder over and reminisce about. In Knight, one fire fighter looks about the same as another one when he's saying thank you (there wasn't even a woman in their number either!) and those side missions with one to three (oh, dear!) of those padding events just seemed like a waste of my time - created busy work to stop me from getting the real ending of the game rather than adding any value to my play time.

The Arkham Knight is actually one of strongest character in the whole game, he has a proper arc and resolution that allows the parties to move forward. What I think it wrong is that he's a pawn of Scarecrow when it's Scarecrow who is weakly characterised and his motivations are a bit nebulous. Even the use of the Joker personality to obscure the reveal of Tim Drake (I'm assuming you don't read comics like I don't and didn't automatically know that Arkham Knight was Tim Drake - he wasn't in the "Death of the Joker" animated movie!) was an inspired choice.

In fact, the inclusion and the way they included Joker was the highest bit of genius in the whole game. Having him pop up everywhere around the city, his interesting monologues and art changes of the poster boards as well as affecting Batman's ability to function in the world give the game a pop and zing that it otherwise lacks.

Just.. give me a minute, okay? I really need to concentrate now!

The flip side of that conclusion is that, once again, this game relies on Joker to pull its socks up and deliver on some real emotional and memorable moments. It's like the Arkham series is stuck in the same year of school - unable to pass that final exam and keeps on answering the multiple choice questions with 'Joker' as if it doesn't understand that there are A's, B's, C's and even D's to choose from. Just like every answer in an X-men comic used to be (and largely still is) 'Wolverine'.

Amazingly, the writing for Joker is even better in this game despite Mark Hamill being behind the voice* (given the great writing going on here) and, unlike in Origins, I really noticed the lack of range compared to earlier performances that he was behind. It was as if the Joker was toned down for this outing. (As a side-note: why the hell are the voice actors [IMO, one of the biggest player experience drivers] shunted all the way down to the bottom of the credits in this game? Beyond localisation, DC comics leads and secretaries... Seems excessive to me.)

As for Batman, well, I thought it was out of character for Batman to be so selfish - instead of allowing Robin to help, he's relegated to finding a cure ASAP... for Batman. The guy who's selflessly sacrificing himself all the frickin' time to help others. Seriously, I just couldn't get behind any decision Batman made during the entire game except for the one to reveal his identity - despite the fact that he, Oracle and the Bat-team never even bothered to really figure out where Scarecrow was hiding.

I think the only time in the four games there's really been any proper change in Batman's demeanour was in Origins where he was a grouchy, grumpy guy who was supposedly new to the scene - even though he really wasn't with regards to the gameplay, interactions with characters and his tech/gadgets and abilities.

I watched a voice actor piece for Knight on youtube where Kevin Conroy (Batman) said that his character was being ripped apart from the inside and that gave him enormous leeway and range during the performance. I just don't see it. I didn't hear it. I heard normal Batman and angry/annoyed Batman as well as bored Batman. Afraid Batman? I didn't hear him. Anxious Batman? Nope. Batman who's not in control of the current situation? Well, there was plenty of that but no recognition of the events in the voice acting, really. What I heard a lot of was 'Arrogant Batman'. The guy who thinks and knows he's right despite whatever else is happening. The worst part was that every time he was proven wrong in the storyline, the writers then turned around and proved him right later on.

That was a huge mistake because instead of highlighting Batman's fears and really pushing him to the edge and his limit, everything turned out rosy despite Batman's failures as a person and character. It was a total cop-out from the supposed main theme of the game.

I think this was left here by the developers...

Gotham itself, however, is beautifully realised. From the design of the buildings, signage and links to the lore in the world of Batman (the Bat-world?) to the clever winks and nudges toward the player as they're navigating around the city and pick up on secrets hidden in plain sight.

This focus on the game world was most obvious through the Joker-infection's effect on Batman's perception of the world. At first it was subtle but as the effects worsened the messages became more egregious as did Joker's control over Batman's body and his comprehension of the world around him.

Whoever came up with the "switch the posters and put make-up on the gargoyles" when moving the camera around was a genius and should be put first and foremost in charge of the art direction /world building in the next or another game!


Mechanics:


While the base mechanics of movement and fighting remain the same the developers have shaken up the hand-to-hand combat through new additions to the enemy repertoire and Batman's arsenal. This time around there is one more 'planning' device for known encounters in the form of the disruptor. There's also a new dual-combat tag-style system of fighting for Batman/Nightwing, Batman/Robin and Batman/Catwoman that sees little use but is also very rewarding, cinematic and interesting... but don't get your hopes up for using it too much!

"Hey, Batman. I'm over here. Hey! Hey, don't walk away and leave me here alone! I could get kidnapped without your huge Bat-muscles to protect me!"

The other main change to the mechanics is the introduction of the Batmobile which, well, has its downsides. First of all, the batmobile (I don't want to have to capitalise that every single time! :p ) is WAY too sensitive and undersensitive when turning. In fact, let's just say for all of our sakes' that the batmobile isn't a nice driving experience. It's almost to GTA4 levels of bad... but at least this time I'm accurate when saying that it controls like a tank! Hehe!

Unfortunately, while many people will say that the introduction of the Batmobile has taken away from the core of the previous games and distracted the developers from fully implementing the dual-combat tag system I can't agree on this point. I think that the developers didn't concentrate fully on any of their gameplay systems, leaving them all out in the rain after school. The whole game is a three-quarters-finished mess of ifs and buts with nothing polished or finished properly.

It makes no sense!

There's a half-implemented dual-combat system, some new puzzle elements in the Riddler challenges which never really get going for the most part despite the majority of Batman's tools being reruns from previous games and finally, on top of all this, there's the poorly implemented driving of the Batmobile.

Note that I didn't say fighting. No, the batmobile fighting is actually very well fleshed out and implemented. It makes sense, is responsive, tactical (like its analogous hand-to-hand encounters) and there are tools for Batman to use to effectively deal with the situation. Unfortunately, this whole thing only matures towards the end of the game when you have very few drone fights remaining and culminates in only one encounter where Oracle is really pulling her weight and gives you even more to work with.

Do you know how hard it is to get a picture mid-fight with the drones in the Bat-tank mode? I should have switched to the toggle option from the hold-down option... Anyway, here's a picture of the new Batmobile Mk2 ULTRA (just kidding - it's just 'new Batmobile Mk 2').


You could say that almost everything in the game is underexplored and underutilised.

Again, with that one exception: driving the batmobile is a terrible experience. It's SO unresponsive that I wonder whether it was the terrible controls that inspired the developers to create the world-destroying technology to be able to pile through all the architecture of Gotham or the other way around.

Seriously, for a third time, who thought it was like Batman to entirely destroy the city he's supposed to be protecting, to run over guys at 100 mph but pretend they were okay, to be inelegant and... whatever the opposite of sleek and cool is? I remember in the animated series and even the films - the Batmobile is a cool vehicle that provides Batman with cool chases, escapes and backup with no human element - all with minimum destruction and loss of life.

*Ahem*

Going back to the tank mode. It's completely out of character for Batman to have prepared for this eventuality in this way. Saying that, it's also completely out of character for the Arkham Knight to have prepared for the nemesis he 'knows' by deploying drones that Batman would happily destroy. Okay, this should be up in the character section - but who cares at this point?!

The tank is incongruous in the Arkham and most other Batman timelines and scenarios but that's not the worst part of it all: there's two of them! I mean, if Batman had this level of redundancy in his equipment then it would also show a much higher level of incompetence on Batman's part.

Sure, he totalled the old Batmobile in Asylum but he didn't have another one in the garage for that incident.

Moving on from the Batmobile and its incongruity, there are also two major gripes I have of the game:

The disruptor recharges after legitimate use (by legitimate use I mean on a valid target, missed shots are immediately replaced which is fine by me) but very, very slowly. Other gadgets recharge on an encounter basis which means you can use them each time you meet a challenge and defeat it. However, for some reason that I cannot fathom (because the disruptor isn't overly powerful) the disruptor charges over a time period which means that if you move from situation to situation, even between main missions or side missions where you would like to use it, you can't.

I think this is a major design oversight and results in a gadget that the player is worried about using lest they be unable to effectively engage in another encounter in a few minutes time.

The second major item is the lack of use of the detective mode. Outside of a couple of times in the main plotline and once or twice in the side missions its absence is really felt in Knight compared to the progression of the feature from Asylum through to Origins. It's a shame though because I felt that the detective mode, while ultimately limited in its implementation, was still a fun and hugely differentiating factor in the Arkham games that really showed off Batman's intelligence, status as 'the world's greatest detective' and allowed players to sort-of assume that mantle.

Now it's all but gone in favour of the Batmobile. That wasn't a good trade-off, IMO.


Technical issues/bugs:


Unfortunately, this wasn't a bug... and it didn't last more than five minutes anyway with the new one flying in straight after this scene!! I mean, REALLY, Rocksteady, did you think people would miss the Batmobile SO much that they would be happy to see a new version with a crappier paint job right away? Still, the whole driller fight was actually very cool!

Since I have been playing on the PS4 I've had very few issues. Unlike the complete broken mess that is the PC version. However, I did encounter two bugs:

First, since I'm not very good, I die a lot and tend to have to re-fight a lot of those rooftop strongholds throughout the game until I get it down-pat. One of these - the skyscraper with the crashed helicopter on its rim overlooking the river between islands had me stumped for a few deaths. On the fourth or fifth death, instead of sitting on the edge of the ledge above the stronghold after spawning, I just dropped through the geometry of the building and kept on falling into the abyss.

Restarting from the last save also put me in the same predicament and for a moment I thought I was going to be stuck in this loop and have to restart the game from scratch. Luckily, it turned out pretty simple to fix. I realised that I could still glide using the cape and so managed to bust my way out of the building from the inside!

Gotham is so pretty from this angle. Look at that lightning!

The second time was when I was fighting the drones whilst waiting for a virus to unlock one of the road bombs so I could blow it up safely. I kept dying in this encounter too and then, finally, I was unable to interact with the bomb in order to start the encounter and unable to start any other encounters/missions as well because the game thought I was presently occupied performing the disarmament of the bomb in question.

A restart of the game fixed that issue.


Conclusion:


We need to have a talk...

I loved Arkham Knight: I've loved every single one of this series but, if I'm honest, this was not the sequel or ending to the quadrilogy we deserved. A cheap main plotline with some excellent crescendos and pacing, a cheap main villain with cheap padded-out sidequests, a shoe-horned feature (the Batmobile) that didn't feel like being Batman in the way it was implemented and a game design that does not allow players to experience the real ending unless they know the optimal way to upgrade their skills before hand.

Added to that is the fact that the even further improved hand-to-hand combat system was woefully underutilised throughout the whole game and in the challenge missions and I was left wanting at the end of the game, unsatisfied with the whole cake even though I had gorged myself upon it moments earlier.

As it stands, I think either Arkham City or Arkham: Origins are the high point of this series - both for different reasons and I think that I will be treating any subsequent instalments with some much-needed grains of salt.

I've actually ended up being WAY more negative than I intended to be during the writing of this review. It's just that, upon analysis - like the other Arkham games, the flaws really start to shine through the thin patina that the player sees when playing. It's a shame, really, because I really do think the Arkham games have been a high point in gaming and comic character gaming specifically.


Backseat Designing:


While many people would remove the batmobile, given that they were underwhelmed by its weak gameplay and being a bit gimmicky, I would have kept it in as it is - though toned down the amount of use it actually gets in fighting and non-major plot points. I would also have had its destruction as a finality - not immediately popped up with a freshly minted carbon copy five minutes later!

"Taxi!" Get's in. "Boy, you would not believe the night I've had! First this orange cloud gets released all over the city and then my car gets smashed to pieces!"

I would have redesigned the game and story around the Arkham Knight. He would not have been second-fiddle and mere hireling to Scarecrow as his paramilitary commander he would not have had access to lots of remote controlled drones either. He would have been in command of a small task force that he'd built up and trained himself (say 100-200 people) and his and their focus would be on taking out Batman. They would have set themselves up in Gotham over the last couple of years as groups of sleeper cells and then activated when a huge event as Scarecrow's cloudburst/Ace chemicals plot occurred. The two events and motivations would not be linked but they would be taking advantage of the resultant confusion - just as Penguin, Two-face and the looters are.

Arkham Knight would be an anti-batman and his force would be like anti-police: If the player remained in an area for too long then their location would be noted and a small detachment of AK's troops would roll in to encounter the Batman. Since AK knows Batman's weaknesses (albeit from at least 10 years ago!) their equipment would be specifically to counter Batman's usual arsenal of weapons (e.g. automatic countermeasures - like chaff to stop batarangs hitting their people, non-conductive armour and anti-hacking measures), however, they would not carry lethal rounds in their guns because they are not out to kill Batman outright - that is to be the sole pleasure of the AK. Also, early in the game, they would not have checkpoint stations but towards the end of the game, areas of Gotham would fall under their control, herding Batman to a final or several final encounters with the AK.

Being an anti-Batman, Arkham Knight would behave oppositely to Batman in order to show the themes of Batman's character, his (real) weaknesses and how the character will grow over the course of the game. So, instead of spurning helpers and sidekicks, lying to them and keeping them in the dark as Batman is portrayed as doing like some sort of sociopathic, over-protective parent, AK would have several (let's say four) lieutenants to whom we would hear him delegating responsibilities, calling in for back-up etc. etc.

The AK and these lieutenants would intercept Batman, sometimes through scripted events and other times through coincidence as they're roaming the city looking for him during his activities, and they would initially engage Batman, one-on-one, but calling in their location. In this way, initially, Batman would lack the tools to properly take-out the AK and his lieutenants, and although the player could stick it out and fight them, a second lieutenant or AK himself would show up to the fight after a short period of time, resulting in them tag-teaming Batman, making the fight even harder.

This is where the use of the Batmobile would come into play: it would be used, primarily as a means of escape, back-up and fast travel. Since these fights would be unwinnable early in the game (the best result being a stand-off) the player would call in the batmobile in order to make a quick escape and, since the batmobile has 'stealth' capabilities, this would be the means by which their pursuit would be avoided - not least because AK and his lieutenants do not have a vehicle like the Batmobile and instead rely on military-style rugged vehicles as their primary transport (though AK and his lieutenants will traverse the game world as Batman does without vehicles as well so the player could not just escape so easily by batclawing and gliding away).

I think this style of play and story fits more thematically with the character of Batman who normally avoids open conflict in preference to stealth, planning and superior tactics.

The way the game would evolve would be to have Batman's wards and ex-wards, coming in to play to counter the AK and his lieutenants (I imagine that the first time the player gets to tag-team a lieutenant or the AK and turn the tables on them for a change would be a great experience!). It would also show some character growth on Batman's part and have an actual message to the story arc.

All the other Scarecrow stuff would be left in as the other main storyline, including the parts with Joker's mindbending stuff, Oracle, Commissioner Gordon and Robin, although the Robin aspect would be melded into the arc covering Batman's change of stance from a pure loner to being more appreciative of his friends.

The other BIG change to the plot I would make is that the Scarecrow storyline would mostly be finished by about half- to three-quarters of the way through the game. This would allow the focus to switch to the finale with the AK more successfully and not have Scarecrow as some ever-present, untouchable baddie over the course of the entire game, even though you have already dismantled his forces and disrupted his plots. As part of this change, and linked into the dual battling, tag-teaming noted above, Batman would recognise his weakness to Joker's increasing effect on his mental faculty and stability after having let defeated enemies go free (say you fight AK and lieutenants and you beat them, then Joker steps in, Batman freezes or goes blank and they always escape, giving the player a reason for not being able to take them out at all!)... Batman is just not to be trusted at his point in time and goes willingly into the containment cell, the last playable part is Joker's cutscene of 'killing' Tim Drake.

The gameplay then switches to Robin (controversial, I know) but this then allows the player to become conversant with non-Batman fighting techniques ready for the later tag-teaming. Robin would then rescue his sweetheart, Oracle, become introduced to her father as Robin - I presume he knows Robin's civilian identity though no idea on that front since the relationship isn't really explored in any detail... speaking of which, this would also allow that to happen!

Anyway, Robin continues Batman's efforts against Scarecrow, rescuing Oracle but then the two of them finding out that the Panessa Studios have been compromised by Scarecrow and he has captured Batman in order to reveal his weakness and identity to the world. The events of the end of the game now happen but with Robin fighting his way to free Batman. Batman's identity is revealed, his over-exposure to the fear gas allows him to master his mind and relegate the Joker identity to a darkened cell, as happens in the game, Scarecrow is defeated. Batman resolves to fight on until Gotham is safe and announces to Commisioner Gordon, Oracle, Robin and Alfred that he will retire the Batman persona after these events. However, this time, Batman will specifically turn to Oracle and Robin and ask them for their help: A much-needed moment of character growth that we just haven't had over the three previous games, despite Batman having his sidekicks already in place.

AK broadcasts that he's glad that everyone else is 'in' on the secret, implying that he's known the identity all along (causing speculation on the Bat-family's part) and that he intends to end the Batman once and for all, promising to bring Gotham under his own style of protection (i.e. more lethal and violent).

Batman and Robin head out together, with Oracle providing support, to face and defeat each of the lieutenants and, finally, Arkham Knight - coming to the big reveal that it's Tim Drake and a juxtaposition of Batman's previous unveiling of identity to people not in the know... It would be nice to have the reveal before AK is defeated so that the current Robin can have some back and forth chatter between themselves as well.

Batman retires to the mansion, wishing the 'kids' a happy life together, it blows up and the Knightfall protocol has been activated (and you'd be able to unlock the full ending without playing through a second time if you didn't realise that some item/skill upgrades are required to get all the riddler trophies because the XP wouldn't stop just because you defeated the main story missions!)

End credits.

Some emotion might be nice too... I mean, a Bat-tear or two rolling silently down his cheek upon finding Oracle alive and well(ish) or something...

Regarding the lieutenant and AK fights, you could also hand-wave Batman's inability to take them out in hand-to-hand through the AK's specific training and fighting style that he developed to counter and nullify Batman's style. To defeat them, Batman/Robin would have to scan them fighting in order to analyse their style and find weaknesses which the player would then be able to use during a fight with them - perhaps even introducing new take-down animations to give the player a visual indication that Batman and co have altered their style in order to combat these guys effectively.


*That's not a typo...

21 June 2015

Public Service Announcement: Freelancer working on Win 7

This is a bit of an unusual post for me but I've had to perform this twice within a year and a half and I forgot the particulars for the second time... they were not so easily found even with half of the knowledge!

Freelancer was and is one of my favourite Privateer-a-likes. No, not an elite-a-like, more of an elite-a-lite. ;) Anyway, it can be a bit of a pain to get working on modern computers. Win 7 actually is easier to get working than on Vista (though that is entirely possible as I've also managed it by following the below steps as well) though I've no experience with win 8+.

It was pretty hard for me to find the information the first time around as I had nothing to go on. However, the fan sites and forums do harbour this information if you know the key search terms and where to look... So, the following is as much as a reminder for myself for future play sessions as it is a repository for everyone else who's a casual player and not into the online fansites for this game.

Step 1:

Install freelancer to c:/freelancer.

I'm not sure how essential this step is but, when searching, there's a lot of advice out there stating that you should install the game on your c: drive in order to resolve/avoid problems. So there it is!

Step 2:


Yup, it's that simple.

Step 4:

Restart the PC. 

Yeah, it's a windows thing mostly but don't get me started on how "linux and mac os never need to restart after any sort of update" - it's not true! :P

Step 5:

This step is only important if you want to run your own LAN server and possibly begin the arduous work of connecting to all the modded servers still working out there. Surprisingly for some, freelancer is/was a very popular game with a largish devout following with a pretty diverse and active modding base!*

Disable IPv6 protocols in your network adapter. Now... the method to do this has changed between various versions of windows so I had to look up the exact way to reach the desired settings page but the above link should cover it for win 7.
I just clicked on the tick-box to disable the TCP/IPv6 protocol before playing the game. In Vista I actually uninstalled it entirely, but that's a different story...


Aaaand that's it! Open up the FLServer.exe and load the server programme and then open FreeLancer.exe and you're good to go! 

Oh, and there's one more problem you may encounter and that's the game doesn't generate a multiplayer key for you (as it didn't for me before rebooting the system) then you can download a keygen to generate one for you that you can input manually!

So, anyway, sorry for not providing pics on this article. I hope you found it useful!

*While the main Microsoft servers went offline many years ago now you can still force the game to connect directly to a user-set IP with community-developed tools.

12 May 2015

Sci-fi tropes: To singularity or not to singularity...

So I've read a load on the probable, possible and at the most egregious - inevitable AI singularity. However, I just don't buy it.

I have come to the conclusion that the AI singularity can never come to pass. Note that I state, specifically, an AI singularity... Whether an intelligence singularity is and will occur is another matter entirely.

As for the AI singularity, let's perform a small logic test:

Programming: at its basest form is the mathematical abstraction of human ideas. A calculation can result in the knowledge of a condition from a question: if this then that. If not this, then these etc. etc. ad nauseum. This is our current, commonplace binary silicon logic. Newer forms of computing are also similarly structured - even fuzzy logic through quantum computing and neural networks using memristors require that initial calculated input and output... they're great at optimising a process but beyond that aren't revolutionary in the ideas behind their existence.

The AI singularity: is often portrayed as being a computing unit that can self-improve to become self-aware and then propagate and then does so either to itself or its progenitors in an exponential manner.

This causes a problem.

The problem is this: How can we, humankind, create a programme or collection of programmes that are able to self analyse and to know themselves or everything else around them entirely.

This would require that a programme or collection of programmes would be able to understand other, unfamiliar concepts without any sort of logical input. An analogous situation would be a baby trying to understand the world. However, the big difference between a silicon chip (or infinite group of them) and a brain is that the brain will programme itself whereas any sort of computer requires that WE provide it with the programming, the context.

This is the conundrum of the AI singularity: in order to become a singularity event the AI must exhibit traits of a singularity-level AI. In order to self-improve, it must fully understand itself and that self in context with, well, whatever it is improving itself against or within.

AI is an oxymoron, a paradox and cannot exist in the real world.

In the same way that we cannot go into the past and kill any of our ancestors (let alone travel to the past!) and thus cause a paradox, this paradox is forever stretching into the future - we have to create a singularity level AI in order to create the singularity. Human beings aren't even able to understand our own thought processes fully or even our own world. How could we, in our current imperfect state and knowledge level even do that? It's impossible.

Can we mimic very intelligent AI? Sure! Watson is a very good example of an intelligent situational search engine. It's nothing more than that though. It's not truly intelligent. It could not intuit the reason why an apple falls if given the mathematical equations that determine the acceleration of the apple to the earth beneath it. Not even if it was given a camera and allowed to observe and review the footage an infinite number of times.

Programming rules.

I'm sure that was a joke at some point during my growing-up years. Anyway, it's true. Programming requires rules. Rules require mathematical underpinnings. We have not discovered a way to make a mathematical equation that covers everything. It does not exist in our knowledge. Even if we had solved the 'theory of everything' which united quantum physics and relativity we wouldn't have an equation that solved every known concept... and why would it? Maths is a human construct that is designed to make sense of given situations. Human minds might have given birth to this construct but human minds do not work on this construct. In fact, we don't really know how our minds work except in the most generalist terms and ideas.

Neurons, groups of neurons and reinforcing mechanisms! Oh, and hormones.

These things inspire us but ultimately we cannot create them in the logically locked paradise/hell that is computing and programming. The simple end result of an programme is that it is constrained by what we tell it and we cannot tell it "infinite" and thus it cannot comprehend the infinite. But we can.

This is the great tragedy of the sci-fi concept of the singularity. I'm sure the concept exists as I do not envision that I am so much more intelligent than anyone else on the planet and that the story doesn't exist in some minor league of sci-fi shorts from 50 or 60+ years ago... AI, artificial constructs are not the singularity - we are.

Humankind.

It's a pretty simple observation. We self-improve. We are capable of understanding ourselves and our environment... and each iteration, each improvement exponentially improves on the last. It's writ large in our history. I saw some sort of TED talk about progress and how a person from today sent back a hundred years would cause incredulity with our gadgets and whatnot. A person from a hundred years ago would need to be sent back 200 years. A person from 200 years ago would need to be sent back 500 years etc. etc.

Progress has been an exponential curve. We've taken our time getting to this point but man, are we taking off!

What's interesting about us though is that we aren't self-improving in the way the singularity has always been depicted. We have two intertwining mechanisms in play: the first is intelligence, the second is genetics/evolution (that's actually backwards in the ultimate mechanism that go us to this place but nevermind ;) ).

First, our intelligence allows us to improve our environment, our chances to succeed. Our society is based around our intelligence and society is the tool we used to self-improve. Many people have stated that we've 'stagnated' in an evolutionary sense since the mass migrations of however long ago - we no longer have such specific evolutionary pressures or isolational pressures that allow us to diverge (unless we create them), we're (not really, but kinda) pretty homogeneous as a species. But that's fine because we've created technology to improve ourselves beyond just our physicality.

Secondly, we have reached this point through evolution, our genetics. We do not control our genetics and it's this factor that is commonly missing in singularity-type stories. Our genes self-improve (or more accurately, go through selection pressures) but this is a separate improvement to our own intelligence-based knowledge improvement.

Let's take a break and read through these two articles at the risk of furthering the writer's probably already bloated sci-fi-sensaltionalism:

http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html

http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-2.html

In part two, the author argues that a semi-intelligent AI named Turry is able to bring about the simultaneous extinction of the whole of humankind and all organic life on Earth. The problem with this example is that it is SO overly simplistic that it makes itself impossible at the same time. Any programme must know what it can do. Anything outside of the programming will return an error and will bring the programme, if we're lucky, to its normal state again... if we're not lucky, we talking a hard crash.

This is the paradoxic oxymoron I was speaking about before. There is no description of biological manufacturing facilities in Turry's programming. There is no ability for Turry to learn anything outside of its programming except that the author has some sort of sci-fi starting point of it being a self-improving AI.

Intelligence can be self creating but it cannot be artificially created.

What makes humans intelligent? We don't know.

Worse still, the author makes the common sci-fi trope mistake regarding nanobots... but let's leave that for another post. If you're game...

10 May 2015

Post Thoughts: Dragon's Dogma + Dark Arisen

It's difficult to know where to begin with this Post Thoughts; I've been playing Dragon's Dogma and Dark Arisen on and off since 2012. It's a fantastic game and there's so much there, much like when trying to talk about an Elder Scrolls game, that I'm bound to mix things up, miss details out and worst of all not do the game justice. As always, spoilers ahead...

Scale is not something that this game shies away from - not only in the architecture but also for the enemies as well...

Story:


Unfortunately, Dragon's Dogma's/Dark Arisen's (or DD/DA) story suffers from all the usual problems with East to West translations (both literally and culturally): i.e. it's confusing and apparently ham-fisted. DD/DA don't try to explain themselves and when they do they aren't overly articulate about it. Luckily, like most Japanese games, gameplay is razor-sharp and this does compensate somewhat for the difference in storytelling taste between Japanese and more Western audiences.

The story itself is actually pretty simple, if you've read the wiki, and works well as a backdrop to the action. It's presented mostly through cutscenes that initiate at the appropriate time and there are always quest markers pointing you toward your next objective, even if you weren't exactly sure why you were doing what you were doing... or what the hell just happened in a cutscene and/or why other characters (or your own) acted the way they did.

I think the story has allusions to the eternal questions of free will and what it is to be human but these points mostly fall flat because they don't provide much, if any, context surrounding the subject as they quite rightly leave the audience to figure out their own answers. I often find that stories that try and ram the author's thoughts on such complex issues end up alienating a good portion of their audience.


The day/night cycle really adds a lot of atmosphere to the game and locations in which you might feel familiar and safe in daylight become troublesome and confusing at night...

Characters:


Petrification can be a right pain in the... but look how detailed that statue is close-up!! Cool, huh? Almost lifelike...

The cast of characters in this game is quite spectacular but mostly filled by overtly saturated caricatures of the human race. e.g. If someone is sneaky, they're always sneaky and thus there's no depth to any NPC in the game. Since there are so many NPCs in the game I'm not really going to focus on any of them but I have to say I was impressed that they managed to do decently with the voice acting - especially considering they went for a sort of middle English twist to the language that could have easily become too convoluted, turning in on itself from sentence to sentence.

Your character, the Arisen, is mute and apparently gobsmacked by most of what's going on in the world during cutscenes... which is actually quite appropriate! I don't really miss the fact that the Arisen doesn't talk as I don't really think it would have added much, if anything, to the game experience and could have potentially detracted from a player identifying with their character had poor voice actor choices been made.

Whilst every NPC in the game has a unique name, the majority of people are unimportant. For the few that are important for quests and shop-keeping the majority are pretty forgettable with a few exceptions (for whom I shall now forget the names!) such as the female shopkeeper, the witch, the wizard and the spymaster. You'll know them when you meet them. There were a few characters that were truly annoying such as the guy who keeps fainting everywhere but other than that the designers have left the player to enjoy playing the game and world without forcing dialogue on players.

Speaking of dialogue... the pawns, in DD at least, never shut up. There are a few catchphrases that I actually started repeating to myself in the real world and sometimes I started to remix them a little. ("Treasure, perhaps... or the ruins of such?"). This was toned down somewhat in DA and I actually began to miss their utterances, much like the children who you might think would be well off out in the world on their own but whose absence in your life leaves an expectant hole.

The pawns are actually quite interesting characters, given that they learn from what you do in play and from what you command them to do... and you can also control their temperament and actions by speaking to them in the knowledge chairs but I'll get to that later on.

Mechanics:


Battles can be epic and late-game areas will be very challenging to even experienced players who aren't keeping track of the progress of the fight...

What is quite nice is that the player's actions and choices throughout the game have both large and small consequences in the game world with characters and whole quests disappearing from the game if you chose one course over another. This isn't one of those wishy-washy "you can do everything, almost" games like Fallout 3/The Elder Scrolls where you can end up leader of every guild in the world (not that I'm saying they're bad games!).

The downside to this is that - and I'm presuming this was a "lost in translation" moment - the game does not always do a good job of making clear just exactly what choices will result in. There are decisions whose consequences should be kept secret or obscured until after you choose but sometimes there are quite clear choices where the consequences are known but you're not quite sure what to do to achieve the desired result. This is sort of a theme throughout the game and its interfaces, for example: the new game + selection. It's not clearly apparent from the warning text whether you're wiping your characters and starting a new game (which you can also choose to do) or just keeping the characters and restarting the story.

Similarly, managing your pawn's inclinations and tendencies is also obfuscated somewhat and the "knowledge chair" doesn't repeat all the questions every time you sit in it - meaning that if you mess your pawn up the first time, you can't just sit back down and undo the damage.

For some types of players this sort of thing is a net positive as it allows good replayability and mastery of the game as the reward for thorough experimentation. Other, less patient or time-sensitive players will not enjoy this aspect. The developers have seemingly been aware of these potential shortcomings and limitations on the audience for the game as they have improved several aspects in the retooled Dark Arisen.

It's best not to travel alone in the world of Gransys...

There are some perks for having owned the original and then purchasing DA, some armours and outfits - which can be purchased at the Black Cat anyway for new players - and an "eternal ferrystone" (the item that allows unlimted fast travel) that does not destroy itself as the normal ferrystones do when used. Unfortunately, players who do not have a DD vanilla save will not receive this eternal ferrystone - which I think is a bit of a shame as it's incredibly useful. Even if it was a late-game quest reward for players of DA rather than given at the beginning for players of both versions of the game. The cost of purchasing ferrystones in DA is also significantly reduced which means that even at late game, most fresh DA players will be able to move about the macro world at will. 

Regardless of this, early in the game you're going to want to travel and explore the land in order to understand where things are, what enemies you'll face and also to level up your skills and attributes. The class system in this game is deceptively simple whilst being quite complex underneath and, in my opinion, it's one of the most well-rounded gameplay experiences I can think of in my gaming life to date. There are six main classes for the player and the pawns and three additional cross-class options for the player. Each class is fun to play in its own way and each fits into the puzzle of what makes up a good adventuring group.

Speaking of which, the "player plus three AI companions" was an exciting decision for the developers to put into this game for me. I love adventuring with a party but don't have the friends, nor always the inclination, to pull it off. This is a nice middle ground that allows you to use the pawns of your friends (and strangers) without having to worry about synching game times with other actual humans. It works very well and I enjoy customising my pawn to send out to help other people. It also cuts out potential rifts and arguments with your cohorts as the AI will always want to accomplish the goals and tasks that you prefer to do at that point in time.

Directing the pawns is fairly simple – you have four (in reality three) commands at your disposal on the D-pad: ‘Come’, ‘Go’ and ‘Help’. ‘Come’ is relatively straight forward: it calls your pawns to your side from whatever they are currently engaged in and is useful to bring them around obstacles and tricky path-finding areas when moving around the world though pawns will warp to your location if they are too far away from your character – which is a nice touch. This command is also useful to bring pawns out of danger of the dangerous attacks that large adversaries can launch at your party.

‘Go’ is to send your pawns forward to stand before you in an attack or seek out foes that are further from your position. ‘Help’ is assigned to both left and right directions on the D-pad and, unfortunately, it feels like an unfinished feature in both games largely due to the fact that there’s no difference in the outcome if you use either left or right directions; your pawns will either heal you, cure your ailment/condition/debilitation or buff you with enchantments. The pawns themselves decide what the action will be and, aside from having pawns with only certain types of spells in their repertoire, you are at the mercy of the pawn’s character and knowledge – which is notoriously tricky to get just how you want it (potions notwithstanding!). There are many players that say that the left and right d-pad commands will result in different effects on the learning and behaviour of your pawn but I cannot state with any certainty that this is fact.


Actions and attacks can be performed freely, even outside of battle... though you should be careful when doing this around NPCs as doing so removes any positive feelings for your arisen and might cause the guards to become hostile - not to mention kill the NPC!

Heading back to the class system, every player will have their own favourite play style but for me the speed and agility of the Strider, Warrior and Assassin are most fun to play, though playing as a wizard or magic archer is probably the most powerful choice in the base game. Switching class is free once they are bought with a small amount of experience points (and once you meet a minimum level requirement) which means that you can tailor your character's abilities based on what you think you will or want to face, though this process is only possible at an inn and a limited number of other places in the world. The classes are well thought-out and the character levelling system is designed in such a way that you can play however you want and end up with a serviceable character and main pawn. However, there is also a lot of scope for min/maxing and this makes it important to not only choose the right order to experience the classes but also to maximise the lethality of your character.

Character level is independent from class level and this reflects in the overall stats and ability of a character. These stats, e.g. strength, increase upon gaining a level but to different extents depending on the level being gained (a look at the DD wikiwill help understand this) and the class that is currently being utilised when gaining the level.

DD utilises class level rewards named “augments” that are unlocked as you gain levels within each specific class (which also unlock new skills or spells specific to that class). These augments are not class specific and are passive – meaning that it benefits the player to play and experiment in all classes in order to maximise the effectiveness of their character. Not all of these augments are useful for every class (e.g. a reduction in casting time is not helpful for a warrior) but there are some augments gained from playing each class that will have universal potential for increasing the effectiveness of a character. DA also introduced secret augments that can be found during play.

Characters’ stats are also affected by their very physical make-up: height, weight, muscle etc. that are defined at character creation all affect the type of things that your character will be good (or at least better) at. Longer legs and lighter weight/muscle mean faster running and climbing speed but also the ability to carry less weight in the form of items in the inventory.

All of these systems combined form a deep, interweaving subsystem within the game that is, unfortunately, poorly described and communicated but which, when understood, provides a very creative and complex gameplay experience.

Adding to this, Dark Arisen has even more systems that it brings to the table. One such system is the cursed items. These are unknown "things" (they look like bubbly grapes in the inventory) that you can pick up from chests and defeated enemies. They actual item is "underneath" the grape curse and its properties (such as weight) are obscured and do not have an effect on the character carrying them. To remove the curse and discover what the item is, you need to take it to the NPC at the start of Bitterblack Isle.


Grand Soren - 'tis a peaceful, idyllic place or so it seems...

A very important mechanic to note is that death is impermanent (with one exception) in DD and DA. When NPCs are killed or knocked unconscious on an escort quest they will respawn at some point in the future. The exact time varies between characters but on average an in-game week will see you be able to find the person again. Some players suggest consecutive "resting" at an inn to speed this wait up but I quite like the opportunity to go off and explore for a while. This mechanic is welcome in a game where losing access to an NPC can cause you to be unable to sleep in an inn, sell items and, more importantly, finish and access quests! I actually prefer this solution to Bethesda's work-around whereby all plot-important NPCs are unable to be killed; only be knocked unconscious. Sometimes this is referred to as "plot armour".

Speaking of the NPC deaths, I should take the time to mention the quest system. There are literally a metric ton of quests in this game - though most of them are not the "go here and do that" sort. Some are very poorly explained and others do not even properly update your log when you complete a portion of their multi-stage segments.

The primary quests are given by interacting with important NPCs, such as the chamberlain, queen, spymaster, etc. Secondary quests are given by interacting with normal NPCs such as shopkeepers and/or overheard from people ranting or conversing in the streets (especially in Gran Soren). These quests are the typical type of "find X for Y" or "investigate location X and report to Y". The last type of quest is the notice board quests. These are split into escort quests and "kill X of Y".

The "kill X of Y" quests should always be taken immediately when you see them as they can sit in your quest log and gradually get completed through normal game play. There's no time limit to them and you can't really "fail them" even when the game throws up such worrying notices as "if you pass beyond this point, all current questlines will be abandoned", which it does a few times during the game story progression. This is referring to the primary and secondary quests types.

The escort quests are actually quite hard and it is advised to not do these until you have explored a lot of the world map, put down port crystals in good intermediate locations and also levelled up a fair way. This might mean that you'll miss a few of these quests (as I believe they can expire) but this is more preferable than having that NPC disappearing for a week of in-game time as noted above.

There are a few different notice boards in the game which provide access to different quests. This means that you have to travel to each one to see which quests are available at a given time. While I can't remember, off-hand, the whereabouts of them all these are the main ones: The inn in Cassardis, the alehouse in Gran Soren, the watchkeep where you fight a hydra and the island cove entrance in DA.

The enemy design in the game is generally of a high quality and ranges from simple stand and fight tactics to having to deal with multiple enemy 'states' or aspects before their core health can be whittled away...

The good thing about being able to restart the game after "finishing" it is that you can retry all the quests and this is exactly what happened to me the first time I played through as I "hurried" along near the beginning of the game in order to not let the trophy go "off" and inadvertently missed out on a good portion of primary and secondary quests.

Weapons and armour are very important to many RPGs and DD/DA are no exception. There is a plethora of items to collect, find and farm to get that all-important loot drop. Once an item is obtained then that is also not the end of the story - not only can they be improved by combining materials from felled enemies (along with a good chunk of money) but they can also become "dragonforged" through defeating dragons. In DD, dragonforged is the best you can do for each piece of armour or weapon. However, in DA, already dragonforged items can be further improved up to three times by Barroch using materials that drop from the new, harder and more punishing enemies that exist on Bitterblack Isle.

While the gameplay in the expansion area is identical to that in the main game, the level design and aesthetic is very different. Not only are the areas more beautiful and draw the player's eye to interesting or important features with lighting and view lines but each area has much more of a vertical component to it allowing secrets or paths to be placed in plain sight but that require exploration to discover. There is also quite a lot of reuse of area art and rooms in Bitterblack Isle but that is explained via the in-game story and it also contributes to the mystery surrounding the area.

The party system itself has a lot of synergies that work well between different classes. Most importantly the way that players or pawns can imbue their allies with magicked elements - providing a way to damage resistant foes (e.g. with fire or ice damage), remove ailments (such as blindness) and heal the party.

The magic system is actually quite nuanced with multiple levels of spell potency, casting time and the ability to lock-on or free aim. The most powerful spells require more time to incant, thus requiring your team to divert enemies' attention from the casters as they do so, but also can do massive damage and disrupt or turn a battle in your favour. Allowing two fighting professions to also perform certain types of magic was also a great touch - allowing players who do like to get into the thick of things but who also want the ability to mess with magic a way to play the game as they would wish.

Finally, the screenshot mechanic is by far one of the most welcome additions to gaming that I've ever encountered. The ability to rotate and elevate around the point of focus and zoom in and out mean that many cinematic, interesting, funny and memorable experiences can be retained for all to share.

Technical issues/bugs:


The chimera is a great example of unique enemy design: chop the snake off to stop its poison spitting and gorging on your team; kill the goat to silence the magic casting; fell the lion to stop its pouncing. You can do this in any order however, I always feel sorry when I hear the pained bleating and useless flailing when I leave the goat for last...

I’m playing on the PS3 version of the games and I never really had any issues at all outside of the screenshot feature. It would sometimes not like being in certain orientations and would roll around (or freak out) and not take pictures at all.

I also had one crash in all my hours gaming across both versions of the game that probably resulted from a memory leak or something as things were not being recorded. The situation was that I was fighting a golem and taking a load of screenshots of the event – especially because I was using bolide a lot. Performance started to decrease and then the AI for the golem just stopped, mid stride, and I wasn’t able to damage it any further. Eventually the game crashed and I was really worried for my save file. However, the game started up again perfectly fine, though the screenshots and my progress had not been recorded for a while before the fight in question.

I do worry a bit with the use of a single game save file since it might be possible for this to become corrupted if the game is saving and there’s interruption to the power supply for whatever reason. I think that, for a game that encourages so many hours (I’m over 150 hrs played) to be put into it, it doesn’t make sense to not have a backup. In fact, I have backed up my save data to PC (via USB storage) especially when I updated to Dark Arisen! This also limits the possibility of having multiple arisens and pawns which has resulted in many players resorting to multiple accounts and save-swapping.

Conclusion:


I'm not really dead... I'm just resting - I'm feeling much better, really!

In many ways it’s incredible that DD and DA were possible at all. The fact that the game world is bespoke, not randomly generated and very large, how late in the lifecycle of the current generation it was released*, a unique online system that doesn’t penalise players who don’t want it and how deep an experience that actually works well and isn’t riddled with exploits and bugs all seem incredible when compared with other releases on every platform.

In light of this I can excuse the poor dialogue and story and the incredulous “acting” of your main character and the developers for not implementing an expandable backend which resulted in the release of Dark Arisen as a full title instead of an expansion/DLC. Dragon’s Dogma (and even more so, Dark Arisen) is an excellent game of rich exploration – not just of the game world but of its systems as well.

Backseat Designing:


Different classes and abilities can best deal with different enemies...

This is an almost perfect game, in my opinion, but there are still some tweaks I’d make outside the usability and transparency of the game interface and mechanics. The first is that I would allow multiple characters per account but keep the same pawn across the whole of them. This would, I imagine, deal with the issue that I think the developers were trying to address because of the game’s sharing of pawns between the community where this system might become overloaded or convoluted through people having multiple pawns they were sharing.

I would also make it so that the pawn’s level and equipment is constant between the various main characters of an account so that new playthroughs as a different character would be rewarded as you could bring along your high level pawn – as you can currently from your friends list. In the same way you could also share equipment between characters by equipping it on your pawn or “gifting” it to your other characters through your pawn.

The developers did include ways to actually change your character’s appearance but this doesn’t really sit well with me because you have to discard your character if you truly want to start from scratch and not just change the way they look and sound.

Deciding to only give the eternal ferrystone to players of the original game was also a mistake (as I mentioned above) and I would have this as a reward at the start of the game for transitioning players but one at late game (with a quest) for new players.

I would also improve the pawn command system – changing one ‘help’ button to cause buffs and enchantments and the other to cause healing of conditions/debilitations and health. I think that it would greatly enable the player to take control of certain unfortunate instances in battles that would otherwise result in death or complete rout because the pawns were not aiding you in the required manner – e.g. you’re fighting foes that are weak to fire and ice and yet your pawns refuse to re-buff your weapons with those enchantments, instead suddenly deciding to switch to dark or light enchantments. Perhaps quickly pressing twice on the direction would result in them changing behaviour i.e. switching which spell or ability they had been using and telling the AI that they were doing something that you did not want.

The inclusion of the ability to take screenshots cannot be understated and, although it was improved ever so slightly in Dark Arisen, I would like to further improve it by allowing 360 degree movement along with lateral and vertical positioning so that you could really frame your shots like you would with a camera. Personally, I hope this feature is really taken note of by other development houses and implemented on newly released games for PC and the next gen Xbox and Playstation as it really adds a lot of value to myself and many other gamers in being able to share our gaming experiences with our friends and peers. While the XBO and PS4 can take screenshots and videos, there is no ability to "frame" shots as you can in DA or as I would like above.

The Ur-Dragon is one of the late-game grinding bosses and is tough enough to fight when in offline mode. In online mode, it becomes a multi-generation, simultaneous experience shared by players all over the world...



*Publishers are (apparently) very reluctant to release new IP except at or near new hardware releases. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me but, hey!