Monday, May 30, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight, Let's Play #10 - Poison Ivy

UPDATE: While the video has been updated, none of the commentary below (from 2016) has! Please consider this a re-post!

In the end of the last episode, we used the newly acquired sonar attachment for the Batmobile to locate and free the long-buried roots of one of Gotham's oldest plants on Miagani Island, so that Poison Ivy could use it to help manufacture her anti-fear toxin spore. However, because giant plants erupting out of the ground tend to attract a lot of attention, the Arkham Knight immediately dispatched a squad of rocket launcher-wielding militia soldiers onto a nearby rooftop to bring it down. We pick things up in this episode with Batman making short work of these glorified henchmen.

But the Arkham Knight's assault didn't end there: the next stage involves an army of 25 drone tanks (Rattlers, Twin Rattlers, and Diamondbacks) trying to attack the other plant at the Botanical Gardens, only this time Poison Ivy's ready to fight back. Now, in case you were thinking that adding the ability for Ivy to destroy the odd tank here and there with her plant roots in any way redeems the frustratingly repetitive monotony of these Batmobile tank battles, it doesn't. It might not seem too bad to viewers of this video series, because this is the first full fledged tank battle I've shown you guys since Episode 5, but keep in mind there are at least five big ones that I didn't show you. And that's not even counting the near endless supply of optional tank battle side missions that I had to slog through in order to get the precious XP that allows me to get all those cool gadget upgrades. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of including the Batmobile in this game, but the sheer volume of the tank gameplay left a bad taste in my mouth.

And as if the regular drone tanks weren't bad enough, after we're done with this challenge, we immediately have to face a squadron of much larger and tougher Cobra tanks. These are too well armed and well armored to attack head-on, so you have to sneak around them from behind and use an X-Wing-style targeting computer to hit it with a precision strike right in the exhaust port. Basically, if drone tank battles are to the Batmobile as Combat challenges are to Batman, then Cobra challenges are the Batmobile equivalent of Predator challenges. What I find the most frustrating and illogical about this whole situation is that if there were just one or two of these Cobra tanks included in the swarm of regular drones from before, it would be basically impossible for the Batmobile to defeat them both together. It seems like a blatant excuse to shoehorn some variety into the gameplay while completely ignoring the logic of the game's world.

But the game's world is about to befall much worse than some nonsensical tank deployment strategies, because Scarecrow is finally ready to launch his long-awaited fear toxin attack! Using the Cloudburst, a chemical weapon dispersal device developed by Stagg Enterprises, Scarecrow is able to engulf the entire city in a cloud of gas that causes anyone exposed to completely lose it. Fans of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy might notice some similarities between this part of the game and the climactic sequence in Batman Begins where Scarecrow uses a similar device to vaporize Gotham's fear toxin-infected water supply, causing mass hysteria throughout the city. The difference here is that the Cloudburst also fried the Batmobile's power cell, meaning we'll have to find a way to fix the car before we can destroy the device.

But skipping back a bit, at the moment when Scarecrow detonated the Cloudburst, we were checking on Poison Ivy after the drone tank assault on her plant at the Botanical Gardens, which is the only scene in the episode named after Poison Ivy where we actually see her in person. So this is as good a chance as any to make a casting suggestion for who I would like to see play the role in a major motion picture adaptation of the game: Lena Headey. I must admit, I'm not familiar with much of Headey's work outside of Game of Thrones, but her extremely compelling performance as Cersei Lannister exhibits many of the attributes associated with Pamela Isley: a mix of cunning, charm, ruthlessness, and strength of convictions. Plus, she wouldn't even need to cover up her arm tattoos!

After a fairly uneventful trip back to Simon Stagg's airships (including a Legend of Zelda reference when Batman finds the means to repair the Batmobile) and a journey underground (including a fairly hilarious goof on my part when Batman attempts a daring stunt jump in the Batmobile), we're faced with our biggest tank battle yet, again with the goal of defending another one of Ivy's plants. We all know how I feel about these tank battles at this point, but I hopefully made this one more fun (or at least tolerable) to watch by drawing some comparisons to another one of my favorite video games: F-Zero X. What first got me thinking about the futuristic racing game for the N64 was how the tank battle music track in Arkham Knight sounded a lot like the Port Town music from F-Zero X. But then I had the epiphany that the voice modulator used by the Arkham Knight makes his voice sound pretty much exactly like the synthesized announcer's voice in F-Zero X! I haven't been able to look at either game the same way since making this discovery.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight, Let's Play #9 - Two-Face

UPDATE: While the video has been updated, none of the commentary below (from 2016) has! Please consider this a re-post!

After playing a major role in the Arkham City storyline, Two-Face is relegated to side mission status in Arkham Knight. But Harvey Dent's appearance is one of the highlights of the game, and he's one of the most important members of Batman's rogue's gallery, so he takes center stage in this episode.

But before we get to Two-Face, we have to wrap up the action in the movie studios. Rather than submit to Robin's request that Batman quarantine himself until the Boy Wonder can synthesize a cure for "Mad Clown Disease," Bruce Wayne pulls the ol' switcheroo on Tim Drake and locks his sidekick in the cell instead! The move is at the same time very uncharacteristic of Batman's noble nature, but also necessary for the sake of saving Gotham from Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight. I mean, honestly, Robin couldn't have handled this situation on his own - he's only got like four things in his utility belt! Also while Robin is locked up, Batman takes the opportunity to tell him the truth about Oracle's tragically fatal encounter with fear toxin and a pistol, leading to a heart wrenching show of emotion from voice actor Matt Mercer, which nevertheless went a long way towards me wanting to see Jake Gyllenhaal take on the role of Robin in a live-action blockbuster movie version of the game.

After a brief detour to make some progress on the Riddler side mission, our next goal is to go see Poison Ivy at the GCPD and convince her to help us deal with Scarecrow's imminent fear toxin attack. (Remember way back in the first episode when I said that her natural immunity to the stuff was going to be an important plot point?) Batman goes into Dungeons & Dragons mode, rolling a successful Charisma (Persuasion) check, and Ivy agrees to accompany our hero to the Botanical Gardens, the location of "the oldest plants in Gotham. They'll tell me what we need to do." So in other words, Poison Ivy's plan is to cast the 3rd level Druid spell "Speak with Plants" to learn how the plants can help produce Ivy's anti-toxin spore. However the resulting cutscene looks more like some combination of "Tree Stride" and "Plant Growth" on steroids, and the end result is that we need to find some way to free the plant's roots from deep underneath Gotham City.

But since it will take Lucius Fox some time to come up with a solution, this is the perfect opportunity to tackle a side mission, namely Two-Faced Bandit. In the game, this side mission is broken up into three different parts, where you have to stop Two-Face's crew from committing robberies at three different banks, but for our purposes I've condensed it into one sequence that includes highlights from all three parts. Almost more interesting than the gameplay highlights are the monologues delivered throughout the mission by Two-Face's voice actor Troy Baker. Now if you've played a next-generation video game in the last few years and you don't know who Troy Baker is, you're doing it wrong. He's voiced the leads in games such as BioShock, Uncharted, Last of Us, and countless other titles. He was the voice of Robin in his brief cameo in Arkham City. And he even provides several other voices in Arkham Knight. But as talented as Troy Baker is - and he's one of the industry's best - I've long fantasized (strictly platonically) about another actor playing a live-action version of Two-Face: Idris Elba.

While the suggestion of a black actor playing this role is hardly revolutionary - Billy Dee Williams had a cameo as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman - it's always good to get some diversity into Batman's rogue's gallery whenever possible. I thought of Idris Elba because he has experience playing both a criminal mastermind (The Wire) and a law enforcement agent (Luther), so he could bring two strong perspectives to the Two-Face/Harvey Dent duality of the character. And then there's his physical stature: Elba stands just over 6'2", which is a shade taller than the height of Bruce Wayne in the comics (the same as my first choice to play Batman, Daniel Day-Lewis), which would make it all the more satisfying when the two former friends go toe-to-toe.

This confrontation predictably happens at the very end of the mission, which contains two distinct gameplay segments. In the first, Two-Face's thugs are running around the bank willy-nilly trying to grab as much cash as possible. They're distracted, not only by their mission, but also by the sound of the bank's alarm blaring in the background, leaving them vulnerable to Batman's louder and more cinematic Fear Multi-Takedowns. In the second segment, Two-Face shuts off the alarm and heads into the bank himself for a little Bat hunting - along with an elite squad of Militia soldiers, reinforcing that he's been coordinating with Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight this whole time. But unlike the Catwoman vs. Two-Face boss fight in Arkham City, the binary-obsessed villain has neither a grenade launcher nor a health bar: he's armed with a regular shotgun (which is vulnerable to the disruptor) and he goes down after a regular-ass takedown. Which could have been a little anti-climactic if fortune didn't conspire to leave Two-Face as the last conscious enemy in a triple Fear Multi-Takedown to end the encounter! I take moments like these as a tacit reinforcement from the universe that I made the right decision to devote countless hundreds of hours to this project of mine...

Anyway, with Two-Face safely confined to the maximum security wing of the GCPD lockup, we can go see what Lucius has come up with to locate Poison Ivy's plant roots... but upon reaching Wayne Tower, we find that something isn't right. When we hail Lucius on the radio, he thought we were already in the building, which in my mind was the perfect lead-in to another side mission. Reviewing security footage of the Wayne Tower penthouse reveals that an intruder, who somehow looks exactly like the billionaire playboy, broke into Bruce Wayne's office and is holding Lucius Fox at gunpoint! Batman immediately recognizes the intruder as Thomas Elliot, a.k.a. Hush, a.k.a. the Identity Thief from Arkham City, who has surgically reconstructed his face to look exactly like his childhood friend Bruce Wayne! In a move that is certain to have some long-term consequences, Batman ends up distracting Elliot by revealing his secret identity, allowing him and Lucius to save the day.

The majority of this side mission takes place in the space of a single cutscene (minus some walking and approximately three button presses), but it does tie into the main story quite nicely. Also, its inclusion in a live-action version of the story would provide a nice opportunity for a cameo by one of the Batman universe's most influential actors: Kevin Conroy. The celebrated voice actor provides the voice of the Caped Crusader in the seminal Animated Series, all three true Arkham games, and several other animated films (including the upcoming Killing Joke), so what better way to get him into this project than as Bruce Wayne's dark double? Of course, in my fantasy world, he would have to spend most of his screen time in a full face prosthetic of Daniel Day-Lewis for the full effect, but there's always the opportunity for flashbacks to Arkham City to get Conroy's handsome mug on the screen. And on the bright side, both actors stand a very Bruce Wayne-like 6'2". Coincidence? Probably!

The remainder of this episode constitutes using the newly-acquired sonar attachment for the Batmobile to locate Poison Ivy's plant roots, but since the next episode is devoted to the "titillating tree-hugger" herself, I'll save that for next time.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight, Let's Play #8 - Robin

UPDATE: While the video has been updated, none of the commentary below (from 2016) has! Please consider this a re-post!

In the last episode, Batman came to Robin's rescue when Harley Quinn invaded their secret Batcave outpost at Panessa Studios.  The dynamic duo was able to apprehend one of the three infected Joker patients that Harley broke out from their quarantine cells, but there are still two more (plus Harley herself) still on the loose.

Just to start with the elephant in the room, I'm not sure how to feel about Robin chokeslamming Christina Bell at the end of this predator encounter. I mean, obviously violence against women is heinous in all its forms, but we're talking about a dangerous supervillainess here who's already shot one henchman as a joke and scratched out the eyes of another one on a whim, so Robin's action is justified on self defense grounds. But it doesn't necessarily make it any easier to watch. Additionally, in a little behind the scenes note, if I wasn't lightning fast on countering Christina's attack, she actually WOULD have clawed half of Robin's face off and we wouldn't get to hear any of his comic dialogue suggesting Christina as a replacement sidekick.

Speaking of Robin (the Tim Drake variety), I think this is a good opportunity to say that I would like to see Jake Gyllenhaal in this role. I think he's got the right mixture of intensity and charm to pull off the Robin vibe, and I don't think it matters that his sister Maggie already appeared in Christopher Nolan's Batman universe. Also he looks really good with a shaved head, which is the hairstyle of choice for this version of Robin, when he's not wearing his hood. Speaking of which, I personally got a kick out of the implication that Tim Drake added a hood to his cape, not necessarily for any practical crime fighting reason, but rather because of receding hairline issues.

But as it happens, Tim Drake is not the only Robin featured in this episode. Apparently all this teamwork has gotten Batman thinking about the tragic fate that befell the former Robin, Jason Todd. And thanks to the Joker infection permeating his psyche, these thoughts manifest themselves into hallucinatory flashbacks of what happened to Jason after he was kidnapped and tortured by the Joker over a period of more than a year. These chilling scenes are taken from the comic book story arc called "A Death in the Family," where readers got to decide the fate of Jason Todd. They also allow me to suggest another acting choice for this brief, three-scene cameo: Norman Reedus. His gruff demeanor fits with the image of Jason Todd as the "bad boy" Robin, and plus he wouldn't even need to cut his hair or shave from his Walking Dead look, since I don't think Joker would have given him regular grooming during his kidnapping period.

The first two of these hallucinations are punctuated by two boss fights: one combat oriented against Albert King (watch it again and try to picture Shaq as the gargantuan boxer) and one music oriented against Johnny Charisma (ditto with Adam Levine as the crooner, even though Mark Hamill's hallucinatory Joker steals the solo spotlight. Then the third one is preceded by a shocking cinematic sequence where we learn an unexpected truth about the fourth (and symptomless) Joker infected, Henry Adams. Turns out he wasn't immune to Jokeritis, but rather he was able to hide the effects of the infection while he earned Batman's trust and set up a disastrous double-cross! Now do you see how an actor of Bill Nighy's caliber could knock this role out of the park?

But it's not just Henry's condition that's revealed in this cutscene: Robin also learns that Batman is the final Joker patient! At first it seems like the Boy Wonder convinces the Dark Knight to quarantine himself until Robin can finish synthesizing the cure, leading to the third and final "Death in the Family" flashback, where Joker kills Jason and utters a phrase that we've seen scrawled on the wall of the Clock Tower when Oracle was kidnapped: "What happens when you drag your friends into this crazy little game of ours." But in a shocking twist, this convoluted fear toxin hallucination actually started before Batman even locked himself in the cell, and what really happened was that Batman deftly countered Robin and put him in the cell instead. It's not necessarily wrong to think that Batman is the only hero who can deal with the situation at hand, but it's definitely out of character for the Caped Crusader to turn on his partner. We'll find out the consequences of his actions in the next episode!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight, Let's Play #7 - Harley Quinn

UPDATE: While the video has been updated, none of the commentary below (from 2016) has! Please consider this a re-post!

Episode 7 marks a sea change of sorts in the Arkham Knight universe, as one of our primary objectives tragically becomes redundant early in the episode.

It's far too late to protect you from this spoiler: Episode 7 marks the death of Batman's longtime sidekick Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle, aka formerly Batgirl, who had been in Scarecrow's clutches since Episode 3. Basically, Scarecrow pumps her full of fear toxin, places a loaded gun next to her, and uses Batman's terrifying visage as a catalyst to scare her into shooting herself. It's an extremely powerful and moving scene that would have been all the more tragic if the hallucinatory Joker didn't comically interpose himself between Batman and Oracle at the moment when she pulls the trigger. But that does serve the purpose of keeping the scene PG-13, which is how you get that lucrative demographic.

Now here's a little behind the scenes insight: It's at this point in the story that I do the most significant trimming of gameplay content and rearranging of plot elements that you'll see in these videos. However, no one will likely notice except for die hard fans who know the game backwards and forwards, and hopefully even most of those fans will agree that my changes result in a more streamlined story that makes a little bit more sense than what's presented in the game. That's not to criticize the game's designers by any means - the parts I cut out of these videos provided some great gameplay experiences. But when your goal is to edit 30+ hours of gameplay into 15 half-hour episodes, some material has to end up on the cutting room floor.

Anyway, what happens next in MY version of the story is the introduction of the Joker's former #1 henchwoman, Harley Quinn. Which means I get to suggest another casting choice for my hypothetical live action version of the Arkham Knight story: Lizzy Caplan. Don't get me wrong, I like Margot Robbie a lot, and her portrayal of Harley Quinn is the part of Suicide Squad that I'm most interested in seeing, but that movie is going to be much darker and grittier than the Animated Series-inspired Arkham Universe. Also, it's never good to cross the streams, so to speak, in different adaptations of similar subject matter, and if we're going with a fresh take, Lizzy Caplan can fill all the roles that Harley Quinn needs to. We've seen her nail both comedy (Mean Girls, Party Down) and drama (Masters of Sex, True Blood), and I'd really like to see her take a shot at full-blown crazy.

This is also the first episode where you get to work together with Robin, but since we'll explore the Batman/Robin dynamic more fully in the next episode, I'll reserve my casting choice for Tim Drake until next week. That said, there's not much more in this episode that requires a lot of explanation. We get a couple of new gadgets: one that's part of the story (the Voice Synthesizer) and one that's more of an easter egg than a necessary addition to the utility belt (the Freeze Blast, yet another direct reference to a Mortal Kombat character). We also get introduced to a new way for Batman and Robin to team up in order to take down the gigantic minigunners that patrol the Haunted House set where Christina Bell makes her last stand.

Speaking of which, I advocated for Katherine Heigl to play the part of Christina Bell way back in my blog recap for Episode 3, where the Joker infected were first introduced, but it's not until this episode where we really get to see that character in action. I still wholeheartedly stand by my choice, and I encourage you to watch Act 3 of this episode again with my casting choice in mind to see if you agree. I also want to call your attention to how Act 3 ends - with Robin countering an incoming attack from Christina Bell and then proceeding to chokeslam her to the ground. I'll touch the awkward situations that arise from trying to reconcile the presence of female supervillains with the heinous nature of violence against women in the voiceover commentary for the next episode, but for now, can we agree that Robin's action was somewhat justified in this circumstance since it was clearly in self defense? If you feel differently or have any thoughts on the matter, please sound off in the comments to this post or the YouTube video!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight, Let's Play #6 - Simon Stagg

UPDATE: While the video has been updated, none of the commentary below (from 2016) has! Please consider this a re-post!

Episode 6 of my Arkham Knight Let's Play is my personal favorite of the ones I've released so far, but that's going to be the case for each one from here on out - which is another way of saying that I felt AK04 was slightly stronger than AK05. But that's not to say that all of the episodes aren't incredibly entertaining and extremely well edited...

I must admit that before playing the Arkham games, my Batman experiences were limited to the 1990's Animated Series and the theatrical films, I had never heard of Simon Stagg prior to Arkham
Knight. Thus, I don't know if the character is associated with his stylish airships in any media other than the game, but either way, they provide an exciting location for one of the game's most diverse and challenging levels. It's just an added bonus that they also resemble the iconic police blimps created for the above-mentioned Animated Series.

As fun as the airships are, there are a couple of prerequisites before we can enter them about halfway through Act 1. The first is to take out some armed soldiers guarding the airships, where I demonstrate a cool move for the first time in this series: the Batclaw Slam. The Batclaw itself, introduced in Arkham Asylum, is an attachment for the grapple gun that lets you latch onto objects and pull them towards you. In Arkham City, they added the ability to follow up with a powerful attack if you use the Batclaw on an enemy, in very much the same way as the Mortal Kombat character Scorpion uses his trademark Spear. In the video, I overlaid Scorpion's famous "GET OVER HERE!" audio under this attack to prove that point.

But that was only the first reference to the Mortal Kombat games in this episode, as the Act 1 finale consists of a one-on-one match against a Militia Lieutenant armed with blades mounted to both forearms, which is a virtual echo of Mortal Kombat II's Baraka. I added some special music here to drive home the comparison: it's two versions theme from the "Courtyard" stage, one from the original arcade game and one from the 2011 remake. My training as a reality TV producer came in handy here too, as I was able to make a fairly convincing Frankenbite of "Batman wins!" using in-game audio.

It's not until Act 2 that we first meet the pharmaceutical magnate for whom the episode is named. Right away, Simon Stagg gives off a nervous manic energy, which I would like to see portrayed in a film version of Arkham Knight by Richard Dreyfuss. My first instinct is to say that Stagg isn't a major enough character to warrant being played by an A-lister, but his next scene is what prompted my casting choice.

It turns out that Stagg betrayed Scarecrow after partnering with him on a mysterious project (which is very similar to the dynamic between Dr. Penny Young and the Joker in the original Arkham Asylum) and as payback, Scarecrow puts Stagg in a cage and doses him with fear toxin. His resulting freakout is almost a shot-for-shot copy of a scene from Scarecrow's first appearance in the Animated Series, when Scarecrow (voiced by the wonderfully talented Henry Polic) gasses a security guard with fear toxin during a bank robbery. In fact, I used the music from that sequence to exhibit this similarity for purely scientific reasons.

Come to think of it, the climax of "Nothing to Fear" also happens on an airship (or rather a blimp), so I thought it was appropriate to continue with music from that episode for one of THIS episode's climactic moments: when Batman receives yet another dose of fear toxin and hallucinates himself shooting Scarecrow with a giant revolver. Of course, the version of the Caped Crusader from Batman v Superman wouldn't have batted an eye over brutally executing a villain, based on the number of lives he ends with his Batwing-mounted artillery cannons... But for a more traditional "no guns, no killing" version of the character, this is still a very powerful scene.