When Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight hit cinemas in 2008, it arrived like a demon in the night. Pushing its 12A rating to the limit, this brooding, nihilistic monster was a far cry from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. As Heath Ledger’s Joker gleefully rammed a pencil into a mobster’s eye and flames tore the flesh from Harvey Dent’s cheek, my-then-girlfriend’s little brother left the cinema looking mildly traumatised. Adam West prancing around in his tights, this was not.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards and winning two, Nolan’s batbuster was a genre-elevating triumph. The Bat was back and soon he gave video games a Gotham-filled glow-up. The critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum silently emerged from the shadows in 2009, dragging licensed games out of the bargain bin and thrusting them firmly into the spotlight. Now, nine years after 2015’s Arkham Knight, Gotham’s golden boys are back with a fourth DC adaptation – Suicide Squad.
Putting you in the blood-stained boots of Harley Quinn, Boomerang, King Shark and Deadshot, it’s up to these Arkham inmates to defend Metropolis from an alien invasion. Where, you may ask, is Batman? Well, unfortunately Earth’s heroes have very much woken up on the wrong side of the bed, with the once noble Justice League brainwashed into doing alien Brainiac’s evil bidding.
As UFOs rain lasers from the sky and Green Lantern gleefully slaughters human resisters, it falls to our gang of storied losers to save the day – and kill the Justice League. It’s a brilliant narrative setup, and one that its writers play to great comic effect. Yet along with the welcome change from playable hero to villains comes a more eyebrow-raising switch: the move to an online looter shooter. Taking its cues from Destiny and the much-maligned Marvel’s Avengers game, this live service approach sees Rocksteady attempt to marry a tightly directed cinematic story with number-crunching and randomised gun drops.
Suicide Squad has players inhabiting a cast of timelessly iconic superpowered DC villains, only for them to spend countless hours clutching generic assault rifles. Where few films emulated Nolan’s take on the cape and cowl, Rocksteady’s up close and personal combat became the gold standard for brawling in video games. It’s jarring, then, that Suicide Squad’s combat feels so pedestrian. Swapping Arkham’s winning mix of stealth and fisticuffs for flimsy firearms, your antiheroes spend the game leaping across Metropolis’s bland sandbox, riddling forgettable humanoid zombies full of lead. Where Rocksteady once championed innovation, Suicide Squad’s mindless XP-gathering side missions feel bafflingly like the soulless licensed games it rebelled against.
It’s telling that the best bits are when it feels its most Arkham. Once the faceless hordes of enemies fade out of view and the camera zooms in close, the game shines, with your brilliantly rendered squad taking on the corrupted members of the Justice League in gloriously silly villainous vignettes. Whether it’s tracking MacGuffins with Lex Luther or battling a particularly sociopathic interpretation of The Flash, watching the Justice League break bad is a joy to behold. From gawking as Batman remorselessly murders policemen to witnessing Superman melt a hero with his laser eyes, there’s more than a touch of The Boys and Invincible to this dark slice of DC.
It’s compellingly acted stuff, too, with Suicide Squad’s gory gross-outs and inane gags pulling off the rare feat of being genuinely funny, not just “funny for a video game”.
Yet whenever Rocksteady veers close to channelling its former Gotham glories, you’re thrust back into a world of tedium. While the combat improves as you upgrade your weapons, its blend of bullet-sponge enemies and flashy finishers never feels quite as fluid at battering goons as Batman did back in 2009.
Ultimately, Warner Brothers live-service ambitions rob players of a remarkable comic-book caper. The result is a game that’s as confused as its titular characters. Just as these reluctant heroes find themselves battling against their villainous natures, Rocksteady’s storytelling ambition struggles to break free of its live-service trappings. Since its reveal as a looter shooter, the internet has declared Suicide Squad an abomination – the antithesis of the classics that Rocksteady once made. The reality is somewhere in between, a game that straddles both the brilliant and the banal. As Rocksteady is surely learning from Suicide Squad’s hostile fan reception, you either die a licensed game hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.