“If gliding over the city, elbow smashing thugs, and pulling turbo-charged donuts in the Batmobile is the currency of Arkham Knight, I was richer than Bruce Wayne.
Rocksteady’s amalgamation universe of the Batman mythos is still one of the most respectful, top quality adaptations of any comic character to date…”
It’s Halloween Night in Gotham. Well, it’s Halloween every night in Gotham if you ask the GCPD, but this night is worse. Instead of kids trampling the sidewalks draped in their favorite superheroes’ capes, swinging bags of candy, children and adults alike are being ushered into huge queues of school buses. They’re being evacuated from the city.
Scarecrow, a B-list villain on any other night, has committed an act of terror that has graduated him to a primetime threat. He’s threatened to unleash a more volatile, almost inescapable version of his fear toxin upon Gotham, and a diner full of mangled corpses dismisses any hope of a bluff.
After the Joker’s death, Gotham had actually started to make strides toward the vision Martha and Thomas Wayne always had for their home – a city of hope; a city without fear. Not tonight. Criminals and lowlives run the town, turning the streets into their veritable playground. Scarecrow’s militia, headed by a masked totem of vengeance taken to being called ‘The Arkham Knight,’ seizes the city, turning the wheels on a machine that can only hold a lethal purpose.
Gotham is in chaos.
This is his last stand, and he knows it. But it doesn’t matter. He dons his mask, he takes to the skyline. This is his guard, his city. If it means Gotham is safe, the Batman will go down fighting.
We’ve come a long way since Rocksteady Games forever raised the bar for superhero games (and, honestly, the whole action-adventure genre) with 2009′s Batman: Arkham Asylum. A to-the-miligram mixture of innovative combat, sublime stealth, and close to religious amounts of respect for Batman and his universe made for an unforgettable gameplay experience that developers, high profile and low, have been mimicking since Asylum came out.
Arkham Knight sees Rocksteady practicing the same reverence that made Asylum, and its mind blowing successor, Arkham City, into hits. Truthfully, the ‘wow factor’ is lessened in adhering to the now familiar Arkham blueprint (you can thank WB Games’ by-the-numbers prequel, Arkham Origins, for overloading our palettes between RS’ releases).
Arkham Knight is not without its surprises. It’s just that most of those eye-opening moments don’t emerge through gameplay – the biggest twists and turns are demonstrated narratively; a finale that wrests control from the comic mythos to bring closure to the Batman’s video game saga. It’s not a perfect ending. Think more along the lines of The Dark Knight Rises than The Dark Knight Returns. But don’t let that unnerve you. It’s still very much an experience worth having.
If you’re familiar with the cape and cowl, you’ll already know how to be the Batman from the get-go. You’re given a similar, but expanded, open-world playground to grapple and glide across that’ll be instantly accessible to Arkham City veterans (and hopefully you are one; RS wastes next to no time in reteaching players the Arkham conventions).
The FreeFlow Combat that’s become synonymous with Batman games returns. Its core foundation of attacking, counter-attacking, and firing million-dollar gadgets into thugs’ faces while trying to maintain it all in one big combo is largely unchanged. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most airtight, instantly enjoyable systems at play in AK.
During very special encounters, you’ll be joined in battle by a member of the Bat-Family – be it Tim Drake’s Robin, Nightwing, or Catwoman. You’re allowed to switch freely between Bats and his cohorts, but the action takes a turn for the spectacular when you build enough meter to perform Team Takedowns where your controlled characters basically alley-oop a thug into fist-induced unconsciousness. These instances of Vigilante Doubles are entirely too scarce, though, which is a colossal shame since they’re the most obvious and welcome shakeup to combat.
The Bat n’ Mouse stealth encounters once again give players free reign to take down bad guys in whichever manner they choose. You’ll be mixing it up between environmental takedowns, like crashing through window panes and bouncing your victim’s dome against the floor, and harnessing that bottomless utility belt of toys to harangue thugs into the big (non-lethal) sleep.
Playing off of the Scarecrow’s singular motif, you can now activate ‘Fear Takedowns’ in which Batsy can decommission several hoodlums in one successive streak. It’s the perfect move to quickly end drawn-out encounters. It feels especially rewarding after you’ve managed to round up your prey into a frightened little cluster and visit punch-justice upon them in one fell swoop.
Like a Bat Outta Hell
That’s all thousand island dressing compared to the most notable, and divisive, addition to the franchise: the ability to tear through Gotham’s streets behind the wheel of the Batmobile.
The base whip is admirably balanced and an arcade-y dream to control. It’s often a faster means of crossing to any of the three boroughs the map consists of (so long as you pummeled through enough of the story to gain bridge access for the car). Only when you engage in battle mode – in which tugging a trigger transforms your ride into goddamn Bat-Tank – is when things go all Mr. Hyde.
While standard engagements, like taking on roving drones (because the Batman doesn’t kill; convenient, eh?), are serviceable enough, but until you begin dropping stat points to unlock faster shell reloads and expanded evasion moves, combat can be maddeningly arduous.
Worse, the designers decided your controller was at no risk of being hurled at the wall if they forced players to sneak around in the Bat-Tank. They gambled and lost on that one. Facing down Tyger Tanks, which can only be defeated by creeping behind one and feeding its exhaust port a round, is likely the most joyless gameplay loop in the game. And that’s coming from someone that hunted down all 243 of riddle jackass’ trophies.
Time and patience eventually breeds mastery, and only then did I begin to truly appreciate the switch up brought on by the Batmobile. Several clever environmental puzzles dependent on the car’s winch are a nice diversion from the tried and tired “blast a wall with your explosive gel” method, and it’s a cheap thrill to add your car’s ballistics to your repertoire of combat takedowns. It’s just that Rocksteady shows absolutely no restraint in coercing you to rely on the Batmobile every ten feet (you’re out your fucking head if you think I’m ever going near a Riddler Race again).
Kevin Conroy once again owns the voice ‘90′s kids consider to be definitive Batman. That’s not to say Conroy doesn’t deliver a few cardboard lines here and there, but how many variations on “I need to find a way to break through this wall” can come coated in raw emotion?
The real treat, however, is the surprise return of [YEAH, SPOILER] Mark Hamill’s Joker. Though very much a dead clown, Mr. J’s found a way to lodge himself in Batman’s psyche. He spends the game constantly in your ear, either spreading vile doubt or making macabre jokes. Hamill’s madman delivery and genuine ownership of the Joker make him a welcome return, especially in the face of our two main villains who never seem to hit the right mark.
Scarecrow rattles on with a holier-than-thou sophisticate’s voice – a kind of Brando impersonation. It’s not how I ever imagined Crane sounding in all my time reading the comics (I prefer to think of his voice as lower, scratchier). It’s how they already played Hugo Strange in AC, making Scarecrow just seem like an echo. And you’ll have to hear that echo quite a lot as the story unfolds.
Then there’s Mr. Arkham Knight himself. Despite a sleek as hell design and the brain teasing mystery behind his identity, the dude hits “short-tempered teen” much more often than “Gotham’s reckoning.” It’s downright shocking to learn that Troy Baker voices this bat-eared noodle (hard to tell since AK sounds like he’s speaking through a broken megaphone). Even his big identity reveal is marred by the fact that said character literally never makes an appearance in any Arkham game before this. He’s entwined in comic lore, yes – if you’re even remotely familiar with the comics, the reveal is practically telegraphed – but the payoff here is hollow since the Arkham Knight’s story arc is hastily stitched to the game’s world instead of organically emerging from it.
The story works much better as a character piece centered on an embittered Batman running his last mile. His crusade on crime has become a war on crime, and if that seems against type, the story brilliantly suggests that the Joker’s influence could be the reason Batman’s been showing more tooth and claw. It’s fascinating to watch his supporting cast of Bat Family members notice and react to this change. It’s in our supporting heroes the likes of Oracle, Jim Gordon, and Catwoman, that our more nuanced moments of character work shine brightly through, brief as they are.
It also should be noted that Gotham City itself practically serves as a full-fledged character. Rocksteady has once again packed a crazy amount of obsessive detail and mythology into every inch of the city. It’s easy to miss when you’re flying above the rooftops, but Batman’s world is alive and teeming beneath him.
Aside from the main story thread, there is a huge chunk of content to pursue throughout Gotham. Primarily, you’ll be focused on whittling down the Most Wanted list in order to toss repeat offenders from Batman’s rogues’ gallery into a GCPD cell.
Saving abducted firefighters, stopping bank robberies under a time limit, or destroying gun caches are recurring activities determined by which villain you’re chasing. Sure, there’s little variance in some sidequests, like the one that has you going through the same three-step scanning procedure each time you stumble across a certain killer’s victims.
But the keen sense of feeling like The Batman as you close in on foes like Two-Face and Penguin is too rewarding to pass up, encouraging me to save every firefighter, disarm every bomb I could. Given the weighty tone the story takes, it’s nice to have these heroic breathers where you can strut your inner Bat-Fellow.
If you’re looking for other means of killing time in GC, there’s a bevy of ‘AR Challenges’ available, serving as a replacement to the typical suite of Combat and Predator challenges. Providing an extra layer of agency, AR Challenges can be found throughout the campaign’s world and not just squirreled away on the main menu.
While there’s certainly a happy variety of gauntlets for Batman to run – most new challenges testing your patience inside the Batmobile – there’s a criminal lack of content here compared to previous Arkhams. On disc, there’s only five Combat Challenges available. Five. There used to be dozens that you could unlock.
I’m not sure if the shortage here means Rocksteady felt the addition of AR Challenges made up the difference or if, more sinister, they’ve segmented this content away to charge us later as DLC. As is, characters you can definitely control in the story can’t even be used freely in AR Challenges. It’s a step backward for this series’ usually A+ post-game content.
For all my nitpicks, I still largely enjoyed my time in Gotham. If gliding over the city, elbow smashing thugs, and pulling turbo-charged donuts in the Batmobile is the currency of Arkham Knight, I was richer than Bruce Wayne. Rocksteady’s amalgamation universe of the Batman mythos is still one of the most respectful, top quality adaptations of any comic character to date, second only to the lovingly crafted Batman: Animated Series.
It just misses the pitch-perfect execution of Arkham City but only because it takes the risk of adding more mechanics to the gameplay we fell in love with back in ‘09. If this title truly ends the Arkham Trilogy as Rocksteady has promised, it’s a strong finish to go out on. The Batman did indeed go down fighting.
Graphics: Ridiculously detailed, top to bottom. Rocksteady flexes Batman’s new next-gen muscles at every corner. The rain soaked, street lamp lit world of Gotham plays host to some extraordinary lighting and effects.
Sound: Your car grumbles and roars along the pavement. Punches land with an explosive crunch. The soundtrack, however, is as non-existent as Batman is when he’s through with a conversation. Hearing the same exact bad guy prattle as you go through the city can get annoying.
Playability: Bats can get a little goofy to navigate in tight spaces, and the stain on your soul grows a little larger every time the Batmobile drops from a loop-de-loop like a million-dollar rock. The game otherwise handles marvelously whether you’re denting skulls, skulking in the shadows, or coasting through town.
Replay Value: There’s a shitload of crime to contend with in Gotham outside of the main storyline, and you can toil away time besting the AR Challenges. That’s not mention all of Riddler’s trophies scattered throughout the world but, uh, most will likely find that excursion pure tedium. There’s a New Game+ mode that turns up the difficulty for Master Detectives (just means the Batsuit can soak in less ammunition).
Batman: Arkham Knight
Available On: PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One
Developed by: Rocksteady Games
Published by: WB Games