In which Batman does as many lethal things non-lethally as he possibly can.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a culmination of more than the games that came before it. Rocksteady’s Arkham series has been around for a minute now, from Arkham Asylum to the expansion of Arkham City, and the forgettable out-of-house-developed Arkham Origins. After that stumbling sidestep, Bruce Wayne is back in top form. Good thing, too; Gotham needs him, now more than ever. Arkham Knight has been declared to be the last in Rocksteady’s trilogy of tales of the black-cowled billionaire, and is a conclusion as strong as the Batmobile’s armor. Which can ram through solid concrete pillars like they’re stale graham crackers. This game is weird.
Batman: Arkham Knight reminds us right off the bat (pun intended) how Arkham City ended. Spoilers for the 2011 entry in the series of Arkham escalations: the Joker is dead. Super, super dead. We see him get cremated right at the opening, a scene which actually sets the tone for a great deal of the game. With the clown dead, the time for jokes is over, and a night full of fear begins. The Scarecrow launches a full frontal assault on Gotham, with a fear gas strike that ends in the city’s evacuation. Only criminals and civil servants are left on the streets of Gotham, as Scarecrow and the mysterious Arkham Knight take hold of the city. Only one man can defend it, and he’s got a few new toys to help him do it.
Combat in Batman: Arkham Knight is just as smooth and satisfying as the Arkham people-punching system has always been. The hit-counter-stun-dodge layout works like a charm, continually expanding upon simple roots with elegantly-supplemented combos and gradually more complex enemy types. Fighting in Arkham Knight is fast-paced, and evolves in perfect time with Batman’s own evolution, as more options for batsuit upgrades are unlocked. The Dark Knight is more than a bruiser, of course, and can sail the skies of Gotham by gliding and grappling his way across the rooftops, which never stops feeling flat-out cool. The control scheme doesn’t offer a ton of new features, but donates new tools to Batman’s arsenal that open up new options when planning attacks. As always, stealth is also an option, from vantage points above enemies to grates below. The Arkham Knight’s militia is programmed to adapt to the player’s style if Batman starts using the same tricks too many times, so remembering to switch up the ol’ bat-methodology can be key to victory.
The other half of combat in Arkham Knight is the heavily-touted Batmobile, which finds itself resembling a fusion of the Tumbler model from the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films and the ’90s animated series model. The batmobile serves two functions: one, it acts as the quickest mode of transport between the three vast islands of Gotham City. Two, it has a full battle mode, shooting rubber bullets and apparently non-lethal cannon blasts at every conveniently unmanned drone tank in sight. Run over a citizen? No problem! The Batmobile shoots out electrical charges that “humanely incapacitate” the very grit out their teeth.
Weird and asinine logic leaps and all, the Batmobile is a very fun ride to take into combat. Unfortunately, its function as a normal car is more debatable. The Batmobile often feels just a bit too big for Gotham City. It sometimes doesn’t feel like the city was really designed to accommodate something this big and fast. Of course, no actual city WOULD be built for such a purpose (unless the planners were the most paranoid group of people outside the political world), but the fact that the vehicle is such an aggressively-marketed part of the game should logically mean that a bit more planning was put into the environment it gets to do donuts and sidewinding turns in.
There are a great number of puzzles that involve the Batmobile as well, and some – like the Riddler’s latest gauntlet of well-planned aggravations – are clever and fun. Others, though, feel like a bit of a stretch. An elevator falls to the lowest floor of a building, and Batman uses the Batmobile’s power winch to pull it up and lift an innocent bystander out. This is a cleverly-designed puzzle that makes good use of the vehicle’s capabilities. In another scenario, a pipe spews toxic gas in Batman’s way, and he needs to break a part of the pipe out in the front of a building in order to progress. He decides that he needs his entire Bat-tank in order to break one pipe. This is NOT such a cleverly-designed puzzle that makes good use etcetera etcetera. The Batmobile runs with plenty of horsepower in the good ideas department, but the execution could have used a couple extra oil changes somewhere along the way.
The city of Gotham is a fully-fledged place, spanning three islands and several distinct districts within. Despite the game taking place over the course of one long, rainy night, its setting is dotted with landmarks that will be easily recognizable to players by the time all three islands have been given a good twice-over. From the neighborhoods of Chinatown to the skyscrapers around Wayne Enterprises itself, Gotham City is impressive in design and visual presentation alike, using mood and atmosphere like any other tool in the dark knight’s arsenal to pull off one of the most beautiful games on the Playstation 4.
As for the story that runs like fear toxin through the streets and alleyways of Gotham, the tale of Arkham Knight is something that one could say many things about. There are a lot of angles one could take with the story presented here, but here’s where I think the core lies: the story of Batman: Arkham Knight is really only “pretty good,” but the storytelling methods that are used in spinning the tale are actually pretty fabulous. Some cool narrative decisions are made that actually make players invested in the Arkham series’ portrayal of Bruce Wayne, despite his being as frustratingly gruff and monotone as ever.
The other troublesome thing about Arkham Knight’s story is its treatment of women. In a game where villains have taken over an entire city, most members of the female cast are either used as rescue fodder or just kind of…weirdly helpless and otherwise plot-devicey. To make matters worse, the only women to be found among the nigh-countless NPCs of Gotham City are two or three female police officers hanging out in the GCPD headquarters. It doesn’t ruin the story, but it’s a weird narrative hiccup that might easily pull players out of an otherwise immersive Gotham City. The only grossness I should be feeling in Gotham comes from the high-rendered grime textures on the slick streets, not from lazy writing choices.
Arkham Knight has one last strength up its sleeve, coming in the form of its mission structure. Regardless of the main story, Arkham Knight has a host of side-missions that add volumes to the game’s content. Some involve taking down checkpoints held by the Arkham Knights militia, which are unfortunately usually just walled-off micro-arenas with a few dudes to kill. More interesting are some of the supervillain-centric side-missions, featuring both big-name baddies like Two-Face and the Penguin and more obscure ones like Man-Bat and Firefly. The variety is nice, and while the actual enjoyment factor fluctuates a little as some missions can become a bit of a chore, there’s nothing to stop players from switching to a different one for a change of pace.
Batman: Arkham Knight is what Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises could have been – or maybe is – in game form. Its story itself is fine, albeit kind of gross in its use of female characters as people to be saved. What stands out is the collection of unique tricks used to keep players interested in not only the fate of Gotham City, but of Batman himself. Some mysteries feel drawn out, or eventually are lost in the shuffle for a while, but everything comes full-circle in the end in a satisfying manner. Gotham is gorgeous and beautifully constructed, and the Batmobile, although not without faults, is a welcome addition. Arkham Knight is a solid conclusion to the series that made superhero games cool again, and I can’t wait to see what Rocksteady does next.
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Warner Brothers; Developer: Rocksteady; Players: 1; Released: June 23, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
This review was based on a retail copy of Batman: Arkham Knight purchased by Hey Poor Player.