After the jump from Arkham Asylum to Arkham City took Batman from hallways and courtyards to an open city, I was curious as to what old Bats could get up to next. How do you refresh such a succinct formula without spoiling what made it so great in the first place? WB’s marketing answers this question quite frank; with the Batmobile. What they’ve failed to communicate, though, is how many interesting new mechanics and gameplay opportunities are introduced in Arkham Knight. There’s a lot of new stuff to play around with either inside or alongside the Batmobile, but Batman’s got plenty of other new tricks up his sleeves.
Arkham Knight gives off a much more cinematic vibe than its predecessors. While story has always been an integral and enjoyable part of the series, it feels more central here than ever. Scarecrow’s up to no good with his fear toxin again, and he’s recruited the help of the mysterious ‘Arkham Knight’ to make Batman suffer. As typical as the premise may be, the narrative here, for the most part, is exceptional. This is an internal and psychological Batman story as much as it is an archetypal superhero vs. villain set-up. Rocksteady delivers a look into Bruce Wayne’s mind that could only work in a video game in which his role is assumed. As the player in control of Batman, we get to see how his feelings manifest. This ranges from the guilt and fear of involving those he cares about in dangerous situations to the darker truths of the vigilante; Bruce has developed a dependence on villains and a comfort in the familiar, as unhealthy as it may be.
What results is a story as deep and involved as you’d like. Its intricacies can be read into while its broad strokes deliver a decent superhero story on a surface level. It helps that side content is contextualized and weaved throughout the main narrative. Secondary missions will pop-up as organically as primary content, and everything gels together in a way that makes sense – for the story, anyway. There are loads of great, memorable moments in Arkham Knight that managed to pleasantly surprise me pretty regularly. The main twist may be predictable, but fittingly so, I’d say. While we see the world through Batman’s eyes, we can assume that he’s figured out everything we have as the audience – he’s a smart dude. Whether or not he chooses to believe the obvious is another story, and another reflection on his psyche.
Unfortunately, the closing chapters of the story feel a little half-baked. I have no real problem with the ending itself (which is only unlocked after achieving 100% completion), but the moments leading up to it left me unsatisfied. There are still some wonderful, almost Bioshock-esque scenes towards the finale, but everything wraps up rather abruptly. When I’ve been learning about a character for a whole game, I want some level of closure on their fate. I didn’t get that here. I’m all for ambiguity in conclusion, but this particular character is so important throughout and so irrelevant towards the end of the game that I’d bet we’ll get DLC wrapping their story up.
The Batmobile does have a significant role in Arkham Knight. Is it overbearing? I don’t think so. The car is much more than a means of transport. Transforming into a tank with the press of a button, the Batmobile provides not just driving situations, but third-person shooting mechanics. This, of course, greatly diversifies the gameplay from previous Arkham games, and having some shooting and driving between the punch-ups does a world of good. The cooler Batmobile stuff, though, is the use of the vehicle alongside standard Batman gameplay. Solving puzzles with the vehicle and making your way through certain areas feels distinctly Zelda-like. It brings me back to the more confined areas relying on gadget use in Arkham Asylum, and I think it’s perfectly implemented. Having These areas spread throughout the open city help capture the strengths of each of AK’s predecessors.
Rocksteady very blatantly approached AK as a continuation of Arkham City, almost as if it were adding to the same game. That’s not to say things feel entirely familiar – quite the opposite. They expect the player to have already spent hours with the combat and predatory systems. They spend no time reintroducing anything that was already in AC, only giving you button prompts to figure it out. The plus side of this is that you don’t feel like your time’s being wasted, but, of course, the negative is that you might not always remember everything from the other games. When it comes to introducing the Batmobile mechanics, by contrast, the teaching feels heavy handed and inorganic. I had to slide to grab a particular collectible, but I’d totally forgotten that sliding was even something I could do. It’s not mentioned once in the game.
The thing that I think does the most good in AK is also the thing that I think does the most harm. Completion of Gotham’s Most Wanted – side content – is, very importantly, tracked and displayed accurately. When you’re missing a handful of riddler trophies, you can get a rough idea of where they are, at the very least. You always know how far you are through a chain of side-missions, of which I’m a huge fan. This meant I could work through everything concurrently. Approaching the game this way, I was constantly doing something different. I rarely played two missions relying heavily on the Batmobile in a row. If you were to tackle a whole chain at once, though, there’s no way it wouldn’t get repetitive. I even think the game would have benefit from forcing the player to complete a couple of side missions to unlock the next story mission, now and then. Perhaps people would have had fewer issues with the tank.
The problem with the side-content though is the inconsistency in both quality and quantity. Some cases feel disappointingly bare, consisting only of one encounter while others drag on far too long. The majority of the villains causing trouble stick around for a good amount of time, giving you something a bit different to do until it starts getting a bit repetitive. Stumbling across these missions during your travels and taking them out is perfect for a Batman game, as is the focus on getting through all of Gotham’s baddies, not just the story stuff. I love that AK is brave enough to tell you, upon finishing the story, that you’re not really done, and you won’t see the ending until Gotham is properly safe. It makes sense, and it makes side-content matter. The only problem is that not all of these missions are too great.
Some missions – specifically road checkpoints requiring you to take out a bunch of dudes – drag on needlessly. I didn’t hate them by the end, but I just wasn’t having fun with them anymore. The real issue with these missions, in particular, is that they culminate in the absolute worst problem with Arkham Knight. Beat them all, and you get to take on one of Batman’s better-known rivals, well known for their hand-to-hand combat prowess. Here’s the thing, though; you’ll just fight them in a tank battle. As lame as that is, that’s only the half of it. It’s almost an exact repeat of a fight from earlier in the game. I have to imagine that Rocksteady had other plans for this and perhaps ran out of time, the way the battle ends certainly indicates such. As it is, it shouldn’t have been in the game, by any means. It’s untrue to the characters, and only offers gameplay that, by this point in the game, is getting tired. The notorious Riddler trophies are required to reach 100% too. I couldn’t argue against the abundance of trophies here being overkill, but it’s still fun to hunt them down. They’re not too much of a chore to find either, given that interrogating goons will add their locations to your map. Again, though, it’s a bit much.
Gotham is a stunning and distinct setting for a video game. Batman’s operating hours of dusk to dawn help keep the world dark and brooding, as well as maintaining a feeling quite unlike any other open world environment. The unique beauty of Gothic architecture juxtaposed with post-modern skyscrapers does well in establishing an interesting and gloomy world, as well as reflecting the titular character’s most notable traits. The environment is maybe the most destructible I’ve come across in such a game, crumbling at the weight of the Batmobile, or scattering with the impact of a missile. Arkham Knight is a beautiful game from far away, but up close, it goes either way. Posters and window dressing cover the city very believably, mostly as nods to other DC characters and events. Most of the character models, though, look a bit off. Batman looks wicked, and Scarecrow’s sack-face alone holds incredible detail, but less important characters are hit and miss. This wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the game’s insistence on showing these flaws up close. Gotham’s civilians, in particular, animate poorly and look more like early PS3 models to me than spiffy new PS4 ones. When the game insists on focusing on these characters, it looks far from polished. Everywhere else, though, beautiful.
AK’s soundtrack is notably excellent, boasting sweeping orchestral tones matching the city’s gothic motif while putting out distinctly Batman vibes. These type of soundtracks are so commonplace in games these days that they rarely catch my attention, but this is a very good one. Voice performances, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Kevin Conroy is still the definitive Batman, of course, but I’d consider John Noble as Scarecrow to be the standout performance here. It’s one of my very favorite voice performances I’ve come across, and from a dude with a sack face that shoots drugs. Other characters’ voice portrayals, though, especially that of Jim Gordon, I found to be straight out poor. For a character so integral to the game, I wish I could’ve believed a word he said.
Up until the final quarter or so of Arkham Knight, I was having the best time I’ve had with a game for a long time. An excellent, complex and personal story, a beautiful setting, proven combat and stealth, satisfying tank battles and superb Batmobile based puzzle solving – it’s an exceptional game. Unfortunately, things start to feel a little rushed towards the tail-end, lacking the standards the game itself establishes. Had the story maintained its highs, the side content ended before becoming boring and a certain villain been implemented in a way that didn’t suck, or not at all, Batman Arkham Knight would have been a brilliant experience. As it stands, it’s a great game with notable flaws that feels a little rushed in places.
DISCLAIMER: this game was supplied to us by the publisher, and reviewed on PS4 across 25 hours of gameplay.