Late To The Party | Batman: Arkham Knight Review
WARNING: MINOR STORY SPOILERS FOLLOW!
Completing Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy Batman: Arkham Knight had a lot to live up to. While Batman’s popularity has been on a steady uptick since Christopher Nolan’s films, the previous games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are two of the only superhero games which honored the superhero they portrayed without being tied directly to how that character is portrayed in a cinematic blockbuster. They were revelatory not only because they made you feel like the Batman, but also because they employed Metroid-vania design sensibilities in a character-appropriate way. Unlike other series, Assassin’s Creed for instance, the Arkham series has been able to maintain its fundamental gameplay and aesthetics without feeling repetitive. Arkham City expanded and deepened both the narrative and the gameplay of the mostly linear Arkham Asylum without choking the game with too many meaningless side missions or an overly complicated story. Was Arkham Knight able to maintain that evolutionary trajectory to cap off the story in a satisfactory fashion?
Taking place a few years after the events of ‘Arkham City’ the game’s opening introduces us to a post-Joker Gotham that is enjoying its temporary respite from criminal activity. The opening sequence is one of the best and most emotionally impactful I have ever encountered besides the Last of Us or Half Life drags us and the city from mundanity into madness in very short order. The ensuing panic results in a city wide evacuation and soon thereafter every enterprising criminal and super villain that you could imagine fills the vacuum presided over by the Scarecrow and the titular antagonist, the Arkham Knight.
The setup and the players may be familiar to those that have played the older entries but the stakes are much higher, and I am not talking about the horrible fate that awaits the citizens of Gotham and the world at large if Batman fails in his mission, as this story is about Batman saving his body, mind and soul from tearing themselves apart.
And that is both the best and worst thing about Arkham Knight’s story. While there is a great deal of time spent attempting to create an aura of mystery about the identity of the Arkham Knight and tension centering on Scarecrow threatening global genocide by fear gas, what was far more compelling was Bruce Wayne’s internal struggle against his own fears and failures, lorded over by his polar opposite, the Joker, who is gone but is still very present. Maybe too present, as he lends pithy commentary to every story beat or extended period of silence.
The upside of this more psychological angle is that interactions between Batman and Scarecrow, the Arkham Knight, Poison Ivy, Oracle and even Alfred have a significant personal impact. But oddly enough the rest of the secondary villains that provide us with the game’s side stories become window dressing to our hero’s psychological descent. What’s worse is that those side stories focus on the city’s vulnerability because of the cops that have been driven to hole up in police headquarters and do little to contribute towards the main narrative, except in its most impactful sense. The sequestering off of the primary ending to the game behind the completion of all side missions is understandable, as it is connected to bringing safety back to Gotham’s streets, but what cannot be forgiven was the gating off of the ‘true’ ending, the one that gave true closure to what is the last tale in this series unless the player completes the 200+ Riddler challenges.
Let us begin with the biggest addition, both literal and figurative addition to the series’ established gameplay formula, the Batmobile. It’s been an intrinsic part of Batman’s considerable tool set in the comics and films, yet has never been pulled off effectively in any video games that featured the Dark Knight. It was that difficulty that contributed to its omission in the other Rocksteady games, or perhaps encourage their focus on nailing the fundamentals of being Batman, combat, stealth and a gravelly voice. After Arkham City unfurled the canvas onto which the Caped Crusader was painting his tale of vengeance game consoles’ generational evolution and the clamor of rabid fans was enough to encourage the team to invest in bringing the Batmobile into their world.
Batman carefully balances being stealthy and confronting his enemies head on, the Batmobile also possesses two primary functions. It is both but sleek and unstoppable rocket on the prowl for criminals and Riddler lackeys but when the Arkham Knight’s (conveniently) unmanned army comes a calling transforms into a tank brimming with missiles, a chain gun and a 60 millimeter cannon. But these shifts are missing a crucial component of the formulae, choice. In most instances as Batman you are presented with sequestered off areas where you choose the approach, there is no such flexibility in the Batmobile you have to be a tank to fight tanks or a pursuit vehicle to chase down other vehicles. The one exception to this rule is when you have to combat much larger tanks in a game of urban cat and mouse and perform ‘takedowns’ by shooting them in their rears, but that is also a predetermined sequence that feels much less organic than when you are controlling the caped crusader.
The Batmobile is inserted into every single gameplay situation that it can be as it is always a button press away it can be used to assist you in hand to hand combat with a strategically placed rubber bullet, or even solve both normal and Riddler-constructed puzzles. I never got tired of using it and the arsenal that I was packing was as versatile as Batman’s utility belt, but somehow I felt that it was less of an independent creation that added to gameplay diversity and more like a diversion from the primary pugilistic gameplay.
Luckily all of the attention lavished on the Batmobile did not diminish the diversity, fluidity and precision of Batman’s combat and movement, and some core changes add to the efficiency of your tasks, most of which haven’t changed since the first game. Traversal is what has seen the biggest evolution. Batman’s new suit has allowed for the Grapnel gun to be supercharged to allow for him to be launched hundreds (and after a few upgrades thousands) of feet into the sky, meaning he can cover the wide expanse of Gotham extremely quickly. He also has a few more combat oriented tools at his disposal, the most entertaining of which is a device which can replicate the voices of certain prominent characters so you can convince their underlings that standing next to a highly flammable container would be an excellent idea. It can also reprogram drones to turn against their controllers. Unfortunately unless I wanted to disarm a few thugs by disabling their firearms, or similarly blinding the cameras of a sentry gun or security camera the previous formula of attack, counter, attack, with certain variations dedicated to certain enemies was very easy to fall back into.
In Asylum and City I was thoroughly impressed by the lengths that Rocksteady went to give you the ability to play as Robin, Nightwing, the Joker and Catwoman, mostly in the challenge rooms, but in Catwoman’s case in the open world as well. My hope was that now that the game could stretch it’s legs on new hardware the same capability would be afforded to the Boy Wonders, or even Red Hood and Harley Quinn. No such luck. On the flip side, the ability to team up with your sidekicks through the Dual Play system is quite awesome, especially one extended story sequence where Batman and Robin are stalking through an enemy infested lair, taking turns to swoop down and neutralize isolated enemies and cooperatively maneuvering around others. I just wish there were more, open ended opportunities to play with these characters.
Next to fisticuffs and swooping through the streets the investigative side of Batman always felt very one note, flip on Detective vision and follow a breadcrumb trail of one sort or another. I applaud the diversity of its uses now, even though repetition does creep into its use just due to the sheer number of similarly structured side missions which require it.
A few years ago I saw the ‘Samaritan’ tech demo that displayed graphics tech that Nvidia stated would be possible in video games of the future. Batman: Arkham Knight has come the closest to replicating its majesty. Even though PC players are suffering inconsistent performance, which is something that shouldn’t be forgiven or forgotten, the dark, gritty and rain soaked aesthetic of the game is a sight to behold on all platforms and on PS4 (as well as Xbox One as far as I understand it) its performance is rock solid.
Combined with a high accuracy Bokeh (depth of field) effect, impeccable per-pixel lighting and a transparency layer that replicates rain streaming over Batman’s suit, this game bridges the uncanny valley in ways that I didn’t believe Unreal Engine 3 was capable of.
This section is the briefest because throughout my many hours of playtime I could find almost no fault with the presentation.
Reviewed on PS4, also available on Xbox One and PC (eventually)