Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Rated: M for Mature
Completed: 7 July 2015
WARNING: This review will be very spoilery. If you haven't played or finished Arkham Knight and you want to experience the story all on your own, you might want to read this later.
The Batman: Arkham games were two of the best experiences of the last console generation. You could argue that either one of them are the best Batman game ever made. So it was with no hesitation that I picked up Rocksteady's finale to their Arkham trilogy, and the first Batman game on current generation consoles. I had no reason to doubt it would be anything but spectacular, and I had already posited that it was one of the few titles coming out this year that could potentially dethrone Ori and the Blind Forest from its Game of the Year throne.
Riddle me this: how do you ruin a great franchise? By adding an unnecessary driving element and forcing it down the player's throat.
Rocksteady already nailed Batman's combat prowess in their previous games, as well as his predatory instincts. Clinging to the shadows and rafters, taking out armed thugs systematically and using your brains as well as your brawn was both tense and extremely satisfying. Using all your Bat-gadgetry to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles was equally enjoyable. The Arkham games were like playing an adult version of Batman dress-up, giving us all a taste of what it might feel like to be the Dark Knight.
With the gameplay elements solidly in place, the next logical step seemed to be to make a bigger, better Gotham to explore. Rocksteady have certainly done that. With three large islands to explore, Gotham's neon-soaked streets are as awesome to explore as ever. Soaring over the city, cape outstretched, grappling between skyscrapers is thrilling. The problems start once you get on the ground.
In an effort to expand upon the gameplay of previous titles, Rocksteady has finally introduced Batman's greatest weapon - the Batmobile. Looking like a cross between Christopher Nolan's tank-like Tumbler and Tim Burton's sleeker sports car, the Arkham Batmobile is a force to be reckoned with...if you don't mind spending half the game inside its cockpit.
Almost immediately the game begins with a tutorial on Batmobile basics. It will take a while to get used to the slippery driving controls, and it doesn't help that the default control scheme is downright idiotic, assigning the brake/reverse control to a face button instead of the left trigger, as just about every driving game has since the advent of shoulder buttons. The Batmobile is fast and Rocksteady has done a good job of making it so that little can impede its progress. It will crash through solid concrete and metal gates as if they were paper, and miraculously, they'll be rebuilt in a few minutes. Gotham must have the best civil engineers in the world, though I can't help but wonder how much property damage Batman does to the city.
Unfortunately, with that speed comes finicky controls. Sometimes it feels like the streets are covered in ice, which is then covered in grease, and the car's wheels are coated in hot, melted butter. Other times, the slightest twitch on the analog stick will send you swerving into one of the few solid objects you can't bust through - most often in the middle of one of the game's chase sequences when you can't afford it. With enough speed, the Batmobile can even defy gravity and race alongside walls, or even upside down, but more than half the time I would end up on an odd angle and it would just fall from the ceiling of a tunnel.
The worst part is that Rocksteady shoehorned the Batmobile's necessity into every single element of the game. There are numerous overly long battles against unmanned drones, where the Batmobile switches into a tank that can strafe side to side and fire rockets and machine guns. The first few are minimally fun, but by the 20th battle (and that's not an exaggeration), it's an exercise in pure tedium. Even most of the boss battles are the Batmobile versus an army of unmanned tank drones. Did Oprah Winfrey come through Gotham and give everyone a tank? Why does EVERYONE have them? And how does it not kill people when it crashes into them at 100 MPH? Even if it discharges a paralyzing electric shock on impact (as it does in the game), I'd think smashing into a human being at that speed would turn them into jelly.
There is puzzle solving involving the Batmobile, although admittedly these aren't always bad. Some of them are clever and require you to use it's remote control capabilities to do one thing while Batman does another outside of the vehicle. But again I'm left to wonder why the villains designed everything around Batman's car, and why they didn't think to do so in the previous games when it wasn't at his disposal.
There is stealth combat involving the Batmobile where you have to sneak up behind a series of tanks in order to get a clear shot. There are Batmobile races set up by the Riddler, some of which are so difficult you may need a new controller. There is even PLATFORMING with the Batmobile. It's absolutely ridiculous, and almost none of it is enjoyable, especially when compared to the rest of the game. I've never seen a single addition so completely ruin my enjoyment of a franchise as the goddamn Batmobile.
When you're not forced to use it, the game still shines. Batman has a few new combat and stealth maneuvers, including the multi-fear takedowns which allow you to knock out several enemies in quick succession if you can reach them without being detected - perfect for groups of gun-toting thugs. Some of the other 200-plus Riddler puzzles are fun to figure out, and a good portion of the side missions are entertaining as well. Strangely, however, the side missions aren't entirely optional. If you even want to see credits roll, you have to complete all but the Riddler missions - another odd design choice I don't care for.
As for the main story, it's somewhat predictable, but definitely the highlight of the game. The identity of the mysterious Arkham Knight is so obvious for anyone with even a modicum of Batman knowledge I was able to correctly deduce it before the game even came out. Even with that caveat, the story still carried me through the often lackluster gameplay (e.g. - all the Batmobile segments), and there was one twist that was downright brilliant.
Anyone who has beaten Arkham City should know that the Joker, Batman's greatest nemesis, died at the end of that game. However, anyone who has ever read a comic book knows that nobody ever stays dead. As I scoured the city, I overhead thugs talking about the Joker, wondering if he was really dead and I was certain I hadn't seen the last of him. I was waiting for the inevitable reveal, and I got it, but it was not at all what I expected.
Yes, Mark Hamill returns to reprise his role as the Joker, but this time he's inside Batman's head. Arkham City players will recall that he injected some of his own tainted blood into Batman, and that blood is now coursing through his veins, slowly turning him into the Joker. It's implausible, I know, but it's a comic book game after all, and it's a great twist on the old "villain isn't really dead" trope. The Joker is physically dead, his body cremated by Commissioner Gordon, but his psychosis finds its way into Batman and a handful of others who were infected with his blood, which he had shipped to Gotham hospitals in the last game. Each and every time Joker appeared on screen, whether crawling through an air duct or sitting casually on the steps of a building I had just exited, I got excited to listen to Hamill deliver more twisted lines. This is the darkest, most evil the Joker has ever been, and he's not even really there. It works to illustrate just how dark Batman's own psyche is, how he has to work to restrain his baser instincts and violent urges. Batman's refusal to kill is the thin red line that separates him from the Joker, and it's a constant struggle to resist those urges.
There are a number of gripping flashback sequences to events from Batman comic lore as well. The Joker arrives in disguise and shoots Barbara Gordon through the spine, crippling her for life in a flashback to the famed Killing Joke one-shot. There's a hammy reference to The Long Halloween story arc. There are several flashbacks to the Joker torturing, and eventually murdering Jason Todd, the second Robin (who was, of course, eventually resurrected in the comics) - a haunting reminder of Batman's greatest failures.
The side quests are generally combat-oriented, and many are centered around the Arkham Knight's militia occupying Gotham. Defusing bombs results in more god-forsaken tank battles, dismantling roadblocks with various thugs and turrets to allow easier access the the various islands, and destroying surveillance towers are all pretty standard stuff. You'll also have to rescue some kidnapped firefighters, track Penguin's black market gun-runners to their hideouts and destroy their ordinance, prevent second-rate villain Firefly from burning down Gotham's fire stations (in one of the few references to Arkham Origins), and most interestingly, capture and cure Man-Bat by listening for his screeches as he flies over the city.
For every great moment there are two or three forced Batmobile segments that just drag the entire experience down. The tagline of the game is "Be The Batman," but too often it feels like you're the Batmobile and perhaps the game should be called Arkham Knight Rider. It doesn't feel like a natural extension of Batman's gadgets, and it relegates several others to obscurity. I think I used the line launcher once in the entire game, and the batclaw was relegated to snapping up a few out-of-the-way Riddler trophies. Some of his new items are great fun to use, like the voice synthesizer which can trick enemies into obeying orders to easily lure them into a trap, but the Batmobile is so prevalent it overshadows everything else. Almost every showdown with a major villain involves the car in some way.
But enough about that, let's focus on the technical aspects of Arkham Knight - and I don't mean Batman's gear. If there's anything I have no complaints about, it's the graphics and sound. Arkham Knight is an absolutely gorgeous game. The breadth of the city, congested with buildings and flooded with lights, is astounding and there's hardly a hint of slowdown. Rain falls and slides realistically down Batman's cape and cowl. Mud and grime cakes the Batmobile and washes off over time. There isn't a hint of jagged edges on the character models, except where they should be (like Batman's pointy ears). This could very well be the best looking game we've seen on consoles yet. The level of texture detail is staggering.
The voice cast is impeccable too. Hamill and Kevin Conroy return to their famous roles as Joker and Batman, while gaming's golden boys Troy Baker (who provided Joker's voice in Arkham Origins) returns as Two-Face and Nolan North as Penguin. Johnathan Banks (best known as Mike Ehrmantraut from AMC's Breaking Bad) provides the world-weary, gravelly voice of Commissioner Gordon, and Ashley Greene, Grey Griffin, and Tara Strong are spectacular as Barbara Gordon (Oracle), Catwoman, and Harley Quinn respectively. Last, but certainly not least, Martin Jarvis returns as Bruce Wayne's stalwart butler (and surprisingly techno-capable) butler Alfred, and he's marvelous as always.
I can't forget to mention the score, which includes elements of both Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer's work on Burton and Nolan's Batman films, as well as original orchestrated pieces that fit perfectly.
The controls can sometimes be a little fidgety. Many of the buttons have been remapped, so even vets will need an adjustment period, and the gadget menu isn't quite as user-friendly to me since it requires you to go into a menu now instead of being able to switch on the fly in-game. Occasionally you'll select an item only to have Batman unexpectedly dive off a ledge when you exit the menu as well.
Ultimately, I found myself disappointed with Arkham Knight. It has arguably the best story of the bunch, but the horrible and all too frequent Batmobile sequences break up the pacing. Nobody has ever said, "you know what would make Batman better? If he drove a tank and blew up other tanks," and I can't believe it never came up in playtesting that it simply wasn't that much fun to do. The moments outside of the car are as fantastic as ever, but being forced into using it so much goes against the open-world feel of the previous games. Making the side missions semi-optional is also a puzzling decision. If this truly is Rocksteady's last Batman game, it's still a worthy effort, but it falls short of the lofty expectations I had and the previous entries in the franchise.
Batman: Arkham Knight was completed on a PlayStation 4 with no cheats.
(Also, please enjoy this image of Man-Bat.)