It’s been nearly four years since Arkham City signed off with that creepily touching rendition of ‘Only You’. A moment that lives in the memory long after the collectibles were mopped up and Origins had disappointed everyone with its hearty rendition of ‘’More of the same but worse somehow,” Arkham City took the love letter that Asylum had so painstakingly written to Bob Kane’s cape-and-cowl-wearing hero and added sweeping poetic declarations of infatuation to the Batman and the troupe of characters that surround him.
City continues to divide opinion with fans as to which is the better way to experience being Batman. Asylum’s single locale kept you laser-focused on the task in hand while City gave you far more freedom and space to do things as and when you pleased. Both ways work, but now the third game in developer Rocksteady’s personal Dark Knight trilogy is here, and Arkham Knight hopes to be the ultimate Batman experience and make that original love letter into a pyrotechnic-fuelled power ballad — but still about a man in a tech-laden bat costume.
During a frankly brilliant opening half hour, Batman begins Halloween night searching for Scarecrow in an evacuated Gotham City. Scarecrow is up to his old toxin-based tricks again you see, but it soon becomes apparent this is a far grander scheme than he’s attempted before, and he has an intimidating level of backup in the form of the Arkham Knight and his militia. The Arkham Knight is cloaked in mystery beyond the fact he appears to not only have a grudge hard-on for Batman, but also knows an awful lot about the Caped Crusader’s modus operandi. The Arkham Knight is a new character and a decent concept for a villain (basically a militarized Batman). What doesn’t work however is how much he talks. It certainly felt to me that he would have been more menacing (and perhaps more mysterious) as a man of few words. Still, he is just one foil in an impressive catalogue of rogues so the focus never stays long enough on him for heavy scrutiny.
It’s more about the effect his militia has on Gotham that matters anyway, with remote-controlled tanks and heavily armed ground troops making the ensuing story into a war between the Arkham Knight’s forces and Batman’s ragtag band of sidekicks, costumed vigilantes, anti-heroes and a beleaguered police force. All the while, many other story threads continue to weave through the main one, creating a rich tapestry only Rocksteady could possibly achieve with the subject matter. It may follow similar beats to Asylum and City, but there’s almost always a reason for that because all that has come before bleeds into Knight’s tale on a consistent basis, often before you’ve even realised it. The events that occur for the nearly the entire duration of Arkham Knight (save for a highly underwhelming hour nearer the end) makes for one of the most beautifully crafted and compelling stories in modern gaming. Dark, shocking, brutal and, most importantly, incredibly true to the character of Batman and the medley of miscreants and heroes that inhabit Gotham.
You just knew Rocksteady would nail the aesthetic of Gotham and our titular hero. They’ve proven in the previous installments that they are huge, huge fans of Batman and treat his world with care, respect and an astonishing level of detail that other licensed games usually fail to capture. It plays a massive part in enveloping you in the batsuit and making you feel like the world you’re swooping around in is immersive. The writing also helps. Batman comes across as the brutal intellectual the fans of the comics have nearly always seen him as being, and -coming back to that level of detail I mentioned earlier- the entire cast feels more fleshed out than the leads in dozens of AAA titles of the modern era, even when they say or do very little. The only minor exception is The Riddler, but I’ll get into that later.
As in Asylum, City and Origins, Arkham Knight hands you the pick of an ever-growing collection of gadgets to track, escape, sneak and intimidate with, as well as a context-sensitive combat system to dig you out of the holes gadgets cannot fix. They all continue to be super-useful tools when the occasion calls for them, and -once again- they all fit the world and mythos perfectly. There have been tweaks to the formula of course. In combat, not only has there been further refinement of the stellar mechanics the series is synonymous with (including new Batarang stuns and disarming) there is also the introduction of tag-team moves. With these, you can quickly switch between characters in certain battles and pull off some impressive crunching team moves. I never thought Rocksteady could manage to make beating up bad guys any more satisfying, yet here lies proof that they could and they have.
As for the gadgets, well, they also retain the winning formula of previous games whilst adding improvements. Remote Controlled Batarangs for instance, now bounce off some surfaces instead of instantly being rendered useless by coming into contact with them, meaning you can angle your shots differently or make a hash of your throw and still have a chance to connect with your target. A small change, but a useful one; a phrase you could use to describe any number of the Dark Knight’s gizmos this time round. Another example is the addition of a deep tissue scan to Batman’s detective vision. It is introduced while trying to identify a body and allows him to scan points of interest at skin-level, muscle-level and bone-level. Again, a subtle and enjoyable upgrade to an existing mechanic that doesn’t outstay its welcome. This is an important thing to remember for when I discuss the game’s biggest new addition, The Batmobile.
I’m sure you are aware of a lot of negativity regarding the Batmobile to date and when you first get to grips with it you’ll wonder what the fuss was about. The combat mode of the vehicle turns it into a slower-moving tank that is actually pretty enjoyable to handle. Also, while the regular car handles a bit strangely at first, you find a rhythm to it. It’s not until two specific points that it starts to unravel into the most badly-executed feature in the entire series. The tank sections are fine for the most part, at times there are superbly fraught firefights, but the introduction of enemy tanks that you can only hit whilst being unseen take the Batman method a little too literally. It makes sense for Batman himself to skulk in the shadows and pick off goons one by one without once giving away his position, but for a tank to employ the same tactics is laughable and completely at odds in a game filled with true-to-character design. What begins as fairly interesting cat-and-mouse battles quickly turns into a dull and irritating sideshow. The weakest chunk of the game in terms of story progression happens to occur with two incredibly drawn out variants of the stealth-based tank fights. They are alien to the rather big revelations that happen after each and take the shine off these moments.
Then you can chuck in any time you have to race or escape in the Batmobile. Generally cruising about and tonking chumps with powerslides et al is perfectly serviceable. It’s when you have to make split-second choices at high speed that those loose controls become a considerable pain in the posterior. Going back to the stealth-based tank sections again, you are often in need of an escape route once you’ve taken one enemy tank out, and the Batmobile’s handling in these moments caused me more death than any other point of the game. The handling also plays a part in the misuse of The Riddler. With more and more of his puzzles simply becoming “stuff you pick up” in Arkham Knight it’s also damaging to both his character and the narrative that a good portion of his missions inexplicably involve racing the Batmobile through trap-filled tracks.
I think I understand what Rocksteady were going for with the Batmobile. It’s meant to be a companion rather than a vehicle. On at least three occasions a set piece moment involving its arrival will make you grin and do a little internal fist-pump. The problem seems to be in how it’s inclusion is justified by shoe-horning it into far too much of the gameplay than is perhaps necessary. If the use of the Batmobile had been reined in and given more room to make an impact, I truly believe there’d be huge praise for it instead of being the second most-derided thing about the game (PC players can claim the number one spot there).
The only other thing that bugged me were the boss fights. Rocksteady have a terrible record with making memorable boss fights in the Arkham series and in Knight that hasn’t really changed. To a degree they’ve been pared back with the biggest battles reduced to a series of moments rather than use of wits or brutality. Fair play to Rocksteady for trying to alter the setup of them a bit, but sadly this way is no better.
Despite all the negativity I’ve just thrown at the game its great parts swallow up the majority of the bad ones and leave you with easily one of the best games of this console generation. In time I suspect Arkham Knight will far less fondly be remembered than Asylum or even City, and that will largely be down to how badly the Batmobile makes certain parts of the game flow. So what could have been a near-perfect masterpiece will have to settle for being a slightly flawed work of art.