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Batman: Arkham Knight Review

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In 2009, I thought Arkham Asylum was the best superhero game I had ever played. For the first time ever, players were given the ability to control Batman and use his gadgets, intellect, stealth, and strength as he fought his way through his gallery of rouges. Back then, if you had told me that six years later, I would be able to take the experience of Arkham Asylum, free it of the confines of the Asylum, and give Batman the freedom to drive a Tumbler-esque Batmobile around the streets of Gotham, I would have told you that the game you were describing must be one of the greatest games of all time. There’s no doubt that Rocksteady’s final entry into the Arkham franchise, Arkham Knight, is one of the most highly anticipated games of 2015. However, does Arkham Knight continue to build upon the successes of its predecessors, and does it deserve the mantle of best superhero game which prior games in the franchise have so proudly carried until now?
I’m really only going to focus on the three Arkham games produced by Rocksteady and largely ignore Arkham Origins.

Arkham Knight opens around a year after the end of Arkham City. In the time since, Gotham has experienced an uncharacteristic period of calm. This all ends on Halloween when the Scarecrow drives the citizens of Gotham to flee the city with the threat of a potent new fear toxin. In the aftermath of the evacuation, Gotham is primarily occupied by the criminals and thugs who have remained behind to take advantage of the deserted city and a well-trained and heavily armed militia working with the Scarecrow. However, in addition to the Scarecrow’s machinations, Batman must also deal with the titular Arkham Knight, a mysterious individual who intimately knows Batman’s tricks and strategies and is seemingly driven by an intense loathing of the Dark Knight. Arkham Knight tasks players with fighting these two fearsome adversaries and numerous other Rogues from Batman’s history who look to take advantage of Gotham’s evacuation. It is worth noting, when I reviewed Arkham Origins, I criticized the game for removing the civilians of Gotham through a largely unbelievable curfew. While the mandatory evacuation of Gotham in Arkham Knight is slightly more believable, it’s still a hard pill to swallow that EVERY civilian in Gotham leaves the city in response to the Scarecrow’s threats. I don't know if it would be possible to pull off a fully populated Gotham City, but part of me is more than a little disappointed by how empty Gotham feels at times.

Without spoiling the story, Arkham Knight is more than the story of Batman’s battle against the Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight. Arkham Knight serves as the final piece in the Arkham trilogy which Rocksteady has shared with players over the past few years. While these games have been known for their excellent gameplay mechanics, they have also impressed players with the phenomenal take on the Batman mythos. Arkham Knight continues this trend, developing the story largely through Batman’s interactions with a number of his key allies. Longtime fans will appreciate the subtle but fatherly way he interacts with Nightwing or the way he’s torn between his feelings for Catwoman versus his duty to the Gotham City. However, these interactions pale in comparison to the strange and unique look inside of Batman’s psyche which players are offered as a result of an early and unexpected shocker. Honestly, the way in which this was pulled off was not only stunning, but also one of the coolest surprises featured in a franchise which has relied heavily on unexpected twists.

The gameplay of the Arkham games has been primarily built around exploration, stealth, and Rocksteady’s phenomenal combat system. Arkham Knight continues to rely on these cornerstones -- Batman is still the same hero players have become accustomed to in the two (three) previous Arkham games. Players must hide in the shadows, utilize Batman’s arsenal (most of which carries over from the previous games), and, at time, turn to Batman’s physical prowess to deal with the various criminals and mercenaries around Gotham. One of the cool aspects of the game arises from the Arkham Knight’s exhaustive knowledge of Batman’s skills and tactics. The Arkham Knight will often coach his mercenaries, telling them how to counter Batman’s strategies, advise them on where he might be hiding, and provide tools to even the playing field. In some ways it does make dealing with the other criminals easier and less challenging. However, given the Arkham Knight’s familiarity with Batman, this detail is a nice sacrifice which serves the greater narrative. Arkham Knight also introduces a dual battle system where players can team up with characters like Nightwing and Robin to battle large groups of enemies. Players can seamlessly switch between characters and execute dual takedowns between the two heroes. I actually wish these battles had been more prominent throughout the game given how much I enjoyed these encounters when they popped up throughout the game.

However, these familiar elements only comprise half the core gameplay this time around. With Arkham City, Rocksteady expanded on the experience of Arkham Asylum by building a city for players to explore and by giving them the ability to soar and grapple above the streets. Unlike Arkham Origins, which largely reused the assets of Arkham City to construct the game’s Gotham, Rocksteady has built a new, far larger city from the ground up, and introduces the Batmobile as a way to traverse the three major islands of Gotham City. The majority of the new gameplay is centered around the Batmobile. Players not only use the Batmobile to travel across the city, but also use it to battle enemies, chase foes, and complete puzzles. Unlike the traditional Batmobile featured in Arkham Asylum, this version is most similar to the Tumbler featured in the Nolan movies. It is a heavily-armed vehicle with missiles, machine guns, a powerful cannon, and a healthy supply of non-lethal ordinances to maintain some semblance of Batman’s no-killing rule. While the Batmobile was one of the features I was most excited to experience and the gameplay is certainly fun, it is unfortunately also an overused feature. In my opinion, far too much of the game relies on the Batmobile. Furthermore, while players can certainly use the Batmobile to travel across Gotham, I often found the gliding ability introduced in Arkham City to be faster and more enjoyable.

As expected, the transition to the current gen systems has made the Arkham experience, which was already incredibly detailed and beautiful, even better. Both the city of Gotham and the characters look gorgeous. However, one of the biggest improvements from switching to the current generation of consoles is one which I honestly missed for several hours -- the elimination of load screens. In the previous Arkham games, entering or exiting a building resulted in a loading screen where players were given a brief recap of the story and their current objectives. In Arkham Knight, Batman can seamlessly enter and exit the numerous buildings around Gotham without triggering a load screen. It's a minor change which likely will slip by many players, but which really makes the game feel so much better. Of course, any discussion of the game’s graphics would be incomplete without mentioning the PC port and its numerous graphical glitches. While I played the game on the PS4 and didn’t personally experience these problems, from what I understand, the PC port of the game was so poorly done that the majority of PC players were unable to even play the game. While a patch is in the works, it does little to assuage the ire or players who have been unable to enjoy a highly anticipated game for nearly a month.

I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise. I’ve considered various entries in the franchise the best super hero game on numerous occasions. Arkham Knight was even the game which I had told myself I would buy a PS4 to play, if I had not purchased one at that point (the irresistible white Destiny bundle luckily had already intervened there). So, did Arkham Knight live up to the hype and my expectations? Honestly, it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, Arkham Knight is a fantastic game. However, while there are aspects of the game which are improvements over its predecessors, I actually think it might be the weakest entry into the franchise. In a lot of ways, Arkham Knight reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies -- the first did a great job introducing fans to the franchise; the second entry was a phenomenal step up in just about every way; but then the final entry failed to live up to the hype and excitement that the successes of the previous two entries had elevated the franchise. All that said, at the end of the day, should you play Arkham Knight? Unequivocally, my answer is yes. Even if it falls short of its siblings, it is still an amazing game which delivers a phenomenal experience. And, it goes without saying; it’s the mother-fucking Batman.

Courage is not the absence of fear; it is acting in spite of it.

All images owned by Rocksteady Studios.