You have to feel sorry for the inhabitants of Gotham City. They’ve been forced to evacuate in 3 out of the 4 Arkham games now; they must be so used to it that they keep a packed suitcase next to the front door, just in case a supervillain comes along with yet another apocalyptic threat.
Picking up 9 months after the events of the previous game, Arkham Knight starts things off by providing the answer to the question that’s been on everyone’s lips since the climax of Arkham City: did Rocksteady really kill off The Joker? The opening scene provides a definitive answer to that question, sending the clown to his final resting place by cremating his corpse. Everything burns, after all – and that includes The Joker.
From there we’re introduced to a Gotham City that has settled into something of a restless peace since the Clown Prince bit the dust. Of course, with Gotham being The Worst Place To Live On Earth™, it isn’t long before chaos erupts as the Scarecrow resurfaces on Hallowe’en, threatening to release a new brand of his fear toxin over the entire city and sending the population scarpering. By his side is a mysterious new villain – the titular Arkham Knight.
Cue the longest Hallowe’en of Batman’s career.
Arkham Knight has one of the best narratives in an action game that I can remember, with far more depth to the writing than in previous entries in the series. It’s fitting that the game’s story takes place on Hallowe’en: Arkham Knight has plenty of tricks, and no small amount of treats, waiting to be dished out through the course of its campaign.
As much an exploration of grief and pathological behavior as it is an action-packed superhero game, Sefton Hill’s superb script examines the twisted relationship between Batman and his deceased arch-nemesis. The Joker may be gone, but his presence is felt from start to finish.
It’s long been said that Batman and The Joker are two sides of the same coin – yin and yang, order and chaos; they need each other in order to survive, even as they find themselves locked in endless conflict. Arkham Knight explores that concept at length and manages to weave one hell of a compelling story, aided by stellar voice acting. Kevin Conroy reprises his role as Batman and delivers some of his best work on the character, Troy Baker’s Scarecrow is full of snarling, almost hypnotic menace, and the rest of the cast turn in performances that are just as accomplished.
Less compelling, and one of the few wrinkles in an otherwise excellent narrative, is the titular Knight himself. More petulant than threatening, the Arkham Knight is introduced early on as the Scarecrow’s partner in crime, a figure from Batman’s past who has a lethal grudge to bear. The identity of the man behind the mask forms the driving thrust of much of the game’s plot; but his characterization is so weak that it’s difficult to care much about who he is. When the big reveal finally comes, it falls flat thanks to ridiculously heavy-handed foreshadowing that may as well have a giant neon sign on-screen flashing the words “THIS IS A CLUE” every time it occurs.
Gameplay-wise, we’re in familiar territory. Rocksteady all but perfected their formula with the very first game in the series, and Knight doesn’t deviate from it in any significant way. That’s not a bad thing – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and the combat is as satisfying as ever. But it does mean that, at times, Arkham Knight can feel a bit too familiar. There’re the usual gadgets, returning from previous games; there’s largely the same cast of villains; the Riddler has been busy placing trophies all over the place; and the streets are as empty as ever.
On that latter point: Assassin’s Creed: Unity may have struggled at times, but its version of Paris was the most convincing realization of a city yet seen in the medium. Gotham City feels empty in comparison, and doesn’t always convince as a believable space. There are technical and game design reasons for this, of course – the strain of rendering an entire city’s population would bring the game engine to its knees, and make it difficult to identify friend from foe; but the streets being empty yet again enhances the feeling that we’ve seen all this before, and detracts from the sense that Arkham Knight is a generational leap forward.
What we haven’t seen before is Gotham City rendered on this scale. All three islands of Gotham are available to explore, and while Rocksteady’s vision is modest compared to the scale witnessed in other open world games, the city is packed with so much to do that it never feels prohibitively small. Every area is filled with riddles to solve, side quests to complete, and thugs to take down.
One of the best side missions sees you hunting a serial killer by keeping an ear out for opera music as you glide around the city, before examining the bodies you find for evidence. It’s one of the more satisfying side quests in the game, even if you’re just going through the same motions each time. Much of the side content veers close to being there for the sake of it – you’ll find yourself repeating the same tasks over and over again, just in different parts of the map (otherwise known as Ubisoft-itis); but what these missions lack in imagination, they make up for in presentation and fan-service.
The crime scene recreation featured in WB Montreal’s Arkham Origins returns, albeit briefly, and is as good as before, making you truly feel like the World’s Greatest Detective. Other puzzles see you examining individual frames of recorded video in order to find evidence, and some of the Riddler trophies will have you stumped for ages before you crack them.
Most of the new additions are fun, but feel underused. At prescribed points you gain control of more than one character in combat, and can switch between them at will. While every character’s moveset is broadly comparable, there’s enough variation to ensure that it doesn’t merely feel like you’re playing a reskinned Batman, and the new dual takedowns are fun.
The voice synthesizer is the most notable new gadget, allowing you to impersonate villains and order goons to go where you want them to. Environmental takedowns allow you to use your surroundings to your advantage, slamming enemies into electrified fences or protruding scenery; but it’s the new fear takedowns which prove the most useful, allowing you to incapacitate up to three enemies at a time by choosing your targets in slow motion.
While some of the new additions feel underused, by contrast the much-touted Batmobile feels shoehorned in. Being able to get behind the wheel of Batman’s signature car feels as though you’re fulfilling the ultimate power fantasy the first time around; but a number of factors combine to make the Batmobile one of the weakest aspects of the game.
Despite the Batmobile’s bulk – inspiration was clearly taken from the Nolan films in its design – the handling model feels too sensitive, the acceleration too rapid. This dissonance means that driving the Batmobile always feels somewhat twitchy and weightless, and at least to start with you’ll find yourself crashing through scenery and underestimating the car’s ability to take a corner. With a few upgrades and plenty of practice you’ll get used to it, but the easiest way to reach your destination is almost always to glide there – probably not what the developer was aiming for.
Not only does this mode sit uneasily with Batman’s characterization – while brutal, he traditionally forgoes the use of guns – but it’s also foisted upon you repeatedly in drawn-out and tedious battles against waves of enemy drones. It feels like Rocksteady was aiming for the vehicular equivalent of hand-to-hand combat – you still rack up combos and unlock moves depending on how many hits you dish out – but what they’ve delivered is a mediocre Battlezone clone.
These sections go on far too long, the game trapping you in an enclosed space and spamming wave upon wave at you in a war of attrition. They’re dull, repetitive and unfortunately for Rocksteady they’re just, well, boring. Stealth sections are introduced about halfway through (yes, stealth. In a tank) to add variety, but again they’re overused, and involve little more than hit and run tactics.
It’s understandable that Rocksteady wanted to show off the Batmobile, having spent so long working on it, and it was one of the features most requested by fans. But it feels like a wasted opportunity at best, feature creep at worst – not something you’d associated with Rocksteady, known for their laser focus and pared-back game design.
The Batmobile isn’t a complete wash: it can be used to launch Batman in the air directly from the driver’s seat; the Batmobile-assisted takedowns are nice; and it looks pretty cool when you dive towards the ground and land straight in the cockpit before roaring off into the night. But Arkham Knight wouldn’t have suffered without its inclusion – quite the opposite, in fact.
Visually, Arkham Knight is nearly flawless. A few small framerate hiccups occur – notably around the GCPD building – and I noticed a couple of minor issues with texture streaming, but overall the visual presentation is top-notch, and there’s a large increase in the number of enemies on-screen at any point in time. Special mention has to go the game’s lighting and weather effects, which sees the light from neon signs reflected in puddles and convincingly refracted through raindrops, and Batman’s cape realistically billowing and rustling in the wind.
Art design is similarly impressive. No two buildings look alike, and each area of the city has its own distinct personality. Chinatown is a particular highlight, but the artwork throughout is of the highest standard. God knows how much time and money was spent designing the hundreds of shop fronts and buildings, but it was well-spent, lending Gotham City itself just as much personality as the larger-than-life characters who reside in its twisted environs.
Nick Arundel and David Buckley’s musical score also deserves praise. Arundel, who scored the previous games, gives familiar themes and motifs a new spin, infusing them with the more sinister tone required by the narrative. Despite being composed by two different people, the soundtrack feels cohesive even as it displays an impressive amount of variety. Keep an ear out for a snazzy musical number (I kid you not) – I guarantee that it will have you humming along and tapping your feet.
Though they may seem serious, Arkham Knight‘s flaws don’t hamper the game’s enjoyability to any great degree. When 95% of a game is of such a high standard, the remaining 5% is always bound to stand out even more. In the end, Arkham Knight is one of the most engrossing games of the current generation, and I’m genuinely excited to see what Rocksteady turns its considerable talent to next – even if I’m sad that their stint with the Dark Knight appears to have come to an end.
Rocksteady knows Batman. At times, it feels as though the developer understands the character so well that no one else will ever measure up. Over the course of three games, the studio has set a benchmark so high that I feel sorry for any developer having to follow in their footsteps.
Asylum and City delivered fantastic narratives which pulled you through the campaign and left you wanting more, and Arkham Knight is no different. It’s not the best game in the series – that honor is still held by Asylum – but Batman: Arkham Knight is a game you want to savor, a game that you’ll want to take your time with simply because you don’t want it to end.