Review: Batman: Arkham Knight

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Rocksteady cemented its reputation as a developer of refined action, combat, stealth, and story with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman, a character that up until 2009 had never had a critically acclaimed (nor fan loved) title. Comic book characters, right alongside licensed movie tie-ins, always have been the butt of video games. Arkham Aslyum broke the mold and reforged the way many games since have been designed. Rocksteady’s reverence for the source material was what made Arkham Asylum such an amazing game. Dark, gritty, and violent while conveying a captivating story that made for a perfect game.

Two years later they followed up with an expanded narrative by expanding the Asylum into a portion of Gotham City. Turning the perfect setting of isolation found in Arkham Asylum into a small-ish open world, rich with additional lore while maintaining the same reverence for the Bat as found in Asylum, City added a few enhancements that yielded a grander yet cohesive experience. The story was a top notch collaboration between Paul Dini (veteran Batman author who also wrote the first game), Paul Crocker, and Sefton Hill. The expanded open world of City offered side missions that still fit in the mold first created in Asylum while also offering a mix of traditional open-world “busy work” activities.

I would normally pause to warn of spoilers, but in this case it is central to the game in Arkham Knight. The story of City culminates with the death of Joker. (But you already knew that, because why would you even be thinking about playing this game without playing the others first?)

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Opening on the corpse of Joker as his body is rolled into a crematory with the obligatory “Press X to ignite” button prompt, Arkham Knight pulls no punches when it comes to dark narrative. In fact, Arkham Knight is much darker than its predecessors. Scarecrow holds Gotham City hostage by threatening to unleash fear toxin over the entire population, which sets in motion a mass exodus of all citizens before Scarecrow’s 24 hour ransom demand is up. This gimmicky plot contrivance means that the rest of the occupants of Gotham are nothing more than fodder for Batman and the Batmobile. How convenient.

Once all of the decent citizens of Gotham are clear of the city, Batman must figure out where Scarecrow is hiding the bomb that will unleash the fear toxin. Setting in motion the game proper, Batman–with the aid of Oracle, a now wheelchair bound Barbara Gordon thanks to the Joker (see The Killing Joke)–must figure out the source of where the fear toxin is being made. Naturally the fear toxin is being produced in a Gotham chemical plant, but the only way to get into it is by means of overly complex environmental puzzles which require the use of the Batmobile.

Look. I get it. Each iteration of a franchise should introduce something new and exciting to top the games that came before it. Adding the Batmobile wasn’t a bad choice, the execution is where the problem lies. Allowing it to transform from a car into a tank and then requiring puzzle sequences to utilize the various mechanics of the vehicle to propel the story forward is taking that idea about five steps too far. I can almost accept racing through the streets of Gotham to chase after bad guys, but I am highly disappointed with the notion that Batman would ever fire high powered ammo (oh that’s right, it is only riot suppression ammo) into a group of bad guys. Riot suppression or not, Batman has always had a rule against using guns. It’s the cornerstone of what drives him. Guns killed his parents, so why would he ever consider guns on his Batmobile? Putting it as bluntly as I can, the Batmobile as a deadly weapon in Arkham Knight is utter fucking bullshit. It’s a video game, sure, but the previous games have all held the Batman story in complete reverence. Knight spits in the face of what the Dark Knight is by forcing the Batmobile to be a weapon.

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Now back to the story… Batman works his way deep into the chemical plant and attempts to stop the fear toxin production. Of course, as Batman attempts to stop the gas from exploding out of the plant, he becomes exposed to the toxin and thus must face one of his biggest fears, the return of the Joker. This is one of the highlights to the game. For all that I find flawed with this game, the use of the Joker as a visual devil’s advocate to Batman’s conscious is a perfect way to bring a dead character back. The Joker says everything you know that the Batman is thinking but won’t because he has a moral compass guiding him. It doesn’t hurt that Mark Hamill is, as always, absolutely brilliant as the Joker.

As the story continues, the Arkham Knight as a military sidekick eventually comes to the forefront and aid of the Scarecrow. From this point forward, the Arkham Knight toys with Batman as the mystery to find the Cloudburst, a device capable of mass dispersing Scarecrow’s fear toxin, is set in motion. Mixing sequences of stealth and direct brawling with enemies, Batman seeks out the minds behind the creation of the Cloudburst as a way to figure out how to stop it from unleashing devastation upon Gotham. Where Aslyum was tightly constrained to one location and each new area introduced had a specific purpose, Knight feels like each location is nothing more than a glorified set piece. Very little of the locations in Knight feel like they have any real value to the story. Instead each location is an excuse for the Arkham Knight to produce ridiculous amounts of military personnel and armaments, all for the sake of destroying Batman. (First off, where are all of these unmanned drone tanks coming from, and second why was no one aware of all of this military activity prior to the start of the game? Plot holes aplenty!) The unexplained rivalry between the Arkham Knight and Batman is fairly well set up, but in the end the “surprise” reveal feels like a poorly drafted retcon into the pantheon of Batman’s universe. I sure hope DC doesn’t use the Knight in future comic books. The story and the way it concludes simply lacks the nuance that Paul Dini brought to the first two games.

Gotham is broken into three major islands that are segregated by raised drawbridges. Once a new island is opened up, every side mission in the previous island is also available, basically doubling and tripling the amount of busy work that Batman has at his disposal in the off chance that he doesn’t want to actually pursue the Arkham Knight and stop the Cloudburst. In City there were specific sections of the map that were controlled and run by various villains. Characters like Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face controlled their own territory in the city. With Gotham City sprawled out proper in Knight, there are visual distinctions to the city, but at no point does each section feel any different than the last. The entire city is built as a means for open world side missions that feel flat and lifeless and are only served up as filler to pad out the overall experience. The side missions mix things up at least with straight up Predator stealth missions (which also mix in team combat a la Nightwing and to some extent Catwoman via a nifty new Dual Play mechanic), while others are ridiculous horde-style, wave-based Batmobile tank combat missions. 

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Of course The Riddler has returned with his hidden trophies littered throughout the city. Collecting 243 trophies after suffering through so many other bullshit side missions means that unfortunately the only way many players will ever see the story’s “true” ending is buy watching it on YouTube. (Even then I still don’t really have any excitement for looking it up.)

Arkham Knight isn’t a completely bad game. The Free Flow Combat mechanics from Aslyum and City are back and better than ever (although I still question just how many bad guys Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight can recruit without having the US Government step in and just nuke the city out of existence). Flying mechanics by means of grappling and propelling high above a sky scraper are tight and fun. Hell, even just driving the Batmobile through the streets of Gotham is reminiscent of Burnout Paradise (rarely does the Batmobile crash and stop, rather it just plows through everything but full on walls). But those elements aren’t the only thing that make a good game. The story drags on and the end (not the “true” Knightfall ending) is a cop out. Certainly the game completes a trilogy that a lot of players have become devoted to, and as one of those players this game sadly is a disappointment. Small sections of pure bliss litter a mishmash of everything else you’d expect to find in a big bang final installment. I can’t outright dismiss the game because there are definitely some good moments and enough redeeming qualities to warrant playing, but I would strongly urge you to wait until a discount presents itself (or the inevitable “Game of the Year” edition comes along).

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Pros:
+ Improved stealth and predator combat is better than ever
+ Use of the Joker is hilarious and fun
+ Some of the side missions are better than the main story

Cons:
– Story is weak and unbelievable, even by comic book standards
– Unlimited waves of enemies and technology goes against the realism of the world
– The Batmobile as a weapon
– Gotham as an open world is nothing more than a location for repeatable busywork

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available for PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: 6/23/2015
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.