Batman as a character is something of a conundrum. Batman, as a game, is very simple indeed. The caped crusader adheres perfectly to the video game experience, while Superman remains to games as chalk is to cheese. Rumours are abound that Rocksteady are tackling a Superman or Justice League game in the future, but my crystal ball has run out of batteries, so let’s focus on the here and now. Let’s focus on Batman: Arkham Knight.
Billed as the third and final instalment in the Arkham trilogy (sorry Batman: Arkham Origins, but you sucked) this was one of the great dark hopes for the new consoles. Not the Batman game we deserved, but the one we needed. Or something like that. Arkham Knight is an exercise in sequel escalation in all the wrong ways, though more often than not, it’s no bad thing.
The much publicised Batmobile is an integral part of the game this time. You find yourself able to explore all of Gotham City, instead of an Asylum, and then a segmented chunk of the city. From the understated, darkly gothic styling of Arkham Asylum, we’ve come here, a game in which Batman blows Gotham to smithereens with a tank car with a massive cannon, a Vulcan gun, and still, somehow, manages to not kill anyone. Let’s face it, Batman kills people. Even if it serves the moral handwringing and agonising of the story.
If you loved Asylum and hated the open world template of City, this game will make you want to stick on a balaclava and go head to head with Batman yourself. It’s very big, and it’s very dumb. You liberate towers, and perform a myriad of repeated tasks that risk venturing into the most gregarious tropes of open world games that elsewhere would drive you Joker levels of insane with rage. Repeatable mine disposal missions, clearing towers, finding Riddler trophies and informants, it all stands to turn a game with an eight hour story into a forty to fifty hour experience. Do yourself a favour, and don’t force it. If you don’t want to do the extraneous tat, don’t.
The story itself is excellent. Scarecrow has threatened all of Gotham City with his fear gas after a grisly public display. Gotham is evacuated, save for the super villains, the thugs, the coppers, and The Batman. It’s a convenient plot point that the mess that is Gotham City has the most efficient evacuation in the history of all time. Everyone is gone within less than a day and the stage is set for Batman to have the worst night of his life and remain stoic throughout. Joining Scarecrow is the newcomer, Arkham Knight, who kind of looks like a robot Batman and apparently has a long history with the Dark Knight.
The desperate struggle to reveal the identity of the Knight will propel you through the plot faster than your grapnel hook, but it’s at the detriment to other events, even though the set pieces are fantastic. Inside missions, you have a great mix of Asylum styled predator events, puzzle solving, and detective work, and with new gadgets and fighting techniques, the brawling and hunting remain as compelling as ever, even though they do risk over complication. The systems are easy to get to grips with but contain a wealth of depth that make the VR challenges a welcome addition rather than a nightmare to be endured by achievement point nuts.
Most of the big villains get a fair showing. Two-Face, Penguin, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, but it’s a shame that the Rogue’s Gallery isn’t dived into a little deeper. A few story strands from Arkham City continue, and it’s a great nod to fans of the games, and there are an infinite number of nods and in jokes to other characters from Batman canon and even a slew of references from the wider DC canon, which is very exciting indeed, if you believe the rumours.
The Joker may have died at the end of Arkham City, and admirably, Rocksteady stick to this, but he still gets a fair showing throughout the game and pays a major part for a dead man. We see a few guest slots from obscure villains too. Pyg, Firefly, Deacon Blackfire, Hush, Azrael (returning from City) pop in to say hello as well, and since I’m unfamiliar with half of them, I can’t really complain about Rocksteady relying too heavily on the ‘big’ villians.
Technically, the game is astounding. PC version notwithstanding. The past couple of years have been riddled with broken messes of games, but Arkham Knight is locked at 30fps, looks absolutely gorgeous, and runs smooth as butter. The game transitions seamlessly from cut scene to gameplay and the ability to click the right stick to see things in first person is an inspired touch. It really allows you to appreciate the level of detail Rocksteady have infused into everything, and the character models are amazing. Multiple times, I went into first person just to admire the detail around me, particularly in the movie studio.
The game’s story ends with a series of sucker punches and massive, world changing reveals that it makes you crave a fourth game, whether it’s happening or not. The game is laden with moments of heartbreak for Batman, and you feel for him as a figure of sorrow and vengeance, a character with darkness bubbling below the surface. It’s just a shame that Scarecrow and Arkham Knight beat you over the head periodically with this via a city wide video and speaker system that anyone seems to be able to access. Seriously Gotham City, no wonder you’re a mess. Though, the thugs make many great tongue-in-cheek jokes about this.
Arkham Knight is a gorgeous escalation of the formulas established in Asylum and City. It’s amazing that Rocksteady haven’t dropped the ball yet, and the prestige of the studio is clear here in every single detail of Knight. Every action and gameplay feature is compelling and engaging. The races in the Batmobile are fun, the tank combat is brilliantly satisfying, and they add just enough new puzzle and gameplay opportunities to keep the loop of brawl and predator fresh without adding silly enemies like the previous games Titans.
It’s a shame many of the game’s pivotal moments are framed by shooting drones with a batcannon, but aside from that, the story is stellar. There are a range of excellent tricks of the mind to show the fear gas slowly tainting Batman’s mind, and the game isn’t afraid to get trippy and first person when it serves the story. It’s a treat for Batman historians and gamers alike. A fitting and bombastic end to an excellent trilogy. Stellar story, great gameplay, and the most layered and nuanced look we’ve had at Batman yet, game, movie, comic or otherwise. If Rocksteady are stepping into the world of Superman or the Justice League, or even trying something new entirely… we should all be very excited indeed for what they do next.