Batman: Arkham Knight
Since 2009, the Arkham series has raised the bar for Batman games, superhero games, and licensed games in general. 2013 brought us both a 2.5D variant and a new 3D entry in Origins, but neither were crafted by Rocksteady. With Arkham Knight, the developers of Asylum and City return to craft the grand finale in their trilogy. Batman’s gloomy world has been done justice in film and animation, but that aspect of the character wasn’t truly represented well until Arkham Asylum. There, the reunion of Paul Dini and the Animated Series’ voice cast alongside the work of Rocksteady created something magical.
It put Batman against a robust cast of villains and was full of Easter eggs. It had so many that Rocksteady themselves had to leak one that revealed Arkham City’s planning stages. AC greatly increased the scale and overall scope of the adventure with a larger area – but it lost something being out of the asylum. That locale gave them a creepy world that felt spooky wherever you went. City gave you more to do and greatly increased the amount of total content, but lost some of that scary vibe.
Arkham Knight begins fairly soon after the events of City, with you taking part in the cremation of Joker’s body. Right then and there, you know that the game bears a ‘M’ rating for a reason. This series was also a hard ‘T’, especially Asylum thanks to Scarecrow’s illusions. With the rating upped, the fear can be elevated with more graphic content that terrifies you in part because of what you don’t see and only partially because of what you do.
As the game’s title implies, you aren’t just doing battle with Scarecrow though – but a new rival by the name of the Arkham Knight. He’s got his own private military team that ranges from on-foot soldiers to tank drones and manned tanks as well thanks to a massive cash influx from every big villain in the game’s universe trying to take out Batman. No one’s quite sure who he is, but he has a lot of seemingly first-hand knowledge about Batman’s techniques and uses that against him – even telling his forces the weak points on Batman’s armor.
That gets a big upgrade here as well. Alfred’s hilarious exposition dump about it leads to one of the best tutorials in the series where you bust out the new fear multi-takedown. Before, you could take out one person at a time, but because this suit allows Batman to be faster, he can not only jump on opponents in rapid succession, but do so while freezing time. It’s an astonishing suit, really, and using the right stick to switch between enemies gives you some stunning shots of the world around you.
The all-new batmobile takes some of its inspiration from the tank-style Batmobile in the Nolan films, and features both a regular driving mode and a battle mode. Driving mode gets you from point A to B with waypoints, while holding in the left trigger activates battle mode. This gives you access to missiles, a winch to unlock new paths, and the ability to drive sideways thanks to tire shifting. It doesn’t use current-day driving controls beyond the left stick and right trigger acting as your accelerator while X/Square acts as your brake and reverse button.
This setup takes some getting used to, but thanks to some early missions, you’ll be able to adapt to it fairly quickly. After half an hour, you’ll be able to use it fairly well and then plow through the tank forces you’ll encounter throughout the adventure. Timing and skill come in handy for the batmobile and on-foot gameplay, and makes even the hardest challenges possible with a bit of practice. You’ll never get so frustrated that you’ll want to quit and the storyline plays a large role in that as well.
The Scarecrow is your main villain here and has set Arkham ablaze with chaos on Halloween night with an all-new fear toxin. This toxin manifests itself in Batman as does the blood of Joker, which was used by hospitals unaware of its origins. It is currently harming a handful of citizens and it’s up to Batman and Gordon to help them as best they can. Their relationship goes through some changes as well and their bond is tested like it’s never been tested before in this franchise. Between alliances being tested, the Arkham Knight, and everything involving the Scarecrow, the storytelling here is compelling and will make you want to progress just to see it unfold.
The gameplay does have a sameness to it compared to the prior games, and with this being the fourth game to use this gameplay style and that style also being copied a ton, it can wear a bit thin. That’s where the new suit mechanics and Batmobile gameplay really help out because they freshen things up a bit. Finding Item X to get to Place Y got old before, but with the Batmobile, you get a giant new firepowered wrinkle to mix things up.
Visually, Arkham Knight takes things to new heights for the series. Character models are more realistic, with far better faces. The world itself is more alive thanks to lighting and smoke effects, while the rain-slicked world results in stunning skylines, pavement, and weather-beaten clothing. The all-new engine has been used to make sure that the game isn’t held back by the limitations of last-gen hardware. As a result, while you do have some people upset over the game not being available on the PS3 and Xbox 360, you also have an unfiltered game experience that feels like it’s just about everything it can be.
Far too often, cross-generation games feel like they’re being held back by aging technology. As someone who loves playing the classics and enjoys games across every possible console, it’s not a matter of me disliking “old” things – but not wanting to see gaming experiences stunted. Sure, sales might increase, but if the end result is a game that isn’t as good as it could be, no one really wins. Arkham Knight winds up being a far better game thanks to the shift to current-gen hardware, even if it’s just in making the faces read emotions better than ever before. Betrayal feels so much more personal when you can see the anguish in addition to hearing it in the performances.
From an audio perspective, Arkham Knight is yet another victory for the franchise. Beyond the as-expected stellar voice work, the soundtrack is stirring as well. With Batman, you know you should always expect top-notch work in each field, but this game goes a bit further with the side characters and goons. They tell the story of the world as a whole better now than they did in even Arkham City, where the goon banter gave you a sense for the hierarchy of supervillians and pros and cons of each. Now, they all lament at just how much of a shift Gotham has seen and they’re all terrified of just what Scarecrow can do to them.
There’s also a distinct belief that Batman isn’t real, which is an interesting idea to have floating around. The idea of Batman is that he instills fear in those who do harm to others merely through the thought that you’ll have to deal with him and he is an almost supernatural force to imagine. The Arkham Knight also makes Batman far more vulnerable than he’s been at any point in this series since he is able to use some of Batman’s tricks and techniques against him even early on. Combat becomes more varied as a result, which really brings home how much better the punching and kicking sound effects are – which really kick in with the new environmental takedowns involving things like lights and electrical boxes to take out foes.
Batman: Arkham Knight closes out Rocksteady’s trilogy in a big way. It’s the most epic entry in the series to date in terms of sheer scope for the world and the story it’s telling. Everything comes together in a classic game that has some faults tied to the gameplay, which isn’t to everyone’s liking, but things are more refined than ever before. The Batmobile adds new dimensions to the game, and while its steep learning curve isn’t something that will be welcomed by everyone at first, it does make the game better. While it seems likely that WB will keep the 3D open-world Batman games alive, who knows what the future holds for Batman in gaming. If this is the Dark Knight’s last big epic game in a while, it’s a great one to go out on and a satisfying conclusion to the work Rocksteady has done.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
This review is based on a retail copy of Batman: Arkham Knight for the Xbox One provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.