Batman Arkham Knight is finally here, but is it the swan song developer Rocksteady Studios wants it to be?
The Dark Knight sits perched atop the Gotham City Police Department. Rain is visibly running down his armor and pooling on the rooftop. Looking out across the city, neon lights flicker, fire stations burn, drones fill the streets and the sky and Scarecrow delivers a chilling promise of death to all who oppose him. Batman dives from the rooftop and begins his final night in Gotham.
Since 2009’s Arkham Asylum, players have propelled the Dark Knight from gargoyle to gargoyle stealthily eliminating thugs while carefully avoiding any unwanted attention. Descend from gargoyle, perform a stealth takedown, ascend the gargoyle, repeat. That’s the same formula we’ve been playing for years, yet thanks to intelligent area design, fresh enemy types and new drone threats, Batman: Arkham Knight‘s combat never feels dull in the roughly 15 hour trek through a dark and stormy Gotham. Sure, by the time the credits roll, you may feel like the real Bruce Wayne – worn out and exhausted from repeatedly snapping the limbs of punks, thugs and freaks, but you’ll be able to rest knowing you’ve played the most polished and best executed version of the Arkham “FreeFlow” combat system.
A welcome diversion from the somewhat old hat stealth combat is the Batmobile. While generally more clunky and less exhilarating than the hand-to-hand combat, the Batmobile still offers a fun take on tank combat. You’ll periodically have to battle a wide array of powerful enemy drones that all fight with different techniques and you’ll find yourself narrowly dodging incoming missiles from all angles. Many other reviewers have been extremely critical of these sections in Arkham Knight, but I found that as I spent upgrade points on the Batmobile, it felt like more of an extension of my deadly arsenal and less of an anchor around Batman’s feet. When you’re not in combat, however, I found the Dark Knight’s set of wheels to be nearly pointless. Sure, you could cruise around Gotham all you want, but it’s much faster to glide across the city as the crow flies instead of dealing with winding and unpredictable city streets.
The combat in Arkham is my biggest draw to the series, and I think Rocksteady has at long last perfected it with challenging, rewarding and unique missions and side quests that keep the game fresh even after the story concludes.
Story *extremely mild spoilers*
Disclaimer: I actually really enjoyed much of Arkham Knight’s story, but due to fears of spoilers, I can really only talk about the negatives in this section.
For months, Rocksteady Studios has been boasting a dark, conclusive chapter to the Arkham franchise by quite openly hinting at the death of many key characters. On top of the ‘M’ rating the game received from the ESRB earlier this year, I thought for sure I was getting into a violent, twisted and unsettling story that would end the series with a literal bang.
And then I played the game. Yes, there were surprising moments here and there, but I felt that often times the game would do things like kill off a character only to reintroduce them later in a beaten but very much alive way. In fact, the game did this a handful of times. By doing that, I felt that the game played with the emotions of the player far too much. The key villain in Arkham Knight is Scarecrow, so this allows Rocksteady to show something upsetting and then simply bring back a character by claiming Batman had fallen victim to fear gas. That explanation (or rather excuse) certainly fits the story, but it didn’t stop me from thinking it was somewhat cowardly writing. This is the conclusive chapter in the franchise, Rocksteady! Feel free to kill off characters and upset fans! This should be a vibrato of explosions, violence and loss – not a safe and serviceable conclusion.
While the plot is far too safe, I still found much of the story to be incredibly enjoyable. Unlike Arkham Origins, Knight manages to place a handful of popular villains together in a way that doesn’t just feel like quick fan service. You won’t be going from villain to villain quite as much in Knight, and when you engage with popular enemies, it makes sense to the overarching theme. Without spoiling anything, Batman works with a longtime villain during the story and the motivations for why they would work together make sense in the lore. In many ways, the storytelling excels – I just wish that the writing was a little braver in the last quarter of the game.
As alluded to, some of the game’s best story comes from how side missions function. Instead of single objectives, the vast majority of side missions are a long string of events that ultimately lead to a showdown with a fan-favorite villain. While you technically don’t have to do any side work in Arkham Knight, the way the game make’s each of them feel like they fit into the main story is fantastic. In Arkham City, many side activities felt disjointed from the overarching plot, so it was obvious that they were thrown in as extra content to add hours to the gameplay. This time around, everything feels coherent like it could all happen in one single night, and that’s quite an achievement.
Graphics, Audio & Performance
On consoles, Batman: Arkham Knight is outright stunning. The way rain drops interact with Batman’s armor or even rooftops is borderline photorealistic. I’ve never seen environmental effects quite as lifelike as these, and it’s absolutely captivating to experience early on in the game. On top of great world design, character models look detailed, and close-ups on the Dark Knight and his allies show just how powerful the engine supporting Arkham Knight truly is. From a visual perspective, I’m not sure I’ve ever played a better looking multiplatform game.
Audio is definitely a standout feature as well. The sound of an explosion above you, the roar of the Batmobile as it tears down the street or even the high-pitched thud of a baseball bat on an thug’s head all feel satisfying. Almost as much as the empowering combat, the sound in Arkham Knight is immersive an rich. The score the game boasts is also powerful. In particular, I remember a chase sequence late in the game where an orchestrated piece actually gave me chills as I chased an villain across a bridge in the Batmobile. If you’ve got a nice pair of headphones, you’d be wise to crank up the volume and let yourself become fully immersed in the experience.
Lastly, we have performance. For the most part, the game played smoothly, but occasionally the game would pause and show the bat symbol in the corner of the screen to indicate loading. I also noticed a decent amount of texture pop-in as I cruised Gotham in the Batmobile. Framerate during combat stayed stable, but I did experience occasional hiccups especially late in long play sessions.
Batman: Arkham Knight might annoy with a faux sinister story, but it’s undeniably the best game in the franchise. Hell, I’d go as far as to say this is probably the best superhero game of all time as well. Gotham may be more dangerous than ever before, but with empowering Batmobile battles and FreeFlow combat at its peak, the Dark Knight is at his deadliest. While Rocksteady mistakenly set the bar a little high in the plot department, this is undoubtedly the most approachable and consistently enthralling title of 2015.
Have you played the Arkham Knight yet? What did you make of the final installment in the franchise? Feel free to let me know of Twitter!