And so finally we’re here. As Scarecrow promises in his broadcasts over Gotham, this is the end of the Batman.
Batman: Arkham Knight (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Jun 2015 | Developed: Rocksteady | Published: Warner Bros.
9 months after the death of the Joker, Gotham has never been safer. Most of the city’s major gangs have gone into hiding, leaving Batman to brood alone. The peace doesn’t last as it all comes to a head one Halloween night when Scarecrow, missing since the events of Asylum, unleashes a new and deadlier fear toxin in a diner in central Gotham. Broadcasting to the city he threatens to spread it across all of Gotham, causing riotous panic and a mass evacuation and in the ensuing vacuum the city’s gangs re-emerge and take control.
In the midst of the chaos, Batman tracks Scarecrow to the Ace Chemicals factory where he plans to create a bomb so powerful that it will spread his toxin far past Gotham’s borders and across America. Protecting Scarecrow is a new force, however: a well-armed and drilled militia, replete with enough tanks and soldiers to entirely occupy Gotham. They are led by a new villain, the enigmatic Arkham Knight. Outfitted with a hi-tech facsimile of the Batsuit, the Knight opposes Batman at every turn and matches his tactics with his own; on top of that, he seems to know far more about Batman than anyone else, predicting his actions with unerring accuracy and even targeting his allies.
The physical occupation isn’t the only threat which Batman faces, however. A combination of being injected with the Joker’s infected blood in City and getting a huge dose of fear toxin early on in Knight awakens within Batman a mental project of his deceased arch-nemesis. Mark Hamill’s performance here as this manifestation of the Joker within Batman’s mind is absolutely brilliant. Arkham Knight certainly isn’t the first piece of DC media to explore the mental struggle within Batman as he balances his iron-clad moral code and his innate desire to break his one rule, but it’s one of the finest examples of the trope I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. The Joker appears constantly, materialising whenever Batman is even vaguely stressed, sounding out his innermost fears. What makes it even better is the fact that he disappears just as rapidly – you can swing the camera around and by the time it settles where he was standing, he’s gone. In previous titles exposure to fear toxin resulted in huge, bombastic sequences, such as the Scarecrow sequences in Asylum; here however it’s infinitely more subtle and often you don’t realise you’re in a madness section of the game until it concludes and snaps you back to the real world with a violent jerk.
The Arkham series has by now had 4 titles to cement its combat and stealth mechanics, and for any veterans of the series it will of course be very familiar very quickly. That said, Rocksteady have clearly come into this game with the attitude of wanting to improve where they can, as well as expanding Batman’s options during gameplay. To that end, in melee combat Batman can utilise a bunch of new tricks. Environmental attacks offer opportunities for new instant takedowns, such as chucking mooks into electric fences or dropping light fixtures on the heads of mobs. Batman has finally learned how to pick up weapons and knock some heads until they break, and there’s a sweet catharsis to be had at being able to grab boxes and urns and throw them at baddies given how annoying it is when they do it to you.
In an expansion of the fully playable Catwoman sections in City, this time several of Batman’s allies make an appearance during the game and though they can’t explore Gotham they are playable in these sections; players can swap between them when out of combat, and during fights a metre fills up with each successful attack that leads to an acrobatic takedown involving both Batman and his ally. Combat is also made harder than in previous games with lots of new enemy types: the militia bring with them bloody medics who revive downed foes, making them a clear target for Batman, and later stages feature electrified enemies who need to be discharged with a gadget before you can hit them. The variety of enemy types works very much in Arkham Knight’s favour as combat instances almost become feverish puzzles as you try and work out the best way to take out enemies while also keeping your combo up.
The predator stealth sequences have also seen their share of upgrades and additions. Batman can utilise Fear attacks – special moves that take out multiple enemies at once. These are a joy to watch in action and useful for the encounters in this game which tend to throw large groups of well-drilled militia at you, though it comes at the cost of being very loud and liable to attract the rest of the horde to your position. The militia are equipped with a few new tactics to deal with Batman; vantage points can be mined once again to force you down from your hiding spots, and they will also throw thermobaric charges into vents to flush Batman out of them. Some soldiers carry tracking arrays that lock onto you if you use Detective Vision, finally breaking the pattern of always having it on during stealth moments. Despite these upgrades, I think some of Knight’s predator rooms are among the least fun in the series; not only are they harder, but there’s simply fewer cohesive rooms. It might be simple but I think these were at their best in Asylum and Origins, rather than integrating them into the open world as much.
Gliding is at least now the best it’s ever been. Gotham is massive so to make getting around less of a chore gliding is now both faster and more effective than in City or Origins. The grapple boost has been upgraded to rocket Batman up in the sky and larger buildings can be chain-grappled up very rapidly. The usual pattern of dive-bomb and pitching-up is back but the effect is more pronounced and the game is very generous in letting you reach much greater heights after a dive bomb in order to keep you gliding. As fun as it is though, Knight introduces a new way to get about Gotham.
Yes, it’s the Batmobile. This is the big addition to Arkham Knight and presumably the one Rocksteady were most proud of given how ubiquitous it is. Obviously it’s very cathartic to drive around in it; a smart choice made by Rocksteady is that much of Gotham’s scenery is destructible so you can swerve and smash through things to your heart’s content. This is necessary because the Batmobile handles like complete arse and actually controlling it as it skids around corners is frustrating. Well, I say tear around, but you can’t really because the streets are filled to the brim by the Arkham Knight’s tanks and the Batmobile can also transform into the pseudo-tank Battle mode to deal with these.
In Battle mode the Batmobile moves more slowly but with greater precision and can strafe and even dodge(!) missiles before firing its own cannon back. As always when you see the Bat-tank you have to ask the question of how Batman can justify using guns (see also: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and The Dark Knight Returns) but as ever the game goes to great lengths to point out the use of rubber bullets and how all the tanks that you blow up are definitely unmanned drones guys! What’s annoying about it is the sheer amount to which it is implemented, to the point where there’s a fair argument that this is barely anything like the earlier games and instead is a Batmobile simulator with a shell of an Arkham game thrown in. There are some boss fights which take place entirely with the Batmobile, and there are even sections where you are expected to be stealthy in a bloody tank, which test the limits of one’s patience. As interesting and probably necessary it was to introduce the Batmobile, it’s undeniable that the absolute nadir of the game comes in the last third where events force Batman to be confined to the Batmobile.
The militia occupation and gang war in Gotham at least come with a glut of side content as Batman tackles Gotham’s Most Wanted list. Each entry on the list tackles a different issue plaguing the city; I like the ones that focus on a particular character, such as tracking down the Man-Bat or testing Azrael during his bid to be the heir to Batman’s cowl. The majority of them though are essentially checklists: finding missing firefighters, defusing mines, and clearing out bandit camps – sorry, I mean militia bases. They’re fine, as inoffensive as any of its kind, and you’ve seen them time and time before in any other AAA release. I suppose I do like that the way you’re meant to go about finding these elements on the world map is to listen in to the communication bursts which crop up sporadically during play and then track them back to their source, which at least encourages a level of exploration.
The lengthiest sidequest is, of course, reserved for the Riddler. As in Arkham City there are over 200 of the damn things, but because they’re scattered over the vastness that is Gotham they seem to take even longer to collect. More than ever completing the Ridder’s challenges feels like a grind, a feeling which is compounded by the less memorable locations in this rendition of Gotham and the fact that a selection of the challenges take place in giant racecourse death traps which the Riddler has inexplicably had the time to set up. The thing here that I really object to, however, is something else. In previous titles, the challenge of hoovering up all of the Riddler’s collectibles was something more or less relegated to completionists; it was never necessary but always a nice thing to be able to complete. In Arkham Knight however, Rocksteady made the absurd decision to tie completing the Riddler’s challenges – and indeed, all of the side quests – to unlocking the ending.
I’m really not a fan of games which lock content behind arbitrary gates. Obviously almost every game runs on the concept of skill gates – i.e. if you’re not good enough to beat a section, you can’t progress – and that makes sense. I’m also not hugely fazed by having a ‘golden’ or best ending tied to completing specific tasks or requirements; in those cases, it helps you feel like you’ve earned that ending. But my preferred form for that is when it’s connected to choices or actions in order to give those choices more weight. What Arkham Knight does is much more annoying, or at least it was to me. As the story concludes, there is a final mission for you to do afterwards before you get to see the credits, an epilogue of sorts. However, that epilogue cannot be accessed until you’ve completed at least half of the Most Wanted list. That’s unnecessary but not dreadful; what I feel is unnecessary however is tying the best ending to 100% completion. The act of totally beating a game ought to be its own reward, but making it impossible to get the good ending of Knight unless you clear every base, destroy every tank, capture every militia captain, and hoover up every Riddler trophy, not to mention capturing all of Gotham’s villains isn’t a good design choice.
Arkham Knight felt like a game of extremes to me both when I played it for the first time and when I came to replaying it for this review. When it’s good it is genuinely among the best in the franchise; the combat is more fluid than ever, the stealth is more challenging than ever, and the campaign has some of the darkest and most powerful moments across all 4 games. But it simultaneously contains some of the weakest moments in the Arkham games. The Batmobile is cool at first but the overreliance on it becomes a crutch, and many sequences in it are eye-rollingly boring or involve frustrating mechanics. Gating the ending behind collection quests is not a player-positive move. Gotham, while bigger than ever, is blander than before. These concerns aren’t small issues but rather ones which I think could genuinely see people put Arkham Knight down rather than finish it and experience what is, at times, a stunning game.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.