Arkham Knight: The Batman Rides Again
Beginning of the End
Four years have passed since the release of Arkham City, Rocksteady’s second entry in its venerable Batman saga. Now, the studio has returned with Arkham Knight, ostensibly the closing chapter in a remarkable trilogy of games.
Arkham Knight had a great deal to live up to after the resounding success of its predecessors, and for the most part, it succeeds, capping off the series with a plot that is darker, deeper, and more emotional than anything we’ve seen before. With Arkham Knight, Rocksteady have subtly tweaked and refined the series’ core gameplay mechanics, introducing just enough innovation to keep the proceedings fresh. Batman now has an expanded utility belt, a multi-fear takedown that can dispose of several enemies at once, allies who occasionally fight alongside him, and most notably, the Batmobile, an unstoppable juggernaut capable of tearing down virtually anything in its path.
Despite these alterations, Arkham Knight feels very much of a piece with former installments, leaving the tried-and-true formula of investigative sequences, side-quests, and open-world gameplay largely intact.
On a technical level, Arkham Knight is simply astounding. The game’s visuals and artistic design are hypnotic, as Batman soars through a rain-soaked Gotham awash in neon and smoke. Despite the absence of NPC's (once again justified by a city-wide evacuation), Gotham is a fascinating habitat, shifting seamlessly from dilapidated Hell’s Kitchen slums, to gothic clock-towers and Lexcorp skyscapers with a glossy neo-futuristic design. The lighting is cinematic, complemented by Michael Giacchino’s haunting score, and the facial animations and character models are equally top-notch. Rocksteady have clearly pulled out all the stops with the next-gen technology at their disposal, and the results must be seen to be believed. If this isn’t the future of videogames, you can definitely see it from here
John Noble delivers a chilling performance as Scarecrow
Alfred, I'm Going In
In terms of narrative, Arkham Knight is every bit as engrossing as its predecessors, if not more so. The storyline has a bagful of tricks up its sleeve, delving into Batman’s tortured psyche in a way that previous games have only teased at. What begins as standard fare involving Scarecrow (an excellent John Noble)’s fear toxin, and a Bat-suited upstart called the Arkham Knight, soon morphs into something far more compelling and disturbing.
Throughout the game, a host of villains perpetually taunt Batman about his inevitable downfall, and this time, the player can almost believe them. Scarecrow in particular gleefully anticipates “the death of hope” attending Batman’s fall, and a feeling of oppressive despair and dread creeps into the story during its final act.
"Rocksteady have clearly pulled out all the stops with the next-gen technology at their disposal, and the results must be seen to be believed. If this isn’t the future of videogames, you can definitely see it from here."
The effect of all this on the player is both exhausting and demoralizing, in a story that only gets bleaker as it unwinds. This is a rare tale where the hero is pushed dangerously close to the breaking point, and triumph is not guaranteed. If we feel unsettled watching the Dark Knight reduced to such fragile, human dimensions, that only means Rocksteady have done their job. This journey is unpleasant, even nightmarish at times, but its after-effect is haunting, and will linger with players long after the credits have rolled.
Unfortunately, for everything it gets right narrative-wise, Arkham Knight is not without its weak spots. The gameplay is dogged by repetition, particularly during the numerous, interminable tank battles, in which the player is forced to confront wave after wave of identical (unmanned) tanks and drones in the Batmobile's "battle mode". It is true that taking out unsuspecting thugs with the remote batmobile, or hearing its engines rev as it rushes to your aid, is a thrill that never gets old. At the same time, slick gameplay and beautiful graphics can’t make stealth hunting tanks with a 360 degree field of vision fun, or hide the fact that including them was just not a good idea.
Another less talked about, but equally divisive aspect of Arkham Knight is its ending. Rocksteady took a serious gamble in that department, forcing players to unlock the conclusion piecemeal by completing the various side-quests and Riddler challenges scattered throughout the game. While this might not bother completionists and die-hard fans, for others it might prove too much of an investment simply to watch the “true” ending, i.e., an extra 30 seconds of cut-scenes.
Speaking only for myself, it seems fair to say that with this controversial choice, Rocksteady fumbled the ball. An ending is a given, not a privilege to be earned. Leaving the game without having unlocked the full ending left me with a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction, as if the developers were chiding me for not having the patience to collect 234 Riddler trophies just to watch the ending I had worked towards for 14 plus hours. Demanding so much of the player’s time to unlock alternate, or multiple endings, might have been more forgivable. As it stands, the game’s chopped-up finale is a more lethal, experience-dampening flaw than any overuse of the Batmobile.
The Batmobile is a thrilling addition, if occasionally redundant
With all of that said, Arkham Knight is not without its strengths, and when it plays to them, it works very well indeed. The “predator” segments from previous installments have returned, and are every bit as entertaining and engaging as ever. From the beginning, this is where the Arkham games have shined, making you truly feel like Batman as you stalk terrified cretins from the shadows. The combat system has also been one of Rocksteady’s strongest points, and Arkham Knight is no exception, with the upgraded repertoire of attacks and environmental takedowns adding just enough variety to keep things fresh.
The charming touches of fan-service that have defined the Arkham games are also present, courtesy of numerous riddles, and a handful of side-quests involving Batman's rogues gallery. The latter are mostly satisfying, though a few feel distractingly under-developed.
"The combat system has... been one of Rocksteady’s strongest points, and Arkham Knight is no exception, with the upgraded repertoire of attacks and environmental takedowns adding just enough variety to keep things fresh."
Batman, Signing Off
Arkham Knight is far from perfect, but when its parts work in harmony, it delivers a kick to rival any other game in the franchise, or any AAA game released this year. Rocksteady have more than done justice to the Dark Knight, providing the Batman fix the gaming world so desperately craved. Arkham Knight is huge, exciting, slightly overambitious, and like its protagonist, more than a little bit crazy. This final chapter (and the two titles that preceded it), serve as a reminder of everything we love about Batman, demonstrating what superhero games look like done right. When it comes to the Caped Crusader, Arkham Knight might be Rocksteady’s swan song, and it's certainly sad to see them ago. Yet Arkham Knight is also an invitation. So put on the cowl, and strap yourself in for one last hurrah. It’s time to become the bat.