– Tom Heath
This thought ran through my mind as I stood perched atop a fire escape railing, the cold Gotham rain pelting my billowing cape, watching a group of thugs exchanging banter. They had no idea I was there; they had no idea they were prey.
I scanned the group. Two thugs held assault rifles, one was big and muscular, the last held a club. Using my distruptor rifle, I remotely jammed their guns. Unaware of my intervention, they continued their conversation.
Suddenly smoke enveloped them. I swooped in, taking one rifleman out while the others were disoriented. A second one suddenly saw me, went to fire and heard the dreaded click of his jammed rifle. With his weapon rendered useless, all he could manage was to yelp: “it’s the Bat!” He managed little else as my fists knocked him out cold, before flipping to his buddy nearby, whose club I took to wallop the big fella around the side of the head. It was all over in 20 seconds.
That “I’m Batman” feeling was almost constant throughout my time with Batman: Arkham Knight. Developer Rocksteady have proven for the third time that their attention to detail in both narrative and gameplay is what makes their works true Batman simulators. While Arkham Knight is by no means perfect, in fact some aspects of it felt downright rage inducing, it is a stunning example of both superhero games and open world narratives. The game’s many delays were disappointing, but the end result was most certainly worth the wait.
Note: Before continuing on, it must be said that we acknowledge the PC edition of the game is currently a complete mess. I played the PS4 version of Arkham Knight and it ran like a dream, with a steady frame-rate that featured the occasional drop during some of the more hectic moments.
Batman: Arkham Knight picks up nine months after the events of Arkham City. With the Joker dead and cremated, Gotham found itself in a peaceful lull. Well, that is until Halloween when Scarecrow reared his shredded head and threatened to contaminate the entire eastern seaboard with his fear toxin. Within 24 hours, Gotham City is evacuated and it is up to Batman and the police force to find and take out Scarecrow. To make matters worse, Scarecrow has enlisted the help of some of Batman’s old nemeses (Two-Face, Penguin, Riddler, Poison Ivy etc) as well as an unknown rival referred to as the Arkham Knight, who brings with him an entire armada of soldiers and unmanned drones, as well as an intense grudge against Batman.
So yeah, Batman has a bit on his plate right about now.
Arkham Knight’s story is definitely one of its biggest highlights, using themes relating to its central villains to explore Batman as a character and even including awesome flashback recreations of iconic moments from the comics. Batman is at his best when his villains are forcing him outside of his comfort zone, and with this Batman being ready for war against an entire army, he is most certainly at his breaking point. There are two stories running concurrently through Arkham Knight’s main quest line, one of which has been kept cleverly hidden in pre-launch materials, as well as many side quests involving famous Batman villains that fit well contextually in between main missions.
The Scarecrow/Arkham Knight storyline is great for the most part, but has some unnecessary padding around two-thirds of the way in. The mystery of the Knight’s identity ends up as less like a shocking revelation and more like a surprise birthday party you already knew about, and the actual ending is tiered depending on your completion rate of the game (end of main quest, 80%-ish of side quests complete, 100% complete), with each tier yielding little in terms of a satisfactory conclusion. The other storyline, however, begins with a little bit of silly logic but blossoms into a clever, amusing, poignant and ultimately terrifying exploration into both Batman, his friends and one of his greatest enemies. Neither story is perfect, but both hit Batman hard and force him to confront his greatest fears and his very identity.
Kevin Conroy is once again brilliant as the voice of Batman. Although some of his dialogue seems a bit wooden or stilted in the game’s side quests, during the intense moments of the campaign Conroy encapsulates the character’s stern pragmatism while teetering on the edge of rage. John Noble’s Scarecrow is downright creepy, well suited to the Master of Fear. The rest of the cast are stellar, even the nameless civilians met on the streets, and particularly a certain villain I won’t name for the sake of spoilers.
Batman: Arkham Knight‘s gameplay functions similarly to its narrative: excellent with a few stumbles. The series’ free-flow combat system is as satisfying as ever, being easy to use yet difficult to master if you want to hit those high combos, use special moves and even stay alive in some of the later fight scenes involving crowds. The new “Multi-Fear Takedown” move allows for even better bad-ass Batman-ery, where you can take out between three to five unaware enemies in a cool, slow motion flurry of awesomeness. Batman may have gotten some super upgrades in Arkham Knight over previous games, but the amped up amount of on-screen goons to fight and changes in certain enemies really balances out the combat. A personal favourite was an enemy who could detect your location while in “detective mode”, that was a game changer and lead to a fun amount of challenge as the story progresses.
I wish the same could be said for the biggest addition to Arkham Knight‘s gameplay: the Batmobile. The Batmobile has two modes of function, driving mode and battle mode, both of which are fun at their core. But as the game progresses, both modes reveal themselves to be frustratingly clunky and led to some almost controller-throwingly rage filled moments for myself.
Battle mode is great in smaller encounters, involving dodging enemy drones’ targeting lasers and building up special abilities by avoiding taking damage. But towards the end of the game there are many compulsory tank battle scenes (and one really annoying boss battle) so huge in scale that the sheer volumes of target lasers to dodge and missile lock ons to shoot down while being enveloped by torrential rain and explosions resulted in such chaos on screen that I struggled to keep track of everything that was going on around me, leading to many retries and a growing sense that luck had to be on my side if I were to eventually proceed. Players who find that luck earlier will probably have less of a beef with these sections.
Driving through Gotham’s streets is lots of fun, with lots of destructible elements making the awkward handling of the car less of an issue since you can plough straight on through many obstacles, but in the later Riddler racetrack time trials, that awkward handling turned challenging fun into frothing-at-the-mouth fury after what seemed like the millionth attempt. It also didn’t help that Riddler tracks have no option to warp back and start the lap again, so if repeating one particular section was what led to the timer expiring, you were doomed to keep repeatedly attempting it until you finish the lap JUST TO TRY IT AGAIN. Granted, part of this comes down to skill, but the car’s flawed manoeuvrability and this lack of a restart system makes those of us who need that extra practice suffer greatly.
Despite these issues, they are minor nitpicks in the overall experience and Batman: Arkham Knight is still a stellar game. While ultimately giving a less than satisfying end to Rocksteady’s Arkham series, the journey up to that point is paved mainly with fluid combat, a gorgeous world and a compelling story filled with some awesome surprises and some not so awesome ones (looking at you vague, multi-tiered ending). Whether or not Arkham Knight truly marks the end of the series or just Rocksteady’s involvement in it remains to be seen, but if the former is the case then it is safe to say the series has ended on (mostly) a high note.