Reviewer: Michael Mendis
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed)
British game developer Rocksteady Studios took the gaming world by surprise when it released Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009. Most games based on a pre-existing license are bad, and the Batman games released up to that point were no different. Arkham Asylum, however, turned out to be one of the best games of the year, with its fluid combat, engaging stealth sequences, and top notch dialogue from longtime Batman voice actors, including Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. This success put Rocksteady on the map, and the critically acclaimed 2011 sequel, Batman: Arkham City, proved that the first game was no fluke. This summer, Rocksteady put the finishing touches on Batman: Arkham Knight, the final Batman game that this studio will be developing.
Arkham Knight takes place one year after the events of Arkham City, and since then, Gotham has been relatively peaceful. This changes, however, when Scarecrow tests a new fear toxin at a local restaurant, and threatens to release the toxin on the rest of the city. Everyone flees the city in fear, leaving behind Gotham’s supervillains, criminals, and a small contingent of police officers brave enough to try to take the city back. And, of course, Batman, who, along with allies like Robin, Nightwing, and Oracle, begin the task of hunting down Scarecrow and the other crime bosses wreaking havoc on the streets. But alongside the familiar faces who terrorize Gotham appears a new, mysterious villain: the Arkham Knight. He seems to understand Batman better than the other supervillains, and is singlemindedly determined to end the Dark Knight once and for all.
For the most part, the game’s story is well told, with plenty of screen time for most of the main heroes and villains, as well as some great performances turned in by the voice actors. The main plot contains plenty of twists and turns to keep you interested from start to finish, and most of the side stories are also compellingly written. The game’s dark and dreary atmosphere is enhanced by the gorgeous visuals; everything from Batman’s new high-tech suit, to the neon lights dotting the city, to the steady rain shimmering in the night sky, is all rendered in beautiful detail; the facial animations in particular are a huge step up from previous Arkham games. The storytelling is held back by a few miscues, though; it felt as though Rocksteady was scraping the bottom of the barrel with a couple of the minor villains who appeared in the game, and one of the story’s bigger reveals is rather predictable (particularly for those familiar with Batman lore) and thus fell a bit flat. The game’s intentionally ambiguous ending left me a bit unsatisfied as well.
While Batman (along with many other superheroes) is known and well-liked among kids, it should be noted that this game is definitely not kid-friendly. Arkham Knight is an M-rated game (the first in the series), and for good reason. Gotham is a very dark and gritty city, and it’s supervillains are ruthless, killing their adversaries regularly (and sometimes rather brutally). And even though Batman doesn’t kill his enemies, he isn’t above breaking some bones to keep the city safe. This is a violent game, and probably not suitable for those who haven’t yet reached high school.
Much of the game’s traversal and gadgetry are very similar to that of previous Arkham games. Batman uses his Grapnel to reach rooftops and other platforms, launching himself into the air and gliding through the sky. Detective Vision (which highlights enemies and other key points in the environment) proves once again to be your most useful tool, and you’ll probably spend a large part of the game with it enabled. The game’s detective sequences (in which Batman uses his Detective Vision to piece together clues at a crime scene, and which occur at specific moments during story missions) are a bit more in-depth than in the older Arkham games, and thus do a better job of showing off the brainy, analytic side of Bruce Wayne (rather than the braun which dominates the rest of the gameplay).
Hand-to-hand combat remains straightforward, fluid, and satisfying; the control scheme is easy to grasp (one button each for attacking, dodging, stunning enemies with your cape, and countering), and Batman moves quickly and easily from one enemy to another as you knock out large mobs with your bare hands. One new feature to the brawling is the Fear Takedown, which lets you instantly knock out several enemies in a row when you start an encounter with the element of surprise.
The Predator stealth sequences return as well, in which you sneak around a large room occupied by a number of heavily armed guards. Just like in previous Arkham games, your wide selection of useful gadgets give you plenty of ways to take down bad guys, though most strategies revolve around isolating enemies and picking them off one by one as you deftly move in and out of the shadows. While these sections aren’t a cakewalk, they are forgiving for players who aren’t proficient at stealth gameplay (in other words, me), as it is fairly easy to find a new hiding spot (a gargoyle mounted high on a wall, a grate in the floor) after you’ve been spotted. Arkham Knight does add a new element to increase the challenge of these sequences (and some of the hand-to-hand fights as well): certain enemies are medics that can revive their unconscious allies, so it’s often important to bring down these enemies first.
The Riddler is back up to his old tricks again, filling the city with trophies that you can collect by breaking open their hiding places, solving puzzles, or completing a variety of other specific challenges. It’s a nice diversion from the other story objectives, and helps fill the expansive city with activities that keep you engaged wherever you are. Most of the trophies aren’t hard to collect, but some of them are very well hidden, and if you want to find all of them you’ll almost certainly need to interrogate the Riddler thugs on the streets who will tell you where the trophies are hidden.
Batman: Arkham Knight’s biggest new addition to the series’ formula is the Batmobile. Now Batman can drive through the streets of Gotham in his iconic automobile, covering ground more quickly than he can even when sailing through the air at high speeds. The Batmobile also comes equipped with its own gadgets and weapons, including a high caliber rifle that tears apart unmanned tanks, a riot gun to put down thugs (without killing them), and a winch that can pull down walls and conduct electricity. Many of the game’s puzzles (including a number of the aforementioned Riddler trophies) require the use of the Batmobile in some form or fashion (such as using the winch to move heavy objects). While these new types of puzzles help keep the game fresh, the vehicular combat is more of a mixed bag. Combat encounters in the Batmobile usually consist of battles against a dozen or more unmanned tanks and drones, in which you dodge incoming fire while letting loose the Batmobile’s arsenal of guns and missiles. These encounters are a nice change of pace to the melee combat, but they often last so long that they become tedious and overstay their welcome. And despite Rocksteady’s best efforts, it’s hard to believe that the Batmobile’s anti-infantry devices wouldn’t unintentionally kill at least some of the thugs that cross Batman’s path. That riot gun packs one heck of a punch, and I don’t think a set of electric shockers mounted along the sides of the vehicle are going to save the criminals that I hit as I sped recklessly through the streets of Gotham.
The Batmobile, along with Batman’s suit and his wide array of gadgets, can be upgraded with new and/or enhanced capabilities, and upgrade points (spent to acquire the actual upgrades) are earned through almost every activity in the game, from completing story missions, to finding Riddler trophies, to achieving long combos in combat. This encourages the player to explore every nook and cranny of Gotham City and find the secrets hidden throughout the game world. Those willing to take the time to complete the side content will be able to unlock all of the upgrades by the end of the game.
Batman: Arkham Knight is an excellent game, one that continues the Arkham legacy of successfully letting players feel like Dark Knight, striking fear into the hearts of Gotham’s criminals as they glide through the shadows. A few noteworthy flaws hold it back from perfection, but the game’s core mechanics are very well designed, and the overall experience is well worth your time. Rocksteady’s work on the Arkham franchise may be over, but I can’t wait to see what they will come up with next.
Content Score: SUPPORTABLE
Overall Score: A-