Played on: PlayStation 4
Available on: PlayStation 4 & Xbox One (and eventually re-releasing on the PC in a working state)
I hate to say I told you so, but I really did. I knew Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight wouldn’t be an “original character”. A known character with an original spin on their biography was much more likely and that’s exactly what gamer’s have now that Arkham Knight has arrived. Despite this predictable, and slightly disappointing, revelation Rocksteady have still delivered a solid game that stays true to the franchise’s established gameplay mechanics whilst expanding upon them in ways that keep each button press feeling fresh and exciting. It’s unfortunate then that Rocksteady have forgotten to also make this a great Batman game, with the overall story and the actions of the game’s hero, Batman, leaving me feeling a little cold.
Rocksteady haven’t taken too many liberties with the franchise’s core mechanics in Arkham Knight. Grappling, gliding, and a once again fantastically fluid combat system all return, this time set in a massive open world Gotham. Arkham Knight’s Gotham is the biggest map in the franchise to date and, as well as adding new ground to cover horizontally, Rocksteady have focused on the verticality of this major DC cityscape. Skyscrapers and imposing gothic architecture dominate Gotham’s skyline allowing Batman to undertake dramatic swoops from rooftops to street level in a matter of seconds. Arkham Knight doesn’t offer the entire of Gotham to explore though, keeping the key areas from Arkham City and Arkham Origins out of Batman’s reach. It’s a shame then that whilst this is the biggest Batman game made so far it still feels like a large proportion of the city is left to fend for itself without its Dark Knight protector.
The premise of Arkham Knight’s story is pretty good, on paper at least. After a period of relative calm following the Joker’s death during the events of Arkham City, the Scarecrow rears his ugly head to take out the Batman and control Gotham once and for all. Threatening to release a powerful new strain of his fear toxin across all of Gotham and half of the US, Scarecrow teams up with Two-Face, Penguin and the not-so-mysterious Arkham Knight to break the Bat. Plenty of Batman’s other rogues show up during your Gotham adventure too, but the absence of any innocent and vulnerable Gothamites is even more noticeable than it was in Arkham City or Arkham Origins. With all of the citizens having once again disappeared from Gotham’s streets it’s hard not to feel like Rocksteady are saying that they don’t trust you to do the right thing as Batman. Playing as Batman doesn’t feel truly heroic when your only job is to protect Gotham’s real estate and the handful of useless and incapable police officers that have remained within this part of the city. Every single person on Gotham’s streets is an armed or dangerous criminal, meaning you will always have people to fight, but that the fight feels somewhat empty and meaningless after a while.
There are some new additions to Arkham Knight’s gameplay that are welcomed though. Alongside new gadgets and an even smoother combat system, comes the ability to call in one of your allies to assist you during specific missions. Tim Drake’s Robin, Dick Grayson’s Nightwing and Selina Kyle’s Catwoman can all join Batman in specific fights, allowing gamers to momentarily take control of someone other than Batman. It adds a nice new layer to the combat, alongside some flashy dual-takedown animations, even if the fighting styles of these characters are all ostensibly the same. It’s really just unfortunate that Rocksteady didn’t allow more opportunities within Arkham Knight’s gameplay to take advantage of this new idea, though it does look to be featuring heavily in the upcoming Batgirl-themed downloadable content.
A lack of gameplay opportunities within the main game is not a criticism that can be levelled at Arkham Knight’s other new addition, the Batmobile. Batman’s transforming motor is part-race car, part-tank, and all bad-ass. And yes, it comes in black. Navigating via Batman’s wheels is almost always optional when free-roaming or when travelling to start the next big mission, and I enjoyed having the option of navigating Gotham by air or road. The map is just small enough that the Batmobile negates the need for a fast travel option, whilst also being big enough to encourage you to use the car to cover larger distances quickly. It does, however, take a little too long to open up all the connecting bridges that allow you use the Batmobile properly across Rocksteady’s entire map. The Batmobile’s tank mode is also well-thought out from a mechanical point of view and I mostly enjoyed using it. Avoiding enemy shells and rockets whilst firing off the few weapon types available on the Batmobile never felt overly difficult or too tedious. In both guises the Batmobile handles well too, making it an enjoyable gameplay addition, even if it does cause story and thematic issues.
The problem is that there are a lot of missions that rely on the Batmobile and often these feel shoe-horned in. Chasing a speedy Firefly through Gotham’s streets in the Batmobile makes perfect sense, but navigating deadly race tracks created by the Riddler, whilst fun, is totally bizarre and not at all in keeping with Batman or Riddler’s style. The Batmobile also poses a moral dilemma for Bat-fans. Whilst Rocksteady go out of their way to repeatedly explain that criminals who get run over by the Batmobile are tasered out of harms way, that non-lethal rounds are automatically used when targeting criminals, and that all of the tanks you face down are unmanned, it just doesn’t feel right or particularly non-lethal. Batman doesn’t kill, and Batman doesn’t use guns, but yet Rocksteady are happy to flaunt these key pillars of Batman’s character by giving him a tank.
The Arkham games have always felt overly violent, but the Bat-tank tips the scales too far in my opinion. Plenty of shooting games stop you from firing at innocents or friendlies, whilst lots of racing or car-based games have spectators leaping unrealistically out of harms way when you speed into the spots they’re occupying. Both of these tactics should have been adopted for the Batmobile’s combat and racing gameplay, so that you couldn’t shoot criminals or run them over; to stop them you should have to exit the Batmobile and beat them up. This would have at least felt much more Batman-like, and more believable overall. In fact, if you’ve just been hit by an armoured tank travelling at 80mph I’m pretty sure you’d think an additional tasering was just adding insult to fatal injury. I can’t help but think that the Batmobile’s extremely violent tendencies is the reason that innocent citizens had to be evacuated from Gotham’s streets too.
In many ways Arkham Knight is very similar to its predecessors. Hunting baddies via detective vision, finding riddles, and meeting several allies and enemies are all business as usual for the Arkham franchise, and these elements persist in Arkham Knight too. The true ending of Arkham Knight is a disappointment though, and whilst I’m sure Christopher Nolan would approve (because he did it first), I did not. The full ending (which I’ve so far only seen on YouTube because I just haven’t had the time to get all of those bloody Riddler trophies) feels like a poor way for the franchise to end, or at least take an extended leave of absence, and no matter the high points of the main game, of which there are many, it all feels spoiled within the ending’s context. I’d also say that considering the Joker does appear to be well and truly dead, Rocksteady have tried really hard to make it seem like he hasn’t gone anywhere; it’s almost as if they regretted the decision to kill him off in Arkham City and so just stuck him in Arkham Knight throughout anyway. It is a clever way of using the Joker admittedly, but I can’t help thinking that since Rocksteady killed him off, they should have been brave enough to commit fully to that decision. It is possible to tell a great Batman story without the Clown Prince of Crime after all.
I genuinely believe that the best parts of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, and even the few good parts of Arkham Origins, have carried over into Arkham Knight. From a gameplay perspective the mechanics are tight, enjoyable and flawless. The graphics see a nice improvement and the frame rate is rock solid during most of the game, with the only exceptions to this occurring during high speed Batmobile manoeuvres in the most built up city areas where lots of environmental destruction effects are triggered. For Batman fans though, Arkham Knight might end up being a disappointment, as it ultimately was for me. Asylum, City and Origins have always taken liberties with the Batman mythos, but it’s always felt like the core aspects of Gotham’s hero have remained intact. In Arkham Knight too many liberties are taken and it feels like Rocksteady have focused too much on making a great game and not enough on making a great Batman game this time around.
Arkham Knight is, on balance, the weakest game in Rocksteady’s trilogy then, but it is still a good game, as long as you’re playing it on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. The PC version of Arkham Knight is such a mess that it has currently been recalled from sale. It will be fixed and re-released in the near future I’m sure, and whilst I don’t think Rocksteady are really to blame, every party involved should be deeply ashamed that a game in that state ever made it to online and physical sales in the first place.
Putting the PC version aside then, Arkham Knight is worth checking out for its new Gotham open world, the refined and additional gameplay mechanics, and the many story highlights. There are many occasions in Arkham Knight when Rocksteady once again capture and heighten their Batman simulation experience. And even if you don’t like the franchise that much, who doesn’t want the chance to tear up Gotham’s streets in the Batmobile just a little bit? Despite all of these positive points though there are a few too many creative freedoms thrown into the mix, as well as a very disappointing and confusing conclusion, all of which ultimately detract from the overall experience. Batman fans, who would want to see the basic elements of Batman lore respected within Rocksteady’s Arkham universe, might feel particularly disappointed by the Dark Knight’s blatant disregard for human life and tank-enhanced uber violence. For the first time in Rocksteady’s franchise it feels like style has won out over substance.
If you’ve played any of the former Arkham games and enjoyed their gameplay then Arkham Knight is still a game you should try. Likewise if you’re not adverse to seeing Batman’s character heavily tinkered with, or are looking for a tight and technically accomplished video game, then Arkham Knight should be a safe bet. There is no escaping the fact, however, that Arkham Knight feels less inventive than its predecessors, with fewer Easter Eggs, several extremely repetitive side mission (did they all need to be firemen?!), and a more militaristic style that sees Batman’s violence make him more villain than vigilante. Be warned too that, no matter how you feel about Batman’s new crime fighting ethos, you’ll probably need to grab your Bat-disappointment repellent from your utility belt when you reach Arkham Knight annoying, bizarre, and unfulfilling conclusion.
As for the Arkham Knight himself? Well, Holy Cow Batman, I gosh-darn told you so didn’t I?
Images from http://www.gamespot.com