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Batman: Arkham Knight Review

Batman: Arkham Knight is the conclusion to Rocksteady’s highly-acclaimed Batman trilogy. The first game in the series, Arkham Asylum, was 2009’s sleeper hit and it remains one of my favourite games of all time. It featured a fantastic story, varied and innovative stealth/brawler hybrid gameplay and a brand-new rhythmic and fluid fighting system (that many games have attempted to imitate since).  It also achieved something that few superhero games had managed to do in the videogame genre: It made you feel like Batman. Videogames have always seemed the perfect medium to put you in the boots of a superhero but they have always fallen short of the mark to a certain extent though (except Superman 64), possibly due to the fact that they are often movie tie-ins. Arkham Asylum certainly managed to capitalise on this though, and became an instant classic. Its sequel Arkham City took all the great things about Arkham Asylum and adapted it to an open-world Gotham. Although I lament the tendency of games to have to be open-world in order to be considered worthy, Arkham City did it with flair. Rocksteady made gliding high above the Gotham cityscape and descending on your enemies like winged death feel effortless and expanded Batman’s already formidable toolset. Warner Brothers (the publisher on Rocksteady’s games) then cashed in on the franchise by developing their own prequel, Arkham Origins. Although it walked and talked like Rocksteady’s entries in the series, it lacked some of the soul that Asylum and City had in spades. So it is no surprise that expectations for Arkham Knight were high, and there was a general feeling of good faith in Rocksteady to give us the definitive Batman experience that would cap off the trilogy while leveraging the power of a new generation of consoles. Unfortunately, while Arkham Knight is a fantastic game in its own right and continues the tradition of the excellent franchise, it falls slightly short of being the series’ magnum opus.

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My city

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Scarecrow: Meth. Not even once

The story of Arkham Knight begins with a city in the clutches of fear as Scarecrow threatens to unleash clouds of toxic gas that make anyone who breathes it murderously violent. The citizens of Gotham evacuate en masse leaving only Batman and the marauding gangs of criminals in the city who work directly or indirectly for the Scarecrow. It’s up to Batman to bring Scarecrow and his accomplices to justice and stop his nefarious plans, made all the more difficult by the fact that Scarecrow is currently being aided by the titular Arkham Knight, a villain whose identity is shrouded in mystery but who has an intimate knowledge of Batman’s techniques making him a powerful adversary. He also commands a legion of tanks which certainly doesn’t hurt if you’re looking to go toe-to-toe with the Caped Crusader. The story setup is convenient and comes off as a little blunt, but nonetheless manages to quickly reintroduce the city that will soon become your playground, and what a beautiful playground it turns out to be. The game takes place exclusively at night, with the classic Gotham architecture bathed in the light of an ominous full moon. The massive world has a stunning amount of tiny details packed in, from the heaving choppy waters of the harbour to the steady downpour that makes the city streets slick with rain and gloomily reflect the blinking neon street signs. The graphics in Arkham Knight are simply stellar and some of the best I’ve seen on consoles to date. On PS4, the game runs at a beautiful 1080p resolution at an impressively steady 30 fps, that dips visibly only occasionally. This is in stark contrast to the PC version (ported by Iron Galaxy), which was pulled from sale soon after release due to crippling framerate issues and game-breaking bugs and glitches that rendered the game virtually unplayable on that platform. As of writing a fix for PC players is still in the works.

With such a large city, it is important that traversal is fast and smooth, and Arkham Knight continues the series’ impeccable track record in this regard. The controls are simple and responsive, allowing you to glide and rappel your way across the city expanse with graceful ease. Swift and precise manoeuvres give a real sense of power to Batman’s character and I never tired of dipping and diving like a menacing shadow over the unruly Gotham streets.

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Batman: Not above torturing criminals with the Batmobile

In probably one of Rocksteady’s most interesting and divisive moves they’ve also given you another way to traverse the streets of Gotham: The Batmobile. Very early on you are introduced to this force of nature, and it is clear Rocksteady wanted the Batmobile to be integrated into every element of Arkham Knight, and it becomes a sort of core focus. The Batmobile functions as either a super-fast car or a highly manoeuvrable tank with an arsenal to match. While for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed the Batmobile, the focus is a little too much at times, and it is introduced a bit heavy-handedly. One of the first missions quickly introduces the Batmobile and then almost immediately after throws in a section with relatively awkward vehicular platforming. I don’t think a world exists in which this particular mashup of driving and platforming works, and it was not a great way to meet the vehicle that would be accompanying me for the rest of my journey. However, once you acclimatise to the Batmobile and accept that it’s there to stay, it becomes much more fun and develops into another great traversal tool. Something a little odd about traveling around in the Batmobile is the inevitable wanton destruction you will cause. This thing is fast, and you’re bound to be sideswiping a thing or too as you tear around the city. I’m not just talking about the occasional rubbish bin either, I routinely smashed through fences, stone railings, statues, trees and pylons. To the Batmobile’s credit it just tends to plough through these things like a champ, but I almost expected Gotham to simply collapse in a heap of rubble considering the millions of dollars of structural damage I caused during my playthrough.

Aside from vehicular combat you will also be engaging in a bit of Batman’s signature brand of fisticuffs. Batman can easily take on scores of enemies, countering their attacks with a button press then unleashing attacks of his own, whether that be with his fists or with the vast array of gadgets he carries. As with the other titles in the series, the combat is fast and brutal fun. Although Batman is sworn to never take a life, that doesn’t mean he won’t break your arm in eight places then knee you in the face. The comic book-style sound effects never get old and there is a grim satisfaction to bone-snapping your way to victory against a small army. There are also new enemies in the mix such as the Shield Brute that require you to take them down in a specific way. It can get a little overwhelming when you have multiple different enemy types that all demand a different way to take them down, and you are punished for losing your combat flow. While the combat is still fantastic, I got the sense that at times it was a little bloated and over-complicated. This extended to the predator mode, which has you skulking in the shadows or above enemies on vantage points and stalking them one-by-one. You are given countless ways of neutralising your enemies without being seen and there are some extremely cool emergent moments. For instance, I used the Disruptor gun to rig an enemy’s gun to incapacitate him when fired, which he only found out about when he tried to shoot his friend down from the gargoyle I had strung him up to. Even with all the ways of dispatching your enemies stealthily, you’ll probably only need to rely on a few key ones to get by.

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Looking good Gotham

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Batman vs Manbat: Best headline since Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

It wouldn’t be a superhero game without a bunch of cameos, and although they are certainly here, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed by them. There are the usual suspects you’d expect like Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Two Face and Poison Ivy, as well as your partners in crime fighting Nightwing and Robin (who despite the modern update to his look still manages to look a bit fruity). However their various roles (mostly on the villain side) come off as feeling a bit minor, and there is a paucity of new and surprising characters popping up during the game. For the final game in the trilogy I felt that the DC Universe was left slightly underutilised. I understand that Rocksteady wanted to tell a focused tale without cameos simply for the sake of it, but one or two more side quests with any of DC’s vast roster would not have gone astray.

So the ultimate question is does the final instalment provide a satisfying conclusion to Batman’s tale? As is often the case, the overarching black-and-white hero versus villain story is far less interesting than the hero’s journey itself. Batman’s personal trials as he fights to protect his friends and city, all the while struggling with a slight descent into madness brought on by the Joker’s dying legacy, is well captured here. Despite some of its more convoluted Dead Parentsaspects, the characterisations and accompanying stories were quite moving, particularly the origins of the Arkham Knight. However something that I believe to be an ill-advised design choice on Rocksteady’s behalf was to lock the true ending to the game behind 100% completion of all the main and side quests. This would be fine if it weren’t for the Riddler challenges, of which there are a staggering 243. These range from simply finding trophies, to solving visual riddles or destroying specific objects that are littered around Gotham. Many of the aforementioned trophies are linked to puzzles that you must solve in order to get to them. These puzzles are incredibly varied and well-designed, and make complete use of all your gadgets, including the Batmobile. It is immensely rewarding to complete all of the arrogant trickster’s challenges, but it takes almost the same amount of time playing the main game to get absolutely all of them. While I enjoyed this aspect, I imagine there will be a vocal few who won’t have the patience to persevere with the challenges, and without the true ending you aren’t really given a satisfying ending at all. The true ending (which you can view here), also poses more questions than it answers, and while dramatic and well-presented, does not give a sense of finality to the tale.

Arkham Knight is an interesting blend of many different gameplay systems. Part brawler, part stealth, part detective, part vehicular shenanigans, it takes many varied elements and does a good job of stitching them together into a cohesive whole. There is a high degree of visual and gameplay polish, and an interesting (if a little murky at times) multi-faceted story. However, during my playthrough I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps Rocksteady lost sight of the core of the Arkham games, and Arkham Knight ends up being only a little better than the sum of its parts. Lucky then that each of these parts are so well-crafted, but when I look back on this series, it is Arkham Asylum that I will remember most fondly.

Reviewed on PS4.