In 2009, then little known developer Rocksteady with only one game to their credit changed the way the world would look at licensed and comic book games forever with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Combining an amazing combat system, tense sneaking encounters, a touch of Metroid-esque gadget collection and exploration as well as fan-favourite cast members from the beloved 90’s animated series like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, Rocksteady proved that not only could an excellent Batman game exist, but its quality could also match that of all the other AAA games on the market.
Now six years and four games later, Rocksteady has returned to complete the series they started having not produced any output since the phenomenal sequel Batman: Arkham City in 2011. After numerous delays and fan expectations for the closing chapter of Rocksteady’s historic series at an all time high, does Batman: Arkham Knight give the series the proper send off it deserves? Resoundingly, yes. Batman: Arkham Knight serves as a reminder to not only just how amazing comic book games can be when given the proper care and attention, but how all AAA video game development should be approached. That being said, there are a few stumbling blocks that prevent Knight from being absolutely perfect.
Unlike 2013’s Batman: Arkham Origins, Arkham Knight is a direct sequel to Rocksteady’s last game, Batman: Arkham City. Batman’s greatest foe, the Joker, is no more and Gotham City is in relative peace, that is until Scarecrow enacts a plan to end the Dark Knight once and for all with a vast army lead by a new villain known only as the Arkham Knight. I won’t get into much more story details than that as I don’t want to spoil anything, though by the time this will be published I’m sure everyone may already know the twists and turns the plot takes. Overall the story is a gripping tale that serves as a fitting end to this series of games and shows through interactions with Batman’s rogues gallery that the hero of the story may be just as crazy as the people he’s trying to protect Gotham City from.
The story does have some weaknesses however, the main one being the revelation of the titular villain. Early on I had my suspicions as to who was under the mask, and then the game pretty much spells it out for the player before the final reveal. Rocksteady seemed to go out of their way to hype up the character as their own personal creation and did an admirable job of hiding their identity, and having completed the main campaign, I feel that these lengths were taken because the reveal is a let down. The same goes for another twist that I have to dance around a little by stating I wasn’t as shocked as how Rocksteady wanted me to be because of my history with Batman, and even I wouldn’t go on record as saying I’m the biggest fan of the character out there playing this right now. Another gripe I have is with the game’s conclusion in that it’s locked behind completing absolutely everything in the game, including all 243 Riddler collectibles. I understand that thematically is makes sense no foe should be left unpunished, but never in this series short lifespan has major plot points been walled behind completing one-hundred percent of everything and this being the supposed final chapter in the series, it’s a poor place to implement this.
Those instances aside though, I didn’t ever want to put down my controller even to eat because I was so engrossed in the game’s narrative in way I haven’t been since I can’t even remember. I honestly feel bad for whoever has to follow Rocksteady’s shoes with whatever incarnation WB Games’ Batman video game franchise takes after this as I don’t think they’ll ever be able to understand the legend of Batman and how it relates to Gotham City as well as the foes he comes into opposition with in the way Rocksteady does. There’s so many points that I would love to get into greater detail with, but really, just pick up this game, grab a controller and see for yourself.
Each entry in the Arkham series has never been lacking when it comes to telling a compelling story, and no good story would be worth a half scratched up Two-Face coin if the game wasn’t fun to play, which Arkham Knight certainly is. Veterans of the other games will feel right at home as the same attack/counter two-button set up for combat, and some new wrinkles like a medic that not only brings back fallen enemies but electrifies them as well help keep things from every feeling like a retread of the other games. What will also make it hard to go back to post-Knight games is the new “Fear multi takedown” manoeuver wherein you can eliminate anywhere between three-to-five enemies depending on how you upgrade yourself at a time. Not only does it look insanely cool as the game slows down for you to pick off your next victim, but it’s also handy for completing predator encounters.
The series toyed with adding other members of the extended Bat-family as playable characters in Batman: Arkham City through post-release content, but this time heroes like Robin, Nightwing a returning Catwoman all show up for the main event. They’re relegated to side-missions and the instances where you can swap playing Batman for someone else are limited to fights, but I won’t lie and say it’s not awesome to perform a team-up takedown with Batman and one of his partners.
Of course Batman is nothing without his trusty gadgets, and Knight has a lot of returning favourites with new functions combined with new tools for Batman’s war on crime. The hacking tool, for example, which was once used for just opening doors can now hi-jack combat drones and open up blind spots to allow you to progress through areas without being seen. One of the best additions is a voice hacking device where you can simulate people’s voices to trick enemies into leaving their positions and leaving them vulnerable to attack.
The most polarizing addition to Batman’s arsenal this time around is another series first, the Batmobile. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about its inclusion as the opening hours really hammer it in just how much Rocksteady wants you to care about finally being able to drive the vehicle, but as the game went on, I found myself truly loving having it in the game. It has two modes: As a traditional vehicle that controls just right with the appropriate amount of weight and force, and tank mode where you can freely strafe around and shoot tanks, drones and enemies. The transition is handled very smoothly, that is if you change the Battlemode to “toggle” and not “hold”, and when in tank mode, the game felt a lot like Activision’s Cybertron series of Transformers games, which to me is the gold standard for vehicle combat in games.
If the Batmobile was just used for driving and shooting tanks, it would be a wasted opportunity, but Rocksteady really thought up of some clever uses for the vehicle and organically integrated them into the game. You’ll use it in high-speed, dangerous Mario Kart like tracks created by none other than the Riddler and to solve some clever puzzles as well like creating ramps for some basic platforming and using the Batmobile’s winch to create a makeshift elevator. It brought to mind Metroid Prime 3: Corruption when Retro Studios implemented Samus’ gunship in much the game way and that impressed me then, and this game impresses me now in the same way. The most damning thing I can say about the Batmobile is that it’s used too much in the few boss fights there are, in particular I felt cheated out of a returning character in one of the side-missions that I hoped would be a traditional showdown and not a tank battle.
As Batman left the Asylum and entered the City, these games have only gotten bigger and Arkham Knight is absolutely enormous. Those who complain about how short games better get ready to set aside a lot of time for Arkham Knight as Gotham City is packed with things to do around every corner. Whether you’re tracking down Riddler trophies, playing the main story or hunting down some of Gotham’s worst in countless side-missions, you’ll never run out things to do for a very, very long time. While some activities are more fun that others, personally I like for example hunting down a serial killer with the enhanced multi-layer forensic scanner over chasing down armoured cars, I never felt bored doing anything and appreciated the variety among all the different activities.
This is the debut of the Arkham series on the current generation of consoles and I don’t think a better case could be made for upgrading from a PS3 or Xbox 360 to a new hardware than this game. Despite being set in a dark and rainy environment, everything is a beautiful sight to behold from the rain running down Batman’s taught cape to the various Easter Egg’s found all around the city. The hardware upgrade doesn’t just affect looks, but performance as well as transitions are made from interior environments from the open city and enemies both live and mechanical flood the streets without any noticeable drop in performance.
Batman: Arkham Knight is not without its faults as certain plot points don’t feel as powerful as they should and the hiding of the game’s real conclusion behind getting absolutely everything makes a somewhat tedious task much more excruciating than it has ever been in the other games. Those small grips should not deter you from playing this game though, as this will easily go down as one of, if not the greatest game to get released in 2015: The combat is still incredible, there’s plenty to do and the Batmobile adds yet another layer of enjoyment to an already winning formula. If this is indeed Rocksteady’s last outing in the Batman franchise, I can’t think of a better send off. In 2009 they showed the world just how good comic book games could be, and in 2015, they’re showing how all other comic book games since then have been letting us down. As much as I enjoyed my time with this latest chapter in the Arkham series, I feel sadness in that a game of this type will either be a long ways a way, or will never again come to pass.