Batman never seems to be having a good night. No matter what he does to reduce the horrendous crime rates in Gotham City, they always come surging back again. No sooner does he put another dangerously insane criminal away in Arkham Asylum than the nefarious schemes of another of his heavily populated rogue’s gallery bubble to the surface. It’s always something.
So it goes too with Batman: Arkham Knight, the concluding chapter in Rocksteady’s “Hey check it out, we actually made some good licensed superhero video games!” trilogy (no-one mention Arkham Origins). With the Joker dead at the conclusion of previous title Arkham City – and the staying-dead nature of that death hammered home by the very first action the player takes in Arkham Knight – you’d think poor old Bats might get a bit of a break.
But no; the Scarecrow steps into the villain vacuum, dropping his most potent fear toxin yet onto a diner-load of innocents and threatening to spread it throughout the rest of Gotham. One evacuation of millions of citizens later, all that remains is a beleaguered GCPD, a running-riot, thousands-strong criminal element, and Batman, tasked with trying to clean up the entire mess virtually single-handedly – all while dealing with some rather pressing personal problems of his own. Someone cancel all of Bruce Wayne’s appointments.
This time, the player’s playground and Batman’s burden is all of Gotham City, rendered here in glorious rain-slicked Gothicism that can make just taking the time to perch on a tall building somewhere to project your Batman glower out over the cityscape one of the more satisfying activities in the game. It’s been a bit of a wait for a big game to come along that would truly make the most of current-gen console hardware, but here it is; the rain running over Batman’s black cape catches the light in just the right way as he soars over the dingy alleys and garish neon of Gotham alike with never a loading bar in sight. It’s gorgeous.
With a Gotham that’s five times larger than the play spaces of prior games, Batman needs some good ways to get around. Gliding gets a decent upgrade from Arkham City, allowing the Caped Crusader to more or less fly above the city as he sees fit for very long distances – and swooping around is tops – but more notably the Batmobile is put into field service for the first time in the series. It’s a logical addition to Rocksteady’s Batman world, but one that has a bit of a tendency to frustrate even as it succeeds in other ways.
A bit of Waynetech kit so advanced it meets the old Arthur C Clarke rule of being indistinguishable from magic, the Batmobile is both a race car and a tank. As a race car, trying to drive it is a little bit like heading out onto an ice rink with two blocks of butter tied to the bottom of your feet, and although familiarity with the handling starts to help as the game goes on, the chase tasks through Gotham that the game keeps throwing up can still be irritating. On the other hand, when the car is dropped into some of the race tracks that one of the game’s villains is (ludicrously) considerate enough to create, it’s fun to fire up the afterburner and complete ridiculous 360 degree vertical loops.
In tank mode, the Batmobile gains the ability to strafe, and also pops a cannon and vulcan gun out of the roof in order to do battle with unmanned tanks flooding Gotham’s streets. Again, there’s some fun to be had here in scooting the Batmobile out of harm’s way and chain-gunning incoming missiles out of the sky. But then the game throws a few too many of these street battles at the player until the appearance of more tanks eventually becomes more of an annoyance, eventually adding mega-tanks that must be taken out in painful stealth sequences.
Car puzzle sections (yes, these are somehow a thing) involving pressure plates, jumps, and narrow ledges typically also more often frustrate than satisfy. Still, neat touches do enough to tip the Batmobile addition over into a net positive. Ejecting from the speeding car to deliver a boot to a hapless goon’s face, or juggling a thug into the air during a fistfight so that the Batmobile’s turret can turn and nail him mid-flight with a beanbag round all help to add a quintessentially bad-arse Batmanesque feeling to proceedings.
This remains intact in the other game systems too. The excellent pillars of predator mode and the flowing man-vs-mob combat systems arrive intact from previous games, with a few neat additions. In combat goons gain the likes of pesky tackles and medics who can revive downed colleagues; Batman responds with the ability to turn their (non-lethal) weapons against them and environment-based takedowns (and leaping up to bring a lampshade crashing down onto some guy’s head never really gets old).
Occasionally, too, you’ll fight with an ally and can initiate Tekken Tag style team-up moves that swaps you over to control of that character for a while. Basic button bashing will take you so far, but the mix of enemies often requires a more educated approach, and those looking to bring out the Dark Knight’s more visually spectacular manoeuvres will definitely want to delve through the moves list.
In the stealth/stalking predator sections, there are again a few new additions. Most fun is the new Fear Takedown, where Batman can leap into a gaggle of surprised enemies and take out several in slow-motion succession as they panic. Millions of Wayne science dollars also produce a few new gadgets, including a handy anti-gun gun that’s your best friend ahead of a surprise attack on armed enemies.
The game’s plot sees the Scarecrow’s enacting his plans with aid from the eponymous Arkham Knight, an initially mysterious if generic new villain who has something of a personal vendetta against Batman (don’t they all?). Tracking the Scarecrow and the Knight and trying to prevent the catastrophic release of the fear toxin is the main plot driver, but this is far from being all that’s going on. When he’s not on the trail of Scarecrow, Batman can try to head off the separate schemes of Two-Face, the Riddler, and Penguin, locate and defuse the Arkham Knight’s various potentially city-leveling bombs, solve a series of murders with detective work, hunt down militia convoys, or try to work out what the big flying bat creature is (the one that’s not you) – and that’s not a comprehensive list.
While a lot of these side missions are entertaining (and have entire major subplots attached to them), many can start to feel like busy-work – a bit of padding that would be more forgivable if full completion of the game was not required for the “proper” ending. Compounding the problem is the open world nature of the game, which means no time pressure on anything.
There’s no need to make tough choices, because supposedly imminent murders never occur, and blazing buildings burn indefinitely until Batman arrives to put them out. This lends proceedings a bit of an air that feel less like a high-stakes “Oh no, who do I save?” and more like “Ticking items one at a time off Batman’s to-save list”. And on said list: nearly every woman in the game, as the series continues to do pretty poorly by female characters.
However, some decent story twists and supporting turns keep things moving along well enough, with MVP work done by a character rather cleverly shoehorned into proceedings. It’s also aided by some seriously good presentation tricks that do a lot to highlight the advantages of interactive media as a storytelling medium. It’s all very po-facedly grim-dark in modern Batman tradition, but that works well enough here in the operatic sort of environment that Rocksteady have successfully created.
And really, the success of their approach has been to present the story of Batman as a modern epic. By and large, Arkham Knight succeeds as an epic conclusion – even if, in the manner of older epics, it has a few too many equivalent pages of elves singing. But you don’t think about that in moments where you’re dropping straight into the cockpit of the Batmobile from 10 storeys up, lurking high above a group of unaware thugs and planning your strike, or grappling back up into the dark rafters even as another unconscious body drops to the ground. What you think is: I am the Batman.