Batman: Arkham Knight
Batman: Arkham Knight is a narrative juggernaut crammed to capacity with excellent heroes, villains, battles, drama, humor, fan service, and the mother of all plot twists (you won’t see this one coming, folks). Arkham Knight is easily the most engaging story in the series – a tale that caters just as much to people seeking a high-octane, rock ‘em sock ‘em superhero war as it does those cerebral storyphiles looking for a jaw-dropping narrative. Outside of one of Batman’s wonderful toys having a flat tire for a significant chunk of this experience, Arkham Knight is a welcome assault of comic-book bliss and stunning new-gen visuals.
Most of the videos and information shared prior to Arkham Knight’s launch are from its introductory moments and side content. Rocksteady Studios, WB Games, and everyone involved in the project kept the majority of the story under lock and key. Once the secret plot developments take root, just looking at the TV or hearing the game for a few seconds can ruin one of the coolest twists I’ve seen in a Batman story. It happens within the first hour or two of this adventure, and remains a constant for most of the experience. Through that wild development and others, we see Rocksteady at the height of its game for visual and aural storytelling, going to great lengths to find the best perspective for a shot, whether it’s from first-person, third, panned, or through the eyes of a different character.
Without giving away any spoilers (of which there is an exhaustive supply), this chapter picks up nine months after the events of Arkham City, showing how Gotham has healed itself after the death of one of Arkham Asylum’s perennial guests. Peace has returned to the city’s streets, allowing people to leave the safety of their homes to enjoy the nightlife and arts in boroughs that were once only for people with a death wish or sinister intentions.
That’s when Halloween night brings a grim reminder of the past. Scarecrow resurfaces, and he wants to destroy Gotham with a fear toxin. The citizens have until the next morning to leave. Of the 6.3 million people that call Gotham home, not many remain when Batman begins his hunt for Scarecrow. A mysterious character named Arkham Knight complicates matters and unleashes an army against the Caped Crusader. It’s a cheesy video game setup that is used to quickly establish an axis and – to a lesser extent – explain why the city’s streets are free of ordinary people.
Gotham is a beautifully realized playground for Batman, ranging from a borough filled with century-old architecture to another glowing with a bombardment of Times Square-like advertisements and light. He can glide overhead with ease thanks to an increase in speed and refinement in the controls. He can also take to the streets in his iconic Batmobile, a vehicle that controls remarkably well and is almost as fully featured as any lead character in a game. For roughly three quarters of the game, it’s the equivalent of Robin – a sidekick that does some cool stuff, but is mostly annoying. I love how it’s used for puzzle solving and specific environment navigation, but its combat applications disappoint for the majority of the game, and they are called upon often.
The Batmobile doubles as a tank that glides across the ground effortlessly in 360 degrees. Its opponents are usually rival tanks, which are a part of Scarecrow and Arkham Knight’s ridiculous army (which must have cost them billions). The Batmobile packs a satisfying punch with its cannon, but is slow on the reload, making the battles chug along. Batman’s hand-to-hand combat is instantly satisfying (and always has been), and ramps up in difficulty as the game progresses. The Batmobile’s combat eventually becomes intense and twitch-worthy, but you spend a significant amount of time slogging through easy fights to get there. The best Batmobile moments are tied to the Riddler’s races and puzzles (which are gonzo and over-the-top), and environmental navigation that taps the winch for a number of tasks.
When he’s not lollygagging in his car, Batman is a force to be reckoned with. And he isn't alone; Catwoman, Nightwing, Robin, and Azrael are all playable for certain combat sequences. The player can switch between Batman and one of these allies, or can call upon them for stylish tag-team finishers. I found combat to be much easier than previous entries, as the timing window for counters appears to be longer. Batman can also freely beat the snot of downed foes with standard punches (although the somewhat slow “ground takedown” is still an option).
Batman’s gadgets are used in ways we’ve seen before, but not as frequently. Yes, he rips the covers off of vents, hacks security doors, and needs to use his grapple line to zip across vast chasms, but these familiar navigation elements are tapped sparingly. Most of the story mission environments are loaded with variety, or play off of that excellent plot twist to sew in unexpected sequences or dramatic shifts in visual design. Batman unveils a couple of new toys (which I won't spoil) that bring interesting diversionary tactics to stealth combat and more. Detective vision finds new life through a nicely designed murder mystery involving a villain that is a deep-cut for Batman fans, but is used largely for the same song and dance from the previous Arkham titles. It's a necessity for studying enemy formations and searching for secrets.
While many of Batman’s iconic foes get face time, there aren’t many traditional boss battles against them. Two-Face is a standard enemy in a stealth sequence, and he can be taken down just like any other foe. Other battles against characters are tied to cinematic moments, which may or may not require input from you. All of the final exchanges with villains are well thought out, and you never know what to expect from them. The Batmobile unloads ammo against bosses with health bars, but most hand-to-hand boss conflicts are free of repeating the same tactics numerous times.
Gotham is once again littered with secrets, including 243 Riddler trophies to collect. Some trophies are out in the open, but most are locked away through a wide variety of puzzle contraptions. I had a blast trying to collect them all. Most of the side content shows the same care and polish that went into the story and accompanying missions. The game is structured like any other in the series – giving players freedom to veer off of the beaten path to tackle side missions or explore the city at any time. The content is better organized in Arkham Knight, allowing players to take on any task they see fit with a simple click of a button from a radial mission menu.
Rocksteady makes a strong push for players to see all of it, so much so that it hurts the end-game experience. Once the final story mission is complete, some semblance of closure is delivered, but specific plot points are left dangling, and the credits don’t roll like you expect them to. The player is then asked to clean up some of the side content to initiate another story sequence that brings a new ending and, at long last, the credits. Getting this ending requires a fair amount of time be spent tracking down villains and cleaning up side activities, like rescuing all of the firefighters or taking down Arkham Knight’s outposts (both of which are welcome endeavors). But that isn’t it. To see the real, real ending, you need to complete all of the side content, including every Riddler challenge – which, if you’ve done this in previous games, is a serious time commitment. Most people will probably retreat to YouTube to view the final act.
At the end of it all, Batman: Arkham Knight delivers a great sense of closure for this series. Rocksteady leaves a few plot threads dangling to tease and taunt us, but the grim tale that started all the way back in Arkham Asylum is done. I walked away from Arkham Knight shocked, satisfied, and in dire need of someone to discuss the story with. Rocksteady built a special experience that dazzles with its cleverness, intelligence, and ability to shift from kick-ass Batman moments to emotional gut punches to scenes stripped straight from some of Batman's greatest comic book stories. Lock yourself away, avoid social media and friends, and finish this game. You won't want this one spoiled for you.