Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 23 June 2015
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
In 2009, Rocksteady produced possibly the greatest licensed game of all time – Batman: Arkham Asylum. While most licensed games tend to be cheap, shallow cash-ins, Rocksteady’s developers created something special – an atmospheric, well-crafted experience that made you feel like you actually were Batman. Then they did it again, bigger and better, in 2011’s Arkham City. So as the finale of the series, Arkham Knight had a lot to live up to. Happily, the game still serves as an effective conclusion and worthy entry to the series in its own right.
The plot takes place on a long Halloween, as Batman finds himself in a city devoid of civilians but crawling with thugs, recreants and supercriminals. As arch-villain Scarecrow declares his intent to coat the East Coast of the USA with fear toxin, our hero has one night to stop him and all the other rogues in his coalition, including the Penguin, Two-Face, Riddler and Harley Quinn. And there’s a new villain out for Batman’s blood too – the mysterious, militarized Arkham Knight.
So the premise is the same as City and Asylum, but hey, if the formula ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That also seems to be the prevailing attitude when it comes to the game mechanics, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A few new moves are added to the combat system and a few new tricks and enemies get thrown into stealth missions. Now you can perform “fear takedowns” to smash through multiple enemies in a second, which are nice and cinematic though they make the missions a bit too easy, and you get the Voice Synthesizer instead of a Sonic Batarang. Everything else is the same, though it all still works perfectly to make the player feel like a superheroic vigilante in a bat costume.
The biggest addition to gameplay is the Batmobile. Now Batman can ride around the city in his rocket-fuelled sports car, or battle unmanned military drones (because no killing, remember) by having it transform into a tank. At first, the car’s somewhat annoying. Since players have to figure out how to use it, it’s shoehorned into the majority of the game’s first act, and you’ll long for the days you could infiltrate a lair without the Batmobile as backup. Though its inclusion eventually becomes less glaring, there are still elements where the car feels unnecessary as the game progresses, exacerbated by the fact you’re forced to use it for all but a few boss fights. But the Batmobile does have its perks as the tank battles are fun and the car chases are especially entertaining, and there’s still joy in blasting the Batmobile down Gotham’s streets and ramming into unlucky henchmen.
As for level design, the city seems more alive than the map in Arkham Origins, with cars racing down the streets with easter eggs all around, and colourful, distinctive environments. There are some fun indoor areas to fight through too, like an abandoned film studio, the ACE Chemicals Plant and the inside of a blimp. And there are also side missions to occupy your time, but the quality of these vary. They range from the great (Two-Face’s timed stealth missions, Riddler’s challenges), to the not-so-great (the seemingly endless militia missions, or the extended cutscene that is Hush’s sidequest).
Finally, there’s the story. On the plus side, there are some brilliant moments in there – a sidekick seemingly dying in front of you, Gotham drowning in gas, the hallucination sequences, the final battle at Arkham and the musical number (yes, that happens). John Noble’s Scarecrow is a great villain, though it would have been nice to have some hallucinations centered around him like in Asylum. And best of all, we get a surprise comeback from Mark Hamill as the Joker, stalking Batman as a hallucination. His pitch-dark humour adds levity to a grim narrative, while his posthumous presence lets the writers examine a question no Batman story’s really examined: what would Batman do if Joker actually died?
As for negatives? Well, the mystery of the Arkham Knight falls flat. He’s a moody young vigilante who knows Batman’s methods and has a personal grudge against him, and assuming you’ve heard of Under The Red Hood you already know exactly who he is. Furthermore, at least two villains reform without any real motivation, the moment the game seems to be leading up to throughout (Batman realizing he needs his allies) never comes, and there’s some shabby treatment of female characters. Really, it says something when Harley Quinn’s the female character with the most agency throughout the game.
Other, miscellaneous gripes are that at present, the game’s still broken on PCs to the point that Steam still won’t sell it, which is what happens when you outsource your PC port to twelve developers at Iron Galaxy. There’s also a dearth of challenge maps compared to previous games, but don’t worry! There’s more showing up as DLC later. If you pay.
Overall, though, assume that anything I didn’t complain about here was great. Arkham Knight’s an outstanding game at the end of the day. Though it never quite surpasses either of its predecessors, it’s an excellent finale to what’s been one of my favourite Batman adaptations. If this really is the end, Rocksteady, you’ll be missed – it’ll be interesting to see where you go from here.