Batman: Arkham Knight (2015) Review

(Originally written for Youtube Jul 1 2015)

Besides just being the best video game adaptation of a comic book superhero, Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise have been some of my more favorite games of the past generation. The original Arkham Asylum was the game that finally convinced me to pick up the Xbox 360, and likewise, I bought a PS4 so I could play the finale to Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy. Do I think it was worth it?

If I were asked to describe Arkham Knight in a word, it would be overambitious. It’s clear that Rocksteady wanted to close their trilogy with a bang, and they pulled out all the stops. The Gotham City in this game is 5 times larger than the one in Arkham City; Batman is equipped with a handful of new gadgets and fighting techniques; there are over a dozen side-quests, some of which introduce fresh villains to the Arkham franchise; and the main story goes darker than it’s been in previous games.

And, all credit due to Rocksteady, this all feels wonderful to play. The series’ trademark freeflow combat is faster and fiercer than ever, and the predator encounters that involve picking enemies off one-by-one are still some of the most satisfying things in video games. Both are improved dramatically by the new Fear-takedown mechanic that allows you to take-out up to five guys in one swift, “I-am-vengeance” feeling motion. Batman’s zip-lining and gliding movement has also been upgraded to the point where you never have to touch the ground if you don’t want to; and the bigger Gotham, which got a vertical increase as well as a horizontal one, is made of three distinct islands full of flavor and personality, and is an utter joy to explore. The game is also utterly gorgeous. Gliding past the neon lights of Gotham while rain slides off Batman’s cape is just awesome. Batman’s animations are as powerful and dynamic as ever. There are even moments were you discover side-missions organically by following a picked-up radio transmission from a random thug talking about a mutilated body, or just by gliding past a burning building. Batman: Arkham Knight nails what Batman should look and feel like.

However, the game does suffer from being over-stuffed. Some side-missions, like disarming roadside bombs, or taking out enemy check-points, begin to feel like padding by the end of the game; while other side-missions like the ones involving Two-Face or Hush don’t feel anywhere near as fleshed out as they should be. The Riddler also returns, bringing a sack of 243 trophies and collectables. This is about half of the Riddler challenges as there were in City, but there are fewer just out in the open to collect, and each presents more of a puzzle.

Arkham Knight’s story is spearheaded by the Scarecrow, who has taken an evacuated Gotham City hostage, and is threatening to bomb the entire East-Coast with his new brand of fear-toxin. This time, Scarecrow brought an army with him, led by the eponymous Arkham Knight, who himself seems to have a very personal vendetta against Batman. Fans of the comic or cartoon adaptations of Batman will probably be able to guess the identity of the Arkham Knight hours in advance of the World’s Greatest Detective; but that’s not the only twist the game’s story provides. If you’ve liked the smaller trippy moments provided by Scarecrow in previous games, you’ll surely get your fill of hallucinogenic mind-tricks as you play through Arkham Knight.

The story is, admittedly, weaker than Asylum’s or City’s plot-wise; but does a good job making up for plot weaknesses with strong emotional moments and an overwhelming sense of dread, and the feeling that you really are one man against an army. Returning voice-actors like Kevin Conroy as Batman continue doing the best job of inhabiting these characters that there has ever been, while John Nobel as Scarecrow can be legitimately terrifying. There is also an almost overwhelming feel of finality to the whole game. Rocksteady have affirmed repeatedly that this is the last game in the trilogy; and the games’ true ending, which is unlocked only after finding all the Riddler trophies and completing all the side-missions, will definitely leave fans talking for quite some time.

But besides all of that, hanging above the entire game like an anvil ready to be dropped, is the Batmobile. Half rocket, and half tank, Batman’s famous car pulls full time duty as a new form of transport, combat gadget, and puzzle-solving tool. There is so much focus on the car that a more accurate name for this game might have been Batman: Arkham Tank. While behind the wheel, Batman: Arkham Knight can turn into a racing game, 3rd person shooter, or even a platformer, or stealth game. There is almost no part of Arkham Knight that Rocksteady doesn’t try and include the Batmobile in, and this is to the game’s fault. There is no single game-breaking problem with the Batmobile so much as it is a lot of weird things that you can’t get used to all at once. While in Car mode, as opposed to Tank mode, handling the Batmobile takes some time to get used to. It obeys rules of physics seemingly unique to itself, being at some times too slippery, and at others too tight. You can build up a great feeling of momentum and lose it all in a second while taking a turn, then immediately get all of it back as soon as you exit the turn. While driving at high enough speeds you can plow through almost anything, but when stumbling across something that doesn’t instantly disintegrate under your bumper you have a 50/50 chance of either coming to a dead stop, or flipping sloppily through the air. Aggravating these issues are moments, like Riddler’s race challenges, that require precise driving through what amounts to a Mario Kart track, while under a strict time-limit. There are parts of this game involving the Batmobile that will make you want to snap your controller in half.

Unfortunately, playing in Tank mode, while less frustrating on the control end, doesn’t have enough variety to support how much of the game it takes up. There are only a small handful of enemy tank types to fight, all of which are taken out in the same way, and the only way Rocksteady saw to raise the challenge in these parts of the game is to steadily increase the number of tanks they throw at you at once. There are also Tank-based stealth segments, which work almost as well as you might expect. And, possibly the most shameful thing about the Batmobile addition is that it’s an objectively worse form of transport than gliding around Gotham.

The Batmobile, plainly, just doesn’t work, and isn’t fun. Its biggest sin however, is how much of the game relies on it. If the Batmobile were part of a single side-quest, or popped up a couple times during the story, these issues would have been a speed-bump in what is otherwise an almost perfect Batman experience. Being that you’ll spend at least a quarter of the game behind the wheel of this lemon means that I, or any other player, can’t just ignore it. It, unfortunately, brings the whole game down a notch.

Without the Batmobile, the only negative thing I would be able to say about Batman: Arkham Knight was that it felt like it tried to stuff in too much game. It would have been my favorite Arkham game by a long shot, if not one of my favorite games of all time. It looks great, feels great, and just nails everything that Batman should be. With the addition of the Batmobile, I can’t be so kind. As much as I’d like it to be, the Batmobile isn’t a small blemish I could ignore, but a massive scar that gets in the way of so much of the game. A Batman: Arkham Knight without the Batmobile would have gotten a 10/10.

As it is, Batman: Arkham Knight gets an 8/10. Thank you for watching.

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