Batman: Arkham Knight Review (PlayStation 4)
Rocksteady Studios' final Batman game has been a long time coming. Since Batman: Arkham Asylum's release, Rocksteady has been tinkering with the formula that made that first game so successful, and the culmination of those efforts can be seen in Batman: Arkham Knight. The combat so many competitors have aped is as sharp as ever, the breadth and scope of Gotham City are staggering, and the presentation is absolutely eye-popping. The inclusion of the Batmobile, divisive as it may be, for the first time shows that Rocksteady is willing to take big chances even with its final word on the franchise. Despite its over-reliance on a few new tricks, Batman: Arkham Knight is a stellar game that cements Rocksteady Studios as one of the premiere action game developers of the modern era.
Picking up almost a year after the events of Batman: Arkham City, Arkham Knight puts the Scarecrow front and center as the big bad taunting the Batman. Gotham's been evacuated on the promise of Scarecrow's threat to blow up the whole city, leaving a skeleton crew of police officers, firemen, and Batman to stop the Scarecrow's plan. The Scarecrow isn't working alone however, and has familiar foes like Penguin, Two-Face and Firefly roaming the streets, as well as newcomer the Arkham Knight, holding Batman at bay. Though Batman does get some help from the rest of the Bat-family throughout his quest to save Gotham (again), the fate of the city lies almost entirely on Bruce Wayne's shoulders.
There are a lot of crazy plot developments in Arkham Knight, as Rocksteady is throwing every monkey in the wrench that it can to put the final stamp on its Batman legacy. It's nearly impossible to talk about any plot points other than those we mentioned above without delving into spoiler territory. Rocksteady's kitchen sink mentality in regards to narrative will make longtime fans of the character and game happy (via fan service nods). It'll also frustrate them with the frequent incomprehensible decisions made along the way. For every moment where you're reveling in Rocksteady's willingness to ensure no nod is left behind, there are equal moments when you'll be thinking, "Wait, what?!"
That kind of storytelling is an unfortunate hallmark of the Arkham series, which has always been full of great references for die-hards and baffling, eyebrow-raising moments of characterization and plot. The idea that Rocksteady might somehow turn it all around in time for the big finale may have been misguided, but it's still a bit disappointing to get hours into a game and witness some truly head-shaking moments. That's not to say it's not a story worth telling (though we wish some moments hadn't been told); it's just that there's so much happening at any given moment, it's hard to keep consistent tone and motivation for Batman and the rest of the cast for 20 plus hours.
In spite of the continued plot convolutions, Arkham Knight is thoroughly enjoyable to play. Rocksteady's formula for combat is still one of the best we've seen and used in an action game, and the improvements this time around only make one of the best fighting engines even stronger. The basic premises of attacks and counter-attacks remains unchanged from previous efforts, as do the different enemy types and familiar strategies for defeating them. Some new henchmen arrive on the scene, including katana-wielding ninjas and brutes with knife gauntlets, and the inclusions do make you rethink old strategies, particularly when outnumbered by the dozen. But just as there are new thugs roaming Gotham's empty streets, there are new methods of pain for Batman to inflict.
The standard array of weapons and gadgets returns (batarangs, explosive gel, disruptor gun, etc.), and for once you don't have to earn all these abilities as you play. Some will come into play later in the game, but Rocksteady wisely avoids the trope of having to earn all your weapons and accessories in order to progress... to a degree. The Batmobile suffers a bit of the old progression hold-back, but it's not nearly as bad as the early Arkham experiences in that regard. The accessories and weapons can all be used in various forms during combat, just like the previous games, and you'll be able to earn experience to improve Batman's combat abilities again as well.
There are two distinct ways in which Rocksteady truly changes up combat for the better in Arkham Knight. The first is adding new Fear takedowns, which allows you to silently tackle a small handful of enemies in quick succession without raising any alarm. You have to build up enough quality normal silent takedowns to fill the Fear quotient, but when you do, it's a sight to behold. Rocksteady has already done an admirable job crafting melee combat that makes you feel like an utter boss like Batman, and this addition truly does add that layer you didn't even know was missing.
While Rocksteady didn't go so far as to include traditional co-op, there are moments in Arkham Knight where you do get to team up with another member of the Bat-family. Nightwing, Robin and Catwoman all offer a hand during various sequences, and all bring different combat prowess to the fold. You can swap back and forth between Batman and one of the others during these moments with a simple button press, never losing your combo, and seamlessly transitioning into the AI partner that's been getting a workout of its own. You could opt to stay in total control of Batman, and the AI would handle its business just fine, but where's the fun in that? There are also special combo finishers for each of the partners, which are a not only a treat to witness, but really satisfying to pull off.
But of course, nothing added to Batman: Arkham Knight impacts the game in quite the same way the Batmobile does. Rather than being relegated to gliding around the massive Gotham City map yet again, Rocksteady put a major focus on getting the Batmobile into the game and making it a necessary addition. Now, just how worthwhile you find the Batmobile may vary, but its inclusion is definitely welcome. For far too long, Batman has been minus one of his most famous and iconic tools. Getting the opportunity to tear through Gotham's streets in the tank-like vehicle feels great, and helps further the idea that you're really getting a chance to be the Batman.
The Batmobile is far from infallible however, and comes with a bit of baggage. In pursuit mode (read: traditional car mode), the Batmobile is absolutely unruly to handle. It's fast and heavy, and drives like a tank on ice. It wouldn't be so noticeable or annoying if it wasn't used so prevalently for car chases and Riddler challenges. In smaller increments, the Batmobile is a treat to drive, but since Rocksteady put such an emphasis on its addition into this game, missions, side-quests and puzzles rely on it far too much.
It's even worse when you need to use it in battle mode. Let's be real here; nobody correlates being Batman to fighting off seemingly endless waves of tanks. To provide more reason for the Batmobile to exist, the Arkham Knight brings an army of mercenaries into Gotham, including the drone tanks all mercenary groups apparently have in the video game DC Universe. There are dozens of them, and you will have to destroy almost every single one in order to progress though the game's story. The tank controls aren't bad, and you certainly have much more finesse at your disposal in this slower, more tactical mode of operation and transportation.
To a degree, these segments would be almost tolerable if Rocksteady didn't include stealth tank sections for reasons the universe will never comprehend. Sneaking up on enemy tanks from behind is tedious, over-complicated, and draws out missions too long. They are among the worst moments in the entire Arkham series. Just because Batman is stealthy doesn't mean his car has to be. It's so frustrating to have all the momentum sucked out of the story any time one of these stealth tank sections appears, and it's one of the more questionable design decisions Rocksteady made for Arkham Knight.
When it comes to Riddler challenges, the use of the Batmobile is rather impressive. There are a few different races you'll have to complete in order to earn some Riddler cred, but the challenges that aren't races show just how ambitious Rocksteady was willing to be with the Batmobile. There are some interesting platforming segments, and the puzzles created do put your brain to use in finding solutions to Riddler quandaries that they haven't been before. After playing Arkham Knight's first few Batmobile puzzles/segments, you will not be able to say Rocksteady played it safe. The Batmobile has been one of the more divisive elements of gameplay, but it's still admirable that Rocksteady was willing to try so hard to make this contribution more than just another mode of transportation.
It still is rather satisfying to glide all over the map, too, especially if you're in the mood to just cruise around. This version of Gotham City will make your eyes water because you'll never want to blink for fear of missing some of its distressed beauty. The grim and gritty comic book world is nothing new, but it's not something we've seen rendered anywhere else quite like this. Rocksteady's latest take on Gotham is massive, and is filled with so much detail and nuance, you almost forget for a second that it's not a real place. Whether it's the blinding neon lights, the zeppelins flying high above in the sky, or the familiar landmarks like Wayne Tower dotting the horizon, Gotham has never looked better. That might seem obvious given this is the first time Gotham's been rendered on a current generation console, but you will still be in awe of the city's squandered splendor from the moment Arkham Knight begins.
The journey from Arkham Asylum to Arkham Knight hasn't always been perfect, but Rocksteady's stayed true to its concept every step of the way to complete its vision for what and who Batman is. While you might find fault with elements of the execution, there's little doubt that Batman: Arkham Knight is the most complete and robust Batman game of all time. There's so much to like and admire about what Rocksteady's been able to accomplish with Batman: Arkham Knight that it's easy to forgive some of the more uneven moments. Batmobile missions are a bit of a chore, but it's still a blast to drive; the story is practically bursting with content and characters, but every step of the way reminded me how much Rocksteady has transformed this genre. Arkham Knight is a massive technical achievement on consoles, and as a final note on the character and franchise, it delivers in almost every way.
This review was completed with a retail copy of Batman: Arkham Knight provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.