Game Review: Batman: Arkham Knight (Console Version)

Batman: Arkham Asylum’s release back in 2009 was an amazing surprise that changed the way action elements in games were made, evident in releases like Shadow of Mordor and Witcher 3. Arkham City in 2011 tweaked and expanded the original foundation, fitted then with an open-world structure, enough to give the game a unique feel without stripping the formula of what made it so engaging in the first place. Now, this year’s Batman: Arkham Knight has done the same thing, offering more welcome tweaks and a big expansion in the form of the Batmobile’s offerings of high-speed travel and tank battle. Those gameplay evolutions along with the most interesting story of the trilogy, one that is sure to please even the most hardcore comic book readers, makes Arkham Knight a fitting conclusion to Rocksteady’s three games, even though it is troubled by some technical hiccups and downright embarrassing portrayal of women.

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Scarecrow takes over for Joker as the main antagonist this time around, but don’t expect anything nearly as memorable as the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately, he serves mainly as a catalyst for getting Gotham evacuated again to give players a very video gamey playground to mess around with, as well as a catalyst for the developers to play around a whole lot with fear toxin as a plot device. Because of everything done with his fear toxin to create disturbing and exciting hallucinations, his disappointing role as the lead villain is easily forgivable. Sometimes the fear toxin leads to some cheap, that didn’t really happen! cop-outs, but it’s mostly great stuff. It also helps that there is certainly no lack of villains to go around, the titular Arkham Knight, an interesting riff on an established character that ties in thematically to the arc of the whole Arkham series, being the other most notable.

As a whole, the narrative is great. As always, the voice performances are top-notch stuff, making this game indistinguishable from the most high-profile animated films in that regard. There are constant twists and turns until the very end of the game, keeping one guessing the entire time. It’s a lot like The Dark Knight Rises in that it constantly punches Batman in the gut time and time again, testing his psychological and physical strength ruthlessly. Arkham Knight takes advantage of what’s become a common storytelling strategy in superhero stories in the modern age, that being displaying a hero’s strength by forcing him to overcome conflicts that exploit his greatest weaknesses. Along the way, players are treated with some truly high-concept, abstract, and daring segments that offer some of the most killer story beats in games the past few years.

Sadly, the biggest problem with the game cuts away at the narrative, one of its strongest facets. Almost point-for-point, Arkham Knight does a hugely disappointing disservice to the most prominent female characters of the series. Oracle, Poison Ivy and Catwoman, characters that at their best serve as some of the most fascinating and empowering female characters in superhero fiction, are treated miserably in this game. Oracle and Catwoman are stripped of any agency for the vast majority of their screen time, captured and in need of saving. Poison Ivy’s role is particularly laughable, serving as the first villain to challenge Batman at the start only to almost immediately give in and aid him in whatever he asks throughout the game. Not to mention the fact that the prison guards throw her in jail with mostly just underwear; it would be a shame to give up that eye-candy, after all.

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Things get a bit better towards the end of the main story, what with advancements like Harley Quinn’s inclusion in the plot featuring legitimate agency, but let’s be honest here; a character whose defining character trait in this series being her obsession with a man getting some decent screen time isn’t exactly a shining moment for feminism.

The PC version has secured Warner Bros. into quite the media spectacle, thanks to its prominent technical issues. I played the Xbox One version, and I can attest to an experience free of any regular framerate drops or similar glitches. The game did crash around three times, and another time Batman got himself stuck in the environment (even though he visually wasn’t touching anything, frustratingly) so bad that I had to restart to the last checkpoint. Thankfully, the game saves very frequently, so this isn’t too alarming of a problem.

On a more positive note, Rocksteady has done a tremendous job creating a Gotham to explore. This is truly a current-generation video game not possible on the PS3 and 360, with a gorgeous and massive city. There is a tremendous degree of draw distance and complex lighting and smoke effects, helping its world feel more and more alive. Great care was also taken to recreate iconic scenery, like Wayne Tower, Ace Chemical and the GCPD Building.

Grappling, gliding and swinging around in this world has never been quite this joyful. Like Metroid Prime 3 did for the Prime series, Arkham Knight doesn’t make players re-obtain abilities that were already available by the end of Arkham City. This not only means that the player is able to feel instantly powerful, but also means that the rest of the game is able to up the ante more and more. Upgrades to the boost ability after grappling to a surface make for a particularly pleasurable experience that feels almost like true flight. It works so seamlessly and quickly that it makes for an absolute blast. I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun screwing around in an open-world.

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The other method for quick travel in this game is the Batmobile, this game’s big new toy. The car is able to go blisteringly fast, forcing players to be wary of how much pressure they apply on the trigger to drive it, making for an intricate and dynamic driving experience. It has become a common complaint that the car is unwieldy, but I’d say with the proper amount of effort controlling the Batmobile is quite rewarding. It integrates into the rest of Batman’s antics without a hitch, too. There is a really remarkable satisfaction to diving off a building only to pull up toward the ground, calling the Batmobile to pull up underneath to catch Batman after the momentum from the dive has worn off.

Holding the left trigger instantly transforms the Batmobile into a tank: a necessary step Batman had to take to deal with the vast numbers of enemy tanks to deal with. There is a bit of a logistical hoop to jump through concerning Batman using guns, given his iconic, strict policy against firearms formed through the trauma of his parents’ death by gun shots, but it works. The plot conveniently pushes Batman into a corner, and he still refuses to kill. It’s worth it for the tank combat, because it’s a ton of fun. Dodging enemy missiles and taking down tanks to charge up a bar used to execute special abilities like missile barrages is sweet. Battles are intense, challenging and add much needed diversity to the Arkham formula.

That isn’t to say that the tried-and-true gameplay of the Arkham series isn’t enjoyable anymore, because that certainly isn’t the case. The hand-to-hand combat and stealth sections have only gotten more complex and challenging, adding another layer of nuance and satisfaction. Arkham Knight’s challenge is refreshingly respectful to players, expecting them to be caught up with the series enough to skip over introductory and boring sections at the beginning, without going too fast or forgoing any optional resources for newcomers or lapsed veterans.

Additionally, this installment features a bigger emphasis on puzzle-solving, and it is all rather clever. The environmental manipulation and use of gadgetry required to best these challenges offer some intellectually-rewarding bits that thankfully manage not to cause the pacing to suffer, like in other action games such as Uncharted 3. If the player finds him or herself particularly wrapped up in these puzzles, there are tons and tons of optional Riddler trophies to find, as always. The bulk of these collectables are hidden behind inventive little puzzles throughout the game’s world.

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I really love Arkham Knight and still find myself excited to tackle its side missions despite having already beaten the main story. Prompting these side missions does make one feel a lot like the Dark Knight, either stumbled upon by exploring (patrolling) the city or deciphering intercepted audio from crooks around the city that automatically plays, with directions to their whereabouts.

The most positive thing I can say about my time with Arkham Knight is that I was always excited to start it up again, really. It’s an exciting game, with a story that impresses so much that it doesn’t feel out of place in discussion of great Batman stories, despite its dreadful problems with women. Exploring the city is a blast, whether it be through swinging and grappling around or driving, both at breakneck speeds. Tank combat finds itself a welcome addition alongside the still engaging fisticuffs and stealth. Batman: Arkham Knight successfully ends one of the most beloved triple-A game series of the last decade.

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