Batman: Arkham Knight is the third entry in the Arkham series developed by Rocksteady Studios, and in almost every way, these games serve as the studios Batman Magnum opus. Arkham Knight’s (That’s the game, not the character) job was to build upon, and finish the series, And when I play this game, I can’t help but feel that it delivers on that promise.
Sequels in any medium often suffer from the same common problems: They often strive to be bigger, better, louder, and slicker than their previous counterparts, and I would agree that there are elements of Batman: AK (So, since the name of the game is two different character names together, from now on, I’m calling the game Batman: AK) that feel like they’ve been added simply to do just that, up the anti if you will. The most notable addition to the game is the divisive Batmobile turned tank that has been the topic of much debate amongst the game’s critics. Trying to take the long view of this game, I think ultimately the tank sequences in this game were misguided from a design standpoint, but the mechanics are sound, and it all would have felt at home if not for being included in a fiction who’s lead character puts such a strong emphasis on not killing people.
When you’ve essentially built an open world combat game, it’s challenges are creating quiet moments of emotion, beauty, or just simple pace-changing. B:AK (Ok, I’m just calling it B:AK now) leaves room for many of these things. This game has the best looking Gotham City we’ve ever seen in a video game, as well as being the most complete. We see interesting characters with genuine motivation for their actions, and Rocksteady even does an interesting job trying to get into the psyche of Bruce Wayne.
I was surprised at how well this game paints a picture of what it’s like to be Batman during arguably the worst Halloween anyone has ever experienced. Without giving too much away, the plot of B:AK shows us a Batman who’s willing to lie, cheat, push himself and the people who work with him into increasingly dangerous situations, and ultimately confront what could be called a no-win scenario. This game made me feel like Batman, and Rocksteady has been the only studio thus far that have captured that feeling so succinctly, because while this game is certainly a more cartoon-violence, open world, beat-em-up, it walks the line of still being able to be considered a “Batman Simulator”.
Batman: Arkham Knight (Back to the full name here, it just feels better as a start, am I right?) is the first game in the series to earn the “Mature” rating from the ESRB. Something that the publisher of the game bothered to advertise to the public in a very “see, we’re doing something cool and gritty” kind of way. But the violence in the game is worth discussing. Here is the hard truth: in a perfect world, this game is violent, but Batman doesn’t actually fatally wound anyone. The reality of modern day gaming’s scope and limitations however have created systems that sometimes betray that point, and in the moments where B:AK goes out of it’s way to deal with those scenarios, it’s often feels noble, but foolish. The Batmobile will electrocute thugs and push them out of the way instead of running over them, though their body lights up like a lightbulb. The tank’s bullets are explained away as being rubber riot shells, and the enemy vehicles are “unmanned drones”. Invisible walls or short shallow fences stop you from punching baddies off of rooftops, and take down animations feature things like spine breaking and asphyxiation. The intro to the game is even exposition to explain the complete evacuation of Gotham City so that there’s no way you’d ever accidentally take the life of an innocent person, because Batman wields weapons of death and destruction, there’s no two-ways about it.
There is a simpler, if not more controversial solution, and it feels like something that may have been thought of by Rocksteady and thrown away at some point during development. There’s a version of this game in some universe, where the story is pained of a Batman with his back up against a wall... A Batman who has to resort to whatever it takes to clean up his city one last time. Batman’s already pushed to do so much in this story, that him unwillingly succumbing to killing would actually be something we could ask the audience to deal with, so long as it was treated with the respect that the fiction has established.
In terms of the actually content of Batman: Arkham Knight, it feels like taking the Batman: Animated Series and applying a Chris Nolan & Frank Miller ascetic and tone to it. Along with a great cast anchored by Kevin Conroy as Batman, everything from the sound effects of the grappling, to the slick jumping into the Batmobile and the camera angles that get snapped to, feels like a supped up borrowing from the classic 90’s cartoon. This suited my taste perfectly, as someone who grew up watching Batman protect Gotham after I got out of school, but it’s still so impressive to see what has been accomplished visually in this game. The lighting, rain, characters, and architecture has all been strongly directed and rendered, that you’d be hard pressed to try and find boring part of Gotham City.
It seems like every single rough edge that could exist has been filed down and buffed to a polish by the team at Rocksteady with a baffling degree of competency. You can dive-bomb from a 40 story building and come to a perfect landing in time for the Batmobile to catch you, throw a fist in a general direction and Batman will fly nearly across your entire screen to ensure your poorly aimed punch lands, land at a crime scene and Batman already has the gadget he needs equipped and all you have to do is press a button. Everything in B:AK has been optimized to take you straight to the “fun” part of whatever it is your doing, it’s the chicken-nugget of video game experiences. Don't worry about the bones, just put it in your mouth and chew.
The same level of care has been applied to the menu system. You can choose to navigate the open world with a 3D hologram of a traditional map, or there’s a layer that has been added that lets you simply press a button, select the type of mission you want to pursue from a wheel of possible options, and you’re off. Don’t want to bother with side mission stuff? Don’t worry, the story mission is always obvious and at the top of the wheel. There’s no getting lost in the nothingness that sometimes plague open world gaming.
Side missions feel great, with wonderful voice acting pushing you through objectives, and a real sense of accomplishment at the end of each of the major side-story quests. However! Back are the litany of Riddler Trophies to collect scattered around the city, and if you want to earn that 100% completion rate, be prepared to hunt down those trophies to the tune of 243 times, or you could go ahead and watch the ending of the game right over on YouTube. I applaud the effort to make many of the trophies interesting puzzles to solve, and even satisfying to find solutions for, there’s simply 100 or less interesting riddles to solve, and the rest are “blow up 20 things”, or “visit a random rooftop” which left me feeling frustrated and bored. That’s right, I’m writing this to you as someone who has completed 100% of this game, sans any DLC.
To give credit where it is due, there are aspects to this game that feel well-restrained. Where Batman: Arkham City felt at times like it was a series of cameos for every popular villain in the world of Batman to pop up and force you to battle them, B:AK doesn’t feel like it forces it’s hand. You’re asked to battle alongside friends at different points, but that’s in service of a particular plot point and doesn’t feel manufactured. Even the final encounter of the game doesn’t have the completely insane, over-the-top nature of the previous game. Sure, you can plow through the world with the Batmobile with mass demolition in your wake, but you can still grapple and silently jettison yourself into the night gliding to your next objective. In so many ways, this game is the best Batman game ever made, even if it’s larger scope lacks the intimacy people talk about from the first game in the series.
That’s where I land on Batman: Arkham Knight. I really like this game, and I may cautiously pick up the downloadable content to keep me coming back to Gotham. Especially with the recently announce 1980 Michael Keaton / Tim Burton Batman skin, music, and Batmobile. It’s well made, it’s reliably fun, it’s story is interesting and has fun twists, it’s world is gorgeous, it’s mechanics are refined and oh yeah, IT HAS A MUSICAL NUMBER! Really, what more could I ask for out of a video game?
Except any time it made me drive upside down in tunnels with the Batmobile, fuck that noise.