This review was originally posted on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor.
For a very long time, finding a good superhero video game was a daunting prospect, since it seemed like the vast majority of experiences featuring some of the enduring icons of DC and Marvel Comics would largely be throwaways, relegated to the bargain bin of your favorite video game store. That all changed in August of 2009 when WB Games, Eidos Interactive, and Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum on an unsuspecting public, and it didn’t take long for the moody, creative, story-driven game to take the gaming and comic book worlds by storm. Two years later, Rocksteady did the impossible, and actually improved on the solid formula of the first game by releasing Batman: Arkham City: a partially open-world experience that increased the abilities of the Dark Knight, introduced non-linear progression elements, and told a resonant and captivating story of one of Batman’s longest nights.
Now, after an unrelated spin-off game and an intense amount of anticipation, Rocksteady has returned to tell one final tale with the Dark Knight, and how the story of DC Comics’ most popular character comes to an end in this new universe that they’ve created. With those storytelling goals comes a new evolution of the formula that made their first two Batman games such monumental successes, and that evolution is what’s brought us into the larger Gotham City to take on the new-gen behemoth known as Batman: Arkham Knight.
Picking up roughly one year after the events in Arkham City, the Scarecrow has returned after being mangled by Killer Croc at the conclusion of Arkham Asylum, and has assembled a gauntlet of some of Batman’s most dangerous enemies to try and finish the vigilante off for good. With a power vacuum in Gotham left by the death of the Joker, many of Gotham’s criminals are now fighting for control to fill the void of influence left in the maniacal clown’s wake. Through all of this, Batman also has to contend with an occupying paramilitary force in the city that answers to Scarecrow, but is led by a mysterious commander known only as “the Arkham Knight.” Batman has to use everything at his disposal — including his allies, his most cutting-edge technology, and his powerful Batmobile — to put a stop to all of the chaos. Whether there will still be a Batman by night’s end, though, is another question entirely.
Design and Story
One of the first things that you’ll notice about Arkham Knight when you make it into the open-world Gotham City is its sheer beauty. Deciding to focus development on only the new generation of consoles was definitely a good decision, unshackling the latest offering from the hardware restrictions of systems that are now nearing their tenth year of production. While Arkham Asylum and Arkham City both pushed the envelope of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 at the times in which they were released, Arkham Knight takes a leap forward, making this a true experience for a new generation.
Much of this is apparent just in the way the game map is laid out. Sitting at roughly five times the size of the map in Arkham City, the new islands of Gotham extend almost as far as the eye can see, with rain playing off of many brightly-lit neon signs, larger-than-life skyscrapers, and an environment that feels very much alive when compared with what we’ve seen in the series' previous games. The presence of moving vehicles and a lot more population density really lend greatly to that feeling, as well, and it’s nothing short of a joy to actually traverse Gotham by foot, by air, or by car…but we’ll get to that later.
Many of the design elements of the environments and characters follow the exact same design philosophy as those of the previous games, with a couple of environments making a surprise return. Even the deepest depths of the city all have a very different attitude. While Arkham Asylum‘s dimly-lit, claustrophobic, run-down mansion was dwarfed by the abandoned, crumbling disrepair of Arkham City, the districts of Gotham in Arkham Knight help account for the first time we get to see elements of that city fully alive and in working condition. Much like a real city, many of the different neighborhoods you explore all have a distinct feel to them that’s different from the other parts of Gotham you will see, which only adds to the feeling of vibrancy that permeates this game from top to bottom. Many of the designs also make it clear why this game was rated M: some of the characters — especially those you encounter in hallucinations from Scarecrow’s fear toxin — are genuinely unsettling.
The true meat of the material’s maturity, though, lies in the story it tells. For me, one of the most defining things Batman has ever said came in a second season episode of the animated series “Batman Beyond,” where an elderly Bruce Wayne confronts a masked man who calls himself Bruce’s “worst nightmare.” In that characteristic narrowing of his eyes, Bruce simply looks dismissively down at him and ominously retorts, “You have no idea what my nightmares are like.” In this game, though, we start to get an idea of what the Dark Knight’s nightmares are, and sometimes, they’re not pretty…at all.
The presence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin and an element left over from the events of Arkham City create a very unique sense of disorientation throughout the entire main story of the game. While some of its beats aren’t as sharp as those of the first two games written by legendary Batman scribe Paul Dini, game director Sefton Hill and his creative collaborators Martin Lancaster and Paul Crocker do a fantastic job of carrying on the rich and character-driven elements of the previous games’ stories, while also rooting a lot of the broad strokes of what happens in some of the most celebrated Batman comics stories of the last thirty years. While one of the story’s biggest mysteries may end up falling flat for some players by the time a certain revelation is made, I personally found the path to that point one of the most enjoyable parts of the narrative’s exploration, since it turns many preconceived expectations on the heads of both more general players and even the most hardcore of Batman fans.
Of course, one of the most notable elements of this game’s narrative is that it purports to be the end of the line for this iteration of the Dark Knight. Although we just endured a similar thematic aim for another iteration of Batman a few years back in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, the whole tenor of Arkham Knight‘s story feels more informed by the characters' comics-based mythology, and carries an extra weight due to the presence of a lot of other Gotham luminaries, particularly where allies like Robin, Nightwing, Oracle and Alfred are concerned. It also attempts to bring Batman’s rivalries with various enemies to a satisfying conclusion as well, including one particular rivalry that the whole development and marketing team did a very good job of keeping secret ahead of the game’s release.
Overall, the story of Arkham Knight easily ranks among some of the best tales of the “end” of the Batman, including a film like The Dark Knight Rises — honestly even surpassing elements of that story — along with comics like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (though with its own, distinct flavor when compared to all of those).
The continually astonishing thing about the Rocksteady-developed Batman games is how they always seem to improve upon a formula that very few people had any problems with the last time around. When Arkham City was released, for instance, it improved in virtually every way on the major elements of gameplay found in Arkham Asylum, even though the vast majority of gamers and critics largely believed that there really wasn’t anything that needed “fixing.” The same principle applies to the gameplay elements of Arkham Knight, and seems especially true after coming off of, what many believe, to be a masterpiece. Where Arkham Knight focuses on improving on the formula is in the environments, the gadgets, and the ability to make use of more than just one playable character.
By opening the game’s map up significantly through the new districts of Gotham City, the experience becomes the first in the series to feel more like a “Batman simulator” than the prior games. The amount of things to do and crimes to stop can at first appear overwhelming, just because there can be a lot of distance to traverse, or a lot of different things going on that can require your attention. Each villain brings with him/her a different way to play. Two-Face, for instance, is taking advantage of the chaos by robbing a series of banks across the city, and you’ll have to use stealth in order to take out all of the henchmen before they get away with a lot of the banks' cash. The militia, led by the Arkham Knight, has also posted a series of checkpoints and defense towers all across the city that you have to take down and destroy to fight against their occupation of the city at-large.
Some missions and side-quests also require you to hook up with a different ally to take on villains and their henchmen as a team. In the main story, for instance, you have to track down three different Titan-infected suspects and take them into protective custody and quarantine. To do this, you’ll have to team up with Robin to take on stealthy predator rooms and combat scenarios, with the game’s “dual play” feature allowing you to perform dual takedowns, and seamlessly switch between playable characters and their different fighting styles with the touch of a button. Putting down the Penguin’s latest gun-running operation will require you to use the element of surprise to start taking on a a number of his henchmen, as Nightwing joins in on the fun, reuniting the original "Dynamic Duo" for the first time in the story of an Arkham game. The Riddler, who returns with his characteristic trophies and conundrums, will also create puzzle scenarios that will require you to switch between Batman and a captive Catwoman.
You’ll also find yourself investigating some other first-time appearances in the series, including the horrific Man-Bat, along with the deluded and sadistic Professor Pyg. Surprisingly, the game also makes use of returning foes from 2013’s prequel game, Batman: Arkham Origins. Firefly — who provided that game’s most memorable boss battle — returns to Gotham and wreaks all kinds of flammable havoc, while later elements of the side quests involving the Arkham Knight’s militia will have you facing off against Deathstroke. References are also made to the overall events of Origins, including Black Mask and “his” assassins, the Joker’s arrival, and the rhetoric of Anarky. Combat isn’t the only name of this game, though, as new refinements to the detective mode and puzzle elements will also call upon players to stretch out their brains, as well.
The Riddler’s puzzles are nicely crafted, and call upon players to use new tools at their disposal in order to put the villain down once again. The crime scene reconstruction from Arkham Origins also makes a brief return in one story mission scenario, causing you to have to comb over a crash site to find out how the vehicle — and its occupants — ended up where they did. A series of bodies strung up in crucifixion-like poses also calls upon Batman to examine those bodies using new scanners in his cowl, looking inside tissue, muscle fibers, and bone structure in an attempt to identify them and try and piece together exactly what’s happening. Of course, most of your time after story’s end will likely be in finding the various trophies, breakable objects, and riddles strewn about by the Riddler himself, and a combination of a good eye, interrogating informants, and environmental awareness will ultimately help you to put Riddler away for the third time. Challenge maps from the previous games also return, but are more integrated into the game map this time around. For easiness’ sake, though, they can also be accessed from a separate selection screen on the main menu.
Overall, the gameplay elements present in Arkham Knight are a satisfying upgrade to the ones found in Arkham City. Everything from combat, to stealth striking, to puzzle solving, and overall variety are well-improved upon, and it’s easy to see this game as a natural step forward for the entire series, going out on a high note. There was one element, though, that was definitely missing from the previous games in the series that would've helped to make them truly definitive Batman experiences. Thankfully, Arkham Knight spends a lot of time in tailoring the largest new element of the experience toward filling that noticeable void, and it’s here that the biggest form of fantasy-fulfillment for Batman fans largely comes into play: you finally have the opportunity to drive the car.
By far the largest new element of the entire gameplay experience of Batman: Arkham Knight, the Batmobile is integral to your progression through everything the game has to offer. Many of Riddler’s new challenges are race tracks that you have to power, dodge, and weave through in order to put an end to his schemes, and much of the strength of the Arkham Knight’s militia comes from the legion of drone tanks and fliers that the Batmobile’s weapons have to contend with. Before the game’s release, it was hard for me to think of ways in which the easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master control schemes developed for Batman himself by Rocksteady could be applied to piloting the Batmobile. It’s clear now, though, that the game’s designers have done yet another phenomenal job in translating Batman’s most iconic vehicle and weapon into the engine of the Arkham games. The car is a blast.
There are two basic control modes for the car: "pursuit mode" allows you to hit its top speed, and you can employ a series of offensive weapons while engaged in it. It’s in this mode that you’ll have to chase after thugs and villains, get to an area of the city quickly, and put a stop to a particularly rough car chase for Gotham’s beleaguered police department. “Battle mode” is an entirely different animal, though, and is activated by holding the left trigger on your controller (similar to “aiming down the sights” in a first-person shooter game). In battle mode, you’ll have to use the tank-like weapons like a 60mm cannon and an M61 Vulcan gun to contend with militia tank and drone forces, and it’s also outfitted with various non-lethal weapons to drive off scores of henchmen. If any hostile on foot gets close to the car, a powerful electrical jolt shoots them away, knocking them out without killing them. In pursuit mode, you can also kick up to a high speed and quickly launch Batman into the air, affording a high and fast glide that can help Batman engage a series of tough foes in hard-to-reach spots.
While some other critics seem to call foul on the heavy incorporation of the Batmobile into the various game modes, as a massive Batman fan this feels only natural to me. The Batmobile has always been one of the Dark Knight’s most important and trusted weapons in his war on crime, and it only makes sense that he would use it as much as possible if the situation calls for it. Using it in new, creative ways to solve Riddler puzzles, or controlling it remotely to take down enemies or clear a new path, can also be extraordinarily satisfying, adding just another element of Batman’s legendary preparedness into the equation for this stellar game series.
I was extremely reticent on whether or not I would feel that Batman: Arkham Knight would be a worthy successor to, what I considered, the definitive Batman experience in Arkham City. Once again, though, just as doubts were had about the second game’s effect in following up the first, my expectations have been cleanly blown apart as if shot by the Batmobile's 60mm cannon. Batman: Arkham Knight is, without a doubt, the best comic book video game ever made, and is a serious contender for one of the best action games ever produced. By maintaining and building upon the solid core mechanics of its predecessor, Arkham Knight is an achievement for action games on basically every level, while still not losing sight of one of its most distinctive and rewarding elements: story. This is a Batman story that seeks to tell a satisfying and rewarding concluding chapter for this iteration of this storied global cultural icon, and it’s astonishing just how successful it is in that regard.
Any frustrations you may have can likely be done away with by progressing through the game’s story, earning more unlock tokens, and applying them to your gadgets, gear, or car. One of the biggest signs of a good game is, in fact, when you encounter frustrating moments where you have trouble progressing: are you stuck because there’s a problem with the game itself, or because you made a mistake? In every case, the answer for me came out as the latter. Once again, Rocksteady proves just how capable they are at making an awesome video game, and more importantly, how good they are at telling stories with, arguably, the world’s most popular and enduring superhero.
While it’s sad that this is the end of their Batman story, Arkham Knight is also one hell of a note to go out on. In 2009, Rocksteady Studios changed the perceptions of what both superhero games and action games at-large can be. In 2015, they’ve done it again, and I can think of few greater legacies to leave on one of pop culture’s most storied icons.
They said “Be the Batman,” and they meant it. Because of that, in a first for any critical review I've ever written, Batman: Arkham Knight earns a perfect score.