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‘Batman: Arkham Knight’ is One Part Brilliant, One Part Baffling

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In 2009 Rocksteady achieved what many thought was impossible; they made a genuinely good Batman game. With Arkham Asylum they created a claustrophobic atmosphere, told an enjoyable story featuring many of the caped crusader’s most notorious villains, and crafted a battle system that has been aped by everything from Shadow of Mordor to Sleeping Dogs. It wasn’t a perfect game, suffering from copy-pasted boss encounters and a couple of narrative mis-steps, but it was strong enough to inspire confidence that one day we’d get a dark knight video game that would do justice to the long-running DC Comics superhero.

Six years later and Arkham Asylum remains the best game in the Arkham series. First sequel City improved on the original by adding more villains and an impressive array of side-quests, but lost the enclosed atmosphere of Asylum with the more open setting, and took some questionable narrative turns. Origins was a throwaway title that seemed to exist purely to give WB something to release in the years between City and Knight, telling a tighter story, but suffering from a lack of ideas in the gameplay department. And now in 2015 we have Arkham Knight, a game that is close to usurping Asylum as the quintessential Batman game, but has a few serious issues holding it back from greatness.

Arkham Knight is set nine months after the events of City. The Joker’s death has led to a massive decline in criminal activity in Gotham. Of course, this being Gotham, somebody is bound to try and upset the applecart, and this time round it’s the former psychologist and surprise breakout star of Asylum, Scarecrow. The deranged Dr. Jonathan Crane executes, quite literally, a terror attack in a busy diner, releasing his patented fear gas upon the unsuspecting clientèle, before promising to do the same on a city-wide scale via a creepy video warning. As is the standard in the post-Asylum Arkham games, this leads to an evacuation of Gotham, leaving only cops, villains, and a few of Batman’s closest allies to duke it out for control of the city.

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If you’re wondering where the titular Arkham Knight fits into all of this, then the answer is, he doesn’t really. In fact, Rocksteady could have removed the Arkham Knight from the story entirely and it wouldn’t actually make a difference. Knight features, in my opinion, the strongest narrative in an Arkham game, but the title character is certainly one of the weakest aspects of it. Fans of Batman lore will probably work out the identity of the masked militant hours before it’s finally revealed in game, and people unfamiliar with the comics will likely be non-plussed by the revelation.

But disappointment regarding the Arkham Knight aside, the final game in the Arkham series features the tightest narrative yet, avoiding the bait and switch tactics of City or the corny final encounter in Asylum. Knight tells the story of a Batman facing his fears, coming to terms with his own personal failures, and trying to best the ghosts of his past coming back to haunt him. While the story is perhaps a little slow getting started, and features a few too many instances of padding out, it builds to a sensational climax that focuses on delivering a satisfying and emotional conclusion to the Arkham series rather than adhering to video game tropes and forcing us into final boss encounters that detract rather than delight, as per Asylum and City.

After three Batman games focussing on the anarchic plans of The Joker, Knight provides the series a welcome change of tone with the more cerebral and disturbing Scarecrow running the show. Scarecrow is voiced by John Noble (of the mad scientist from Fringe fame) in a monotone, curdling drawl that is suitably menacing from the opening minutes to the last, and puts to rest any notion that the character wouldn’t be able to fill the shoes left by Mark Hamill’s Joker. Scarecrow in Arkham Knight is a truly loathesome villain, and his campaign of fear against Batman is one of the definitive highlights.

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Fear is the name of the game in Arkham Knight, and the game focusses on the fears of Batman, and in particular, his fears surrounding the danger he puts those he loves in when he puts on the mask. Batman is reluctant to accept help from his allies, down in part to his failure to protect Oracle and the second Robin, Jason Todd, from paralysis and murder, respectively, at the hands of The Joker. Also instrumental to the plot is the toxin Scarecrow uses to instill fear in his enemies. Like in Asylum, the fear gas is used in unconventional and interesting ways to trick the player, and create an uneasy atmosphere where the line that separates what’s real and what’s not begins to blur.

In Asylum, the Scarecrow hallucination sections were a surprise highlight; unexpected and frequently ingenious. There are similar machinations at work in Knight too, and while they never quite hit the giddy highs of the fourth wall-breaking soft-reset in Asylum, they carry more emotional heft this time around. Hallucinations allow the game to pull off some clever narrative sleight of hand, and while too frequently they’re used to give the villains an opportunity to escape and keep the story going a little longer, they also provide the game with some of its most memorable moments.

Arkham Knight isn’t all psychological warfare though. Sometimes, more traditional means of warfare are required, and in this regard the Arkham series has never been better. The core gameplay remains the same as in previous iterations of the series, with counter attack and hand to hand combat still being as intuitive and as satisfying as ever. Enemies are smarter this time round, and Arkham Knight in particular has done his homework and will instruct his men on what he thinks you’re probably doing, meaning you’ll need to mix up your offense. If you spend too much time on the rooftops picking enemies off one at a time, they’ll wise up and start putting explosives on vantage points.

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It’s the emphasis on learning the different moves Batman has at his disposal, and when to use them most effectively that makes the combat in the game so satisfying. Batman almost feels overpowered at times; he’s simply a more capable fighter than anyone he goes up against, and so enemies have to try to outnumber him rather than outfight him. The player can quite easily wipe out an entire room of thugs without taking a hit as long as they pay attention to the on screen prompts and don’t succumb to the temptation to button mash. Slow motion effects double up as an effective means of letting the player know when a room is clear, while also looking really cool; combat in Arkham Knight is like a well-choreographed ballet of broken bones and bruised faces.

There’s a few new tricks for Batman to employ, too. The game now features a Fear system that allows Batman to wipe out a number of enemies in quick succession providing he’s got them scared enough. Taking out a bad guy via any of the stealth options available will lead to the remaining enemies getting nervous. Take out enough enemies to fill up the Fear meter, and Batman will be able to perform a chained Fear Takedown, allowing him to rapidly move from one enemy to the next, knocking them out in turn before they have a chance to react. A well timed use of a Fear Takedown can flatten a room full of enemies in seconds.

There’s also some new gadgets too. The most fun of these is a voice synthesizer that allows Batman to replicate the voice of a villain, and give instructions to their troops. The henchmen never seem to find it odd that their commander is giving them orders to check on the exploding barrels or the crumbling floors, but then a lackey for a comic book supervillain is probably not an occupation that naturally attracts applicants with a great deal of common sense.

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Another new trick Batman has up his sleeve is an occasional teaming up with various allies to take on enemies in tandem. The simple tap of a button allows the player to switch between both characters, coordinating attacks, and performing tag-team takedowns. These sections are a joy to play, but are sadly underused throughout the game.

Beyond the main storyline in Arkham Knight, there are again a number of side quests available to the player too. A gaggle of supervillains, both well known and relatively obscure call Gotham City their home and provide Batman with a reason to don the cape and cowl and take to the streets. Missions involving the likes of Two-Face and Penguin sit alongside quests revolving around lesser known members of Batman’s rogues gallery, but disappointingly, most of these villains have been featured in the Arkham games before, and there’s not a great deal in the way of new ideas. But, as the motto goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the sidequests do an honourable job of giving the player plenty to do without much of it feeling like busy work.

Finding and starting the various quests in the game is much the same as in City; Batman can glide and make use of a grappling hook to traverse the open-world Gotham City and it’s as fun as it always was. In fact, little has changed in this regard since Arkham City, but the formula worked so well that little needed to be changed. In many ways, Arkham Knight is very similar to City, only with a stronger narrative focus, and a much more satisfying conclusion.

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If that’s where this review ended, then Arkham Knight would be hands down the best in the series. The combat, the story, the graphics, the voice acting – almost every facet of the game is the strongest the series has ever been. But the experience isn’t flawless, and sadly the flaws in Arkham Knight are devastating to the overall product. We need to talk about the batmobile.

It doesn’t take long for the most glaring issue with the batmobile to make itself known in Arkham Knight. While driving around in the batmobile doesn’t feel particularly intuitive, it’s a fun diversion for a minute or two before getting back to grappling across the rooftops. If that was the extent of the batmobile in the game then there’d be no real issue, but once the tank combat missions begin, the game takes a wrong turn, and it never truly recovers.

Combat in the batmobile is initiated by switching from driving mode to tank mode. Upon switching, the car reveals weaponry, slows down, and becomes a lot more nimble, gliding disconcertingly across the pavement with no apparent adherence to the known laws of physics. Enemy combatants take the form of drone tanks, which gives Batman an excuse to blow them up with high powered weaponry since it doesn’t involve killing anyone. So you glide about on the pavement, firing your guns at drones, blowing them up, and then blowing some more up, and then some more, and then eventually, once they’re all blown up, you can carry on driving to your next destination.

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This makes literally zero sense. On any level. We’re supposed to believe that the Arkham Knight, a character who spends half the game ranting and raving about he knows Batman better than he knows himself, decides that the best course of action is to send unmanned drones after him. He knows that Batman can’t kill people. Why not have manned tanks? Hell, why not strap people to the tanks? It would be easy to ignore how little sense any of it makes as poetic license if the tank battles were fun, but they’re not. This issue is exacerbated by the frequency in which the tank battles occur in the main storyline. It feels as though every other main mission involves getting in the batmobile and fighting off dozens of drone tanks, with Rocksteady apparently thinking that just adding to the number of enemies constitutes a difficulty curve. The battles go on and on and they never get any better.

No, sadly, they actually get worse. As the game progresses, the number of tank drones increases and increases, and new drone types are added to the mix. There’s flying ones that shoot missiles at you that fortunately go down without much of a fight. Then there’s the tanks that shoot three missiles at you rather than one and can take a little more damage. And then of course, there’s the ones that you can only blow up by sneaking up behind them (yes, in a tank) and shooting them in their weak spot. Have you ever sat and thought to yourself, “Gee, you know what would be fun? Tank stealth missions”? No, of course you haven’t, for presumably the same reasons that you don’t drink the things from the cupboard under the sink.

Batman: Arkham Knight features, unquestionably, some of my favourite gaming moments of 2015, but the tank battles are absolutely one of my least favourite. How often they occur is massively frustrating, and the more complicated they become, the more likely it becomes that you’ll fail and have to do the whole thing again. All of this culminates in an appalling boss battle in which the batmobile is chased through a tunnel network, with the camera being so unhelpful that it’s bordering on broken. It’s hands down the lowest point of the game, and given how bad the rest of the batmobile sections are, that’s no small statement.

Babs finally gets some screen time in Arkham Knight, but she spends most of it as a damsel in distress.

Babs finally gets some screen time in Arkham Knight, but she spends most of it as a damsel in distress.

Of course, why stop with tank battles? Yes, for some reason, Rocksteady felt it necessary to use the batmobile in every aspect of the game, first with traversal, then with combat, and finally with puzzle solving. There’s obstacle courses to get around. There’s generators to power up using the engine. There’s races to take part in for The Riddler, because we’ve entered some sort of bizarro world where driving really quickly constitutes a riddle. And most egregiously, there’s walls to pull down using a winch, you know, exactly like you used to do with the batclaw in the previous games, but now that gadget apparently doesn’t exist and you need the batmobile to do it for you.

The batmobile, frankly, sucks, and the sheer number of times that you’re forced to use it in the game holds Arkham Knight back from greatness. Without the batmobile, this is the best the series has ever been. With the batmobile, it’s probably my least favourite game in the series; so close to being an all-time classic, but so deeply flawed and frustrating that the entire experience is soured as a whole. It’s a disappointing silver medal.

This article was originally posted on www.soundonsight.org

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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