Arkham Knight is the newest Batman game from Rocksteady, developer of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City last generation. In hindsight, I don’t know how Batman survived either of those. In the previous games Batman’s combat and stealth skills were mostly the same as they are in Arkham Knight, but he was missing something key, something absolutely vital: the Batmobile.
In Arkham Knight, Batman relies on the Batmobile, a lot. Almost every problem requires the Batmobile. Without its help Batman would have been stuck, unable to turn on consoles, disable mines or shoot sentry guns pointed at somewhere he needs to go. In return Batman takes time to babysit the Batmobile, if he has to leave it behind then he’ll find a way to open a door for it or create a ramp, just in case he needs it, which he will.
Furthermore Batman’s enemies now understand the importance of the Batmobile. The Riddler has designed a number of race courses for the Batmobile, to prove that he’s smarter than Batman as he’s a better car driver or racetrack designer than Batman is, or something.
In Arkham Knight it often feels like the real hero of Gotham isn’t Batman, it’s his car.
Other than the presence of the Batmobile, it’s business as usual. Any fans of the previous games will know what to expect. You’re given an open world populated with villains and a main storyline to follow, your job is to be Batman and punch the crap out of the nasty folk messing up your city.
So I’ve poked fun at the Batmobile, but jokes aside the Batmobile isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty fun to control in both its traditional race car setting and it’s tank-like battle mode. But boy does the novelty wear off by the end. It does feel pretty silly at times how much the game twists and turns to create reasons to use the Batmobile. It feels strangely un-Batmanish to require him to put so much reliance on a single tool. Outside of missions though I can’t lie, it’s absolutely fun to blast through the streets as thugs panic at the sight of it. And yes, it does mean you can go on a comical rampage relentlessly running down thugs and blowing up their cars. Does it break the immersion? Yes, a little, but that’s open world video games for you folks!
Beyond the Batmobile not much has been added that really elevates things from the previous games. Six years later the combat system is mostly the same as it was back in 2009’s excellent Arkham Asylum. Arkham City added in quick-fire gadgets, which make a welcome return here, but otherwise there’s not really anything new. But it’s such a solid system and such great fun it’s not really crying out for any additions. Still, I was surprised so little had been added between the last two games. Similarly the predator mode sections, where Batman creeps around and takes out goons unaware of his presence, are solidly fun but will be very familiar for any returning fans.
One thing I can unreservedly praise about Arkham Knight is the graphics. Gotham looks absolutely gorgeous and this is the best looking Batman game by far, which shouldn’t be a shock as this is the first on current gen systems. I dare anyone to go back to Arkham City afterwards and not be surprised by how bad it looks in comparison. The vaguely cartoonish look of previous games is dialled back in favour of a slicker and darker looking take on the characters. This does suit the game well in this instance as the story is arguably the darkest one yet.
Arkham Knight’s plot is a tricky thing to talk about. The premise of the game is that Scarecrow has cleared out Gotham after a demonstration of his fear toxin. Meanwhile he’s teamed up with the Arkham Knight, a mysterious figure who’s determined to kill Batman. Unfortunately well-written sections and fun story beats are otherwise marred by a standard and predictable plot, which will very rarely surprise you. Worse still some reveals are teased out over hours even though their answers are painfully obvious. When the payoffs finally arrive you’ll be nodding your head and glad the elephant in the room is at last being talked about. The writing is also cringingly inconsistent, some interactions are fantastic while others are stiff and come across as overly dramatic and almost a little silly. Yes, silly at least for a game about a man who runs around punching people while dressed as an animal.
The story isn’t terrible, but it’s missing a level of charm found in the previous two Rocksteady entries. Early on when talking to someone about my opinion of the game I quipped that if I didn’t know better, I’d say this was an Arkham Origins sequel and not the third Rocksteady game. To side-track for a moment, by that I meant how Arkham Origins had a blatantly weaker storyline than the two Paul Dini penned entries and unfortunately his absence is again felt here in Arkham Knight. There was certainly something of a dark fantasy comic book-ish vibe to Arkham Asylum and Arkham City that, as a big comic book fan myself, I adored. Perhaps if you’re more of a movie fan when it comes to Batman this omission won’t bother you, but for me I have to admit it was a notable detraction from my enjoyment of the game throughout.
As for the side missions, they’re a mixed bag. Some rely on open world game tropes, with rooftops of enemies to find and clear out, or a concentrated onslaught of waves of enemies to survive, while others pull from Batman lore and offer genuinely surprising cameos. The gameplay never really shakes things up too much though, even the most interesting side missions have you doing the same sort of things you’ve been doing for hours in the main storyline, just with a different lick of paint. At first these activities are tremendously fun but when you have to blow up waves of enemies in the Batmobile yet again it starts to feel tedious and more like busywork. Another good example would be the return of Firefly, rather than investigate his actions or complete various different tasks you just have to follow him through the city whenever you find him. After the chase you can jump on him, where he then escapes, every time, in exactly the same way. You repeat this until he finally doesn’t escape. Because the game tells you exactly how many steps are left in the quest chain, it sucks out all tension from the task as you know precisely how many more times he’s going to slip out of your bat gauntlets before you’ll finally stop him.
I want to take a moment just to say that Arkham Knight doesn’t treat its female characters very well, or at least very interestingly. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering the series’ history, but it often feels like the female characters in the game are either overtly sexualised or reduced to being a tool for male characters to feel sad/angry about. It’s just a little tiring in a game where there are very few female characters to begin with, as expected every single thug or soldier you fight as Batman is a man. There’s nothing as silly as Penguin’s assistants in Arkham Origins though, who were over-sexualised so ludicrously it was practically comical.
Bizarrely challenge maps, a staple of the Arkham series, are missing. Or at least they’re missing in the way that we’ve come to recognise them. Rather than have the option to pick a character and take on various combat and predator maps of your choice, there’s a series of AR missions built into the story that provide a number of set challenges. These are split into categories, of which there are only 3 predator challenges and 4 combat challenges, with the rest all about the Batmobile. The idea is that you can compare your score with your friends, but awkwardly my PS4 version only had working leaderboards for one day, at the time of writing they’re still busted. It’s a strange choice to swap out challenge maps for these AR challenges because Arkham Knight has the most playable characters of the series so far, at least when you factor in DLC characters, but there’s no way to play around as these characters at will. You have no choice as who to play as in the AR challenges, the most you can do is change their costume. It’s a shame as running around as Harley for instance would have been great, but she’s only available to play in a piece of 10-minute prologue DLC.
Although this review might seem a little grouchy, it’s grouchy out of love. I love Batman, I love Rocksteady’s Batman games and seeing the missteps and problems in Arkham Knight are heart-breaking because the game is so very close to excellence. It’s a very, very fun game. When the story drags and missions become tedious it doesn’t change the fact that the gameplay is still very polished and it’s just really damn fun to be Batman. Arkham Knight is absolutely worth playing, but mainly thanks to the story it’s not the masterpiece that many Bat-fans will be hoping for, but it’s close enough to make the wait worthwhile.
Disclaimer: This review is an opinion, I cheerfully welcome disagreement. It was written based on the PS4 version of Arkham Knight paid for by myself. The review was written after reaching 100% story completion but it was also written without having played the Red Hood DLC, because I don’t own it thanks to annoying retailer exclusive nonsense.