This is How the Batman Died: Batman Arkham Knight (REVIEW)

written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)

This is how it happened… this is how the Batman died. Heard all over the trailers and even as the game first starts, the finality of Rocksteady’s Batman series reaches the eleventh hour with Batman facing the hardest night of his life, a truly long Halloween if I do say so myself.

I feel compelled to say that if you haven’t played Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, there will be substantial spoilers for both those games. Barely a year has passed since the Arkham City incident. Joker is dead, Gotham has healed, but Batman ends up worse for wear since. After a terrorist attack on a small diner by a returned to action/stitched back together Scarecrow, Gotham evacuates the entire city after Scarecrow threatens to attack Gotham with his new concentrated fear toxin. This leaves the city’s super villain populace to turn Gotham into their own personal anarchist playground. Scarecrow recruits Two-Face, Penguin, Riddler, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and newcomer the Arkham Knight in his crusade to destroy the city Batman vows to protect.

The set up is grand, and if you think Bats had a hard time dealing with those one night stand-offs before, after the events of Arkham Knight, you’ll think a titan infused Joker or being trapped in an open air super prison were cakewalks in comparison. First thing’s first, Gotham is huge this time around. The core narrative takes place on three islands, each one connected by bridges an beautifully realized with its own distinct flavor. While the world is much bigger than previous iterations, it isn’t so big that it feels daunting to traverse. The biggest difference between Arkham Knight and last gen’s Batman games is how tall everything is. Buildings reach the heavens in Arkham Knight, making this game not just the biggest map yet but also the tallest. Dive bombing from the top of Wayne Tower only to pull up into an epic glide is one of the most satisfying feelings in this final Arkham chapter.

"you will bring death to those who follow you"

"you will bring death to those who follow you"

Arkham Knight’s story is the strongest piece of the package. The most cerebral of Batman stories yet, though lacking a definitive reveal moment like the Clayface bit from City and Joker’s reveal in Origins. Commissioner Gordon received a considerable amount of screen time, voiced by the amazing Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Community), Arkham Knight’s Jim Gordon contributed to some of the game’s best performances; he was nuanced and played a much more important role than just a background character. Not to be outdone, on the villain side of the coin, Scarecrow is voiced by another Breaking Bad alum in John Noble; giving the Arkham Knight version of Scarecrow a gruff and sinister timbre that truly is the stuff of nightmares. Returning from previous installments is the ever amazing Kevin Conroy as Batman, Grey Griffin (also known professionally as Grey DeLisle) returns as the sultry Selina Kyle, Troy “the Daniel Day Lewis of voice-acting” Baker as Two-Face and new-comer Arkham Knight, Nolan North as the cockney Penguin, Tasia Valenza as Poison Ivy with Wally Wingert (the only cast member to portray his character in every game) as Riddler.

The events of Arkham City and the deaths of both the Joker and Talia al Ghul greatly affected Batman, and this is experienced in stunning detail throughout Arkham Knight’s core narrative. This is a weathered Batman, who by this point in his life as a crime fighter has been constantly pushed to his absolute limits.

Visually, this game is beautiful. Arkham Knight’s Gotham towers above the world you traversed in both City and Origins with all new locales never before seen in either game. Arkham City featured what the Arkham-verse calls “Old Gotham” with the city in Arkham Origins being “Old Gotham” and “New Gotham” as two separate islands connected by a bridge. The three islands seen in Arkham Knight are the cityscapes you could see in the distance but never travel to in previous games. Arkham Knight’s map is Gotham in all her glory, what better way to be the Batman than experience it with a wonderfully rendered Gotham.

Gotham is huge

Gotham is huge

The game’s character models all received a shiny new coat of paint, looking less comic book like than in previous games. Character models all look like real people which play up to the more cerebral storytelling. The myriad of emotions animated further solidify the already stellar performance from the cast. Arkham Knight is stunning, there were times i just grappled to a rooftop just to soak it all in. The attention to detail is monumental, it’s a shame that this beautiful game didn’t come with a built in photomode a la The Last of Us and inFAMOUS: Second Son, imagine the beautiful screenshots you can grab from such a visually stunning game.

Rocksteady’s polished to perfection free-flow combat has further improved from Arkham City and WB Montreal’s Arkham Origins. While still retaining the “be the Batman” theme, we the players can feel even more like Gotham’s Dark Knight thanks to a few new moves like being able to pick a downed thug off the ground to environmental takedowns that allow Batman to employ the likes a loose air conditioning unit or an exposed fuse box to incapacitate one of the many members of Gotham’s criminal element. This forces enemies to be even more tenacious than before. Enemies can now charge at you or grab you from behind, though this is further countered by allowing Bats to either hit a grappling thug enough to knock him down or send a batarang hurtling towards a charging foe, instantly sending him down for the count.

combat is still silky smooth

combat is still silky smooth

In combat, enemy types are generally the same from previous iterations. Standard thugs litter Gotham’s streets and brutes are plentiful this time around. The diversity of enemy types was a huge draw for me as a player, one of the things I dug the most from the non-Rocksteady Arkham Origins was how diverse groups of goons were. New to the fray are medics who are able to wake up unconscious thugs and combat specialists who are essentially reskinned League of Assassin members with a few new tricks. Knife, shield, and stun baton wielding thugs are back with some specialized brutes employing bladed gauntlets and shields. I felt the balance was hitting that perfect sweet-spot between challenging while making a skilled player truly feel like Batman. I was hoping the martial arts master from Arkham Origins would have returned, but thinking back on it having to manage such a dangerous enemy type with all the new tricks would have disrupted the aforementioned balance, making the rhythm of combat a bit disjointed.

Predator missions are largely unchanged but further improved upon. Much of the game’s predator moments happen outside now, with even taller buildings and an overall larger world, the dependance on keeping predator encounters only to enclosed locales has shifted to a more open air state. Of course the vantage points return but grappling has been great expanded upon. Now you can grapple from a high vantage point to say a ledge below you. This further diversifies your choices in dispatching foes in every predator encounter. Grappling into/up out of air ducts also adds a significant boost to predator modes. Predator missions have always been my favorite encounters in the Arkham games. While it’s incredibly satisfying to knock around a few hired goons with delusions of grandeur, there’s something about picking off these guys one buy one that send a “me gusta meme” expression across my nerdy little face.

Now with an expanded move set, the enemy has to adapt to keep the challenge fresh. Most of the game’s predator moments involve Batman facing off against the Arkham Knight’s militia. The Arkham Knight is intimately acquainted with all of Batman’s tactics. If you hop around vantage points too much, he’ll instruct his men to keep their eyes peeled to the ceiling… fan of crawling around under floor grates? Do too much and his men will adapt, looking down at every floor grate… not just the ones with unconscious goons nearby. Forcing to adapt every time make each predator encounter feel like the Mister Freeze boss battle from Arkham City (hands down one of my favorite moments from that game). The aforementioned medics join the ranks during predator encounters with a new enemy type that employs an optic camouflage that blocks detective vision, forcing Batman to truly survey his surroundings before acting.

Ivy face to face with Bats

Ivy face to face with Bats

The biggest change to combat come in the form of brutally satisfying fear takedowns. These can be used to gain the upper hand at the start of a fight, or to pick off multiple goons in a predator encounter. Sneak up unexpectedly on a group of thugs, you can trigger this move to take down up to five guys before free-flowing into a fight or grappling away to some hidden high ground. This is explained when Lucius Fox sends you your brand new batsuit that allows increased mobility and even more speed in combat. Sneaking up on a group of baddies, hiding below floor grates, stalking from a corner, or perched above on a railing or a window are some of the many ways to activate this visually satisfying new move.

Much of your gadgets get an upgrade too. The new disruptor rifle can now sabotage enemy drone turrets or even a goon’s rifle to explode when fired, the new remote hacking tool (replacing the crytographic sequencer) does much of what its predecessor did with a few new tricks, able to turn enemy drones against their operators or blind a drone’s ability to see you for a short period of time. The newest gadget in Batman’s arsenal is the voice synthesizer, allowing Batman to lure enemies to strategic points during predator encounters by issuing commands from the thug’s commander. This is most likely the reason why the sonic batarang was removed in Arkham Knight, but I do miss having the sonic shock variant of it.

gliding is greatly improved in all aspects

gliding is greatly improved in all aspects

Gliding is greatly improved, and thanks to an upgraded grapnel boost (that can be further upgraded in game) you can cover longer distances faster with increased altitude. Pairing this with taller buildings, Batman can build up enough velocity to clear an entire island in one long glide. In one of the best new additions to gliding in Arkham Knight, gadgets can now also be used when gliding; if a glide takes you right into a group of armed baddies, you can knock a few of them back with batarangs giving Batman a clear advantage in battle.

Now to focus a bit on the most publicized new gadget in Batman’s arsenal, the iconic Batmobile. With wider streets and an overall bigger world, having a mode of transportation you can control shifted the gameplay dramatically from a third person beat-em-up to a driving combat game. The Batmobile features two modes when exploring the three islands of Gotham City. Pursuit mode plays like any other driving game, afterburners give Bats an incredible speed boost that’d make Vin Diesel proud while also employing immobilizer rockets that are used in pursuit mode to take down escaping vehicles. Battle mode makes the biggest change from the traditional Arkham style of gameplay, increasing the Batmobile’s mobility in exchange for speed and arming it with various offensive countermeasures. 

tanks battles were numerous

tanks battles were numerous

The Arkham Knight’s militia employ unmanned tank drones that act as the primary antagonist during Batmobile combat sections. Along with your standard armament, the Batmobile is armed with rockets, an EMP, and a drone virus that turn enemy drone tanks into friendly backup. When facing down a battalion of tanks, their estimated shot trajectory gives Batman the ability to dodge attacks from enemy tanks. As the story progresses, Cobra tanks are deployed featuring impenetrable armor and increased firepower. During these gameplay slices, you are forced to go into a Batmobile predator mode, stalking these tanks from behind to take out their weak point.

While I mostly enjoyed the Batmobile gameplay, there really can be too much of a good thing. There were so many Batmobile combat missions, even some of the boss fights were relegated to what felt like Rocksteady showing off their new toy. I get it, the Batmobile is a bad-ass piece of machinery, but with how in your face they forced Batmobile gameplay down the player’s throats, it began to lose its luster as the campaign dredged on. For me my biggest criticism was for a game series that prides itself on “being the Batman,” the Batmobile combat moments felt the least Batman like element of the package.

Everything hits at once, while the core antagonists of the game are Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight, various members of Batman’s extensive rogues gallery simultaneously attack Gotham at the same time. While the trailers made this seem like a big coordinated effort, most of Batman’s foes are relegated to sidequests that range from exciting slices of gameplay to short throw-away missions that I felt didn’t add much to the overall plot. It’s unfortunate that this coordinated plan never really built itself up to the climax I hoped it would. Two-Face robbed banks in predator missions while Penguin ran illegal arms trades. Harley Quinn was the most underutilized of the initially announced rogues, while her gameplay segment was one of the most exciting moments in Arkham Knight, it was over too soon and personally I wasn’t a fan of how they handled her character after Joker’s death. A part of me was expecting a more vicious and cerebral Harley… still harboring a deadly grudge against Batman and his entire bat-family; instead she somehow became more shrill and ditzy, a far cry from the lethal Harley we got in Arkham City’s amazing “Harley Quinn’s Revenge” DLC.

Batman face-to-face with the Arkham Knight

Batman face-to-face with the Arkham Knight

While I can forgive the most wanted missions from underwhelming me, one aspect of the gameplay I can’t forgive is the exclusion of traditional boss battles. Looking back at past games, some of the most memorable moments were encounters against your greatest foes. The Mister Freeze battle from City, Titan Joker in Asylum, and going toe-to-toe with Deathstroke in Origins still sit high as some of my favorite moments across the entire series. Two-Face was nothing more than a predator map, you never even got to face off against Harley, and the Arkham Knight battles ended up as frustrating Batmobile gameplay slices and an uninspiring predator Battle at the end. Throughout the story, Arkham Knight continuously taunts you while reminding you that he knows all your secrets… yet they couldn’t give us a one-on-one no-holds-barred battle against the game’s title antagonist? I admit I do like how they handled the Arkham Knight’s identity, I knew who it was from the very first time they stood face to face. It fits and while the reveal was a far cry from previous games, it by large was still satisfying. As an aside, the one actual boss battle in the game was going toe to toe with Riddler, but with the prerequisite being collecting every Riddler collectible in the game, only the hardcore players will ever experience this fight.

A new feature called dual play gives you the chance to fight side by side with one of your allies. Dual play felt largely underutilized despite a highly publicized trailer showcasing the new mode. Nightwing helps you track down Penguin’s weapons caches, Catwoman was kidnapped by Riddler and forced to combat robots (that I have lovingly dubbed “Nigma-Bots”) while tackling Riddler Room like challenges with Batman, and Robin helps you push back against Harley Quinn when her forces attack one of your strong holds. The highlight of this new game-mode was the Robin missions, which employed a combination of free-flow combat and predator encounters. Outside of these small slices of gameplay, it was all Batman all the time. No dedicated skill trees for allies and zero free roaming. It’s a cool concept but felt like it took a backseat to all those “wonderful” Batmobile tank missions. I felt that they could have trimmed the fat a bit on the Batmobile and given us more of the dual play… here’s hoping for DLC right?

dual play mode, needed more moments like this

dual play mode, needed more moments like this

Outside the main campaign, the most puzzling change was Rocksteady’s decision not to include Challenge Maps, instead we get AR Missions that are a far cry from the traditional challenge maps of previous games. While I could power through the main narrative of previous games in under 20 hours, the reason I have logged over 100 hours in both Arkham City and Arkham Origins is because of the challenge maps. Testing my proficiency with the Arkham’s gameplay while trying to beat my last high score by even just a little bit make up the bulk of my gameplay from previous games. From what I understand, the season pass includes what they call “Advance Challenge Maps,” I can’t fathom why they wouldn’t include it in the vanilla game. I had a blast playing as Robin and Nightwing again and one of the reasons I picked it up from Gamestop was to have the Red Hood and Harley Quinn for challenge maps… yet while I took a break from the story I was greatly let down when I realized that Challenge Maps were not even a little bit included… and no the AR Missions absolutely do not count.

Now, I tried to keep the majority of this review spoiler free… the next segment will be delving into spoiler territory. Don’t care and want to read my thoughts? Keep reading… but if you are the sensitive to spoilers type, skip ahead to the verdict below.

Okay… still reading? Last chance to get out… okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I mentioned how Arkham Knight was the most cerebral story across the entire franchise, and that’s all thanks to the inclusion of a character I had no idea would play such a pivotal role. The Joker… complete with Mark Hamill’s signature intonation. Now, you must be wondering how a dead guy played such a pivotal role right? While I knew Joker would make an appearance thanks to some leaked images, I had no idea his role would be so huge! Joker still manages to get one over on ol Bats even in death. Thanks to Joker’s blood running in his veins, while the threat of the Titan induced illness that killed Joker in City is gone, the blood begins to change Batman from the inside out, affecting his mind in a sinister way only Joker knows how. Four other Gotham citizens were infected with Joker’s blood during the events of Arkham City with three of them exhibiting Joker’s trademark green hair, bleached skin, and penchant for madness.

even in death... he still haunts Batman

even in death... he still haunts Batman

Throughout the entire narrative, an imaginary Joker rides shotgun in Batman’s head, continually pushing him towards madness while growing ever stronger whenever Batman is exposed to Scarecrow’s toxin. You have to suspend your disbelief a bit, but it’s absolutely worth it with Joker spouting off one-liners and commentary throughout the entire narrative. Even during the most wanted missions he’ll have a snide remark or comment about the events that unfolded. The world around you also continues to change while you fall ever deeper in Joker’s patented brand of madness. Billboards will transform from advertisements into taunting expressions of Bruce’s greatest fears with Joker’s face continually popping up in unexpected locations. The final scenes with the Joker I feel made up for much of my gripes… if even just a little. So for the fourth game in a row, Joker plays the biggest role of all Batman’s villains. While I was expecting a largely Joker-less narrative, I was pleasantly surprised to see how big his role was in Arkham Knight.

VERDICT:

As Rocksteady’s Batman swan song, this was an incredibly satisfying game that lived up to my expectations from the studio. Despite the oversaturation of Batmobile gameplay segments and the lack of traditional boss battles, I had a great time with it and jumped right into New Game + after finishing the standard campaign mode. Having no challenge mode was a let down, but all in all I was satisfied with Arkham Knight. Arkham Asylum proved that a video game based on a super hero property can have amazing gameplay and an immersive narrative, there are many pretenders but Rocksteady proved yet again why their super hero games are head and shoulders above the competition.

CONS:

- No challenge mode
- Too much Batmobile
- Lack of traditional boss battles

PROS:

+ Perfect combat
+ Immersive narrative
+ Be the Batman!!

 

SCORE BREAKDOWN:

Story 5/5: A deep a nuanced narrative make this a great campaign to experience

Graphics 5/5: Gorgeous visuals! Everything looks polished to perfection!

Audio 5/5: A score that adapts to the moment with iconic themes, every punch sounds like it would feel

Level design 3/5: While the world was huge, some areas of the map were hard to play through, especially the parts with Batmobile combat.

Polish 4/5: Slight bugs but nothing gamebreaking (on PS4) though at the writing of this I hear the PC port is still pretty much broken

Controls 5/5: Perfection at its best, even the Batmobile gameplay moments controlled well

Gameplay 4/5: A satisfying package but the oversaturation of Batmobile gameplay hindered my enjoyment at times

Extras 3/5: There isn't much outside the core campaign, and the lack of a challenge mode puzzled me