Rocksteady’s epic Batman trilogy in many ways charts my own passion and struggles with videogames. 2009’s Arkham Asylum sent me into a frenzy. I replayed the demo countless times, always spending the most time in the first Predator section where I loved to toy with my foes, slowly driving them into a state of supreme terror, and adored the game when it launched. Arkham City had me excited, but by the time it came out I’d begun getting a slightly more cynical edge thanks to the antics of the industry, and had been writing reviews for a little while. I still loved it, though. And then Arkham Knight was announced, and by this point I’ve gotten pretty fed up with how companies like Warner Bros. choose to operate. Pre-order bonuses, Season Passes and a disasterous PC version all threatening to crush my excitement for Rocksteady’s final game in their Arkham trilogy. Of all of the Batman games, even including Origins, this is the one I’ve been the most critical of, and to my surprise it has held up under scrutiny. Mostly.
If this is the best of Rocksteady’s work is a hard subject to tackle. The original Arkham Asylum was a masterpiece, in my eyes, a tightly focused adventure with outstanding pacing, the more confined setting letting Rocksteady carefully plan everything out. Arkham City opted for an open world format and in the process lost the majestic pacing and focus of the first game, but gained in other places, such as a strong cast of interwoven villains and a better idea of Batman’s world. Arkham Knight, meanwhile, still lacks focus and handles its villains and side-missions far worse than previous entries, but the tradeoff is a stupendous recreation of Gotham city that simply looks gorgeous and a strong storyline that explores the mindset of the Batman, plus a raft of tweaks that have made the core gameplay even better. If I was to simply pick my favorite of the three I’d likely still veer back to Arkham Asylum, largely due to a nostalgic attachment to the game which was, at the time, groundbreaking. But if you were to ask me which game is the best I’d be at a loss. They each offer slightly different strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately all offer brilliant experiences. The truth is that you should just play them all. It’s just a little disappointing that I can’t call Rocksteady’s final Bat-outing the perfect swan song though. Letting go of all attempts to be fair, I so wanted this to be the absolute perfect Batman game, the indisputable best of the trilogy. It’s still pretty damn amazing, though. Let’s just get this out of the way; by the Caped Crusader’s overly tight tights does this game look phenomenal, boasting the most detailed and impressive digital version of Gotham city to date, and arguably the best representation of the Dark Knight’s home in any medium, although on a personal level I still have a strong nostalgic love for Tim Burton’s brooding take on the city from Batman Returns. It’s beautiful on both an artistic and technical front. The city is awash with various colored light sources that reflect on the wet streets, giving the world a lovely glow which nicely contrasts the dark tone of the story, and the brooding nature of Batman himself. The level of detail is incredible at times, from the way Batman’s cape glistens with moisture and flaps in the wind to the way colored sparks reflect and interact with the environment. Down on street level it looks great, but gliding high above it it’s simply awe-inspiring, a technical masterpiece on console that has gotten overshadowed, and rather deservedly so, by the horrendous state of the PC version. While Rocksteady have managed to find yet another way to evacuate all the regular citizens this is still the most alive version of Gotham that they’ve crafted yet, the use of light and the amount of goons on foot giving the sense of a city that would keep on ticking away without your presence. It’s also nice to note that as the night wears on more and more looting and riots will take place if you don’t bother to glide down and smack some fools around every now and then. There’s just so much to soak in that the city could almost arguably be called over-designed, my eyeballs sometimes just refusing to do anything more than blur it all together. Everywhere you look there’s something going on. And of course the quality of the animation is top-notch, helping to sell the power fantasy of being Batman. If there’s but one flaw it’s that the camera just gets in too close behind Batman at times, trying a bit too hard to make you sink into the role, and during combat some brutal moves are somewhat ruined by quick-cut camera techniques that you’d normally see being employed in your average, badly shot action blockbuster. It’s also worth noting that if you get in really close you will find some relatively low resolution textures dotted about the place, but these are frankly minor grips. Batman: Arkham Knight is beautiful, and I have to confess that it they ever get the PC version running properly I may consider buying it during a sale just to see how much more beautiful it can be.
To get around this lovingly crafted recreation of Batman’s stomping grounds fans have finally gotten access to a much requested vehicle; the Batmobile, the inclusion of which has meant the ditching the often far too small streets seen in both Arkham City and Arkham Origins in favor of a far more believable road network that further helps sell this version of Gotham as an actual city. Much like the Dark Knight’s suit, which is a far cry from the stylish simplicity of Arkham Asylum’s outfit, the Batmobile is a bit over designed, all metal and angles and stuff, but it slots neatly into Rocksteady’s goal to make you feel like the Batman, something which they’ve proven entirely adept at doing. With a tap of the left bumper the beast comes snarling into view, making any nearby criminals flee in terror as it barrels toward them. I love calling it in while gliding the because Batman will dive for the ground, landing just in time for the Batmobile to perform a 180-degree spin as Batman leaps into the driver’s seat. Roaring around the streets in the Batmobile feels good. The driving physics are certainly interesting, focusing on sliding madly around corners using RT+X before blasting off again using the afterburner. It’s purely arcadey in nature, and has a weird balance between really grippy and then suddenly quite slidey. Some people have struggled to get a feel for it, but having been playing arcade racers all my life I didn’t have a problem, and quickly fell in love with it, especially relishing chasing enemy APCs around the streets. Impressively Rocksteady have implemented a light destruction system so that the Batmobile can plough into and through barriers, bits of building and much more, making it feel connected to the world, even if wanton destruction feels slightly out of character for the Dark Knight. The streets are also filled with lots of crooks driving around that you can chase down and smash off the road, and hilariously both these guys and the ones you run over apparently all survive your vehicular assault, because Batman doesn’t kill, he just horribly maims.
But then there’s the Batmobile’s slightly surprising ability to turn into a battle tank with full 360-degree movement and a 60mm cannon by holding down the LT. It’s a bit…well, odd. Indeed the entire design of the Batmobile, which seems to take heavy inspiration from Nolan’s Batman movies, and even that of Batman’s new cumbersome looking metal armored suit all suggest a much less subtle hero that has gone in for pure brute force. To combat the fact that Batman can’t actually just blow the crap out of everyone with his tank Rocksteady have implemented an unmanned drone army which forms part of the Arkham Knight’s assault force. Unlike the driving which is fun for hours on end drone combat scenarios lose their appeal about after just a few bouts. While the hand to hand combat is as silky smooth and fast as ever fighting other tanks feels clumsy and lifeless. You can see the obvious design parallels between the melee combat and the tank-based sections, especially when the game introduces Cobra tanks which can only be destroyed by sneaking up behind them and getting a lock on their weak points before finishing them off with a round from the main cannon. Both this and big multi-tank battles are obviously meant to parallel the freeflow combat system and Predator sections, but both end up being lackluster. Different types of enemy drones and an upgrade tree all attempt to spice up the drone based combat, giving you access to a fast firing cannon and rocket system that powers up as you dodge attacks but also loses power for every hit you take, meaning that you rather strangely get access to a powerful attack system that can turn the tide of a battle when you least need it. It’s never enough, though; despite new drones and some upgrades each battle with the Arkham Knight’s unmanned forces feels the same, contrasting the strong Predator and Freeflow Combat sections. The bigger problem is Rocksteady seem intent on making players dislike the Batmobile by shoehorning it into the game at every possible juncture, including vehicle platforming sections and lots and lots and lots of drone battles. The act of driving around manages to maintain its pleasure thanks to the handling, but even it struggles under the weight of Rocksteady’s demands at times. That’s nothing compared to the drone combat, though, which isn’t strong enough to support the numerous battles that you’ll encounter, especially in the closing hours of the game where the developer’s try to ram the Batmobile into the action as much as possible, often to the detriment of everything else, including the plot. It’s a shame because used more sparingly it would have been a superb addition to the formula. There’s some great stuff; it can be controlled remotely, for example, and even has a powered winch that makes it good for certain puzzles. Some smart designs include using the remote control function to eliminate threats. Some of the side-missions that involve clearing out guard outposts make good use of the Batmobile, and the fact that Batman can perform a tag-team takedown using the Batmobile is pretty awesome, as is the ability to eject out of the vehicle at high-speed. These are great moments, but Rocksteady just go to far with it at times, and drone combat…it’s just dull. It makes the closing hours of the game a drag as you go from already having to use the Batmobile too much to using it way, way too much, including some damn awful boss fights.
Rocksteady’s design philosophy is understandable, however. Their intentions were pure, it seems, intending on making the Batmobile feel like n extension of the Dark Knight, the ultimate utility belt gadget that doesn’t actually fit on the utility belt. It’s inclusion in so much of the game just doesn’t feel natural, though, like Rocksteady were trying too hard instead of allowing the Batmobile to be another, albeit very important, support tool that bolstered the primary gameplay rather than trying to stand alongside it.
Meanwhile it also seems that Rocksteady opted to go to the Ubisoft school of open world and side quest design. The world may be relatively large and beautiful, packed with rain-soaked architecture and criminals looking to take advantage of the evacuation, but it’s also pretty much empty space devoid of anything for the player to actually discover for themselves, a mistake that Rocksteady made when they created Arkham City, too. Rather than letting players discover interesting side-missions and little diversions for themselves, thus handing them a reason to explore the city, every potential sub-plot is given to you via the magic of Alfred and the all-knowing Batcomputer. Sure, in some of the quests do need you to search around the rooftops and streets little for your objective, like the Militia Watchtowers and mines to be disarmed, but for the most part there’s just nothing actually in Gotham worth discovering, except for goons to punch and the standard gamut of Riddler trophies. It’s the design template of far too many triple A developers at the moment; a failure to realise that simply having an open world doesn’t automatically make your game better, and that handing us all the side-quests is the lazy answer. Outside of the main storyline other members of Batman’s extensive rogue’s gallery can be found in some seriously lackluster side-missions that tend to wrap up rather in anticlimactic fashion. Take, for example, Firefly, who you tackle solely by chasing round the streets in your Batmobile before he starts to run out of fuel and you can execute a takedown move. You repeat this a further two times and Bob’s your uncle, you’re done. Even foes like Two-Face, the Penguin and Hush get equally weak treatment, while Man-Bat just requires you to gently glide through the air and land on his back, before repeating the performance a few more times whenever he pops back up. Arkham City, and even the weaker Arkham Origins, both managed to handle their villains better than this. I mean, who thought the best thing to do withe Penguin was to make the player battle a few rooms of enemies, the exact same thing they’ve been doing for the rest of the game? There’s not even decent narratives behind these missions, either, except for the occasional little snippet, like a nice moment between Batman and Nightwing. Meanwhile Catwoman has somehow managed to be taken hostage yet again, and all the other side-missions are cookie-cutter designs, like disarming mines by fighting off waves of drones and taking down outposts by battling standard goons. How professional review outlets seem to be praising these missions is beyond me, especially considering their attitudes toward other open worlds that plump for similiar, repeated missions, like Watch Dogs. Double standards, methinks.
But it’s not completely terrible on the side-mission front. The way side-quests are paced is quite brilliant, as rather than simply letting you complete the whole mission in one go you’ll find progress has to be halted while other things happen in the main narrative thread. A challenge from the Riddler can’t be completed until a bridge is lowered during the main story, and Man Bat can’t be stopped until he comes back out of hiding, while the Penguin’s weapon supplies can’t be blown up until Nightwing finds another truck to follow. It’s a good way of solving the pacing problems that other open world games have where the player is told that something must be done urgently but then lets them polish off every single diversion first, although some people may find the artificial barriers being thrown up to halt progress annoying. And it has to be said that even if the designs of the missions themselves are lackluster, they are fun thanks to the core gameplay mechanics. Outposts and other areas at least give you the chance to flex your stealth muscles and combat skills. It’s still a joy to simply be presented with an area full of guards, some high vantage points and a straightforward objective; take them all out. Despite my complaints regarding how little effort seems to have gone into creating little side-narratives and gameplay designs, I did find myself completing almost all of the side-quests, with Riddler’s being a notable exception thanks to the final step being to solve every single damn riddle in the city. Aside from the Batmobile and the obviously graphical upgrade this is a relatively safe sequel, opting to gently tweak the existing mechanics, usually for the better. And while it’s a shame to see the developer’s go down the safe route in some regards, the truth of the matter is that the gameplay is still incredibly good, acting as the perfect Batman simulator. Rocksteady know how to do Batman, and everything feels designed to make the player feel like the Dark Knight. I still get a warm glow when I stride up to the edge of a building and dive off before opening up the cape and gliding across the city, or when I watched criminals from afar and plot their demise. The highlight for me, though, as it has been from the very start of the trilogy, are the Predator sections where you can pick off goons one by one, either in complete stealth or through more noisy means. It’s a joy to play with your victims as they begin to panic once they realise their numbers are dwindling, prowling the rafters in search of your next target and planning how to do it. Maybe you’ll sabotage a man’s goon before dropping down and watching with amusement as he confidently goes to open fire, and then panics as the gun won’t fire. Maybe you’ll drop from a vantage point and string a baddie up, or use a gadget to blow up a generator. There’s a huge array of choices, and it makes you feel powerful and dangerous, and yet still vulnerable as screwing up, usually by not quite judging a gap between enemies well enough, results in a hail of gunfire and a dead bat. I honestly recommend not upgrading the Batsuit’s ability to absorb gunfire, because without that sense of vulnerability some of the fun is taken away. As always you can swing between vantage points and perform a variety of takedown moves, of which there’s a good few extra been added in for this latest iteration, plus use your gadgets and the area’s other features, like a new type of grate that you can enter from the wall and numerous other things, including escalators which you can suddenly activate to send the enemy tumbling down. Big new additions are a medic who can revive fallen comrades, making him one of your first targets. His aptitude for running toward a unconcious chum makes him a prime candidate for an Explosive Gel trap, or better yet a handy upgraded gadget that will sabotage his equipment, zapping him with an electric shock when he goes to revive a comrade. Other new enemies include a massive mini-gunner who cannot be taken out quietly, meaning it’s often best to leave him until last, plus there’s occasionally a goon controlling a small drone that can be hacked into for some added mayhem. All of these new additions don’t massively change the Predator template, but they do bring some extra variety and ensure that there’s still some pressure on the player to combat the fact that this incarnation of Batman is the most powerful yet. Laying traps and silently taking down criminal after criminal feels better than ever, which is saying something. And then there’s the very powerful Fear takedown, where Batman can noisily and brutally tackle three or more (depending on upgrades) goons in a slow motion demonstration of pain. Even though Fear moves like this have to be recharged by performing regular silent assaults I found them to be too powerful at times, although from a thematic standpoint they are yet another feature that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of actually being the Batman, a hero that often likes to let the enemy know of his presence to unnerve them. Fear is a powerful tool, after all.
The flowing combat system has likewise gotten a few upgrades. It feels just a bit faster here, and somehow even smoother. Probably the biggest addition is that during certain moments of the game you can take control of a secondary character, such as Nightwing or Robin, and perform tag-team moves. It doesn’t add very much to the combat, but nonetheless it’s cool to see Batman fighting alongside some of his allies. Other than that a small raft of new moves have been added that can be unlocked through the usual suite of upgrades, which come at a pretty generous rate. There’s a couple of new enemies as well, such as the Medic who, just like his Predator counterpart, can revive fallen comrades if given the chance and can also grant them an electric charge that flows through their suit. Environmental attacks have been introduced, too, for some added brutality. Targeting specific enemies, like the pesky Medic, is still a bit of a headache, but otherwise the melee combat is slightly better than before, which doesn’t sound great until you remember just how damn fun it was already.
What becomes quickly apparent is just how complex the Rocksteady series has actually become since the very first game back in 2009. The sheer volume of button combinations for Batman on foot, the Batmobile, combat mode in the Batmobile, on-foot combat, gliding and Predator mode is staggering. In fisticuffs alone Batman has just about as many or more inputs than his counterpart in Injustice: Gods Among Us, a brawler made by Netherealm. It does occasionally get a bit mad – I can’t count how many times that I forgot which button combination performed which special move during combat – but it’s a testament to great design that for the most part everything fits together neatly, although a new player might find themselves struggling to remember everything. Having said that, this really isn’t the game to jump aboard with, because while you might manage to muddle through the plot really needs you to have experienced the previous two games. Even Arkham Origins helps, although it’s considerably less important.
Ah yes, what of the all important plot? The Arkham games have always featured enjoyable stories, but have also struggled to link great scenes together or to remain focused. The game opens with none other than the Scarecrow, brilliantly voiced by John Noble, threatening to unleash his fear toxin across the entirety of Gotham, causing an evacuation. To back him up the Scarecrow has given free reign of Gotham to the criminal element, promising the likes of Two Face and the militia forces immunity from the toxin. Despite this, though, the main story doesn’t bring a lot of Batman’s rogue’s gallery into the mix, which is really a good thing as Arkham City sometimes got a little too muddled with super villains. It does, however, bring in some of the Bat-family, and even gives Poison Ivy a key position in the story. The second antagonist is the titular Arkham Knight, a character that has been hyped up by Rocksteady as being entirely new to the DC universe and the antithesis of Batman himself, a warrior capable of outwitting the Dark Knight and going toe-to-toe with him. Sadly he ends up being the most disappointing aspect of the main narrative, his identity easily solved long before his reveal by almost any Batman fan, and heavy foreshadowing means that even non-Bat fans will know exactly who he is well before the mask comes off. He’s portrayed as the opposite of Batman in many ways, a dangerous opponent that seems to know exactly how the Dark Knight thinks and acts, and yet in reality he often comes across as a petulant child unhappy with the mean old Batman blowing his tanks up. It fits the character, in fairness, but it does also stop him from feeling like the dangerous adversary that he should be, especially since you thwart most of his ambushes easily. The Scarecrow, though, fares much better, his fear toxin giving Rocksteady a chance to show Batman slowly losing his mind, creating a fascinating character journey. Since he isn’t a physical threat his appearances are largely relegated to appearing on huge screens dotted around the city, and leaving the Arkham Knight and his militia forces to do all the heavy lifting. It’s a bit of a shame to rarely see the main villain, but given who it is it’s understandable. The comics have naturally delved into the Batman’s mindset many times before, but Rocksteady pull of a confident take on the idea that’s all their own, neatly bringing in plot elements from the past games to tell a compelling story. Individual scenes are often amazing, and brilliantly directed, too. The actual script that links it all together, though, can be a bit messy in places, and there’s an over reliance on Batman radioing people grows a bit annoying. Nor, indeed, is the writing subtle, often feeling rather heavy-handed in its portrayal of Batman’s growing madness. But as a whole it’s a wonderful Batman tale, and some of the ways they portray Batman as losing his mind are skillfully handled. The dialogue needs work, but this is a satisfying conclusion to Rocksteady’s version of Batman, if not a classic tale.
Of course the game has a vast shadow looming over it in the form of a truly atrocious PC launch that caused a massive backlash, one so powerful that Warner Bros., a company renowned for having poor customer treatment, pulled it from sale on Steam, largely owing to Steam’s new refund policy that gives consumers power to show their displeasure from a monetary standpoint. It’s very, very clear that you simply shouldn’t purchase the game on PC, even if you have a rig that costs several thousand pounds. And indeed quite frankly if you don’t want to buy the game on any platform because you feel the PC version should never have been released in such an unfit state then that’s perfectly understandable. From a review standpoint I’m not going to offer an opinion here because it just isn’t the place. From a performance standpoint all I’m qualified to talk about is the Xbox One version, since I’ve not had a chance to check out how much of a mess the game is on PC. Oddly enough I requested either Xbox One or PC code to review, and got neither. As it turns out nobody got PC code, and everybody else was given the game on PS4. I then when out to buy the game, and strongly considered getting it on PC. At the time I wasn’t aware of the problems, and opted for the Xbox One version because the console was feeling a bit neglected. So, on Xbox One the game actually runs very, very well, maintaining a stable 30fps for much of the time. The exception is driving the Batmobile around where it seems to fluctuate a little from 30fps to 25fps or so. Likewise some fast movement when using the grappling hook and glide cause some pretty small drops. Other than that there was a couple of cases of textures not popping in correctly.
It’s also sad to see Challenge Maps abandoned, replaced by the less impressive AR Challenges that are scattered throughout the city. Why these maps, which have been a staple of the series from the very beginning, have vanished is a mystery…well, it would have been if it wasn’t for the fact that the Season Pass promises Challenge Maps. Not cool. Meanwhile the inability to play as the likes of Catwoman and Nightwing in the AR Challenges seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity, too. Hell, why not just let us free roam as them?
Is Arkham Knight the best of Rocksteady’s amazing trilogy? Nope. But that’s because, as we discussed near the very beginning of this review, each game has key strengths and weaknesses, and trying to pick the best one of the three is a tough task. In some respects Arkham Knight has some rather serious problems in the form of dull drone combat, no Challenge Maps, weak side quests and an over reliance on using the Batmobile and the series tradition of having lackluster boss battles. But it’s an exceptionally beautiful game with a strong story and some small yet good tweaks to the already fantastic gameplay mechanics. It’s not the definitive Batman game of the trilogy, but like the previous two is absolutely essential for Batman fans and gamers alike. Unless you want to play on PC.