Batman: Arkham Knight Review
Gotham is beyond a city in trouble. “Trouble” was evacuated and fled to safety; all that remains is fear and despair and an overwhelmingly palpable sense of chaos. The metropolis is in the iron grip of several villains and the police are at a loss. Obviously, only one man can solve this problem and he wears a cape and has lots and lots of fancy gadgets only a billionaire could create. He can deliver the town from evil without breaking a sweat, right? Well, the criminal underworld has a plan to take down the great Batman and it’s going to require all of the Caped Crusader’s prodigious abilities to escape harm this time. On top of which, Bruce Wayne must finally face down his darker side.
It’s perhaps the darkest and boldest setting yet for a Batman adventure, so perhaps it’s fitting that the Arkham Knight visuals reflect that oppressive darkness. Despite the lack of color, Rocksteady emphasizes gorgeous shading and lighting to present an environment never devoid of interest or intrigue. There’s a glossy sheen to absolutely everything, as if it only just rained. The slickness of this landscape doesn’t require the sun to glint and shine, and you’ll constantly be impressed with the scope and attention to detail. While not the biggest, this is one of the most graphically accomplished open-world environments we’ve ever seen.
For added technical superiority, we turn to a wonderful (albeit occasionally subdued) score, excellent combat and atmospheric effects, and unparalleled voice performances. This is indeed one of the best voiceover casts ever assembled for a video game; Kevin Conroy returns to play the guttural Batman, Troy Baker lends his diverse talents to Two-Face and the Arkham Knight, Nolan North (from Uncharted fame) is memorable as The Penguin, and Tara Strong’s Harley Quinn is nigh-on perfect. That’s hardly the full list of excellence; check IMDB to be further impressed. The effects continue to meld beautifully with the stellar music, and even the ambient effects are second-to-none. Truly a cut above in this category.
There is something wonderfully appealing and endlessly intoxicating about Batman: Arkham Knight. But before I gush and praise, let me put one thing aside: As a continued advocate of the improvement of video game writing, I will say this narrative seems a tad childish for me. I get that we’re talking about superheroes, so we should have the tongue-in-cheek vibe along with outrageous villains and impossible heroic situations. Therefore, one can expect a certain amount of predictability and painfully obvious metaphors that even the semi-literate will easily comprehend. But I still think we can ask for a little more. We can ask for some subtlety, for instance; good storytelling is about “showing,” not “telling.” I just wish more game writers understood this.
That aside, the game puts a premium on a diverse form of exploration you won’t find anywhere else. Not only can you soar high above the embattled city, but you can also dive into your extremely effective Batmobile and zoom through the darkened streets. I’ll get to the Batmobile in a minute; for now, I want to focus on the immense feeling of freedom and empowerment. You don’t have to worry about civilians caught in the crossfire, as most have left Gotham after Scarecrow’s threat to release a hallucinogenic toxin. You simply drink in your unbelievably well-designed surroundings with that high-gloss sheen, often in awe, always with the beginnings of a smile playing around your lips. It’s just one of those games where it’s a joy to move around.
The mechanics are fine-tuned and nailed down to within an inch of perfection. This is no mean feat, either, as the developers had to master standard movement, driving, and flying (or gliding, whatever) physics for one game. Now, granted, the Batmobile isn’t perfect and perhaps I’m too quick to ignore its eccentricities but again, I’ll address that vehicle in due time. For the most part, when controlling Batman, you always feel as if you’re in complete control. Combat remains a gigantic highlight, as the free-flowing hand-to-hand-style is better than ever. Toss in the occasional ability to actually switch off between heroes during certain story battles, and you’ve got a super fast and rewarding system that never skips a beat. Throughout it all, the audiovisual details continue to paint a somber, immersive picture.
There’s just an incredible amount of stuff to do, and how you interact with your environment continues to change. There are stealth sequences, clever puzzles to solve, devices to hack, and overall ingenious level design always has you searching for a fresh way to tackle an objective. Batman’s assortment of gadgets and weaponry has never been better and there’s nothing superfluous; everything has its time and place. The Disruptor Rifle can cause the weapons of your enemies to malfunction, and a gadget that emulates the voices of bad guys is surprisingly useful. You will find that almost every area offers different options and you’ll start using different abilities and tools to achieve success. This makes for a ceaselessly entertaining and fresh-feeling action/adventure experience.
For the most part, the pacing is great. One minute, you’re battling through a horde of thugs, cracking skulls and doling out copious amounts of street justice. But the next, you’re scouring a crime scene for clues or embarking on a mission with a unique set of objectives. The combination of the various tools and skills is great, but the addition of diverse gameplay elements is a definite boon. Scanning a corpse’s tissue to find anomalies might not be expected (and many might think it sounds boring), but it’s just another intriguing facet of this particular adventure. Batman really has to do it all and the developers don’t hold back; their creativity and imaginative approach to missions and even optional quests is palpable. It makes us want to keep playing, hour after hour.
Now, the Batmobile: At almost any time, you can jump in and start driving. The driving mechanic is slick and accessible, and that line launcher is just a thing of beauty. My problem is that it seems like the designers really insist upon this new feature, and they insist upon it too often. During later stages of the story, you’re going to be in the Batmobile quite a bit and honestly, battles against drones get a little tiring. It’s great that we get upgrades along the way; it’s always satisfying and exciting to earn goodies like EMP blasts, for example. But that doesn’t stop the mandatory Batmobile sections from feeling forced, and they drag on for way too long in my estimation. It’s not used particularly well in certain boss fights, either.
All in all, I’m glad they put in the Batmobile because it makes perfect sense. This is a true open-world environment after all, and we should always have a faster form of conveyance. We got horses in Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and of course we get cars and all sorts of other vehicles in franchises like Grand Theft Auto. Hell, even this year’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will give us the opportunity to hijack carriages. Sometimes, these are essential forms of transportation while other times, they’re simply nice options. To Rocksteady’s credit, they do far more with the Batmobile than any other developer has done with vehicles in any sandbox game. One must give credit where credit is due and the Batmobile is not only highly effective but also totally bad-ass.
It’s just a little too much, that’s all. The developers fell in love with the concept (and rightfully so) but they just couldn’t let it go. This results in a feature that feels overplayed and at times, unnecessary. I actually had more fun soaring above the city than I did driving. I should also add that, in addition to the Batmobile drawback, I think some of the later battles start to feel repetitive and tedious. However, I will reiterate that the sky-high fun factor of the game rarely dips and for about 95 percent of the time, you feel completely and entirely enveloped by a luscious form of entertainment. I’m not even into superheroes but I’ve always been impressed by Rocksteady’s capability, and this game is yet another jewel in the crown of their career thus far.
Batman: Arkham Knight is arguably the best game of the year so far. The technical aspects are not only eye-popping but they’re also quite stable. The graphics are slick, the sound is stellar, the control is rock solid, and the gameplay variety is downright tremendous. I love the blending of puzzle, stealth, action, and adventure, and you have to give mad crazy props to the overall game design. I still say the story could be less predictable (perhaps give the player a little more credit in terms of literary comprehension) and the Batmobile, as awesome as it can be, is just overdone. Even so, we’re still treated to a lengthy, rewarding, and unbelievably fun game that will be remembered as being one of 2015’s very best.
The Good: Excellent, super glossy visuals. An all-star voiceover cast resonates and top-tier sound effects have a huge impact. Very diverse gameplay and a wide variety of tools and abilities. Fantastic game design and great pacing. Singular sense of empowerment throughout. Appreciated, immersive blend of different gameplay elements.
The Bad: Story is a little lacking and too straightforward. Batmobile is cool but overdone. A few boss battles aren’t especially well-conceived.
The Ugly: “Never thought I’d get sick of being behind the wheel of the Batmobile, but…”
6/25/2015 Ben Dutka