In 1992, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski developed Batman: The Animated Series. 23 years later, it still remains the best representation of the character in his 76 year history. Every form of media has taken its approach to the Dark Knight, who of course started in the realm of comic books. However, even the source material has a tough time stacking up against the timelessness that is so present inside of the 1992 animated series.
In 2009, Rocksteady Studios impressed us all when it developed Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game featured writing by Batman: The Animated Series scribe Paul Dini, voice acting by the series’ cast, and ultimately: it made you feel like you were Batman. After years of mediocre movie tie-ins, Arkham Asylum finally gave us a Batman game that we were proud to talk about. It introduced a new competitor to Batman: The Animated Series as the best representation of Batman in a different medium. Rocksteady followed up in 2011 with Arkham City, and now in 2015 the trilogy comes to an end with Batman: Arkham Knight.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a perfect blend of everything that has preceded it. Not only the two previous games in the Arkham series, but of all things Batman, Arkham Knight carefully presents a Batman game that impresses on all levels. The game is filled with character history and important references, while telling a brand new story set in this universe and all the while putting you in control of Gotham’s hero. For the first time in series’ history, the Batmobile is drivable, and provides another option for combat and navigation through a city being ripped apart by Batman’s greatest enemies.
The most important part of creating a Batman video game is making sure that the player will feel like Batman. It is a feat that the team at Rocksteady was able to achieve in previous titles, and Arkham Knight only makes it better. There is a certain fluidity to Batman’s combat that wasn’t present entirely before. It’s as if the game is just slightly more forgiving to the rhythm of combat over the previous entries. No longer does combat feel like you are constantly one button press away from breaking a combo or being killed by some random thug. There’s a confidence within the controls this time around that I felt throughout my time in Gotham. Combat still has the same rhythm-based timing system, but something about it felt better and in turn made me feel even more like Batman.
A new Batsuit in this title, courtesy of Lucious Fox, allows Batman to perform a Fear Takedown. This new move lets the player drop in and takedown a handful of thugs in slow-motion before they have time to realize that the Dark Knight is in the room. The ability to upgrade this move and increase the number of enemies you can take out in one swoop really changes the approach to combat this time around, and I felt that I was hiding above and using Detective mode much less.
Rocksteady did something clever in this game, and gives us every opportunity not to use Detective mode for combat. Seldom is it something forced, like an enemy with a scrambling device, but more is it made just unneeded during combat missions. Thankfully so, because the game looks incredible and one of my gripes with previous titles was that I saw the world in blue, rather than the raw colors of Gotham itself.
Batman is given more than just a new suit in this game, and there are some new gadgets to play around with, as well as new functionality for legacy gadgets. There is a new toy that allows you to simulate an enemies voice and dictate orders to the goons in the room. At times, its required, but when you can play around with it as another option for takedowns or sweeping the room it can be an interesting tool. My favorite addition this time around wasn’t in the form of a brand new gadget, but more in the retooling of the hacking device. Now, you can use it for more than just door unlocks, and can take advantage of these capabilities during combat. One of the cooler uses is waiting for a handful of enemies to run up an escalator and then triggering the rolling stairs to come to life at a high speed leaving enemies sprawled across the floor.
Of course, the most notable addition to Batman’s gadget wheel is not anything he can carry on his belt; and yes, it comes in black. The Batmobile has been one of the most talked about additions to the game, both from the developer and from players. It took me a few minutes to really understand the controls of the Batmobile, but when you begin to master them, it is incredibly fun to barrel through Gotham. While it’s still fantastic to simply glide around Gotham and fly from point to point, the Batmobile offered another choice for navigation that kept moving around fresh.
The Batmobile has a second form, where the vehicle becomes a tank. The story creates plenty of opportunities for the player to utilize the tank to take down drones that are patrolling the city. It controls a bit different than just driving the standard Batmobile, but much like the hand-to-hand combat, tank combat has a rhythm to it that when paid close attention to can be rewarding.
There are some sections throughout the game that involve the Batmobile that become a bit tedious, but most of them are optional side missions. It doesn’t really help when attempting to complete everything in the game, but learning the rhythm of tank combat can really assist in these missions. Additionally, the Batmobile is part of Batman’s upgrade system, allowing you to improve it through leveling up.
When Arkham Knight was first announced, Paul Dini’s name was seemingly absent from the project. It was unfortunate because he was one of the names who made Batman: The Animated Series so great, and he was the writer of Rocksteady’s previous Batman games. Additionally, Rocksteady made some very bold claims in regards to the game’s main antagonist, the titular Arkham Knight. While Batman’s familiar rogues gallery would be present throughout the game, the main villain is a brand new character in the Batman mythos.
The story begins right as Arkham City left off, and after a brief introduction, we learn that Scarecrow has gathered all of Gotham’s most notorious to donate money to the Arkham Knight who will kill the Batman once and for all, while Scarecrow prepares to turn Gotham inside out with his latest fear toxin.
A traditional setup for a Batman story, but the roads that this tale take are something for Batman fans to really enjoy. There are a lot of story beats that the uninitiated will be surprised at, but for a dedicated Batman fan, a lot of the big moments are predictable very early on. However, when you allow yourself to get lost in the story that Rocksteady wishes to tell, there are some incredible moments between Batman and the other members of the family.
The roles of Batman’s allies have been greatly expanded this time around, and there is a lot more focus on each of them. This game tells the story of Batman in a new way, focusing heavily on his mistakes. It takes every opportunity to remind Bruce Wayne of his failures and to show the audience the repercussions of allowing anyone to join him in his fight.
There are flashback sequences that are brought on by Scarecrow’s gas that bring landmark moments from the comic books to life, each becoming increasingly special for one reason or another as a fan. I’m being intentionally vague because of potential spoilers, but knowing anything about Batman’s history should excite you a bit to see how these moments are treated within the world of Arkham Knight.
Having access to Nightwing and Robin at the story level also introduces a new style of combat that I wish could’ve been there from the start. Whenever you play through a mission with one of the two characters, you’re given the opportunity to perform a new type of takedown where Batman will juggle an enemy, setting them up to be knocked out by the ally. Upon doing so, the player will take control of the ally and you get a moment or two to play through the combat as a different character. While it isn’t as exciting as it would be to fully control these characters freely throughout an open Gotham, feeling how different Nightwing or Robin play in this new settings provides a refreshing moment for combat in the series.
One particular section involving Robin lets you play through a predator-style challenge where both Batman and Robin are sneaking around and taking out enemies. In this section, you can highlight an enemy and call on the AI ally to take them down. It’s a subtle element but one that just makes Arkham Knight feel even more like the ultimate Batman game.
In addition to a new focus on Batman’s allies is a focus on some minor villains by way of side missions that surprised me. The Arkham games have never been shy to showing off Batman’s villains, but the level at which Rocksteady went in this game had me giddy. While the side missions themselves left a little to be desired, the final showdown with the respective villain stretched my grin wider than the Joker’s. Most missions involve you performing one task, over and over until you reach the final confrontation. However, in most cases that final confrontation acted like this game’s version of a boss battle. Unlike previous games, there aren’t boss battles in the way that we’ve come to expect, but rather each side mission leads to a unique interaction that makes sense for most of the respective villains. One encounter in particular had me screaming while another one had me shouting “I can’t believe they went here.” These new opportunities for story beats increased the game’s overall plot and added new depth to the character and his dedication as Batman.
[section label=”Visuals & Sound”]
I put a lot of time into Batman: Arkham Knight, but a few of those hours were spent standing still. As the first Batman game on this generation of hardware, you can see that Rocksteady put every effort forward to make it the best looking game possible. Obviously that is always a goal, but now it seems that the hardware is in place for the team to make it a reality.
A lot of what we talked about at the launch of the new consoles was that graphics aren’t going to improve drastically with new machines, but having more RAM on board would allow developers to show off in new ways. Here, a lot of the differences are subtle but they are impressive when noticed. Things like Batman’s cape, Commissioner Gordon’s jacket, or the rain falling down Batman’s cowl look so natural and realistic. Papers blowing in the wind and the amount of unique dialogue and character animations that happen in realtime throughout the city are refreshing and immersive.
It’s a shame that this is Rocksteady’s last entry in the series because it feels so much like a real city that we’re playing in. There are so many different areas that I don’t think I’ve explored them all despite completing the game and heading to New Game +.
In addition, load times are cleverly hidden in the game so that we don’t have to endure wait times when entering buildings or jumping into the Batmobile. They are still a little lengthy if you happen to die, and you have to endure the familiar mockery of a villain and a brief loading screen, but if you never die then you’ll be just fine! Also, entering Riddler’s Batmobile challenge areas are the most obvious of hiding places for load times. They aren’t unbearable but when you really just want to drive upside down and barrel through the Riddler’s traps, it takes a good bit to get going.
The score in Arkham Knight has a lot of Hans Zimmer influence from his work on The Dark Knight trilogy. You can hear a lot of the same ideas but with a more grounded, less grandiose feel. There are also a few moments that are very quiet and subtle, making those story beats incredibly personal thanks to an appropriate guidance through the music. One section inside of an early Ace Chemicals bit nearly brought me to tears because of the combination of sounds and story emotion. I can’t recall a lot of standout musical moments from the other entires in the series, but this title has a few that felt special.
I feel that this review says a lot about the game while saying nothing at all. I don’t think anything I could write could really fill up the true nature of Arkham Knight. It is, for me, the best that Rocksteady has done in every regard.
For once, I feel like I’m fighting the enemies in the game, rather than fighting the controller in my hand. New devices and the Batmobile offer up different approaches to combat to those that we’ve already mastered in the previous games. The addition of Dual Play combat gives moments in the game that change the pace of fighting in the streets and build upon Batman’s well-established family of allies.
From top to bottom, Rocksteady has made Gotham City come to life. No longer are we trapped on an island or running through a section of Batman’s home. We are inside of the iconic Gotham proper, and it is a living breathing place. Subtle effects to the character animation and backgrounds really add to the lifelike qualities of the city, and a film-quality score sets the tone for each scene to feel cinematic and true to life.
While a lot of the story beats are going to reveal themselves earlier than intended to those with the knowledge of these characters, they are still interesting to watch come to life from the panels of the comic books. The addition of certain B and C-list villains adds a level of engagement to Batman as a whole that I, as a life-long fan of the character appreciated.
Batman: Arkham Knight is not a perfect game. It has some moments of tedium and a story that doesn’t always surprise the player. It is, however, the best that Rocksteady has shown us, and to date the best Batman game in history. It finally justifies this generation of consoles after one and a half years on the market.
Batman: Arkham Knight is the perfect Batman game.