Batman Arkham Knight Review [Xbox One]
Words: Paul Walker-Emig
Like so many of the best Batman fictions, the Arkham series has been obsessed with the relationship between the Dark Knight and his enigmatic nemesis, The Joker, and that presents Arkham Knight with something of a problem. The death of The Joker at the end of Arkham City left a gaping chasm that Arkham Knight has to fill. That it was a struggle to do so is perhaps a bit too apparent.
Arkham Knight’s solution to the problem that the absence of Batman’s famous foe represents is to focus on the internal psychological turmoil of Batman, as opposed to an external threat. The game does that through the introduction of an imaginative and interesting narrative device that is often used to great effect (you’ll notice that we’re dancing around exactly what that device is, but to tell you that would be to spoil the game in a way we’re not willing to do, so you’ll have to excuse our deliberate vagueness for just a little longer). The problem with this approach is that it makes everything else that’s going on feel relatively unimportant. Despite the fact that Scarecrow has managed to spark the evacuation of the entirety of Gotham City, unite its criminal contingent and is the de facto primary antagonist throughout the whole game, he somehow feels about as significant as a belligerent drunk who’s committed a deliberate act of littering using a polystyrene container laced with the remnants of a sub-par burger. Indeed, Arkham Knight never really bothers to think about what makes Scarecrow interesting as a character, or as a counterpoint to Batman, to the effect that it feels like he’s just there because Batman needs an opponent. It feels like a missed opportunity.
That’s not the only narrative trouble the game faces, either. This might seem like a churlish complaint for a game based around a dude that dresses up as a bat to fight a man who names himself after something you’d find attached to a stake in a corn field, but the narrative justification for Batman’s aforementioned psychological trouble is so ridiculous that it stands out even against that backdrop. That’s likely partly due to the fact that it comes across as Rocksteady trying to have its cake and eat it, trying to find a way to avoid committing to what it’s done in the past – again sorry for being vague, but you’ll know exactly what we mean when you see it.
Add to that some inappropriate tonal shifts – Batman quipping with Robin when he knows something that means he really shouldn’t be doing that, for example – and an attempt to explain an iconic character’s motivations in a way that undercuts what made them intriguing in the first place, and you have a game that makes some not insignificant missteps with its storytelling. The appeal of the mystery of the identity of the Arkham Knight and some flourishes of brilliance based on Batman’s psychological issues means it is not a failure, but it would be fair to say that the conclusion to Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy struggles with its storytelling.
Fortunately, this is a studio that’s one of the best when it comes to the design and implementation of its mechanics, and that shines through in Arkham Knight. That combat system, established in the first Arkham game, has been copied so many times as to become a staple of the action genre, but this game is a reminder that nobody does it better than Rocksteady. Sure, there are one or two new things added in this iteration – sections where you switch between Batman and Knightwing, Robin or Catwoman using team takedowns spring to mind – but what’s important is that perfectly-poised timing-based combat hasn’t lost the brilliance that’s made it one of the most copied systems in gaming by adding a few moves.
There’s an argument to be made that the stealth sections that have formed the other key component of the Arkham games don’t fair quite as well. The plethora of options now available to you – the ability to hack or blind drones being a key addition – in this third iteration means that at times, it’s as if you’re being presented with a puzzle that’s got too many solutions. There was an elegant simplicity to the design of Asylum’s aggressive stealth sections that we feel has been lost over the years as the games have got bigger and more complex. Indeed, we find ourselves asking whether the introduction of ‘fear takedowns’, which let you incapacitate multiple enemies in one flurry, aren’t an admission that there’s too much going on, being as they don’t really add anything beyond cancelling out the fact that there are more enemies around.
Still, it must be said that we’re comparing Arkham Knight to the series’ own very high standards. If there are one or two small issues with the stealth sections, that doesn’t mean that sneaking up behind goons to take them out silently, hanging them up from the rafters, jumping out from grates and luring them into traps as you pick them off one by one isn’t enjoyable. On the contrary, it can still be intensely satisfying when everything goes to plan.
Then, of course, there is the introduction of the Batmobile. Once you get the hang of the way it handles, it’s a real pleasure to drive. Smash into a pillar and Rocksteady won’t stop you having fun; the pillar just crumbles as you continue to careen around like a madman. Transitioning between gliding in the air and driving the Batmobile is cool, too. When driving the Batmobile you can fire yourself into the sky, and when soaring above the streets, you can press the left bumper to dive towards the tarmac as the Batmobile hurtles around a corner to meet your downwards trajectory, slick as a greased Ryan Gosling.
When at the wheel of the Batmobile, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the vehicle’s combat mode, giving you a 360-degree range of movement and some weapons to deal with the hordes of tank drones you’ll frequently be facing. These sections are by no means bad, but neither can we say that we would have been sorry to see the back of them by the time we reached the game’s conclusion. That this is the thing you spend the most time doing in the Batmobile is a poor reflection on the justification for the vehicle’s inclusion.
On the whole, though, we’d still say we’re glad it’s there, just as we’re glad to play another game with Rocksteady at the helm. Playing Arkham Knight, we’re struck by how different the studio is to its contemporaries, how willing it is to trust its players. Arkham Knight is a game that doesn’t feel it has to point you to every little thing with objective markers and that is far more satisfying as a result. That’s not to say it’s shy about dishing out a hint when it feels you need it, it is to say that it doesn’t treat you like you’ve just suffered a head injury. It’s such a pleasure to be allowed to work out a tricky puzzle for yourself, or, shock horror, to have to actually explore the world for yourself to find something rather than being told exactly where it is.
Using hud markers, mini-maps and button prompts to hold the player by the hand at every step isn’t necessary for a studio that’s truly skilled at its craft and Rocksteady is just such a studio. That talent is obvious in this game, as is the studio’s exceptional production in Arkham Knight’s outstanding visuals and tight controls (though some frame rate drops do sully that technical excellence).
Yes, Arkham Knight has a few problems, but when you look back on the experience as a whole, none of them seem that significant. You will see weaknesses, but then you’ll swiftly be reminded that when Arkham is good, it’s so very, very good.