Arkham Knight feels like an intelligent evolution of a franchise that is probably one chapter too long (looking at you Origins). Being The Batman has never been as deep or as interesting, thanks to the best story line in the franchise history. Unfortunately, the over-extension of the franchise means that Rocksteady has had to clutter the gameplay a little too much to keep things continuously fresh for the Dark Knight and at the end of the day a great story is weighed down with the clutter of too many attempts to iterate on their classic gameplay and fighting mechanics.
+The best Batman story to date.
+The Batmobile is a blast and makes getting around the expansive game map a breeze.
+Rocksteady has the balls to pull the trigger on a bunch of major story changes.
+Gotham has never looked sexier.
-Constant additions to the fight mechanics make brawls a little cluttered.
-Overuse of the "Bat Tank" ruins what would have otherwise been one of the best evolutions of the franchise.
-Bat Tank fights feel out of place and constantly grind the story to a hault.
One of the biggest issues that I’ve had with the gaming experience, especially within the last few years, is the fact that very few developers are willing to take risks. Rocksteady, with their latest installment of the Batman/Arkham franchise, has just proven that they have some of the biggest balls in the industry to date.
Those familiar with Rocksteady’s previous two chapters in the franchise (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City) probably already know what I’m talking about. When they got the Batman license from Warner Bros. a discussion was had about what they could do… and apparently they were given cart blanch with the franchise characters because they’ve shown no hesitation with showing that their storyline can have permanent repercussions on the world.
Picking up where Arkham City left off, Akrham Knight tells the tale of the Dark Knight living in a world post-nemesis… ish. Instead of The Joker playing the “Big Bad” this time around Scarecrow takes the center stage with a plot to both consume the city in fear and “Break the Bat.”
The story is deeper than it’s ever been and contains and an epic ton of twists and turns. While I’d love to talk about the story in-depth, perhaps in some kind of book-club-esque setting for a video game finale, for review purposes I’ll just say that it’s probably one of my favorite Batman stories of all time. Perhaps because it cherry-picks some of my all-time favorite themes from previous Batman comic arcs (like the Long Halloween and Under the Red Hood).
Just know that, entering into the game, you will have virtually no idea of where the story will end. Which is something that is sorely lacking from both games and cinema these days, think a twist something akin to that of Bioshock and we’re in the ballpark. Needless to say, this game changes everything forever (as cliché as that might be to say).
Seeing as I’m having a hard time not pointing to story specifics though, I think it’s time to move on.
Heading into the game one of the biggest question marks for a lot of the fans was the inclusion of the Batmobile. Of course fans always want the Batmobile included, and Rocksteady has answered that with a super sexy transforming take on the classic transport, but there was some concern from gamers that this inclusion might feel a little forced or artificial.
For my money, the answer is yes to both statements. Getting to cruise around the city in Batman’s icon whip is kind of amazing. I spent the majority of my time cruising around from event to event via the jet turbine powered car/tank. The way that Batman enters and exits the car is fantastic and provided an immediate injection of hype. There’s really nothing like watching the car roll up at top speed, then back-flipping into the cockpit while it pulls and epic power-slide into launch position.
Unfortunately, the game also forces a lot of requirements out of the car. Instead of just letting it be an awesome way to get around town (faster than ever before) it becomes the solution to something like 50% of the puzzles in the game. It becomes, from my point of view, completely overused.
I could have done with 15%-25% of the puzzles being Batmobile centric… but by the time you’re spending an hour to figure out how to get Batman down into the basement of a massive underground maze because you’ll need its winch to pull open vents (which previously you could have done with the grapnel) you start to feel a little like “there’s got to be another way…”
Speaking of gameplay evolution (for the better and worse), Rocksteady has also advanced the fighting mechanics of the game. This, for me, is another split decision. While I appreciate the Fear mechanic (especially as it builds on the core theme of the game) and can appreciate the stylistic approach of Fear take downs (letting you take out 3-5 baddies in a single bullet-timed event) the mechanics of the game overall are starting to feel a little cluttered.
Previous games have introduced bad guys with knives, shields, tasers, and brutes that require stun/beat-down mechanics… so there was already plenty of variety. Now you’ll contend with all of the above, plus medics, flying drones, turrets, “shape shifters,” and a swath of other mechanics that you have to figure your way around. It feels a little much by the end of the game. It’s kind of like 10th level rock-paper-scissors in that every one of those individual types of bad guys that you’re fighting has a specific counter. There are three kinds of counters to be aware of at all times, plenty of characters that can only be taken out in one specific way, and now with the medics a specific order in which the enemies will need to be taken out…
Gone are the days where you could just mash on the attack button until a counter icon pops up. You’ll need to plan your way through the fight. During the final few fights it feels less like a brawl and more like a game of chess against Deep Blue. For me, that takes a little of the wind out of the sails. I don’t want to have to think about my fights (even though that’s accurate to the character of Batman). I want to be able to act on instinct and react to whatever is coming my way… ideally without having to worry about five different things coming at me at any given time, interrupting whatever action I’m currently working on for something as ridiculous as a running spear that can only be countered with a ridiculous jump over the head.
Furthermore, while I’m ranting a little about fight mechanics, the game also has a problem with stopping the story to interject forced-feeling tank fights. Don’t get me wrong, the tank can be a lot of fun… but when you’re getting stopped for the 10th time in the last hour to play “king of the hill” against 30-something tanks you start to feel like they built in the mechanic and weren’t sure what else to do with it… other than have you hold your ground and take pot-shots until everything is destroyed.
Alright, now for context, this is me being pretty picky. I acknowledge that the mechanics that are in the game are solid for the most part, aside from some things feeling a little too crowded or a little forced (we have this thing, we have to use it!). You’re still going to feel like the goddamned Batman while you’re working you way through the story or adjoining side-quests, so fear not Bat-fans.
To some extent I would even say that I agree with previous reviews I’ve read stating that “it feels like the game that Rocksteady always intended on making.” From the story perspective, definitely. From the perspective of transportation through and size of the city, absolutely. There’s some things in the game that could only be accomplished in the current generation, those features are showcased beautifully and feel super rewarding when you use them correctly. Also, the attention to detail and subtle nods to the lineage of the characters are out in full effect as Rocksteady goes deep with the easter eggs and knowledge of the world while you progress through the city.
Again, I just can’t give this one the full marks for being the complete package… because it’s just too much. There’s fat that could have been trimmed. There’s resources that could have been used with a little more subtly, and I feel like the depth of the game is becoming perhaps a little too cluttered to be the original fantasy-fulfilment of living the life of The Batman that the franchise originally introduced us to.
In retrospect, this review feels a little more negative than I feel the score will reflect. Unfortunately, I know why. The strength of this game, in my opinion, is not in its mechanics or gameplay (which I would argue were the strengths of the previous two). The strength is in the story-telling… and from the jump it offers so many twists and turns that if I even started to talk about the reasons why I loved the game, we’d be heading so very quickly into spoiler-town.
As for the game's namesake, The Arkahm Knight? Well, it is, again, hard to talk about without spoiling. However, I will say that the character becomes one of the true stand-outs of the story and easily my favorite piece of a puzzle that's a story of at least 10 different moving parts. His reveal is the stuff of legends, and if you're one of the few that has stacked for Batman lore you'll be well rewarded by his story and reveal.
Arkham Knight does everything that its fans could have asked for a closing chapter for the franchise. It evolves gameplay and mechanics in the most intelligent ways. The problem being that four games is probably a little more than this franchise needed. Three chapters are fine, and perhaps if Origins hadn’t existed, forcing Rocksteady to iterate on the mechanics and enemy difficulty for a fourth time rather than third, we’d have had the perfect amount of game and story evolution.
I think that Arkham Knight is easily the best story in the franchise, but I still would have preferred Arkham City mechanics with a Batmobile used (primarily) from getting to A to B faster.