The 2009 release of Batman: Arkham Asylum was a revelation. Gamers were so used to licensed games being average at best, soulless cash-ins at worst, often capitalising on trends or exploiting an existing fan base to make some quick money.
Nobody expected little-known developer Rocksteady Studios to create such a comprehensive and faithful video game adaptation of the Batman universe. Two years later came the expected sequel Batman: Arkham City that expanded from the Metroidvania-esque Asylum of the first game to feature a large open-world section of Gotham City, the walled-off prison city of the title.
Batman: Arkham City refined many of the elements of its predecessor, most notably improving the combat and having better integration of Batman’s villains and allies, yet at the same time by building a larger open-world it lost much of the focus and intimacy of the original game.
The world of Arkham Asylum was large enough to encourage exploration but not so large that it required arduous treks between missions.
When Rocksteady made Arkham City a large, open-world sandbox set in Gotham City, it was only a matter of time before players were requesting a fully-functional Batmobile to drive around in. In 2015 Batman: Arkham Knight finally delivers that experience, but is this a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’?
The foundation of the Arkham series has always been its combat, a simple four-button system that sees players taking on large groups of thugs with the ease one would expect from Batman. The series’ detractors have always criticised the combat for being too easy, perhaps missing the point completely. Batman is an elite crime fighter, surviving an encounter with faceless goons, is a given. The challenge in the Arkham games comes from dispatching your enemies in a varied and stylish manner, incorporating as many of Batman’s gadgets and techniques as possible, to maximise experience points and leader-board position. The goal is not to merely survive, that is almost a given, the combat requires you to excel to get the most out of the game.
Combat in the series is broken up with brief ‘Predator’ encounters against heavily-armed enemies, where the player must navigate a room of patrolling thugs taking them out silently, one by one. Missions are often punctuated with a memorable boss encounter against one of Batman’s many iconic antagonists.
Batman: Arkham Knight is no different in this respect, combat is the best it has ever been, with Batman having access to his largest move-set and arsenal of gadgets yet, with the game being the most fluid and crisp iteration of the Arkham combat model we have seen so far.
The RPG-lite levelling of the previous games is the deepest it has ever been with an initially overwhelming amount of branching skills trees in which to invest skill points that come thick and fast. The game does a great job of empowering the player, teasing gamers with a carrot on a stick. As soon as you gain a new skill and progress in the game, a new obstacle will block your path, requiring the player to unlock a new technique and master its use before quickly moving on to the next one.
Where Arkham Knight deviates from the previous game’s structure is in its implementation of the aforementioned Batmobile, which is for the most part integrated brilliantly into the existing Arkham formula. The Batmobile controls similarly to the cars in 2012’s Sleeping Dogs with arcade-like handling and featuring physics defying lateral side-swipes as an enemy vehicle takedown manoeuvre. The Batmobile has two modes, driving and combat. Driving mode is fairly self-explanatory, combat mode (triggered by holding down the L2/LT button) allows more precise movement at the expense of speed and sees players engaging unmanned drones and tanks in small arena combat reminiscent of the Twisted Metal series.
Make no mistake the Batmobile takes up a large amount of Arkham Knight’s playtime, perhaps too much. The Batmobile controls excellently, creating a feeling of empowerment as you transition from driving into on-foot combat. At times however its implementation feels too heavy-handed specifically in The Riddler side quests that can become a little frustrating, particularly for those interested in high scores and flawless runs.
Speaking of which, almost a week after release, I have still not been able to connect to the Gotham’s greatest online leader-boards on Playstation 4.
“To conquer fear, you must become fear”
During pre-release, it felt like Rocksteady were responding to player feedback that the Arkham series had become a one man show, with far too much emphasis being placed on Mark Hamill’s admittedly brilliant portrayal of The Joker.
One of the strengths of the Batman universe and one of the reasons for Batman’s enduring popularity is his brilliant cast of allies and villains. Indeed the highlights of Rocksteady’s previous Arkham games were the psychedelic Scarecrow encounter in Arkham Asylum and the sublime Mr. Freeze boss battle in Arkham City.
Batman as a franchise has never relied on having one singular nemesis; in fact one of the defining characteristics of Batman is his ability to maintain order in Gotham despite an overwhelming number of antagonists.
The Joker is very obviously an incredibly important character in the Batman universe, serving as a carnival mirror of Batman’s own insanity and that theme is ever-present in Arkham Knight but there is so much more that a gaming adaptation of Batman could explore.
I can vividly remember my apprehension at entering Killer Croc’s lair in Arkham Asylum and there are so many more inventive encounters that could be explored, encounters that are not possible with The Joker (a regular insane human being) as the primary antagonist.
During pre-release, Rocksteady were keen to downplay The Joker’s presence, instead focussing on The Scarecrow, Dr. Jonathan Crane and the titular Arkham Knight, even going so far as to show The Joker’s body being cremated following the events of Arkham City, a scene that is replicated in game, allowing the player to press X to pay their respects.
Due to the nature of Crane’s assaults, preying on the fears of his enemies, and the Arkham Knight’s resemblance to a more youthful and militarised Batman. I was expecting an in-depth exploration of Batman’s fears: of being replaced, of failing Gotham and of ultimately of him coming to terms with the idea that he is to blame for Gotham becoming Hell on Earth.
The game hints at these themes, The Scarecrow and The Arkham Knight often mock the futility of Batman’s crusade and The Arkham Knight repeatedly calls him ‘Old man’ providing a massive clue as to his much-discussed ‘secret’ identity.
However, very early-on after exposure to The Scarecrow’s new fear-toxin, Batman is hallucinating visions of The Joker, with his deceased nemesis haunting his every waking moment. The game reveals that five vials of The Joker’s Titan formula infected blood were delivered to hospitals around Gotham, slowly turning patients into twisted versions of The Joker’s psyche… *sigh*.
The Titan Formula plot thread was always the weakest part of the Arkham games with it existing more as a means to provide interesting game-play mechanics, rather than having any meaningful impact on the story.
Thankfully Arkham Knight does recover from this minor stumble and provides an engrossing story, full of fan service, cameos and nicely integrated boss encounters from Batman’s rogues’ gallery of enemies.
During various missions and side quests, Batman will be joined by one of his many allies. These sections see the player controlling both characters in combat and puzzle scenarios and are a great way of offering the player some variety and should appeal to every Batman fan out there.
Unfortunately the great integration of Batman’s allies into the story has come with a cost; players can no longer access challenge maps outside of the main game. As somebody that spent a lot of time with the combat challenges in previous titles, this was incredibly disappointing.
The euphoric high of being able to control Azrael in the main game, was met with the crushing disappointment of not being able to use him in a number of challenge maps and master the use of his gadgets and techniques.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a stunning game to behold. Of the games that thrilled us with trailers at various past E3’s, Arkham Knight is perhaps the only example of there not being any significant downgrade between initial reveal and release.
At this point, the issues apparent in the PC release are well-documented and to labour on them would be redundant but on Playstation 4, Arkham Knight is utterly breathtaking to behold.
The draw-distance is impressive with the entire city being visible from one of the many tall buildings that Batman moodily perches on, with only minor examples of dreaded ‘pop-in’. Exploration of Gotham is seamless with the game running smoothly even when battling a number of large mechanical drones or tanks.
The characters have seen a visual overhaul, with the game as a whole going for a more realistic motif, perhaps to even further distance the games from The Animated Series.
For the most part these slight redesigns are brilliant and a welcome change, however Oracle in particular looks like a scrapped character design from Extreme Ghostbusters with her resembling a tweenage girl trapped in a grown woman’s body, her wheelchair draped with a children’s backpack, a pair of Beats by Wayne headphones and a bottle of Killer-Crocarade (you know, instead of Gatorade). I do not understand why Rocksteady felt the need to infantilize such a significant character. She visually feels bizarrely out-of-place in an otherwise great cast of character designs.
The character models are mostly excellent; The Arkham Knight deserves to become a part of the wider Batman universe. I would really like to have been able to control him in combat challenge maps.
Many of the voice actors from Batman: the Animated Series reprise their roles in Arkham Knight, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill maintaining their eerie consistency with their performances as Batman and The Joker, respectively.
The standout performances surprisingly come from Jonathan Banks (also-known-as Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad) who is great as Commissioner Gordon and Martin Jarvis who reprises his long-time role as Alfred Pennyworth. Both characters benefit from an expanded role in Arkham Knight.
It may be redundant for me to write this but Nolan North and Troy Baker also feature in the game, with Nolan North still being unrecognisable as The Penguin, you may want to avoid looking at who Troy Baker voices, it will spoil the big reveal for you, unless you have read a comic book before or glanced at a picture of one on the internet, the Arkham Knight’s identity is really not a big surprise at all.
Hollywood composer David Buckley composes the game’s score, and performs admirably, evoking the big screen, Hans Zimmer score of the Christopher Nolan Trilogy of Batman films.
Batman: Arkham Knight as a whole has moved closer to the Nolan films, and further away from its Animated Series roots, whether it is the music, the burning Bat symbol evoking The Dark Knight or its move to a more realistic visual style, the game seems to be attempting to tell a more mature and darker story and benefits from this.
Batman: Arkham Knight delivers a flawless execution of its premise, for all intents and purposes this is basically Batman Simulator 2015 such is the accuracy of its recreation of the comic book source material. There are flaws though, most notably a series of irritating technical issues.
The game crashed once on my Playstation 4, completely locking my console and requiring me to actually unplug my console from the wall to restart the game and these continual technical issues in big game releases have become irritatingly commonplace which is not good enough, but the technical issues are not enough to detract from what is otherwise a masterful use of the Batman license.
If you have even a passing interest in comic books, Arkham Knight is essential, for everybody else it is merely a very good game; few games deliver such consistent quality.