Batman: Arkham Knight sets a pretty high standard for superhero games. Developer Rocksteady went to great lengths to proclaim that this was its biggest and most ambitious game yet, and in many ways it certainly is. However, Arkham Knight sometimes seems overwhelmed by its own presence, particularly in forcing the much-hyped Batmobile onto the player. I really enjoyed my time playing this game — it really is one of the year’s best — but is it better than Arkham Asylum? Arkham City? I’m not sure. I loved that feeling of being trapped in Asylum. Arkham City had similarly claustrophobic elements. But Knight is its own beast, and I don’t think it’s any better at telling a story than its two predecessors were (let’s pretend that Origins didn’t happen). That doesn’t make it a bad game, however, and Arkham Knight has just way too many good things going for it to really hound on about its place among its brethren. I might not think it’s the best Arkham game, but it’s still pretty damn awesome in its own right.
You’re looking at around 12 hours here for the main story. There’s plenty of action, and the pacing is fine. I enjoyed looking back at the history of Batman and other major characters, particularly the Gordons. But it often veers off into the incomprehensible, and I lose a little interest. With a bigger world comes a convoluted story, I guess. Fortunately it kind of all gets lost in the sheer scale of things. I’d go through phases where I’d player 4-5 hours of the story and then just roam around the city, and I do wonder if this was Rocksteady’s agenda: the storytelling is clumsy sometimes, which is unlike Rocksteady, so maybe the distractions are in place purposefully. There’s certainly more to do in Arkham Knight then there was in the three Arkham games before it combined. It’s not that the plot here is bad — there are some truly powerful, gritty and dark moments in Arkham Knight, and certainly some of the Arkham series’ most memorable moments — but as a whole package I felt that the story suffered a bit from Godfather III syndrome: it’s still good, but sometimes it’s a potato next to what came before it.
Fortunately, the core game experience doesn’t suffer the same fate. Arkham Knight possesses the same Rocksteady standard of production values. The combat here is still as superb as always — the FreeFlow combat system has been refined further after its use in last year’s Shadow of Mordor — and subtle introductions like dual-combat, in which you team up with another character for cinematic takedowns and the like, work well for added combat depth. As always, this is where Arkham Knight excels, and with the added freedom of a more open world, I certainly felt as though I was more engaged in patches than I ever have been in past games.
The world is huge — by Arkham standards, at least — and scaling, flying and riding through Gotham and noticing iconic landmarks certainly help establish Arkham Knight’s visual flair. Getting around this space is easier than in past games, too, thanks to an upgradeable grapnel that makes the cape-glide even more of a treat to execute.
It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: the Batmobile. When I spoke with Rocksteady’s Dax Ginn last month, I asked him about the risk of turning Arkham Knight into a driving game, because it’s easy to make that associating with a game like this. His response was that it was something they were “terrified” about, because they wanted to tie the capabilities of the Batmobile into what Batman can do. They’ve done that, and quite well, but the problem is that after a while it just seems so trivial. It’s much faster to glide around the city than it is to ride in the Batmobile — as satisfying as driving in it can be at times — and so naturally, Rocksteady tries to justify its presence for the game’s entire run. It gets really tiring. I can’t fault the mechanics of the Batmobile itself — it really does control like a dream, and I initially embraced its remote-controlled elements — but it eventually gets to a point where all of its forced elements are too long and repetitive. Latter stages of the main story have you competing against drones as the Batmobile turns into a tank, and it starts off in rather exhilarating fashion next to the added upgrades the game throws at you. But as soon as I started thinking to myself, “Okay, that’s enough now”, I knew that it had run its course
That’s a shame, because the Batmobile on its own is a fine piece of technology in the game. Those initial moments of calling it, jumping in and blasting through the streets of Gotham, before sliding in, sliding out and taking out some enemies head-on makes for some of Arkham Knight’s best moments. But that interest eventually waned, and I found myself less interested in what it was capable of. It hurt the pacing of the experience near the end, and I feel that the repetitiveness hurt what could have been a really good final act. On the other hand, Batman is never tiring, and I guess that’s all that matters. Really, the ingredients here are perfect. It’s just that in patches they haven’t been mixed together very well.
The Final Verdict
This is undoubtedly Rocksteady’s biggest and best game world. The story might just be too ambitious for its own good, getting clumsy in certain sections before picking back up again for some truly memorable moments. The core gameplay is as good as ever — the stealth and combat elements are still arguably the genre’s best — while added features like dual-takedown and new tools provide some added depth. The Batmobile is a fine addition that works well when used voluntarily, but forced elements leave it feeling like a tacked on gimmick that needs to justify its existence. Arkham Knight still plays, looks and sounds like a core component of Rocksteady’s Arkham series, and because of that, it’s hard not to recommend it as one of the year’s best.