“Into the Knight”

Years ago, in the criminally insane, sullen halls of Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady Studios proved that a Batman game could be done right. Their follow-up, Arkham City, expanded and refined everything the already stellar first entry brought to the table. Rocksteady’s Arkham series has paved a fresh and exciting new path for superhero games, one that has set the bar so high, its own finale fights tooth and nail to surpass.

If nothing else, Arkham Knight has everything you’d want from a Batman game. It’s crammed to the limits with impressionable heroes, compelling villains, excellent fan service, and of course the irresistible combat that initially put the series on the map. In many ways, Arkham Knight is the natural progression of the Caped Crusader’s character in the hands of Rocksteady. There’s a sense of cohesive storytelling, as similar themes and expanding plot lines that were born from Asylum receive their deserving conclusions. It all comes to a head during Rocksteady’s sendoff, leading to some of the series’ most impactful moments, as well as unaccounted missteps in an effort to constantly up the ante.arkhamknight4Nine months have passed since the Joker’s death. As a result, crime rates in Gotham City have reached an all time low, with Batman and company awaiting the inevitable new threat that looks to strangle the city. It comes by way of Scarecrow, heading the attack with a threat to unleash his fear toxin throughout Gotham, similar to Nolan’s film, Batman Begins. Due to the wide-spread nature of Scarecrow’s plans, six million civilians are evacuated, giving criminals and super villains free reign of the streets. The 12 hours of main story missions dive deep into the relationships between some of the universes’ most notable characters, as well as what drives them to either side. The game does a great job of fleshing out the long and eventful history between Batman and his closest acquaintances.

The cast of characters on both sides have plenty to show in Arkham Knight. Standing by the hardened hero in his effort to regain control of Gotham are Robin, Alfred, Barbara, the Commissioner and more; each having a direct impact on Batman’s motives. The trustworthy few play fairly prominent roles in the over arcing narrative, pitching-in when able. As for Batman’s opposers, Two-Face, Penguin and Riddler, alongside plenty of other recognizable villains, they pit together to form one of the most challenging obstacles the Dark Knight has ever faced. Everyone shines through, with plenty of personality, thanks to superb performances and astonishing production values. From the hair-raising monotone voice of John Noble as the Scarecrow, to the gravelly-toned Kevin Conroy as Batman, the voice acting is stellar.2559788-bak_sshot051+(2)Arkham Knight is visually appealing as well. Gotham is sprawling in size and astounding in detail across all three islands. Noticeable landmarks from source material like Wayne Tower, Ace Chemicals and the Chinatown district, cut through the stormy skies of a dark Gotham City, radiating in bright, neon lights. Lighting details shine as they reflect off puddles formed in the streets, while rain droplets beat down on our hero. The level of meticulous attention to detail from Gotham’s rooftops to alleyways is flooring. It’s not just there for first glance either; every location tells a story, in and of itself, congregating to form the largest, most alive, and best looking Gotham yet.

With the larger sandbox, side missions strike the perfect balance between freely exploring and progressing through the main story. In classic Arkham fashion, there’s plenty of variation and fun to be had with the side content. They range from good to bad, with Two-Face’s bank jobs, Penguin’s gun caches and Azrael’s missions making up my favorite. I could have done without the mediocre incorporation of puzzle solving in the Riddler’s side quests and the task of disarming shock bombs placed throughout the streets of Gotham. As a whole, however, they’re much more organized and palatable here than in previous entries, acting more as a brief aside from the main story rather than an interweaving part of the puzzle. They last long enough to keep you fully engaged and entertained, and avoid dragging on longer than necessary.batman-arkham-knight-gamescom-4-jpgWith the more expansive open-world playground comes more options of transportation. Batman’s grappling hook and cape-gliding abilities allow him to traverse Gotham with ease, but the real center of attention in Arkham Knight is the addition of the Batmobile. The Batmobile has played a key part of the marketing leading up to release, and to be blunt, is the weakest element of the entire Rocksteady trilogy. Leaping into the iconic vehicle and zooming through crime infested streets is exhilarating, as nearly everything in your path crumbles to a satisfying presentation. Skidding around tight corners while in pursuit of criminals in an attempt to speed away is a slick, adrenaline rushing endeavor. Yet, driving mode is only half of the coin.

The other is “Tank Mode,” a transformation that turns the Batmobile into a rocket, machine gun slinging, mode of destruction. In order to justify the Batmobile’s versatility, vehicular battles rage against remotely manned drones controlled by those who want Batman dead. It’s amusing the first few times through, as you dodge from side to side avoiding visible lines that indicate the path of incoming enemy rockets and firing back when the opportunity presents itself. But, as a result of this inclusion, Arkham Knight feels like it constantly has to work the Batmobile into the spotlight, forcing it upon the player at nearly every opportunity the story allows.

It quickly grows infuriating, namely during the latter half of the main story where stealth sections and prolonged battles take over. Not only does it become repetitive, but increasingly frustrating. It felt completely out of character for Batman and clashed with the pacing, lessening the impact of the narrative when it really counted. Standard traversal behind the wheel outside of missions from point A to point B is hectic but entertaining. Yet, the seemingly endless attempt to work-in combat encounters and puzzle solving, only breaks the unparalleled immersion Rocksteady has so expertly built-up over its last two games.batman-arkham-knight-gamescom-1-jpgOver the course of the game, the Batmobile is given various upgrades such as the ability to turn enemy drones against one another and EMP blasts. Though even with the implementation of a progression tree, the Batmobile never becomes more compelling than it was right out of the gate. By the time story nears it’s finale, the Batmobile battles ramp up, but still play out similar to the last. Rocksteady’s exclusion to take a more simple and less involved approach with the Batmobile’s contribution feels like an oversight.

Fortunately, Arkham Knight is able to make up for lost ground when returning to the roots of what made this series so revolutionary. The latest installment manages to refine most of the previous Arkham games greatest elements, while simultaneously bringing in a plethora of new variables and ways to approach scenarios. There aren’t many more exhilarating roles to step into in games than Batman, himself, and when allowed the the necessary freedom, everything comes together. It’s a treat when the important pieces of the puzzle aline. To look down upon the beautiful, yet untended city of Gotham, knowing the whispers coming from below speak fear of the man behind the mask, is nothing short of empowering.2559795-bak_sshot067Batman’s signature strike-and-counter combat has always been one of the main staples of the series, returning here in the best shape it’s ever been. It’s the quickest, most fluid and brutal combat the series has seen. Arkham’s brawls continue to set the standard for third-person combat, by constantly offering plenty of variation to switch things up. The already impressive array of satisfying takedowns, tools and moves have only increased in contrast as the series has progressed. New to Arkham Knight are environmental takedowns, with everything from light fixtures to fuse boxes acting as a way to efficiently down Batman’s foes. Thoughtfully striking from the shadows during the stealthy predator fights is both a brilliant and immersive experience. It’s during these encounters, where the player is prone to feel most like the Dark Knight. Fear takedowns quickly became my favorite addition to the combat; a series of moves that render multiple thugs unconscious in one perfectly timed fell swoop. By offering excellent gameplay variety, Rocksteady has come the closest to perfecting third-person combat I’ve seen. It’s smart, well paced, and the payoff is equally as ruthless, as it is satisfying.

A successful new addition is Dual Play. A handful of main and side missions allow the Caped Crusader to team-up with some of the source material’s most iconic allies. Nightwing, Robin and Catwoman all make appearances, bringing a similar, yet extremely rewarding style of combat to fights. When the opportunity presents itself you’re able to switch between characters at the tap of a button, tag-teaming to take down Gotham’s scum. It’s both a fun and fresh mechanic that breathes plenty of new life into combat situations which are already are amazing, on their own.2855283-bak_sshot093Batman’s psychiatric state is the single most compelling aspect of Arkham Knight. Not only is he feared by those he faces, he fears himself. He’s always been a conflicted character and Rocksteady’s take on the hero has never shied away from exploring his darker side. The same can be said for Arkham Knight, this time showing Batman at his most vulnerable state. Adding to the weight of Batman’s conscience is the Arkham Knight, himself. His identity is meant to be shrouded in mystery–posing the game’s biggest question–but blatant foreshadowing and storytelling cliches, had me calling the reveal long before the mask came off. I expected more from the Arkham Knight’s specific plot thread, considering it’s the name of the game, but there really wasn’t much to sink into. He pops in and out of the story, though doesn’t add much to the narrative besides justifying the reason there’s hostile, militarized forces roaming the streets.

There are some strong, unpredictable story beats as well, which I’ll avoid spoiling here. It’s during these unexpected narrative twists that Rocksteady’s conclusion breaks the mold and truly shines. Digging into the minutia of Batman’s mind is Arkham Knight’s strongest story move, and acts as the perfect fallback from the duller moments of the game. It’s surely the biggest and boldest Batman game there is, with the most all-encompassing and expansive tale to tell. Yet, through the process of expansion, a little bit of the magic that infused Asylum and City, stayed behind. The contained and focused Arkham story to be found here is something special, there’s just more baggage that comes with it.BraxtonHaugenConclusion: Batman: Arkham Knight may not stay with you as long as it’s outstanding predecessors, but there’s still plenty of greatness and surprise to be found within the crime-ridden streets of Gotham. The persistent use of the Batmobile and constant failed attempts to justify its existence drifts into unnecessary waters; an out of character move on the part of both Batman and Rocksteady. Though through its various blunders, there’s still something finite about Arkham Knight. Perhaps it’s the thought of the undisputedly, far-reaching impact the series has had on games. Perhaps it’s the attachment and bonds to both the characters and take on the world that Rocksteady’s so expertly lead to a close. Regardless, the dark tale of the iconic troubled hero that started all the way back in Arkham Asylum is now over, and it was one hell of a ride; through and through.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Batman: Arkham Knight. You can find me @BraxHaugen.