"Batman: Arkham Knight" brings to a close Rocksteady's "Arkham" trilogy -- and the overall "Arkham" quadrilogy if you include WB Games Montreal's "Batman: Arkham Origins" -- that began in 2009 with the well-received and critically praised "Batman: Arkham Asylum."
Rocksteady Studios had one heck of a task before it with "Arkham Knight" -- not only did the developer need to end a series of beloved games starring one of the fictional world's most popular and well-known characters, but its own last entry into the franchise -- "Batman: Arkham City" -- is considered by many to be one of the greatest video games ever released. The task faced was no dissimilar to Christopher Nolan having to follow up "The Dark Knight," and, as Nolan did with "The Dark Knight Rises," "Batman: Arkham Knight" gets some things right and some things wrong. And, with the big addition of the Batmobile to the game, you're either going to love it or hate it.
Let's start with the good. Since "Asylum," this franchise gave players exactly what they wanted: They got to be the Batman. With its Freeflow combat system, multitude of gadgets, Detective Mode, and Predator stealth missions, the gameplay mechanics not only drape you in the cape and cowl, they also make Batman somewhat believable in how he does what he does. This continues with the game's latest installment, and like the old adage advised, it wasn't broke, so Rocksteady didn't fix it. Returning players will feel right at home in these sections of the game, with only one or two new items, such as a voice modulator that allows to mimic the voice of big baddies and direct minions around the room right into your waiting fists or explosive gels.
The graphics are eye-poppingly incredible, and flying around Gotham City never looked so good. The world of the "Arkham" games fuses the feel of "Batman: The Animated Series" with the look of Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, and that has never been more clear or as visually noticeable and stunning, than in in "Arkham Knight." You see bits of both Bat-worlds in the character designs, vehicles and tiny details of the scenery. It's unquestionably breath-taking and a treat for fans.
Of course, the voice cast excels as well. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill bring their A-est of games to Batman and Joker, with Hamill really getting a chance to shine in an amazing song and dance sequence. John Noble's Scarecrow chills with his paced tone, and Troy Baker's Arkham Knight comes off as angry, bitter, hostile and emotional -- as he should be.
One area the franchise has excelled at in previous installments was the story, another tradition that continues in "Arkham Knight" -- mostly. The main storyline focuses on three things: the Scarecrow, the identity of the mysterious Arkham Knight and Batman's mental struggle with the Joker. The best part of the game's story, without question, comes from the Joker vs Batman bits. The two play off one another fantastically well, there are more than a handful of great jump-scare and disturbing Joker moments. The mental battle between the two was fantastic, both from a character and gameplay point-of-view. The game also spends a lot of time building up the mystery of the Arkham Knight's identity and his hatred of Batman -- although comic fans and savvy players can figure the mystery out partway through. Some people may love the reveal, others might be disappointed.
That said, with so much emphasis placed on Joker and the Arkham Knight, the Scarecrow plotline falters a little bit, but not by too much. The biggest problem is that while the Scarecrow definitely comes off as menacing and the threat to Gotham is definitely huge, when the Joker is around, every other Bat-villain pales in comparison -- especially with Mark Hamill at the wheel.
There's also the somewhat questionable fact that all three main female characters spend part of the game held prisoner -- two of whom are used solely as motivation for Batman -- and the complete "Knightfall" ending makes you feel like part of the story didn't make it to the disc, or that there's some strange DLC planned for later. But overall, the story comes close to the level of what's come before, if not quite at the same height.
And then there's the Batmobile. There was a lot of excitement about the addition of the iconic vehicle; just the fact that you're getting to drive Batman's signature wheels is pretty incredible, but there was also the implication that if you need to use the Batmobile, the map of the game must be massive. That ended up being very true, with all of Gotham at your disposal and the Batmobile as the quickest and admittedly most fun way of getting from point A to point B. And if chasing down a few villains or driving around Gotham was the extent of the Batmobile's part in the game that would have been pretty okay. However, the way it ended up, to put it frankly, the tagline of the game should have changed from "Be the Batman" to "Be the Batmobile."
The Batmobile plays a major part in the gameplay, and while it makes sense that Rocksteady would want players to get the most out of the newest gameplay addition, it feels like you do more in the game as the Batmobile than you do as Batman.
Players are constantly forced to participate in battles against enemy drone tanks, which end up becoming very, very tedious exchanges, and not very fun. Later in the game you actually have to stealth and sneak up on enemy tanks -- while in the Batmobile. There's a point where I was sitting in the shadows in the Batmobile, waiting for an enemy tank to drive around the corner so I could sneak up on it while driving a tank of my own. At this point, I realized a line of silliness and ridiculousness had been crossed. As you take out the enemy tanks one by one, the others even come by to check it out, just like the human minions. The Batmobile was essentially doing Batman's shtick, which doesn't work because it's, you know, a car. Part of me expected the last tank standing to start spinning around, wildly shooting into the air, demanding me to come out. At which point, the Batmobile would drop from the sky and land on it.
There's also the issue of the Batmobile controls and physics. The controls are very, very sensitive, with a little adjustment in direction capable of sending you careening and spinning over and upside down. Or, if one wheel is over an edge, for some reason it pulls the whole thing over and sends you bouncing around like a stiff piece of wood. We're not talking "Mass Effect" Mako-levels of bad, but the comparison did cross my mind. All this then makes sections where you have to essentially Platform across buildings and structures -- again, in a tank -- very frustrating.
As a last quibble, while driving in the Batmobile through Gotham, you end up smashing buildings and statues and generally causing wide-spread destruction -- just while driving around. This is something typical in most games with these kind of car mechanics; however, with Batman is feels... wrong to be causing this much damage to the city. The previous games really grounded Batman and you saw how he helped. In this, Gotham ends up suffering a lot of damage because of him.
Granted some people like games that involve races, speeding through the streets, smashing things and tank combat -- but ultimately, all that doesn't really feel like a Batman game. It doesn't mean it can't be fun. It just doesn't feel very Batman.
Does it break the game? No. But it does keep in from reaching the heights of its two predecessors.
Despite its flaws, "Batman: Arkham Knight" still ranks as one of the best gaming experiences available, with beautiful visuals, an expansive world, an incredible voice cast and a still fun as heck combat system. Rating it by a scale of Robin, if the best is Dick Grayson, we're looking at a Damian Wayne: divisive but fun -- and kind of annoying at times.