This review assumes you’ve played Batman: Arkham Knight, as well as all previous main entries in the Batman: Arkham series. Therefore, spoilers abound. You’ve been warned!
It’s impossible to assess the Rocksteady-developed Batman: Arkham Knight independently from the controversy surrounding its release on Windows, the platform on which I played it. It’s also impossible to assess Knight independently from the previous three games in the series, each of which is worthwhile in its own right. Knight, in many ways, is the culmination of the series, at times playing like the most refined version of what a Batman game can be. But in other ways, it tries to be its own beast, and it’s usually in those instances that it fails. The end result is a competent but mediocre game whose flashes of brilliance come from shining the series’ long-established mechanics to a diamond sheen, and whose flashes of originality are misguided at best, downright hilarious at worst.
The best way to evaluate Arkham Knight is to think of it as a person – a person with a sturdy skeleton, but weak, rotting flesh. And the person has a whole bunch of piercings in weird places. And they want you to spend every waking hour with them. And they have, like, 80 different shirts that they want to try on and model for you.
Okay, that analogy kind of got out of hand. Let’s try again. Despite the large size of its map, Knight feels like a small, intimate game. It doesn’t suffer from the same kind of sprawl as City or Origins, but given its open-world design, it’s obviously not as tight as Asylum. It chooses not to bombard the player with extraneous information and lets them take their time to concentrate on a single objective at a time, which lends the game a sense of intimacy. At least, that’s how the game initially feels. But it quickly becomes clear that Knight is filled with content. And not the good kind, either. I’m talking filler, or what I like to call “#content” (pronounced “hashtag-content,” to appeal to the Twitter generation). The worst part: most of this #content is compulsory.
Luckily, dealing with most of this #content feels great. (Some of it doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.) Clearing out militia checkpoints or rescuing firefighters reduces the Arkham games to its bones: sneaking around and punching bad guys. Like I said, the skeleton of this game is excellent. Combat, already honed to near-perfection in previous installments, is more fluid than ever before here. There are couple of minor annoyances – counters still sometimes fail to register, and the knife-wielding enemies are a holdover from Origins that I could have done without – but for the most part, combat in Knight is the best it’s ever been. This is brawler combat perfected, rivalled only by the varied combos and nifty environmental takedowns of Sleeping Dogs. Predator encounters are even better, with the fear multi-takedown mechanic and the voice synthesizer adding a sense of dynamism to stealth sections that didn’t exist before; there’s a lot less waiting around for enemies to walk into the right positions now. This isn’t to say that the stealth sections are necessarily easier – the Detective Mode Jammer and Optic Deflection Armor can make later Predator sections very difficult – but they pass a lot quicker and more fluidly now. Again, there are a couple of minor annoyances – Batman has a lot of trouble landing on ledges or railings – but they don’t really detract from what is some of the best third-person stealth out there.
Unfortunately, #content is still #content, and as fun as the excellent mechanics are to play around with, most of the #content just ends up feeling like filler. The actual story missions themselves, sadly, seem less substantial and well-crafted than in previous installments of the Arkham series. There are basically no setpieces or boss fights this time around, so everything sort of melts into a mildly enjoyable sludge. There was never a moment that I was itching to tell my friends about, nor was there anything that really stuck with me.
Part of the problem may be the game’s plot, which isn’t all that memorable in and of itself. The game’s narrative does have some interesting things to say, but its execution ranges from middling to atrocious.
By far the game’s most intriguing idea is that of the duality of fear – the idea that fear can be wielded as a weapon for good but also as an instrument of chaos. Therefore, Batman and Scarecrow are two sides of the same coin. Batman’s power comes from instilling fear in wrongdoers. He does this by being a sort of legend; as long as he remains masked, he remains a mystery in the eyes of criminals. This is reinforced by bits of incidental dialogue that occur after Batman is unmasked as Bruce Wayne, with some thugs remarking that they could take Wayne in a fight. On the other hand, Scarecrow gains his power by using fear to prey upon others, which foments chaos and discord. Batman uses fear as a blunt instrument; Scarecrow’s use of fear is more manipulative.
Regrettably, the game takes far too long to make these points, and when it does, it’s in an alternate ending that you can unlock only by completing every single Riddler challenge in the game. (I didn’t bother with that and instead chose to look the full ending up on YouTube.) Instead, in the regular ending, Batman just fakes his own death, and that’s that. The result is a game that feels more like it’s about Batman’s relationship with the Joker, despite casting Scarecrow as his main adversary.
Speaking of the Joker, I have mixed feelings about his reappearance in Knight as a figment of Batman’s imagination. On the one hand, he has a lot of great (and hilarious!) lines, and Mark Hamill’s performance is one of the best voiceover performances in any video game ever. On the other hand, I feel like this specific use of the Joker isn’t as good as it could have been. For one, it plays off the wrong aspects of the comparison between the Joker and Batman. Origins, like a lot of good Batman fiction, cast Batman and Joker as opposite magnetic poles, with Batman representing order and Joker representing chaos. And just like opposite magnetic poles, they’re inexorably drawn to each other. Without chaos, there’s no order to restore, and without order, there’s no chaos to create; Batman and the Joker need each other and feed off each other. Knight takes this a step too far and posits that the Joker is a part of Batman, representing the chaos within him. (Given how much destruction Batman wreaks in the Batmobile, maybe he actually likes causing chaos, but I hardly think that was intentional on the part of the developers. More on that later.) On some level, it makes sense that Bruce Wayne’s inner turmoil and emotional pain, usually channelled into restoring order, could be manipulated into causing chaos, and I think that’s what Knight was trying to say that Scarecrow did. But Knight makes the mistake of tying this notion to the one that Batman and the Joker need each other, and the resulting thematic muddle seems to say that Batman simultaneously needs and can’t survive with Joker’s chaos. You can’t have it both ways, Batman!
Other parts of the story fare even less well. The story’s three major female characters – Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Barbara Gordon – either spend most of the game in captivity or are (sort of) killed. (Also weird: there are no female firefighters in Gotham.) The handling of Barbara’s arc is particularly egregious, because her (fake) death has almost no impact. Batman grieves about it for a grand total of maybe 20 seconds (outside of a cutscene, no less!) before he’s on to the next objective. He never has to face the consequence of failing to tell Tim that (he thought) Barbara had died, because Barbara’s supposed death is revealed to be one of Scarecrow’s manipulative ruses. But said ruse doesn’t seem to have any impact on Batman’s actions. It’s true that Batman begins acting more recklessly after Barbara’s supposed death, even going as far as to imprison Tim, but the game retroactively attributes this to exposure to Scarecrow’s fear toxin.
The worst part of the story, by a long shot, is the titular Arkham Knight, the head of Gotham’s militia (at least until Deathstroke takes the helm). The Arkham Knight is supposed to be a fearsome, mysterious figure, but from the second it is revealed that Jason Todd is supposedly dead, it’s obvious that he’s the Arkham Knight. Thus, the game fails to instill fear in the player through mystery. Moreover, Troy Baker, usually one of the best voice actors in the biz, gives a hilariously tone-deaf performance as the Arkham Knight, playing him less like a fearsome figure and more like a high school bully from an ’80s teen comedy.
Overall, the story’s pacing is just way off. Since there are no setpieces or boss fights to demarcate the story into clearly-defined sections, everything sort of melts together, and it’s hard to remember what happened in what order. Thus, the usual rise and fall of tension that helps pace most modern video games isn’t present, leaving the story feeling like a bit of a monotonous slog.
I would have loved to have been able to sit in on a design meeting for Batman: Arkham Knight. I imagine it would have gone something like this:
Producer: Okay guys, we need to introduce some variation in the game’s pacing. All the player does right now is fly around and beat thugs up.
Developer 1: Isn’t that what previous games in the series were like?
Producer: Quiet, you. Does anyone else have any ideas?
Developer 2: How about introducing the Batmobile?
Producer: Hmm… I like it!
Developer 1: Great, but how do we make sure that Batman doesn’t run over civilians?
Developer 2: Simple. We evacuate Gotham, so there are no civilians left for Batman to run over.
Producer: Great Scott, I think we’ve got it!
Look, in principle, I like the idea of the Batmobile, and I get why the developers wanted to include it. It’s part of the fantasy of being Batman, and I’m sure the designers wanted to add a new element to the Arkham series to keep it from getting stale. But in Knight, the Batmobile is really not necessary; the map isn’t that big, and it can easily be traversed aerially, even without gliding upgrades. Plus, it’s far more fun to soar above Gotham’s rooftops than to zip through its streets.
So if the Batmobile isn’t strictly necessary to make a good Batman game, then why is it in this game? I think the intention was to give the player something else to do between bouts of sneaking around and beating up thugs. In practice, it ends up feeling like interspersing layers of scrumptious chocolate cake with layers of month-old creamed spinach. “Hey, do you want to eat your cake? Well first, you gotta eat your vegetables and blow up these drone tanks.”
This wouldn’t be so bad, but eventually, spinach juice starts seeping its way into the chocolate cake layers. Put differently, the Batmobile informs the design of the entire game. Traversal segments no longer simply consist of platforming and puzzle solving, but also require using the Batmobile in remote-controlled mode to tear down walls or power up generators. This kills any sense of forward momentum, making Batman feel less like a slick vigilante and more like an adventure-game protagonist, bumbling his way through the environment. (The section where Batman follows Commissioner Gordon’s captors into the mall is particularly egregious in this regard.)
These remote-controlled segments feel like the Batmobile trying to justify its inclusion in the game rather than a natural part of the experience. For the most part, it just doesn’t fit. It’s loud, destructive, and chaotic – basically the exact opposite of Batman. (Hilariously, you cause more destruction to Gotham in the Batmobile than Scarecrow does with his thugs.) The tank battle sections feel like they’ve been imported from a different, lesser game, and they have no sense of progression. Wave after wave of drones is sent after the player, and then the fight just ends after a while. At first, one wonders where all the drones are coming from; then, one wonders why the militia ran out of drones.
The Batmobile’s inclusion also necessitates clearing Gotham of civilians, lest Batman inadvertently harm them with his reckless driving. (The Batmobile controls like a headless chicken on buttered roller skates.) This makes the map seem empty and inert, as if Batman is fighting to save an artificial digital playground, not a living, breathing city.
As if Knight’s designers recognized that the Batmobile just wasn’t fitting into the game, they opted to include Batmobile stealth sections, in order to make the vehicle seem more Batman-like. Yes, that’s right – Batmobile stealth sections. They’re as ridiculous as they sound.
It’s worth dissecting why these Batmobile stealth sections don’t work. Stealth games succeed when they create a power fantasy for the player, making them seem smart and powerful. The game’s Predator sections do this well; they give the player a wealth of options to neutralize targets, combined with a lot of freedom of movement. The player gets to feel like a badass, picking off enemies one by one. This doesn’t mean that these sections are easy – the time-sensitive ones in Two-Face’s sidequest are particularly tough – but the key is that the player never feels boxed in. Contrast that with the Batmobile stealth sections, which feel oddly restrictive. The player’s only tactical option is to fire diversionary shots to lure tanks into an optimal position for a shot from behind. Because vehicular sections have very little verticality, there’s almost no freedom of movement. The end result is that the player feels weak and stupid, which are two qualities that should never be associated with Batman.
Unfortunately, the Batmobile isn’t the game’s only design flaw; the game’s detective segments, which reached their apex in Origins, are mainly awful in Knight. Most of them occur in the serial killer sidequest, and they involve the same tissue scanner mini-game played over and over. In the main story, Batman often has to review surveillance footage (which actually happens outside of Detective Mode). There’s a reason this is portrayed as menial work in police procedurals; it is! There’s nothing fun or engaging about combing video footage for events of interest; it’s just a pixel hunt.
One of the game’s major crime reconstructions is also basically a pixel hunt. Solving what happened to Barbara during the car crash is tedious, unengaging, and far too lengthy. In order for these detective segments to feel like crime-solving, they actually need to have some non-linearity. Otherwise, the game is just leading the player by the nose, and as a result, they feel stupid.
THE LITTLE THINGS
I’ve spent a lot of digital ink complaining about what sucks about Batman: Arkham Knight. There has to be something it gets right, aside from its combat and stealth, that makes it a worthwhile experience, right? It turns out that Knight actually gets a lot of little things right; in fact, it’s the little things that make Knight a fleetingly enjoyable experience.
More so than any other game in recent memory, Knight looks and feels like a current-gen game, the kind that was promised to us when the Xbox One and the PS4 debuted. It transitions from cutscene to gameplay with nary a hiccup, rendering everything in-engine (or doing a really good job of deploying pre-rendered cutscenes if that’s not the case). Environments are gorgeous, with the urban grunge of Bleake Island, the glimmering skyscrapers of Founders’ Island, and the BioShock-esque, horror-inflected art deco of Miagani Island all rendered in loving, painterly detail. The sound design is fantastic, with combat noises giving the fighting a satisfying crunch, and the whooshing of wind during flight lending Batman’s gliding a sense of kineticism.
The voice acting, for the most part, is superb. Though Kevin Conroy plays his Batman a little too flatly and Troy Baker absolutely ruins whatever redeeming qualities the Arkham Knight might have had, overall, Knight features some of the best voice acting in a big-budget video game. Of particular note are Ashley Greene’s worried, urgent Barbara, Scott Porter’s cocky, casual Nightwing, and John Noble, ever the master of his craft, playing Scarecrow with a mixture of menace and deliberation. He imbues the character with a sense of knowledge that makes Scarecrow seem every bit like Bruce Wayne’s intellectual equal.
Little details like the fluttering of Batman’s cape in the wind or bits of funny incidental dialogue from thugs help the game world feel more alive. Animations are smooth and varied – even smoother and more varied than those of a typical big-budget FPS – which is astonishing for an open-world game. Rocksteady clearly expended a lot of effort into making sure that the Knight looked and felt great, and it paid off.
If only Rocksteady had expended as much effort in ironing out the issues in the game’s PC version.
It’s inescapable. We have to talk about Arkham Knight’s subpar PC port. If you’re reading this review, then you’ve undoubtedly heard about the various performance problems that plagued it. I don’t want to waste a lot of space hashing them out in detail, because I didn’t experience the worst of them, probably because my video card has a lot of VRAM and could handle some of the memory leaks. That being said, I did experience frequent stuttering when moving quickly in outdoor environments (both inside and outside of the Batmobile), as well as a number of crashes which froze my system for minutes at a time. Moreover, every time I exited the game, it would take over a minute to shut down its background processes. Clearly, the state of the PC port was inexcusable at launch, and Warner Brothers should have delayed its release.
But more so than performance issues, what really irritated me was Knight’s weird keyboard-and-mouse control scheme, which traded in City’s and Origins’ simplicity for a baffling and unnecessary level of complexity. The default control scheme just isn’t intuitive at all. Here’s a list of some of its wacky idiosyncrasies:
- Special combos in mêlée combat are accessed using the Left Alt key, which must be pressed in combination with 1, 2, or 3 to select a combo. (Mapping anything to the Left Alt key is generally a big no-no, because it’s easy to accidentally hit the Windows key.)
- Calling the Batmobile is mapped to the E key, despite not being something that a player needs to do quickly most of the time. (Why not the B key? For Batmobile?)
- The Batmobile’s remote control mode is activated via the = key, despite being something a player sometimes needs to do quickly. However, exiting remote control mode is done via the E key.
- Curiously, the Q and R keys remain unused. (I also can’t recall using the Left Shift key for anything, but I’m pretty sure it was mapped to something as a secondary key.)
- None of the gadget quickfires have a default mapping, and as a result, neither do some of the combos.
- The AR Challenge screen and Mission Select screen, both of which pause the game, are accessed via C and V respectively. It’s very easy to accidentally hit these keys during normal playing.
- Dropping from being perched on a ledge or railing to hanging off of it requires both Left Control and the Middle Mouse Button to be pressed simultaneously. However, letting go of the ledge or railing requires the Middle Mouse Button to be pressed by itself; pressing Left Control with it won’t work. (Weirdly enough, Middle Mouse Button is used for cape stunning in combat.)
- Scrolling through video footage is controlled by moving the mouse left and right, because apparently mousepads are ten feet long.
- For reasons no one can understand, disabling missiles in Batmobile pursuit mode are launched with the Left Control key and not a mouse button.
And those aren’t even all of the control scheme’s quirks! In general, keys change functions between game modes in a way that doesn’t respect any form of categorization or similarity. I mean, why the hell is the grapple key (F) used to change the camera in the Batmobile? It doesn’t make sense! (I should note that I made a few modifications to the default control scheme for my own comfort, but there was no way for me to fix some of the weirder issues, like requiring two keys to be pressed simultaneously for some simple actions.)
It’s also worth noting two other technical issues (which I’m pretty sure plague all platforms, even when a controller is used). First, as I mentioned above, the Batmobile controls like garbage. It doesn’t take corners well, and it has almost no ability to swerve to avoid obstacles. Second, a relatively harmless (and amusing) glitch occurs when Batman flies into a ledge; the game isn’t sure whether to make Batman land or push off, so he just flops there uselessly like a fish out of water, which is funny until you realize that he’ll keep doing it unless you change his height or direction.
HOW IT ALL COMES TOGETHER
There’s something to be said for lengthy games – games that take their time to worm their way into your brain and that linger with you long after their completion. When you play through these games over several months, you start living and breathing them, going through them in your head between play sessions. Usually, games of this nature are lengthy RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. Batman: Arkham Knight wants to be one of those games. The credits don’t even roll once you’ve completed the main quest; you have to complete 13 of the 14 sidequests before you can unlock the ending. (The game says you need only 12, but either there’s a glitch that doesn’t unlock the ending until 13 are complete, or taking down Deathstroke is a prerequisite for beating the game). I spent 40 hours total in Knight, about 8 of which were spent after taking down Scarecrow. A large portion of those hours was spent scouring the map for militia checkpoints and road bombs. (I eventually gave up and looked up the remaining bomb locations in a guide, because I didn’t want to waste any more time.)
Knight just doesn’t respect the player’s time. It’s more concerned with shoving all of its #content down the player’s throat than with delivering a tight, well-crafted experience. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the majority of that #content is well-constructed, but sadly, it’s also repetitive. Each sidequest consists of doing the same thing over and over until you tackle Man-Bat x number of times, or find y number of dead bodies, or clear z number of watchtowers. The problem is that x, y, and z are too large. Most of the sidequests could easily be half as long, and the militia ones in particular should be a third as long as they are. By the time I completed the necessary sidequests and unlocked the ending, I wasn’t left wanting more; I was past ready for the game to be over.
It’s for that reason that Knight’s #content-driven stab at being a game that worms its way into the player’s brain fails. The game overstays its welcome, and it would have been more memorable had it been a tighter, more focused experience. It might not have lingered in my brain the same way that the best RPGs do, but it wouldn’t have inspired such a high level of frustration.
What’s really frustrating, though, is that the game doesn’t capitalize on its most refreshing aspects. The Penguin sidequest, Riddler sidequest, and Panessa Studios mission feature team-ups with Nightwing, Catwoman, and Robin respectively, and each of these team-ups is a blast to play. Switching between characters on the fly is a joy, and it gives a much-needed spark to a franchise that’s in danger of becoming stale. The fights against Riddler’s robots in particular, where Batman and Catwoman can each only fight a certain type of robot, add an interesting wrinkle to the game’s mêlée combat.
But these moments of inspiration are all too brief. The Batman of the Arkham games is a brooding loner who operates solitarily. It makes sense within the context of the game’s fiction that he pushes his allies away, but it deprives the game of something that could have been really cool. Just imagine how energetic and entertaining a Batman-and-Robin game could have been. Instead, we’re left with what feels like a version of BioShock Infinite where Elizabeth is never at Booker’s side, or a version of Half-Life 2 where Alyx Vance doesn’t fight alongside Gordon Freeman.
And that’s really why Arkham Knight fails to be a great game: it isn’t the best version of itself. It’s full of missed potential. It has finely-honed traversal mechanics and a bevy of gadgets for Batman to use, but they’re not employed in service of crafting interesting “dungeons” for Batman to clear. It has nifty team-up mechanics, but they’re used only sparingly. It has a straightforward, relatively compelling plot, but it paces that plot out with irritating Batmobile sections instead of cool setpieces or memorable boss fights. It has the entire city of Gotham for Batman to play around in, but it clears the area of civilians, robbing it of vibrancy. Batman: Arkham Knight could have been a fantastic game, with more than mere flashes of brilliance. Instead, it’ll have to settle for “pretty okay, I guess.”