Batman: Arkham Knight Review: We’ll Burn This City Down!

While listening to Mark Hamill’s haunting rendition of Only You as the credits rolled over Arkham City, I was left wondering how Rocksteady could possibly top it. In my mind, AC remains the finest superhero game ever made and also one of the best Batman stories ever written. Sure, it borrowed heavily from The Long Halloween in the same way that the original Arkham Asylum borrowed heavily from Morrison’s comic of the same name, but it showed an understanding of the relationship between Batman and the Joker that few others have managed to capture. They need each other. They’re both deranged. It’s almost a love affair, so when the person that you’ve loved for years has gone and died on you you’re going to do stupid things. Like a heartbroken widower trying to find anything that’ll make him feel again, Batman goes out and gets the biggest penis extension he can find: an over-powered and ultimately pointless car. Yes, I’m talking about the Batmobile.

But it’s the Batmobile!” The game says. “Didn’t you want this? Doesn’t this complete your Batman power fantasy?” However, that was already complete. When I think of Batman, I think of one guy taking out thugs with gadgets like some kind of modern-day ninja. I think about a guy that evens the odds with his wits and a sharp bat-themed boomerang. I think about a modern day Sherlock Holmes with a butt-load of money and zealous obedience to his own warped moral code. I don’t think about the Batmobile other than it being a minor means of conveyance in the same way the rest of his vehicles are.

It has never been a front-and-centre part of the comics other than occasionally getting stolen or blown up. It’s cool because it’s barely seen. I want to use it in the occasional car chase, or to scream across the city, and I want it to be as optional as possible. Just another powerful tool to call upon if I, the Batman, want to. It’s so annoying then, that the game forces you into the driver’s seat at every opportunity, like some overly-insistent parent making you play with your toys – we came up with this new gimmick because you said Arkham Origins was too similar!  We spent ages making it, and by god you are going to use it and you are going to like it, young man!

This wouldn’t be a problem if it was actually fun to use the Batmobile, but it isn’t. It handles like a shopping trolley with a jet engine duct-taped it.  It can’t handle corners and rolls as soon as it gets up to speed, (which is to say almost all the time). Its great to see it slam through smaller obstacles and the chase sequences have a sort of Chase HQ vibe that I always enjoy, but it’s completely unwieldy. The first time I triumphantly jumped into the thing, with Batman quipping about evening the odds, I fired up the thrusters… and ran the fucking thing straight into a wall. Indeed, it does even the odds. It gives the thugs a chance to get away from the fucking BATMAN.

BAK_Sshot072It also changes into a tank, because we all know Batman is famous for his use of military-grade firepower and brute forcing his way to victory. Tank combat is as dull as it gets. You basically find a spot, avoid the heavily-telegraphed attacks of unmanned drones and then mash R2 until everything is dead. You can also fill up a meter so you can hammer square to insta-kill opposing tanks with missiles.

It wouldn’t be that tedious if it were merely a side mission or something incidental that you could run away from instead and ignore, but the batmobile has been placed on centre stage in the main campaign, used as a replacement for the the batclaw and explosives. You’ll use the winch to tear down walls, jump-start generators and at one point winch up a lift. Bats also no longer simply leaves defeated villains or rescued civilians for the GCPD to take care of. No, now he has to use the Batmobile to take them to the police station like some kind of jet-powered vigilante taxi service.

The horrible bloody batmobile is also the star of the worst boss fight in the series, in which you have to fight an Apache helicopter that’s being remotely controlled by the Arkham Knight, and is flanked by a group of tanks. But, as you’re constantly reminded, it’s ok to blow them up because they’re unmanned drones.

The whole thing is just so out of character for both the Dark Knight and the series. It feels like someone at a meeting insisted they make the game appeal to a wider demographic, and reminded them that the kids these days love shooters. For most of us, being the Batman doesn’t include being a tank pilot. Sorry!

Here’s a pro tip to make the Batmobile a bit more bearable, though. The default controls are counter intuitive ass. Mainly thanks to the fact that you have to hold down L2 to stay in tank mode. You might know L2 as the button used (in every game containing cars) for the last 16 years to reverse. Luckily, in the game options you can change this so that you press R1 to switch modes and L2 becomes reverse. Why this wasn’t the standard setup is beyond me.

BAK_Sshot066The batmobile just so happens to be a mediocre blot on an otherwise decent game that, though it doesn’t have the impact of City or the original Asylum, still makes several small but meaningful improvements to the core formula that made the series so compelling to begin with. With the Joker definitely dead (something the game hammers home almost to the point that you think it may be protesting a little too much), it opens with an interactive cut scene in which you hold down X to cremate the bastard and watch him burn. Crime in Gotham is down, the expected power vacuum is never filled and life in the troubled city seems to be getting better. That is until the Scarecrow decides to hold the entire city to ransom with a new fear toxin that forces the city to be evacuated. This leaves Gotham conveniently abandoned, save for a small army of criminals and thugs that now overrun the city. You might remember when they did this in City, because Gotham was a prison.  Or in Origins, where it was…Christmas. Once again, Batman doesn’t have to think about whether the bloke whose arm he just snapped was in fact just an innocent bystander caught up in this mess. Though Gotham looks absolutely fantastic, I do wonder why they bothered doing this, again. At this point it seems a bit convoluted to keep hurrying the citizens of Gotham out, and if we’re going to be introduced to the whole of Gotham, why not give us a properly living, breathing rendition of that complete with civilians to test the Dark Knight’s resolve. It might be nice to have some random crimes to solve rather than basically Arkham City 2.0.

Despite the lack of civilian presence, watching the riots is still a wonderful sight to behold and there’s a lot more going on than in previous games, with thugs speeding through the streets and looters slowly taking the city apart. There’s always something interesting going on somewhere, and uncovering all the misdeeds and listening on the radio chatter of the thugs is still just as compelling as it was in previous titles. There are still plenty of Riddler trophies and nice little Easter eggs to to find, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Though it never hits the highs of Arkham City, Arkham Knight does have its moments, with some fantastic scenes and brilliant characterisation, especially between The Scarecrow and Batman. John Noble and Kevin Conway manage to chew up the scenery with every angry exchange. And the game isn’t afraid to show that Batman is a bit of dick, needlessly cracking bones and torturing criminals to get information, skirting as close to the ‘I don’t kill’ line as humanly possible.

BAK_Sshot037 (2)Despite flashes of brilliance, Arkham Knight’s overarching plot is entertaining, but ultimately tedious. Most of the female cast are treated like crap, with Barbara Gordon getting shafted for pretty much the entire game and Catwoman becoming little more than a pawn in the Riddler’s latest crackpot scheme. There are so many pointless kidnappings that it’s hard to keep up with any of them, and where anyone is supposed to be for more than five minutes. However, by far the most obnoxious element of the tale is the titular Arkham Knight, who has absolutely no personality whatsoever, He may as well be called angry grunt, and though his true identity remains a secret until long after any rational person has figured out who he is, his whole raison d’etre is that he hates the Batman and wants revenge. Which is all he ever talks about. He’s like some bitter divorcee who just can’t help but talk about their ex. in every conversation. “I’ll get my revenge against the Batman! Oh, how I hate him!” Is that right, Mr.Knight?  Well, welcome to Gotham City, where everyone hates Batman! Especially now that the only people who are left are criminals. Take a fucking ticket and get in line! That being said, the big reveal is still explained in a rather clever way, so at least there’s that.

AK seems to suffer from a similar problem to Arkham Origins, with which major villains being trotted out, given five minutes of screen time and a good slapping by Batman, and then never heard of again. Seeing as Gotham is basically ripe for the taking, its odd to see the likes of Two-Face and the Penguin not capitalising on this. Instead, they’re relegated to minor character status and neither receive much in the way of story. Other side stories that you’ll stumble across throughout the game also seem to follow an annoying ‘do this same thing several times but slightly harder’ pattern to catch the villain, and then they just bugger off. For example, the crazed pyromaniac Firefly makes another appearance, but all you need to do in his section is glide after him three times, and that’s your lot, Mr.  Lynns.  Batman grumbles a bit about making him pay, and moves onto the next ne’er-do-well. It’s great to see all these different members of the rogue’s gallery, but It’s such a shame they never seem to go anywhere.

The Riddler challenges are also now just an excuse to force you back into the Batmobile, as he’s now inexplicably decided to build a series of racetracks to test the Dark Knight’s driving skills. What’s more, the neon death-traps that you have to race round in time-trial style events (and the occasional chase sequences) involve a players to drive with a level of precision that the aforementioned rocket powered trolley simply isn’t capable of. In short, they’re frustrating and ultimately irritating missions. Why Rocksteady thought this was a good idea is probably the greatest riddle of all.  What’s worse is that even if you do manage to somehow get through them all, you won’t get the proper ending to the quest line unless you collect all the damn trophies too.

BAK_Sshot086Despite my grumbles, Arkham Knight does improve on the game’s basic formula in a number of ways. Combat feels faster and far more fluid. The timings of counters have been tweaked to make them easier to pull off, and you can now cancel out ground attacks to counter as well. The Bat also has some nice new attacks, like the ability to use his enemies’ own weapons against them, and slam them into the environment Sleeping Dogs style. Batman can now perform fear takedowns that allow him to swiftly knock out three goons with chained attacks and has some nice new gadgets to play with, such as a voice modulator that lets you issue orders to unwary goons straight into a waiting ambush.

At various points in the game, Batman will team up with Catwoman, Nightwing, and Robin for certain missions, in these parts, you can freely switch between Batman and his buddy to set up ambushes and fight side by side in massive brawls. They can also pair up to perform team takedowns once they’ve built up enough of a combo. These parts were easily my favourite sections of the game, which is why it’s a shame that they’re over all too quickly and there  are simply not enough of them. It made me wonder why they bothered with the Batmobile as the main new feature when a co-operative game would have evolved the gameplay in a way more in line with the core pillars of the series’ gameplay, not to mention the motivations of the characters.

The weird thing is that despite that sodding car, Arkham Knight is still a pretty decent game. It’s well-constructed, the voice acting is superb as always, and gliding around the city as Batman and foiling criminal plots is just as fun as it ever was. Even more so, now that the whole of Gotham is yours to patrol. Once you scrape off the horrid frosting, there is still a delicious cake underneath, even if it is one we’re sort of used to. It’s also one of the most technically-proficient open worlds I’ve ever played on a PS4. It somehow manages to look absolutely lovely, with the rain pouring down, particle effects all over the show and still have a ton of baddies on screen while maintaining a rock-solid 30 fps throughout. It’s witchcraft I tells ye.

BAK_Sshot043 (2)Even considering the positives, it’s clear that the series has lost some of its wow factor. This is the fourth go-round doing pretty much the same thing, and it shows, There are very few surprise guests, most new interesting asides having been walled off behind Preorder DLC and an expensive season pass, and the competition is that much fiercer than it once was.  After playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, every other open world pales in comparison.

If you can suffer through the driving, there’s certainly plenty to love about Batman: Arkham Knight. The combat and stealth sections are still exemplary and when everything comes together there are moments of pure genius.  But don’t look for much in the way of new additions.

Would I recommend it? Well, that’s a tricky one. It’s certainly not the worst game in the series, an award that goes to Arkham Origins, and it’s certainly not the best, an award that will forever be fought over by Asylum and City. As the third best game in a series which has been pretty spectacular throughout (even Origins despite its issues), It’s certainly worth a punt, eventually. Obviously, I would never suggest getting this on the PC at the moment as that way leads to madness, despair, tears and a subpar experience all round. On Consoles, however, it comes down to the age old question of whether to be an earlier adopter and shell out for a decidedly average Arkham experience, or wait for that inevitable Game of the year Edition. Whatever you choose, and however Rocksteady handled their final chapter, people were always going to hate them for it. Then again, that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast and make the choice that no one else can make.  I’d just prefer he did it on foot.