Note: The following review contains Batman: Arkham City spoilers
Rocksteady’s Arkham series took the world by storm six years ago with Batman: Arkham Asylum. In that game, perched atop the tallest tower of the hospital wing, I stared at Gotham City and hoped that the developers would take the experience to its streets next. Six years and a console generation later, while playing Arkham Knight, standing on the roof of the Gotham City Police Department, I solemnly watched the ruins of the abandoned asylum and reminisced about the journey to that point.
I dove down from the edge of the building, throttling towards the concrete road. At the press of a button, I flipped before hitting the ground and let my cape slow me down before I landed softly on the road in front of the approaching behemoth known as The Batmobile. In one slick manoeuvre, the car wheeled around and I jumped and landed in the driver’s seat just as it came to a halt. I jerked the right trigger and drove through the streets of Gotham City towards Scarecrow’s hideout. It never got old. With Gotham and The Batmobile joining in with the rhythmic combo-based fighting, the predatory stealth and all the detective work, we finally have a fully realised Batman simulator.
It begins on a night after Scarecrow’s threat to douse Gotham with his new and improved fear toxin has sent the citizens of Gotham packing. What is left are emergency services personnel like firemen, police officers, thugs, and of course, The Caped Crusader and his team.
Scarecrow’s rise to prominence among the Rogue Gallery is attributed partly to the Joker’s death at the end of Arkham City, and mostly to the military backing provided by the Arkham Knight – a new villain with a burning desire to kill the Batman. Over the course of most of the story, the Knight and his motives takes centre stage, which is engaging enough to keep you going, but moves into predictable territory in its second half. In fact, seasoned Batman fans should be able to figure everything out a lot earlier than the developers would have intended.
The real star here is Batman’s inner conflict – the disturbing emptiness in his life after the Joker’s death, and his reluctance to let his partners play a more significant role. Early on in the game, Batman inhales some of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, and the results are… interesting, to say the least. All this culminates in a conclusion that is not only mind-bending, but satisfying in the closure that it brings to all the events that transpire in the game.
The story has always been a strong point in the Arkham Series, and is probably at its finest in Arkham Knight. Granted, the source material makes the job easier, but Rocksteady has to be commended for treating it with due respect and bringing out many of the defining aspects of Batman and some of his key allies and foes over the course of only three games. The other thing Rocksteady nailed right from the beginning is the gameplay. The emphasis on creating an experience that duly respects Batman’s abilities created mechanics that have become mainstays in the action/adventure/stealth genre. The rhythm-based combat – one button to attack, one button to counter, and one button to stun – takes advantage of the new consoles by including even more animations and moves, making Batman look better and deadlier in battle than ever before.
The emphasis of the developers for the combat and the stealth-heavy predator segments was on improvements rather than reinvention. As a result, both combat and stealth are smoother and faster. For example, the environmental takedown in combat segments, which allows you to instantly knock an enemy out by using objects around you, and the fear takedown, which allows you to take out multiple enemies in one go, provided you have the element of surprise. This may give the impression that the gameplay has been dumbed down, but Rocksteady has counterbalanced these features by introducing tougher foes in both combat and predator segments. For example, in the predator segment, you come across enemies who can detect your location if you use detective mode for too long at a stretch. The net result is that gameplay feels familiar and fresh all at the same time.
But let’s talk about the massive tank in the room. Given that the whole of Gotham is now your playground, an additional mode of transport was bound to come in handy. In addition, the vehicular combat segments in which the Batmobile transforms into a tank are great fun, though they lack the variety of regular combat. In battle mode, your mobility is vastly improved as you can zip around to avoid fire from enemy vehicles, while taking them down with your own (they are conveniently unmanned, since Batman doesn’t kill).
These battles are fun, and the Batmobile feels weighty yet comfortably manoeuvrable in pursuit mode. This comes in handy especially in the obstacle course-based races that the Riddler has set up for you, and some of the thrilling chases that you engage in during one of the side missions that tasks you with hunting down the Arkham Knight’s lieutenants. However, when you end up using it to solve some of the puzzles in the main quests, it does feel a bit forced. There is also a distinct disadvantage here. The environments you explore are not nearly as intimate as they were while you explored the Asylum in the first game, or the themed gang hideouts of the Penguin and the Joker in Arkham City.
What you do get to explore is a fully realised Gotham City. The hallmark of great open-world games of recent times like Grand Theft Auto 5 and The Witcher 3 has been the immersive nature of their worlds, and Rocksteady has nailed both immersion as well as the visual design. Unlike Arkham Origins, which retooled and reused a huge chunk of the Arkham City map, this game features a brand new map that is divided into three islands, with almost every bit of it accessible by the Batmobile. You’d think that the lack of Gotham’s citizens would leave the map as dreary as it was in Arkham Origins, but Rocksteady did a great job to make it feel alive. Gotham’s finest scumbags populate the streets, always having something to say about the ongoing events in the game. Small pockets are doused in menacing red lights, indicating a strong presence of the Arkham Knight’s militia. And as you drive or fly around the rain-drenched city, the bleakness that has set upon it is broken up by neon-lit signs and the bright green hues that indicate the presence of a Riddler puzzle.
The bustling nature of Gotham can also be explained partly in the sheer variety of tasks at hand. Unlike Arkham City, where diverting to side missions was always at conflict with the time-sensitive nature of Batman’s task, the side missions in Arkham Knight are tied into the story and the task of freeing Gotham from the hold of the Knight’s forces. Some of the missions directly involve taking on his forces, while others pit you against the likes of The Riddler, Penguin and Two-Face. It is in these side missions that you get to experience the dual-play combat feature of the game, which allows you to switch between you and an ally. It does not deviate much from standard combat, but taking down enemies alongside Catwoman and Nightwing adds some freshness to these side missions.
The best instance of dual-play, however, is reserved for the main mission when you work to bring down Harley Quinn with the help of Robin. One particular mission is not only brilliant in its execution, but also evokes memories of the 60s goofball Batman television series starring Adam West.
Rocksteady has said numerous times that Arkham Knight is the last game in the Arkham series, and as things stand, it is the series’ apt culmination. The gameplay elements have been streamlined to perfection, Gotham City has been realised beautifully, and the narrative is engaging all the way to its conclusion, despite a couple of hiccups. A less overbearing Batmobile would have benefitted the game, but as it is, Batman: Arkham Knight is well worth your time and money, irrespective of whether you are a Batman fan.
Batman: Arkham Knight is out now. The digital PC version is available at G2A.com.