Video Games Review: Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4, 2015)

Batman: Arkham Knight is the fourth game in the Batman: Arkham video game series and the third by series creator Rocksteady Studios. The little-known British developer took the gaming industry by surprise with Batman: Arkham Asylum back in 2009. Its innovative combat, smart design and reverent treatment of the Dark Knight left fans gobsmacked. Rocksteady then expanded on their thesis in the celebrated Batman: Arkham City and now aims to close out their series by creating the closest thing to an actual Batman simulator we’ve ever seen.

I am going to do my level best to avoid spoilers in this review but they are almost crucial to talking about any experience with this game. If you don’t want to know anything about the story and how it plays out then maybe scroll down the review a bit. I’ll tell you when it’s okay to jump back in.

Here be potential spoilers.

Arkham Knight picks up one year after the conclusion of Arkham City. The Joker is dead and Gotham has never been safer but the Clown Prince of Crime’s dire proclamation that the two of them are more alike than he is willing to admit is still ringing in Batman’s ears. Halloween night rolls around (an open homage to the classic Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale story The Long Halloween) and the Scarecrow launches a brazen and hyper-coordinated attack on the city, threatening to deploy an incredibly potent, airborne version of his fear toxin.

The city is evacuated leaving the streets empty but for a heavily armed militia working for a mysterious new player calling themselves the Arkham Knight. The Knight is working with Scarecrow to deploy the toxin and, troublingly, appears to know an awful lot about Batman, training his men on exactly what to expect when facing the Caped Crusader. Worse, the Knight appears to know not only know who the Bat family are, but also where to find them and is going out of his way to make his war on Batman a personal one. The drive to uncover the identity of the Arkham Knight is a great one. It gets its hooks in early and hauls you roughly through the narrative. Die-hard Batfans will be able to accurately guess his identity within moments (as I was) but for those not as immersed in Batman lore I’m sure it will come as a bit of a shock. Character-wise, the game packs another (and in my opinion) much better surprise for fans and Rocksteady springs it rather earlier in the game.

In spite of the fact that Rocksteady have kind of gone back to the well with their basic premise (“Batman’s entire rogue’s gallery uniting to kill him” has been, in one form or another, the central premise of every Arkham game to date), the story they actually tell with Arkham Knight is a thoughtful and resonant one. Batman, long the instrument of fear, is now at its mercy, surrounded on all sides by fear of every kind – of failure and of what winning might mean, of what he’s become, of what he’s turned the people that he loves into and the degree to which he puts them in peril just by donning the cowl at all.

I could go on about it all week. Putting aside my lifelong affection for a sharp Batman story, Arkham Knight’s story is so well-written that it creates a true rarity in AAA titles these days – a single player campaign that is actually engrossing and urgent. It makes me wish more AAA games put the same kind of time and effort into crafting a narrative.

Potential spoilers end here. Welcome back.

It’s clear that Rocksteady have really learned from their experiences making the first two Arkham games. While they’re happy to recycle many gadgets and quest types from previous games they’ve been careful to create new ways to approach those same mechanics. The disruptor, formerly a weapon of fairly narrow application, now has a vast array of different things it can interact with and, particularly when playing the predator, it becomes one of your most frequently-used tools. New gadgets have been thrown into the mix as well with things like the voice synthesiser. Easily one of my favourite new toys, the voice synthesiser allows Batman to record a snippet of speech and then emulate the speaker’s voice to send false orders to guards or open voice-activated door locks.

Enemy behaviour has also been tweaked so that they’re far less prone to standing around and politely waiting to attack you one-at-a-time. They’ll now barge in more frequently, throwing spanners into your plans with annoying regularity. New enemy types also add an extra layer of chaos to the proceedings. Rocksteady have worked very hard to make sure you can’t get away with simply lurking in the rafters and playing the entire game in Detective Mode anymore. Between goons wearing optic camo so they don’t show up on your DM screen and tech soldiers who can scramble the cowl’s telemetry, you’ll find you spend just as much time out of Detective Mode as you do in it. There are also medic units who can revive enemies you’ve already knocked out putting them rather high on the Beatdown Priority List. Leaving a medic conscious at all will tip the scales against you dramatically. One medic is a problem. Two is a headache. Three is a nightmare. All of these facets, when deployed in concert, mean that while you can and should always go into any combat scenario with a plan, you still have to keep it loose so you can adjust your priorities on the fly.

Another addition to combat are a variety of new takedowns, the most popular of which will be the assist takedowns. These can be performed whenever an ally is nearby and allows you to switch between Batman, Robin, Nightwing and Catwoman depending on who you’re in the trenches with at the time. They’re only really available in certain missions so the ability doesn’t crop up that often but damn if it isn’t cool to see Batman and Catwoman working together to topple a particularly sturdy bad guy.

I spent a lot of time in both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City because my Batman-loving brain wouldn’t let me rest until I 100%’d them both on every difficulty and nailed all the challenge rooms. Thus when I jumped into Arkham Knight, I was pleased to find that Rocksteady had more or less left the controls as they were in the previous games. There has been some reshuffling done – the menus for changing gadgets, for instance, has changed a bit. These changes took a little getting used to and were a source of minor irritation to begin with as I broke down certain ingrained habits.

Speaking of habits, let’s move onto one of Arkham Knight’s most talked-about additions: The Batmobile. Rocksteady have poured a lot of time into making the Batmobile more than just a map-traversal mechanic – it’s a playable character. Batman can either drive the Batmobile himself or he can control it remotely, opening up lots of great multi-stage puzzle ideas for the devs to play with. The car itself is also immense fun to drive so if you want to use it as a map traversal mechanic then you’ll still have a blast. My advice: the moment you stop trying to drive it like a car is the moment everything about the Batmobile will fall into place. It’s basically a really fast tank. Walls mean nothing to the Batmobile.

One of two small criticisms I have regarding this part of the game is that Rocksteady is so excited to show you their biggest, baddest new toy that they spend just a little too long getting you acquainted with the car. For a little while there it feels like you’ve been plonked into another open-world driving game and by the time the story was ready to let me move on I was really itching to get back to being Batman. The second (again, minor) criticism I have is with the Batmobile’s controls. It took me a while to get my head around them. Traditionally on the controller your brake is bound to the left trigger. On the Batmobile, brake is bound to Square (or X if you’re on the Xbox One) and L2 switches the vehicle from Drive to Attack Mode, springing the turret from the roof and re-aligning the wheels for 360-degree movement and targeting. I eventually got the hang of it but, particularly in the early Riddler races, it gave me no end of grief.

Speaking of Riddler races, there are a wide variety of side-quests to hook into that will provide a constant stream of WayneTech points with which to upgrade your armour, arms and automobile. The aforementioned Riddler returns with a vengeance, his trophies and riddles dotting the city once again, but he’s also upped the ante by building insane race tracks to throw the Batmobile down as well as a series of obstacle courses that force you to gamble with Catwoman’s life (while still heavily sexualised, Catwoman has thankfully had the “coquettish” knob turned down a bit compared to her appearance in Arkham City. At one point she even cracks wise about her irritation with being Batman’s motivation for solving Riddler’s puzzles. Much more in line with the Selina Kyle I know and love). With Gotham basically empty, villains like Two-Face and the Penguin have decided to make the most of it and are cheerfully robbing banks and running guns across the greater metropolitan area. On the surface of it, there’s lots to do but I also managed to 100% the game in six days beating my Arkham Origins record by a considerable margin. It feels like some concessions have been made in terms of content due to Arkham Knight’s Season Pass which, at AU$59.99, is so ludicrously overpriced as to be insulting regardless of the content it ends up delivering.

But lets wrap this up on a positive note, shall we? I want to take a moment at the bottom of the review to gush about the graphics because Batman: Arkham Knight is easily one of the prettiest games I have ever seen. The artists at Rocksteady have done absolutely phenomenal work on the game’s visuals. The textures are so detailed, the weather effects are so beautifully realised … there were times when I would lose focus on my task while gliding through Gotham because I was admiring the way the rain beaded realistically on Batman’s leathery cape as it flapped, also realistically, in the wind. The lighting! Rocksteady must have pushed Unreal Engine 3 to its very limits to get such amazing lighting out of the game. The way it flares and undulates as it interacts with windblown objects in the environment is a real sight to behold. It’s all just gorgeous work and examples of it are everywhere. The buildings of Gotham City have been properly modelled, no longer squares with nice textures draped over them, and it gives them a properly ghoulish aspect. Take a moment to climb Wayne Tower at your earliest convenience and take in the view of the city from up there. The opening line of Sam Hamm’s script for the 1989 Batman movie describes Gotham looking “as if hell had erupted through the sidewalks and kept on growing.” It would appear Rocksteady have taken this description to heart. It’s gothic and severe and it feels old. You’ll see what I mean.

Batman: Arkham Knight is the first game of this console generation that made me feel like I really was playing something worthy of the moniker “next-gen”. It is the sum of its predecessors, refined and polished, all of its many disparate ideas finding their mark. What was true of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City holds true here: you don’t have to be a Batman fan to find something to like about Arkham Knight. If you were to remove the Batman license entirely, you would still be left with a game of exceptional quality and craftsmanship. Take a bow, Rocksteady Studios. One of the best games of the year, one of the best games on current-gen consoles. Stop what you’re doing and play it now.

Review Score: 10 out of 10
Highlights: Great story; fantastic combat; incredible visuals
Lowlights: Some control tweaks may irk longtime fans initially
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: WB Games
Released: June 24, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4

David Smith

Games and technology editor, Dungeons and Dragons fanboy and your new best friend. You can reach me at david.smith@theaureview.com with news tips, pitches, press releases, invites, review content and more.