Played on an Xbox, so only publicity screenshots for this review with the usual caveat: the game they portray may appear to be more interesting than it actually is.
The idea that game design is just as much about cutting bad or unnecessary features as it is adding new and exciting ones is one that I tend to bang on about on here a lot, but for good reason: Arkham Knight is a fantastic cautionary tale of what happens when you spend a full trilogy of games just piling on more and more features without taking any of them away — you end up with a bloated mess.
That’s possibly being a little harsh on Arkham Knight. I really liked the first game in Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy, Arkham Asylum; it took the Metroidvania formula and spliced Batman into it almost seamlessly, inventing a combat system that’s now genre standard along the way and generally going about its business with a laser-like degree of focus. By contrast Arkham City was a great disappointment, trading the tightly-structured environment of the Asylum for an open world that was almost totally devoid of interesting content – and no, the sodding Riddler challenges do not count. Arkham Knight tries to chart a middle ground between the two, returning to the open world idea of City but trying to flesh it out a little more and give it some of the liveliness that Asylum so enjoyed. It has some success. It’s definitely a better game than Arkham City, damning-with-faint-praise though that judgement may be. It’s telling that the best bits are the ones which are entirely new, though, and the bits which drag it back are the ones pointlessly passed along — or left over — from the previous titles.
Once again Batman’s beloved Gotham City is under siege from his rogue’s gallery of villains, this time led by Scarecrow — unfortunately Scarecrow is very much a B-list villain for Batman, only taking the headline spot because they killed off the Joker in the last game, and it’s really stretching my suspension of disbelief to say that he’d somehow managed to take over Gotham with a huge private army toting all kinds of military hardware without anyone lifting a finger to stop him. Still, that’s only the start of what’s wrong with Arkham Knight’s story so I’ll let it slide for now; the point is that Batman has to zip around the city foiling crimes, beating up thugs and putting said rogue’s gallery behind bars in the Gotham City Police Department lockup – basically what you’d expect him to be doing in a Batman game, except with the excuse that there’s no civilians around because the city was evacuated after Scarecrow threatened to gas everyone with his fear toxin.
As preposterous as this is, it certainly works a damn sight better than the Escape From New York premise of Arkham City. The beefier hardware lets Rocksteady render a nicer-looking Gotham than City’s collection of grey cubes, too; it’s still dark, but has a lot of neon breaking up the otherwise depressing gothic skyline. Unfortunately there’s still a crippling failure in level design that ensures that, while the overall visual quality is good, it is good in an extremely unmemorable fashion. Despite flitting around its streets for upwards of 20 hours I can’t remember a single interesting building aside from the GCPD – and that was only because I had to keep going back there so damn often. It’s designed and laid out so blandly that it ends up being just what I said a few sentences ago – it’s nicer-looking, sure, but it still ends up being just a background of geometric shapes for Batman to grapple and glide over as he gets from point A to point B.
It didn’t have to be this way. The big new element Arkham Knight has over its predecessor games is the introduction of the Batmobile – and this is very much the Nolan Batmobile rather than the Burton one seen at the start of Asylum, a huge, tooled-up beast of a machine that will barrel straight through absolutely anything that isn’t a building as if it weren’t there. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the Batmobile’s handling, and these do have some merit in the challenge sections where you have to use it since there is a definite lack of fine control, but driving it from place to place is a genuine pleasure. Annoying though it may be, that handling issue nevertheless lends it real sense of weight – you really believe you’re in a jet-powered tank that will absolutely fuck up anything that gets in its way. Gotham looks a little more like an actual place from street level, and if the Batmobile had been Batman’s primary form of transport I think it would have come together a little more coherently than it does. Sadly the Batmobile isn’t Batman’s primary form of transport. This is instead the grapple-and-glide combo from Arkham City – you grapple up to somewhere high, hammer the A button while you’re grappling to get a huge boost of speed, and then hold A as Batman gets to the end to launch him high up into the air and deploy his cape to glide around the city. Batman can somehow glide much faster than the Batmobile’s top speed, and since there are no pesky buildings to get in the way it’s simply no contest between the glide and the Batmobile.
This relegates the Batmobile to being used only in the missions and challenges where it’s required. This is a real shame, and doubly so since the Batmobile is actually a really well-designed piece of kit – it’s a new piece of the game and so isn’t buckling under the weight of having had three games’ worth of crap bolted onto it, instead being relatively streamlined in what it can do. It takes a leaf out of the Nolan films and The Dark Knight Returns by being equipped with a 60mm cannon — for taking out hordes of military tanks that are conveniently unmanned — and a vulcan cannon for shooting down missiles and sniping enemy sensors. It’s also got a riot gun firing non-lethal rounds that cuts in whenever your crosshairs happen to stray over a living human target – Batman doesn’t kill people, after all, he just cripples them for life. This goes double for whenever you run somebody over, as the game’s get-out clause for this is that the Batmobile has 10,000 volts running through its outer skin. I guess I’m supposed to buy that this is jolting them anyone touching it of the way before they get seriously hurt, but it looks to me like it’s simply adding the insult of electrocution to the horrific crushing injuries that would be inflicted by a tank travelling at 100mph. Anyway, while it stretches credulity a little the Batmobile never outright breaks it and makes up for it by being fun, both in the combat challenges against the drone tanks and in the more puzzle-like segments where you have to use its winch along with remote-control capability to get it to activate something in one part of the level while Batman is somewhere else entirely. There’s a couple of ill-judged bossfights where it gets a little frustrating, but I found it to be by far the best part of the game in spite of all those complaints.
I just wish Arkham Knight made as good a fist of the other stuff it does as it does with the Batmobile. The only other thing that comes close is the contextualisation of Batman’s actions; as he clears up the various challenges around the city and brings in increasing numbers of crooks and soldiers, the GCPD lockup gets increasingly full to the point where it is positively overflowing at the end of the game. Each of Batman’s famous foes — Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler — is loose somewhere in the city, and by completing a series of themed challenges you can eventually bring them in too. For example, Two-Face’s missions involve going up against a bunch of thugs robbing banks in a repeat of Asylum’s Predator segments, while tracking down Man-Bat requires you to home in on his screeches and spot him using Detective Vision before intercepting him in mid-air. The Riddler gets a special series of challenges and puzzles that have to completed in co-operation with Catwoman. Hunting down Firefly means chasing him through the city at high speed in the Batmobile. In fact, I take it back; most of the missions involving named villains were great – they had interesting elements and since there were only 3-5 of them per villain they didn’t outstay their welcome. Unfortunately they’re something of a sideshow in terms of volume; most of the challenge missions in the game pit you against Scarecrow’s militia soldiers, and these are exactly as generic as they sound, especially since while a typical mission chain for a villain will be 5 missions long, resolving one of the themed mission chains for the militia – hunt down APCs, fight crowds of drones while defusing mines, beating up militia to clear checkpoints — takes upwards of twenty. This is far too many, especially considering that none of them are particularly short and some of them are difficult enough to require multiple restarts; I was bored of nearly all of them after doing them a few times and ended up ignoring them after getting about halfway through the main plotline.
Before I take that on, though, I should quickly say a few words about the defining features of any Batman game: the combat and the gadgets. Asylum did these really well. City did them less well, but I don’t remember outright hating them. I do kind of hate the combat and the gadgets in Arkham Knight, though. Why? They’re recognisably the same systems as the one in Asylum, but where in Asylum they were simple enough to be fun, in Arkham Knight they’re complex to the point of frustration. The combat in particular is now full of such a bewildering array of enemies, combat techniques and counters that you have absolutely no chance of keeping track of them all. Shock sticks, shield guys, ninjas, brutes, blade brutes, shield brutes, minigun brutes — there’s far too many occasions where you can’t remember the specific button combo or gadget required to take out or depower a certain enemy, and even more still where you’ll accidentally hit a special enemy thanks to the imprecise combat and get countered for your trouble. The real irony of this is that Shadow Of Mordor ripped off Arkham Asylum’s combat system – along with every other third-person game under the sun — but because it relied on move sets that were built on top of each other it remained easily parsable, and in retrospect is possibly the best implementation of the system ever (not least because the protagonist had a sword and could therefore do some really visceral finishing moves). Arkham Knight instead prefers to build its moveset out wide with twenty or thirty techniques sitting next to each other, and it borders on the incomprehensible because of it.
(And the gadgets? Well, there’s 12-13 of them, you will use maybe 2 of them when you’re not doing a puzzle, and when you are doing a puzzle you have to select the gadget from a radial menu, press left trigger to ready it and press right trigger to activate it, which is far too much busywork when I could just press A to deploy explosive gel to destroy the sensor. Bear in mind that there’s no thought involved in figuring out which gadget to use in a given situation since the game will always tell you, it’ll just expect you to wade through this inelegant process of selection and use every time rather than making it easy for you.)
Anyway, that plotline. It’s really bad. Really bad. For starters, it contains just about every terrible and cliched videogame storytelling trope from the last decade. The bad guys have blatantly read the script, since Batman has them at his mercy time and again but they always slip away while monologuing at him over his supposedly-encrypted personal communications channel. Scarecrow is particularly bad for this, lecturing Batman just like an Open University professor on one of the BBC’s late night educational programmes, and with similar effect since it’ll send you straight to sleep. The twist of the opening act – revealed a couple of hours in, so hopefully not a huge spoiler — is that Batman is infected with Joker blood and is slowly losing his mind to the Joker; this isn’t all bad since it means they can bring Mark Hamill back for one more turn as the Joker in Batman’s head offers constant commentary on unfolding events, but it also lets the writers abuse the fact that Batman is going crazy. After the fifth or sixth fakeout where Batman saw one of his allies die or thought he’d captured the bad guy only for it to be a hallucination I stopped caring altogether; if anything can be a hallucination, then everything shocking in the game probably is a hallucination and I don’t give a shit — it’s probably not a spoiler to say this absolutely turned out to be the case, too. The titular Arkham Knight is a “new” baddie who seems to have intimate knowledge of Batman and Bruce Wayne, as well as an all-consuming grudge against him; he wears a mask, but his identity will be obvious roughly two seconds after he’s introduced if you’re even remotely familiar with the Batman mythos, and the game drops hints so heavy that they might as well be anvils, to the point where the only person who is surprised when the Knight finally removes his mask is Batman himself.
(Oh, and important plot points happen when Batman is staring at somebody through an unbreakable glass window. I honestly thought I’d seen the death of this particular trope years ago, but there’s no depth to which Arkham Knight won’t sink in order to tell as shitty a story as possible.)
It’s a story that is badly written, terribly told and which sorely outstays its welcome; just focusing on the main plotline takes up probably 15-20 hours of gametime, and while its scripted nature allows Arkham Knight to inert some interesting gameplay segments it was still a terrible slog to get to the end. Because the combat was so overengineered I winced whenever I had to fight; because there were so many gadgets I swore whenever I had to switch to a new one to solve a puzzle; because the environment and side-missions were so numerous and bland I ended up beelining for the end of the story far earlier than I intended to; and because that story was so long and so awful I ended up hating Arkham Knight. I hated it despite the good work it does with the Batmobile and the Predator stealth sections, and despite the promising improvement it made on the Arkham City concept. Most surprising of all, I hated it despite my love for Arkham Asylum – or perhaps because of it. Arkham Asylum was born of a different philosophy that resulted in a tight, streamlined gameplay experience with most of the flabby parts cut out. By contrast Arkham Knight is nothing but flab; flab that I’m certain is concealing a good game somewhere, and which itself could have been burned away given some competent management of the scope and of the design. Instead it’s been allowed to bloat uncontrollably and, in my opinion, fatally. I like Batman, but all Arkham Knight made me want to do was play Shadow Of Mordor, a game whose environments were equally as bland and whose plot was equally as shit, but which had incredibly well designed systems grown out of the focus that Arkham Knight so sorely lacks. And if you find yourself wanting to try Arkham Knight, that is my advice: play Shadow Of Mordor instead. I guarantee you’ll have way more fun, even if you’ve played it before.