It’s here, it’s finally here. After four, long years of waiting for the true successor to Batman: Arkham City, one of my top 2 favorite games of all time, Rocksteady has done it again. They gave us life and death, they gave us art, and they gave us a reason to keep buying AAA games. People who say the future of gaming is with indie developers, you’re wrong. This is the future of gaming. This is the GOTY (disclaimer: I haven’t played Witcher 3). And if I can say this with PC as my platform of choice, then you know it’s gotta be a good game.
The Batman Arkham series by Rocksteady has always been phenomenal. What’s great about their games is that when they make a sequel, they always take that one thing in the back of your mind that says “This is great, but I wish you could ____” and add it in. Sometimes they add something you didn’t even know you wanted, and then afterwards you wonder, “how could I play a Batman game without this before now?” They just have a fantastic handle on which game mechanics work and which ones don’t. There are so many things from previous games that they fix or add, just because. Environmental take-downs during Freeflow Combat, picking up weapons, new gadgets, new implementation for old gadgets, the Dual-play system (in stealth and free-flow), new enemy types, and the list just goes on and on. Everything about this game has been refined and distilled down to what works and what doesn’t, and what works, works really, really well.
The Voice Acting/Characters
Kevin Conroy is Batman, that’s all we needed for voice acting. Nothing else matters when Kevin Conroy is Batman, but the other voice actors are pretty phenomenal too. Mark Hamill does a great job voicing Joker in one or two flashbacks, but though they are few, he remains as demented and wonderful as ever. Robin, Nightwing, Riddler, Gordon, Catwoman and Alfred all do terrific jobs reprising or otherwise appearing in their roles for the first time. Oracle, the Arkham Knight, and Scarecrow are especially fantastic voice actors. Oracle has this voice that makes her both someone who’s strong and indomitable, someone who is always making herself useful, but also someone that you want to protect and care about. Arkham Knight perfectly portrays exactly what he’s supposed to portray, saying anymore would be spoiling his identity; not that most of you haven’t already guessed it.
Scarecrow in particular needs major compliments. In Arkham Asylum, while vital to the story, he never felt like prime villain material. He was conniving, but not menacing. In Arkham Knight, he brings the menace and turns it up to eleven. He was just so phenomenally terrifying that I was blown away by his performance. He’s actually voiced by John Noble, the dad from Fringe, who hasn’t done a lot of voice work before. But every line that he says was so perfect it was wonderful.
The story in Arkham games has always been good. It’s not always the best it could be, but it always does a good job of introducing various villains. Arkham Origins, for all of its other faults, actually had a really good story. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were good comic-bookey stories, but nothing very personal or deep. Arkham Knight is on another level entirely. The story is ballsy, daring, poignant, satisfying, personal, nostalgic, and surprising. It does so many things, on so many levels, with all sorts of twists and turns, and I loved every second of it. I had the PC version of the game, and normally I would just wait for the game to get fixed before playing and finishing it. But the story was so gripping and compelling (and I had to write this review), that I had to finish it as quickly as possible to make sure I didn’t get on Wikipedia and spoil it for myself. Even better, the story is focused, so instead of traipsing all over Gotham, fighting super-villain after super villain, you stay focused on Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight. This helps tremendously by making it feel like an actual story and not just a game used to showcase and cram in Gotham villains. There were a lot of surprising story beats that were incredibly resonant and wonderful so I can’t tell you much, but everything just felt so right.
Okay, here’s the one big section where I talk about two major spoilers including, but not limited to, the identity of the Arkham Knight.
Are you sure you want to read this? These are like SUPER DUPER MAJOR SPOILERS!
So, I lied. Joker is not just a cameo or two, he is straight-up in the game. They didn’t resurrect him though, so Rocksteady wasn’t lying when they said he was dead, but he’s still super vital to the story. We kinda already knew that once Kotaku posted their review, and you run into him pretty quickly, so in that sense you aren’t spoiling end-game content. But the way that he shows up is phenomenal and surprising. I feel like I shouldn’t even be telling you all this, because the surprise is so great, but it’s such a vital part of the game that I can’t ignore it. He shows up after you get gassed by Scarecrow for the first time as a manifestation of your subconscious, left over and triggered by the blood you got injected by in Arkham City. Throughout the entirety of the game, he stalks and follows you around, constantly picking your brain, making quips, tormenting you, it’s so very Joker. The overwhelming danger is that you eventually lose your sanity and give in, allowing him to take over your body, becoming a weapon more dangerous than he ever could have been before. The constant battle, the back-and-forth, between you and the Joker throughout the main campaign was wonderful and masterfully done. He comments on all of your side missions too, so he talks about Catwoman, and Talia, and Nightwing, and the history that you guys have together, so he’s not just a gimmick for the main story. Honestly, he’s probably the best part of the entire game. Mark Hamill will always be the best Joker there is. They should just overdub Jared Leto with Mark Hamill’s voice because it’s so perfect in every way.
The Arkham Knight… is Jason Todd. It was everyone’s first guess, and then Rocksteady had to go and lie to us in order to suspend the surprise. But anyone who knows Batman at all, was screaming throughout the entire game, ITS JASON TODD, IT REALLY REALLY IS JASON TODD! That said, once you know its Jason Todd, it actually improves your appreciation for their characterization of him. He feels like this whiny, angry, kid who was warped and manipulated by Joker to hate and despise Batman. You can feel the animosity between the two, Batman still cares for him like a son, but Jason just wants him to die. All of his jabs at Batman being an “Old Man”, “I know you”, all this intimate knowledge of who Batman is, Rocksteady did a really good job of making him threatening, powerful, but also emotional. The Red Hood story has been done a hundred times before, but that’s just because it’s such a powerful story.
I’ve seen pictures of the PS4 version of the game. It looks beautiful. Like, absolutely stunning in every way. This was not a last-gen game, this game uses the new consoles to their fullest extent, and boy does it show. I however, played on PC. Be sad for me, for I was unable to appreciate the gorgeousness of this game. Even under that layer of awful textures, and a terrible resolution, I could tell how much work and detail had been put into this game’s characters, and environments. It looks wonderful, I just wish it could look that nice on my PC. Assuredly in a few months, it will run fine and I will be able to turn up the graphics and play it.
Arkham Origins has been looked down on by the gaming community as something of an ugly stepchild, or an unwanted bastard. Made by a different studio, not of the same quality as previous Batman games, it feels like a cash-cow, and that’s really because it was made just to fill the gap in between the release of Arkham City and Arkham Knight. Honestly, I don’t blame them for wanting to fill that gap, because Arkham Knight took 4 years to develop. However, I have to wonder if much of this game is quite the bastard that people thought it was. Rocksteady took a lot of things from Arkham Origins, the good parts, and integrated them into this one. There are continuity nods, gameplay mechanics, there are a lot of things that I liked a lot about Arkham Origins, and the ones I liked the most were the ones that made it in the game. The two things that immediately come to mind are the crime scene investigations and the combat encounter rating system. Both features are different than they were in Arkham Origins, but the fact that Rocksteady didn’t just cast Origins aside because it wasn’t their game was very non-assholeish of them. It makes me hold them in higher regard as a studio.
The game starts slow, it’s not really until you’ve finished your encounter at Ace Chemicals where the story picks up. The game starts off very quickly trying to teach you how to use the Batmobile because it’s so important to the rest of the game, so there are a lot of little story beats at the beginning that don’t feel right because they’re busying teaching you this huge, important, new mechanic. But once you finish the Ace Chemicals encounter, the game takes off and becomes incredible.
Teaching you to play the game
Previous Arkham games did a wonderful job of teaching you how to play the game. While theoretically, each time they introduce a new mechanic they teach you to use it, in practice it doesn’t quite feel that way. On PC there were a number of button combinations that just showed up on my screen without context, most of which I ended up rebinding anyways. Early freeflow combat encounters happen mainly outside, which makes them more awkward and less controlled. Even as you go through the game, it doesn’t feel as precise and purposeful as previous games (the way it unfolds the mechanics, not the way the gameplay itself feels). It just doesn’t have the same feeling of purposefulness that it does in a game like Arkham City. All the upgrades felt purposeful and deliberate. The only mechanic that does feel right in terms of familiarizing you with the game is the Batmobile. The way they teach you to use that one feels organic and natural, as much as it might also hurt early sections of the game by its presence.
Arkham City was great because you always got a good notion of where everything was in relation to everything else. You got an impression of how to navigate, and as you went through the game it would bring you back to certain locations and you would familiarize yourself with them. Arkham Knight does not have that characterization or familiarity, partially because you spend most of your time in the Batmobile following a charted path on the road, partially because there are fewer landmarks, and partially because of how the story is constructed. In Arkham City, they would bring you to a place or encounter, one or two times and each time you would become familiar with it. The museum is over here, the steel mill is over there, etc. In Arkham Knight, because the city is so enormous, and because you spend less time above it and more time on the ground, you have fewer visual cues on how to get where you need to. And, since the size of the campaign itself didn’t increase with the size of the city, there’s a smaller percentage of important buildings and places to the story in comparison to total land-mass. On top of that, there are fewer inside sections in general, which I think is a detriment since predator encounters work much better inside in a controlled environment, rather than outdoors. My favorite predator encounters, in Arkham Knight or other games like Asylum and City, were the ones where I was inside a building. It makes you feel like your prey is trapped in a box as you pick them off. The openness of outside predator encounters makes them feel less claustrophobic. It’s just a personal preference.
Interactive Cinematic Moments
At the very start of the game, you cremate Joker. Like, the first frame of the first cutscene. Thing is, the game doesn’t really make it clear that it’s waiting for you interact before it starts the cremation process. This QTE, non-QTE type mechanic is frustrating as the game gives you some illusion of cinematic experience, but also breaking immersion by making you interact when you aren’t expecting it. On top of this, there were a number of times when the game wanted me to do a particular thing, but I didn’t want to. If the game wants me to do something that isn’t in character, then it should make me do it in a cutscene instead of a QTE (or seemingly optional action choice). There is something to be said for making a player themselves do the action, instead of watching the action unfold, but in this case I don’t think it was to the betterment of the game. It’s frustrating, confusing, and immersion breaking. There were two moments in particular I had issue with, but talking about them would be spoilery.
I’m usually pretty forgiving when it comes to games in general, most of my criticism comes with caveats. The Batmobile is a perfect example of this. I love the Batmobile, and as a new gameplay mechanic it works phenomenally, but there are some caveats. 1) The Batmobile is hard to handle at first. When you first start out, the game is rushing you to hurry and get used to the Batmobile so you can start doing stuff in the story. One of the first missions you do with the Batmobile is a Riddler race where you drive around underground avoiding obstacles. For players who don’t know what they’re doing, this is REALLY hard. Instead of rushing through the story, and chasing cars, take a few minutes and explore Gotham. Get used to how it handles and pull a couple of donuts using the power slide. Once you figure out how it works, it actually handles beautifully, it’s just not what you expect. On top of that you can charge through almost everything except entire buildings themselves. Concrete poles, lampposts, wood planking, cars on the side of the road, you can run over everything without even slowing down. 2) Tank mode is awesome. It handles beautifully and wrecks just about everything. Favorite tank in a video game ever. 3) Unfortunately, the Batmobile’s presence constantly screws with the pacing. There were a lot of times where in previous games I would use a gadget to solve a puzzle and the solution has been changed instead so I can use the Batmobile. They were just so excited about making the Batmobile that they forgot they needed to not use it too. There were instances where it broke up the pacing in a constructive way by adding variety to the gameplay, but not all of those transitions were good ones. 4) Sometimes, it didn’t feel very Batman. It seemed like they were trying to justify the Batmobile so much as a mechanic, that they forgot they needed to justify it as a Batman mechanic. The huge amounts of property damage, the ability to run people down (but they just got stunned), blowing up tanks with your cannon, it’s just not a very “creature of the night and stealth” kind of approach. All that being said, it has some great value in the game, works wonderfully, handles like a dream, and is loads of fun. But it clashes with some of the ideals of the game, which lessens the experience overall.
Late game difficulty
I love me some difficulty in my games, but only when it feels fair. When the game has prepared me for a situation, taught me what I need to do, given me the tools to do it and then lets me execute it, that’s great and fine. But when it puts me in situations that feel unfair, needlessly tedious, or unbalanced, then I get frustrated. The combat encounters at the end of the game are needlessly and pointlessly frustrating for the most part. Your final battles in tank mode and predator mode with the Arkham Knight were frustrating. There’s one freeflow battle where the guards were entirely equipped with shields, stun sticks, and medics, and no weapon destruction perk and the lights are constantly flashing. These battles didn’t feel well-done, they just felt cluttered, irritating, and frustrating. It was only a couple of battles near the end, so the balance on the whole was pretty balanced, but it was still frustrating.
The PC Port
You’ve all heard the rumors, but trust me when I say that it’s worse than it sounds. I played through the main story and most of the sidequests on my computer. I had a ton of fun doing it. But OH MY GOSH!!!! That port was one of the worst I’ve seen in years. The only thing right with it was the ability to re-bind keys, otherwise it was a complete and utter failure. Kotaku posted benchmarks of how the game is supposed to run on certain cards. According to them, I was supposed to be able to run my game at 1080p, highest settings and average 35-25 FPS, which really isn’t that bad. I ran my game at 720p, lowest settings, and frequently the game would come full stop and I had to wait for it to load the next frame. It’s shameful, awful, deplorable, the whole situation was a debacle. There’s absolutely no reason that game should have gotten past QA. It also speaks to the quality of the game itself that I love every second I spent with the game despite the terrible framerate and graphics. The fact that the game is so good that my experience with it wasn’t soured by this terrible, awful port speaks volumes to the quality of the release. I hope my console peasant brethren can enjoy the game and all of its shiny beauty while the PC master race regains its footing (the Irony is recognized, trust me).
I love Batman: Arkham Knight. It has the best story in any Arkham game. The Batmobile is awesome. The new mechanics feel great, and the old mechanics still work. But I think Rocksteady pulled a Banjo Tooie, and let me explain what I mean by that. I’ve been playing Banjo Tooie recently, and it’s a really good game. But the thing about Banjo Tooie is that they made the game so incredibly huge and expansive, they almost made it too big.
Rare has repeatedly expressed their disappointment in themselves for failing to craft as focused of a game as Banjo Kazooie, when they made Banjo Tooie. They were so focused on making the game bigger and better, that they forgot some of the most important parts of the process of game building. In Banjo Tooie you start with all of your old moves already, and there’s a couple of text tutorials to show you around, sound familiar? They quickly explain and show off new mechanics while trying to shove you through their more compelling new story and expansive new worlds, sound familiar? They create larger worlds that lack focus and lose some of the charm and intimacy of some of their most vital portions of gameplay, sound familiar? There are a lot of people that would argue that Tooie is the better game, but that’s only because they are so familiar with it that those flaws don’t matter as much to them. Most of the gaming community still thinks that Banjo Kazooie is the superior game, even though on paper it’s not quite as good.
Arkham Knight functions much the same way. Rocksteady was so focused on making the ultimate Batman game, with the Batmobile, and the huge Gotham City, that they lost some of the key elements that made their past games so wonderful. They lost focus and intimacy. People who liked Arkham Asylum over City (not me) complained that City felt less focused when it expanded into a larger world, Knight has the same problem except on a much larger scale. I love the game to death, I’ve played a lot of games and it’s probably top 20 material. There’s so much care and attention to detail, so many good awesome wonderful things to love in this game. But Arkham City is in my top 2 for a reason, and I don’t think it’s going to be dethroned anytime soon.
P.S. — WB Montreal should take this game and make another Batman prequel. If they hadn’t been rushed I think they could have made Arkham Origins better than it was, and honestly it was still a pretty good game. I don’t even care if they use the same map. Give ‘em two or three years, don’t rush them this time, and I’m sure they’ll turn out something awesome. Make some new environments, give us a new story, reintroduce some old villians, maybe introduce Robin for the first time, etc. Rocksteady is done with Batman, but the franchise should live on. There’s still a lot of life-blood in this series and it would be a shame to see it die with this one. Now hurry up and patch the PC version so I can play NG+ and 100% this ambrosia from the gods.
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