Batman: Arkham Knight

The Dark Knight strikes yet again, and the fourth instalment of the popular Arkham series is easily the most successful to date. Returning to a the sprawling open world of Gotham City, players once more don the cow and bring to bear all of the Batman’s considerable combat, detection, and technological prowess against the vigilante’s maniacal rouges gallery. Many of the extended bat-family also return to the fray, and one of the most iconic pieces in Batman’s arsenal, the Batmobile, makes its first playable appearance.

The story kicks off one year after the events of 2011’s Arkham City, which saw Batman defeat the Joker, making the decision to let his arch nemesis die of a disease to which he had the cure. This time around the psychiatrist-turned-terrorist, Scarecrow, has stepped up to fill the villain vacuum in Batman’s life, forcing a mass civilian evacuation of Gotham under threat of releasing his newly improved fear toxin. While Batman and the police remain in the city to try and shut down the Scarecrow’s plans and keep rioting under control a new villain makes his presence felt; the Arkahm Knight, commander of the militia force occupying Gotham with a mysterious connection to Batman’s past.

With the streets of the city now free of innocents and besieged by clusters of militia, thugs, and general no-goodniks, the player is free to let loose in the Batmobile, the title’s most significant new gameplay addition. Taking its cue from the clunky industrial designs of the Nolan Batman films, this Batmobile is more tank than sleek gleaming dragster, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play with. You can tear through the avenues more or less unencumbered by obstacles; fences, trees, and bits of masonry all crumble beneath your tread without slowing the car a jot. On top if this you have a limited turbo boast that, ingeniously, is recharged by doing sick skids, and the ability to launch Batman out of the roof at speed into a momentous glide.

What’s more, by holding down a shoulder button the tank transforms from transport to combat mode. It’s now a lot slower but can strafe left and right, perform a quick dash, and, most importantly, unleash a huge array of weapons against the militia’s drone battalions. To begin with you just have access to the basics – a chain gun and cannon (not very Batman, I know). Progressing through the game unlocks the likes of guided missiles, EMP blasts, and even a virus that can take control of enemy drones.

Gameplay in both modes is fast, simple (once you’ve come to terms with the ever-changing controller schemes), and very enjoyable. The only rub is they don’t really fit with the tone of the game, or the ethos of Batman in general. While the developer has bent over backwards to explain why it’s OK for Batman to be tearing up the city in a heavily armed assault vehicle – all the civilians are gone, he only uses non-lethal ammo on living targets, and the militia only packs unmanned drones – it never quite sits right, especially next to all the effort made to ensure other gameplay elements play as close to a Batman simulator as possible.

If you choose to make your way through Gotham without the bat-tank, the slight changes to Batman’s grapple and glide mechanics will be a welcome improvement. From the ground a simple shoulder button tap fires the grappling gun at the most convenient overhead target, the player then zips along the line and is flung into the air, where wings are spread and vast tracks of the city traversed. What Arkham Knight adds to this system is the ability to chain grapple shots together to gain even more altitude before shooting skyward, which mercifully cuts out much of the roof-level clumsiness that often beset gliding attempts in the older titles. Additionally, you can now dive downwards much faster and swoop up to gain more height and velocity, making gliding a far more efficient business.

The combat portions of the game, like gliding, remain largely unchanged, with some minor tweaks that cut out major annoyances. Batman still finds himself in scraps with multitudinous thugs at a time, and beat-downs are administered with a steady tapping of the attack button interspersed with counter attacks, special combos, and environmental knock-outs. Keep Batman moving amongst his foes, landing hits, and avoiding attacks, and his blows get increasingly stronger. One welcome change to the combat flow is the ability to knock out a prone enemy, taking him out of the match, without breaking your combo chain. Add to this a much simpler system for avoiding knife strikes and increased tactical reliance on quickly employing gadgets, and you’ve got a far less frustrating fight on your hands that can still feel satisfyingly deep and challenging.

Of course, Batman isn’t always one for the front-on approach, and stealth tactics also make up a good part of gameplay. In previous games these segments paradoxically provided the most exciting sense of ‘being Batman’, as well as some of the more tedious tracts of the game. There’s nothing quite like descending unheard from the ceiling, pulling a witless goon up to your vantage point, and dropping his unconscious body noiselessly to the ground to make you feel like you’re part of an episode of the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series. However, a lot of the time these areas are most efficiently navigated by repeating the same tactic over and over, to the detriment of previous excitement.

Arkahm Knight manages to move things along with a little more energy by introducing Fear Takedowns, in which you can quickly string a number of viscous knock-outs together while remaining unseen. Get the drop on your first victim and time slows down, allowing you to pan the camera and select your next unwitting victim in the area. For those not all that interested in waiting for goons to stroll over convenient floor grates, or stand in front the window you’ve patently crouched behind, the Fear Takedown system is a blessing.

Batman’s array of wonderful toys – batarang, electric charge gun, exploding gel, hacking device – return for assistance in combat, stealth missions, and to solve puzzles. Throughout the main storyline you seldom run into anything vexing enough to require the world’s greatest detective; for the most part the game will hold your hand and lead you right to the solution with verbal or text clues. Luckily, if crazy conundrums are your cup of tea there’s plenty to be had in the various side missions. As well as dealing with Scarecrow and the Arkahm Knight on this particularly dramatic evening, Batman can also opt to run around Gotham chasing down sundry members of his rouges gallery. Go after the ever-annoying Riddler and you’ve got a world of brain-teasers ahead of you, as well as some truly excellent Batmobile skill tests. Then there’s classic baddies like Firefly, Man-Bat, Two Face, Deathstroke, and Penguin causing trouble, as well as appearances from newer or more obscure nasties like Blackfire, Professor Pig, and Hush.

To even the odds, Nightwing, Robin, and Catwoman also pop up as playable characters to help Batman out. Aside from cosmetic differences they don’t bring much of substance to proceedings, but it’s always fun to get behind someone else’s wheel for a change. Plus, when Bats and an ally are in the same brawl, you can perform ridiculously spectacular team knock-outs, whereby one character serves some clown up into the air and the other swings through and knocks them out of the park. Good, silly fun.

The careful gameplay tweaks to an already well-established engine make playing through the story an experience of uninterrupted delight; it’s about as slick as any action game to date, and far more ambitious than most. The story itself has ups and downs. I enjoy that the Arkham series is bold enough to tell its own version of Bat lore and that those decisions actually stick, such as Joker’s death in the previous game. Most of the new title’s story continues in that same, compelling vein. However, one of the big let downs is the ‘mystery’ surrounding the identity of the Arkham Knight character. I’m not going to spoil anything, but suffice to say those with a cursory knowledge of Batman’s history will have the surprise sorted within the character’s first appearance, and even a complete newcomer will have put it together far before the big reveal. I’m a little put off by the game’s three-tiered ending as well; it takes a genuinely interesting twist at the climactic scene, but then you’re told you have to go back out into the city and complete more side missions to get the whole story. Do that and you’re treated to a fairly disappointing conclusion. Then you’re told you have to do 100% of the side missions to get the real ending. This, as with most games, is a tedious affair and not at all worth it for the insipid addendum it unlocks. An unfortunately sour note to go out on.

One area in which the game can’t be knocked is its visual grandeur. Developer Rocksteady has taken the open world, which chafed at the limitations of last generation’s technology, and pushed it forward mightily in every aspect. You can swoop amongst Gotham’s three great industrial islands and never have to endure a single loading interruption. Chuck on your x-ray detective goggles and you can see rioters and criminals milling about for miles into the distance. From the towering skyscrapers to the garbage-strewn alleyways, there’s not a corner of Gotham that has not been attended with intricate detail.

No expense has been spared on the characters either. While Batman’s face never shifts from glowering consternation, the rest of the cast emote concern, contempt, frivolity, and fear with animated acumen. While I’m still not wild on character designs in which every male looks to be part of a cheesy death metal video and all the females are alternative strippers, there’s no denying the craft that has gone in to making them look just so. And you don’t want to go and throw all that good work away with half-arsed voice acting, so it’s a good thing a portion of the cast behind Batman: The Animated Series are still on board, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as Joke (yeah, he’s still around, sort of). And the rather excellent John Noble does a great job of giving Scarecrow, a second-rate villain who shouldn’t really headlining anything, an air of genuine malice and intrigue.

Four games deep, and it’s fair to say Rocksteady has come triumphantly to the end of its developmental journey. The DNA of the original Batman: Arkham Asylum remains strong, and with each iteration they’ve made small, smart changes to ensure the gameplay got incrementally better, without resorting to unnecessary gimmicks. Now, with the power of the current generation available, the developer has finally been liberated to make the Batman game it has clearly been striving for from the beginning, and it’s rather glorious.

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