Release Date: June 23, 2015Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Rocksteady StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Action-adventure
From the early previews, you might have guessed that Rocksteady Studios wanted to go bigger and better with Batman: Arkham Knight. This is a correct assumption that shines through in every aspect of the game. Arkham Knight builds off the foundations of what made Arkham Asylum and Arkham City the masterpieces they were in their own right, and it does so in style. But where Arkham Knight is familiar in terms of characters and progression, the similarities end there, as substantial new additions and fundamental tweaks to the core Batman experience set the game apart as the dark and brooding pinnacle of the Batman Arkham series. As you’ll find, this isn’t the Batman you thought you knew, and Arkham Knight is all the better off for it.
Comprised of three separate islands, the game world of Gotham is larger than any area in a Batman Arkham game before. While the skyscrapers are tall and foreboding, the streets are gloomy and dark, with each environment practically glimmering as rain crashes down at regular intervals. In addition to the outer city itself, you’ll also spend some time in some truly intriguing interior locations, like an industrialized zeppelin and, my personal favorite, an abandoned film studio complete with a hokey Wild West backdrop. It certainly helps that the framerate is smooth throughout ,and there are virtually no loading screens throughout the entire experience, save for when you die. From a technical standpoint, Arkham Knight lives up to the look and feel of a next-gen experience. In terms of the gameplay, it is clear that Rocksteady has pushed the envelope and taken risks beyond what anyone was expecting. And it all starts with the Batmobile.
As it turns out, the Batmobile functions as so much more than a speedier way to zip around the gloomy streets of Gotham. The iconic vehicle quickly becomes an essential tool in solving some of the game’s most brilliant puzzles, whether it’s using a power wench to rip off doors and access a concealed area, ejecting Batman from the driver’s seat into a soaring glide to reach a high ledge, or controlling the Batmobile remotely when Batman is tied down in a pinch. You’ll even be faced with some exhilarating race tracks, which function more as deadly twitch-reflex obstacle courses than anything else. These race tracks are something I would have been skeptical about after playing Arkham City, but their design is so inherently belonging to the Batman Arkham series that they fit right in while still propelling Arkham Knight to an amazing new level. It will be hard to imagine any future Batman game without the Batmobile.
The basis of seamlessly switching back and forth between Batman and the Batmobile opens up a whole new breadth of possibilities in Arkham Knight, which Rocksteady constantly uses to their advantage in shaking up the gameplay. Case in point: the tank, which the Batmobile can instantly morph into when the present situation requires pinpoint maneuvering or a confrontation with the titular Arkham Knight’s armed forces. I have a feeling that the tank will end up as the sole polarizing aspect among Arkham Knight players. Although the controls feel incredibly smooth and dodging incoming enemy missiles based on their projected trajectory paths is surprisingly fun, I felt there were just too many “stand and hold off the enemy forces” tank missions in both the main story and side quests. There are also a few stealth-based tank missions where you have to stalk enemy tanks and obliterate their rear weak point while remaining undetected. Even though these sections are certainly fun at times, they can start to wear on you after a while.
And that’s not all that’s new, either. Both Batman’s gadget arsenal and Batsuit abilities have been given an overhaul. Certain thugs now have the ability to pinpoint your location if you’re caught using Detective Mode for too long, a new voice modulation gadget lets you manipulate enemies and reposition them next to hazards, and the brutally effective fear takedowns are all game-changers as far as traditional predator tactics are concerned. Charged by successful silent takedowns, fear takedowns let you incapacitate enemies in quick succession when they are standing near one another. Upgrading the Bat can eventually let you string up to five stunning fear takedowns in a single chain before ducking back in the shadows to plot your next move. The highly stylized and rhythmic combat is also back and just as good as ever, and now Batman can even team up with a few trusted allies like Robin and Nightwing at certain intervals to deliver some devastating dual finishing moves.
While Scarecrow and the mysterious Arkham Knight dominate the game’s central story, a new batch of fresh and exciting side quests help boost up the overall roster of familiar Batman friends and foes. From chasing down Firefly as he tries to cover Gotham in flames, to preventing Two Face and his men from robbing banks in predator-based scenarios, to tracking down and destroying The Penguin’s weapon caches, there is never want for something to do in Gotham. But as was the case with Arkham City, The Riddler steals the spotlight once again in Arkham Knight, thanks to a wonderfully intricate and highly complex series of challenges to overcome as Batman tries to free an imprisoned Catwoman (and this includes, of course, another several hundred of those pesky and clever Riddler trophies just waiting to be found).
As if all of that somehow wasn’t enough, Arkham Knight also sees a return of the Predator and Combat Challenges from previous games. But this time, the collectively labeled AR Challenges are also comprised of obstacle-based races and tank standoff battles, among others. Most of the AR Challenges present difficult twists to scenarios previously encountered in the main campaign, and even though I’m not even close to achieving three-star completion on all of them yet, I can already tell that some will put your skills to the ultimate test.
One of the best parts of Arkham Knight is the countless plot twists and generally surprising moments that unfold as Batman desperately tries to save Gotham from Scarecrow’s toxin-fueled terror plot. To give away any of these big moments would be a cardinal sin, so I’ll just say this about what you can expect to find in store from the story department: It has been a very long time since I have been this emotionally invested in the story of a video game, and the suspenseful and mysterious identity of the Arkham Knight plays a big part in that breathless sprint to the finish line. It certainly helps that the journey to get there is nothing short of incredible.
With the game-changing introduction of the Batmobile and its arcade-like tank form, new gadgets and maneuvers that add some extra spice to both the traditional combat and predator scenerios, and an unmatched variety of gameplay that benefits from some truly expert pacing, the scope of Arkham Knight is massive and astounding. If this is truly Rocksteady’s final game in the Batman Arkham series, as the developer seems to have us believe, then what a way to go, Batman. What a way to go.
Joe Jasko is a contributing editor at Den of Geek US.