When it was announced that the Batmobile would be making its début in Arkham Knight, there was much skepticism amongst fans of the Arkham series. While the promise of commanding such a capable vehicle and battling an army of tanks sounded like a blast on its own, the concern resided with how this method of transportation would be integrated into and possibly change the critically-acclaimed Arkham formula – a formula that's primarily been about face-to-face and fist-to-fist interactions between Batman and his greatest foes. After spending many sleepless nights chasing 100% story completion, we're delighted to report that developer Rocksteady Studios has rounded out its Arkham trilogy with a finale that's so outstanding that a few snags in the cape can't keep it from soaring with the year's best games.
Arkham Knight takes place on Halloween, as the creepier-than-ever Scarecrow unleashes his signature fear toxin on a diner in Gotham City and promises there's more chaos to come. This leads to a city-wide evacuation, leaving the criminals and villains in control of the streets. Working with Scarecrow is the mysterious Arkham Knight, a Batman-like figure holding a very special grudge against The Caped Crusader. In the interest of keeping the review spoiler-free, those are all the details we care to share. Just know that some regular faces from the Arkham series make appearances, and there are a few twists – a major one occurs early on that affects the way the story is delivered – that players should experience for themselves.
Unfortunately, the plot has a few issues that keep it from having the same impact as the events of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. There are some great, memorable moments sure to elicit a strong reaction from all Bat-fans, but there are also a number of situations where a villain is underutilized, a plot point is introduced without much exposition, or a resolution is more ambiguous than it should be. Thankfully, despite the occasional narrative let-down, we were highly entertained and intrigued throughout the entirety of the game, truly feeling invested in the role of The Dark Knight and the fate of his city and friends. This is because Gotham City is everything we wanted Arkham City to be, and the inclusion of the Batmobile plays a huge part in that.
Some people might say that the Batmobile is forced on them too frequently, and they're not necessarily wrong. The reality, however, is that it introduces a new dynamic into the mix, one that doesn't detract from what makes this series so spectacular – it adds to it. There are still missions based only on stealth, and there are still missions based only on hand-to-hand combat. The difference is that there are now missions based only on the Batmobile, as well as plenty of missions that incorporate all of the aforementioned elements in equal measure, often in really clever ways. And when it comes to navigating Gotham, players have the option of gliding through the sky in typical fashion, or blazing through the streets in a beastly vehicle that morphs – Transformers-style – into a tank at the press of a button.
One of the best things about the implementation of the Batmobile is that it's not merely treated as a mode of transportation; with a few abilities of its own, the machine is often purposed like a gadget on Batman's utility belt. In fact, one of the options on the utility belt is to remote operate the Batmobile, which allows various kinds of support when the odds aren't in Batman's favor – which is often. There are also challenges and puzzles that require Batman to exit the Batmobile, with him and the vehicle each serving their own role. We'll admit that we weren't sold going in, but it wasn't long before we fell hard for all that horsepower, as well as the action and depth that come with it.
The design and layout of the open-world version of Gotham City is impeccable. The roads are wide enough to accommodate the Batmobile, which cuts smoothly around the sharpest of corners (especially in tank mode), and the map doesn't feel overwhelming when grappling and gliding from objective to objective. Honestly, the city is the perfect size for the mechanics it's designed around. When the vast number of missions and activities are taken into account, as well as the dense presence of street thugs and other predators that wander about, there's literally something to do on every street corner. It might take a little bit of story progression for these events to begin popping up and thickening out, but when they do, the city really comes to life. It's like a playground dedicated to crime-fighting, one that makes it tough to set down the controller.
The type of activities to take part in range from neutralizing watchtowers, disarming bombs while hordes of enemy tanks attempt to prevent your efforts, and racing through the streets at top speed to chase and destroy APCs. Many of these missions sort of have a checklist feel to them and add little to the plot, but most of them are more substantial than similar activities in other open-world games. Furthermore, there are AR challenges that can be unlocked, and these present some steep challenges based on Batman's abilities and tech. But of course the story-driven missions are the meatiest of the lot, and it's within these areas that the agenda becomes much more complex and satisfying. A few of the Batmobile-centric missions can miss the mark and cause aggravation, but by and large, it's an immensely enjoyable campaign.
Fans of superhero team-ups will be happy to know that there are times when Batman joins up with either Robin, Nightwing, or Catwoman, each of whom are playable at the press of a button. The playstyles and moves of these characters are essentially the same as Batman's, so switching between them in the heat of battle rarely results in a missed beat. It's an addition that might appear to be largely superficial, but there's actually more to it than that. By creating moments for Batman to interact with the Bat family (even through video communications with Oracle, Alfred, and Lucius Fox), there's the constant reminder that there's more at stake than protecting faceless citizens; there's a human being inside of that iconic suit, and he's responsible for a mini empire of heroes and supporters that put themselves in harm's way each and every day because of what he's created. This makes each pending confrontation with a scheming foe feel that much more urgent.
Speaking of scheming foes, the Riddler returns as his persistently pesky self, and with him comes a sizeable variety of conundrums to crack. In story-mission form, Mr. E. Nygma presents elaborate traps and puzzles that can be solved by utilizing both Batman and Catwoman, as well as racetracks that serve as obstacle courses for the Batmobile. However, when exploring the city, there are a ton of Riddler trophies to collect, targets to find and destroy, and riddles to solve. In all, there are 243 of these challenges to complete, and they're mandatory if you want to view the game's final ending. While we appreciate that playing to 100% completion is rewarded in a meaningful way, this decision is surely going to anger anyone that hasn't been fond of the Riddler content in past games. Considering these puzzles are more brilliant than ever, we didn't mind – but we know that won't be the case for everyone.
Combat hasn't changed much in Arkham Knight, as Batman relies on the power of his fists and his loaded gadget belt to knock out his adversaries, who are more formidable than ever. One minute it's almost effortless to dispense consecutive punches throughout a sea of thugs, but the next be overwhelmed by the swarming presence of numerous enemy variations, each requiring specific responses and interactions. Whether it be dodging knife attacks with perfectly-timed counters, double tapping A to flip over a charging enemy, or using gadgets to remove weapons from the equation, there are many different types of hazards for which you need to be prepared. It's all about crowd management, and remaining in control during the toughest of battles depends on an effective use of skills and resources.
When it comes to stealth, Rocksteady have added a few new layers to provide more freedom when going up against a room full of intimidating enemies. Whether it be hacking a number of objects in the environment to create a distraction, using a voice synthesizer to lure enemies into a trap, or diving into vents on the ceiling to almost instantaneously enter the ductwork below the floor, it's like the game is saying, "Hey, we gave you this utility belt full of useful gadgets, so use them however you want to get past this room." And with some enemies now having access to remote-controlled drones and medical supplies for reviving fallen friends, these rooms are more volatile and dangerous than ever. So even though stealth might appear the same on the surface, it's actually been rounded out and feels fully realized, a sentiment that applies to the Arkham Knight package as a whole.
It would be remiss of us if we didn't acknowledge the technical proficiency and performance of the game, which has clearly received obsessive levels of polish. During 30-40 hours of gameplay, we never experienced any notable problems in the open-world environment. It's not uncommon for a slight drop in frame rate to occur when driving the Batmobile around with the pedal to the floor, but it's such a minor, over-before-you-know-it occurrence that it never becomes a distraction. And when the setting is as visually stunning as Gotham is, with its distinct gothic architecture and the kind of finer details that make it feel lived in, the overall stability truly is impressive. Considering there are so many games launching on modern hardware with a litany of issues, Rocksteady deserves praise for getting it right.
If we have any closing criticism, though, it's that we would've liked to see the return of the deeper, pattern-based boss battles from prior instalments. But there's so much going on in this game that it's not often you have time to dwell on what's not there. By refining each of Batman's signature mechanics and introducing the game-changing Batmobile, Rocksteady have nearly perfected what they started in Arkham City. Should the cowl be handed over to another studio to continue this franchise, it would be a wise decision to take a break from Gotham and possibly The Dark Knight himself. There's little that could be done to improve what's been accomplished here, especially in this particular universe. Next stop ... Blüdhaven?
By incorporating the Batmobile into the mix and tastefully building on established mechanics, Rocksteady Studios have simultaneously freshened up and rounded out the open-world formula of Arkham City, making Arkham Knight the most complete Batman experience to date. Even though the story isn't knit together as tightly as it could've been, the gameplay is so explosive, varied, and rock solid that there's rarely a moment fit for brooding. If you've ever wanted to truly feel like the Batman, this is likely the closest you'll get. Enable your detective vision and seek out a copy of Arkham Knight right away.