Published Jul 22, 2015Arkham Knight is basically the Days of Future Past of this beloved Batman videogame franchise, a critically acclaimed return to form thanks to the return of the original creator. In this case, it's British studio Rocksteady, and though the previous game Arkham Origins wasn't nearly as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand, it wasn't a particularly well-received prequel, while Knight is considered the true third and final entry. It's a spectacular conclusion to the Arkham arc, a series that singlehandedly rescued the reputation of not only superhero games but all licensed games.
Once upon a time, licensed games were the worst, because lazy studios were content to let name recognition sell the games. There were a few exceptions, but basically the rule of awful established by Atari's infamous E.T. debacle (a game so bad unsold copies were literally buried in the desert) remained intact until Arkham Asylum came out in 2009.
Then came Arkham City four years ago, and it was even better. Knight doesn't quite continue that upward trajectory, but it is still an impressive accomplishment. Even though writer Paul Dini, a cult fave for his work on Batman: The Animated Series in the '90s, is no longer scripting the story, the narrative continues to have an import missing from too many other games.
Rather than just throwing a rogues' gallery of supervillains at the screen, there's an actual arc here, complete with plot twists that make sense (if perhaps too obviously for all-knowing fanboys and fangirls). Then there's the film-grade art direction, cut-scenes and voice actors, including Fringe's John Noble and Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks.
That said, Rocksteady really need to work on their female characters; the main storyline resorts to a damsel-in-distress twist that's beyond played out in this day and age. Meanwhile, both female-focused prequel DLCs — the free Harley Quinn add-on and the post-launch "Batgirl: A Matter of Family" — are short and dull, lacking the attention and care that the main game received.
Set a year after Joker's death at the end of Arkham City, the game begins with a Halloween scheme by Scarecrow to douse Gotham in fear toxin. He's teamed up with the titular Arkham Knight, a militarized mercenary Batman-type who knows a suspicious amount about our brooding hero. The city is largely evacuated in light of the threat, while the villains face off against Commissioner Gordon's GCPD and the Bat Family, including Barbra "Oracle" Gordon, Robin, Nightwing and Catwoman.
The open world of Gotham itself is about five times larger than the open-air prison section we knew as Arkham City, though the enhanced grappling and new gliding mechanic makes it feel like you're practically flying as you cross the skyscraper-riddled gothic cityscape.
Unfortunately, too often you get locked into your Batmobile. That's the biggest new franchise feature, and it can be insanely frustrating, especially if you're not into driving games. It's fine enough when driving from point A to point B, as they've disabled crashes so as to not overly slow you down. But when stuck in the Batmobile during boss battle combat, it can get tedious, especially if you saved your upgrades for yourself.
The counter-based combat has a few new touches — like the fear takedown, which allows you to slow time to knock out multiple minions, and dual play, which lets you jump between characters like a Lego game — but the game mostly follows the "If it ain't broke" philosophy. That leaves it feeling a bit formulaic, if only because it's been copied by so may other games in recent years.
What really sets the game apart from its predecessors is scale. The now-gen juice has allowed Rocksteady to design a sprawling metropolis that feels as real as comic fans have always imagined. The well-plotted storytelling pulls you in, yes, but often it's even better to just free-roam the neon-soaked, rain-spattered and side mission-filled city, stopping street crime, beating up B-grade bad guys, playing detective and solving (too many of) the Riddler's riddles.
Having been raised on jet-black Bat books like Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth, Rocksteady's work realizing that dark, twisted vision is one I admire.
Still, I'm glad they're moving on.
In the wake of Christopher Nolan's humourlessness infecting the entire DC Cinematic Universe, it would be nice to see the next Batman game ditch the grotesque grim-dark shtick — Knight opens with us pressing cremate and watching the Joker's body burn — and go for a more stylized film noir.
Or maybe just reboot the original art deco animated series as a game — hand the creative reigns to Dini and his old boss Bruce Timm. The cartoon's voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have been voicing Arkham's dark knight and clown prince of crime all along, so there's even connective tissue between the adaptations.
But in the meantime, we can take pleasure in Rocksteady sticking their landing and hope that their triumphant trilogy will force their competitors to also up their game.
Note: There is also a PC version but it was so buggy the game was pulled from stores. (Rocksteady Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive)