Review: Batman: Arkham Knight (PC)

From WB Games and developer Rocksteady, the mature take on the Batman universe closes with Batman: Arkham Knight. While his detective work is a bit shaky on some platforms, the fifth and final game in the console Arkham saga provides fans with a fitting end to the superhero series.

Batman: Arkham Knight (PC)
Score: 9/10

Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release Date: 6/23/2015 (USA)
Developed by Rocksteady
Published by WB Games

Spanning across five console/PC titles and three mobile-exclusives, the Batman: Arkham saga paints a grim picture of the Batman universe and its iconic villains. With the core trilogy under Rocksteady and the prequel developed by WB Games Montreal, the franchise pits the Dark Knight against some of his greatest foes and their eventual takeover of Gotham’s facilities.

Batman: Arkham Knight picks up roughly one year after the events of Batman: Arkham City. Following the death of Joker and the apprehension of Batman’s greatest villains, Gotham City’s crime is at a record-low. The lull in criminal activity allows for Batman, Oracle, Robin and Nightwing to investigate several mutation incidents spurred from Joker’s blood; before his fall in Arkham City, several samples of Joker’s mutated blood were administered to medical facilities across Gotham. Those infected by the samples are slowly becoming erratic violent caricatures of themselves, taking on several aspects of Joker’s personality.

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In their mission to develop a cure, Scarecrow emerges from an extended hiatus with the threat of exposing the East Coast to a heavily concentrated form of his Fear Toxin. A city-wide evacuation is carried out by Gotham City PD, however the mass exodus of citizens allows for Batman’s iconic villains to reclaim the city and join forces to kill him before the night ends. The gangs that serve Penguin, Riddler, Harley Quinn patrol the streets, while arson and theft are carried out by the likes of Firefly and Two-Face.

Joining Gotham’s team of super-villains is the titular character himself, the “Arkham Knight”. The Arkham Knight is a new identity of a previous Batman villain, created specifically for this title. The Arkham Knight operates as Scarecrow’s personal muscle, with a technologically advanced army at his command, and a plethora of militaristic strategies at his disposal. The masked villain harbors a deep hatred towards Batman, along with incredible knowledge of the caped-crusader’s gadgets and fighting techniques. While the Arkham Knight is a ruthless enigma for the majority of the game, hardcore Batman fans may uncover his identity long before the actual reveal. Attentive gamers may even piece together his true identity earlier than expected, as several cutscenes, gameplay events and vocal exchanges with Batman will do all but officially give the Arkham Knight’s true name.

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While the Arkham saga is known for its bleak presentation of the Batman universe, Batman: Arkham Knight now stands as the darkest game in the series. Rocksteady’s final chapter is the first game in the series to receive the “M-Mature” rating for “Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes and Violence” according to the ESRB, however pivotal moments of the main story campaign will drag players into even darker situations. Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin alters the perception of exposed characters, bringing their repressed fears or guilt to life; in some cases, the resulting hallucinations are disturbing scenes of torture or death.

Right away, veterans of the Batman: Arkham games will notice the massive scale of Arkham Knight. The latest chapter is set in a fully-explorable depiction of Gotham City, broken into three interconnected islands. The new map is roughly five times larger than the massive open-world prison of Arkham City. While there’s no Batcave or Arkham Asylum to visit, Batman: Arkham Knight gives players the ability to swoop into Bruce Wayne’s office atop Wayne Tower, and access Oracle’s hideout within the clock tower. Arkham fans will even notice that several landmarks have carried over from both Arkham City and Arkham Origins.

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The trademark free-form combat system returns for Arkham Knight, but with even more offensive options at the player’s disposal. Batman can now “Throw Counter” an enemy if the player lands a successful counter while holding any direction. Depending on the area, certain objects can act as environmental hazards, resulting in a one-hit knockout; Batman can drop overhead lights on unaware gang members, ram solders into electrical fuse boxes- even the Batmobile can be used to fire a riot-shell into an airborne enemy. Batman’s enhanced suit also grants the ability to perform a “Fear Takedown”. If the “FEAR” gauge is full, the player can stealth-takedown a maximum of five enemies in a single bout. Once depleted, the Fear gauge can be recharged by committing Silent Takedowns on enemies.

The other heroes of the Batman universe will come to the player’s aide in select missions, allowing the player the ability to swap between characters at will. Once the combo meter reaches a certain point- this can be lowered with upgrades- Batman and the second hero can perform an assisted takedown of an enemy. Once the attack is completed, the player then resumes play as the other character. While Batman: Arkham City allowed players to roam the compound as Catwoman, none of the additional characters in Batman: Arkham Knight are available outside of their respective missions. Robin and Nightwing only appear during their story missions and side campaigns; Catwoman is locked away behind the primary Riddler Challenges, but is still unavailable for free-play after completion. Harley Quinn and Red Hood are both playable DLC characters, but are strictly limited to their brief story modes.

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Several of Batman’s gadgets and abilities return from the previous games, many of which are immediately accessible from the start. Players may be discouraged by the fact that many returning perks and gadgets are locked by story-progression, and may not be available until the later phases of the story; the “Remote Electrical Charge” is a prime example, as it isn’t available for use until the final chapters of the primary campaign. Stationed among the familiar items is the new “Voice Synthesizer” gadget, capable of emulating the voices of other key characters. This new gadget can be used to unlock voice-activated doors, or give commands to soldiers and gang members; Batman can mislead enemies to open doors, or search near potential environmental hazards for a quick knockout.

Gliding high above the Gotham skyline may provide the same freedom found in past Arkham games, however Arkham Knight‘s primary focus of transportation lies within the debut of the Batmobile. Departing from the more traditional model featured in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the new Batmobile is heavily influenced by the “Tumbler” from the Christopher Nolan “Batman” films. Even with the added bulk, the Arkham Knight Batmobile is agile enough to navigate the complex streets and underground passages of Gotham City. Players can rocket through the city and launch off ramps with the Afterburner boost, and make those tight drifting turns with a controlled tap of the handbrake.

If players ever get tired of driving around in lower-Gotham, Batman can eject himself skyward at high velocity; launching from the Batmobile catapults Batman into the air at the same speed as a full boost from the grapnel-gun. Alternatively, players can summon the Batmobile to their location, so long as they are standing near a road. For added style, if Batman is airborne, players can look at the ground and choose a location to summon the Batmobile; Batman will dive-bomb into the cockpit of the still-moving vehicle.

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Unlike previous versions of Batman’s signature ride, Arkham Knight‘s Batmobile can transform into a battle-ready tank. “Battle Mode” is activated whenever the player holds the designated button, be it keyboard or controller. Speed is sacrificed for raw power, as the Batmobile erects a mounted cannon and a machine gun; unlockable upgrades include homing rockets, an EMP blast, and the ability to hack enemy drones. The Batmobile’s tank formation can also side-strafe, use sonar to locate underground objects, and utilize an alternate form of “Detective Mode” to track driving patterns. In situations where the Batclaw might not have enough power to move an object, the Batmobile’s Battle Mode is equipped with a winch; the winch can be tethered to movable objects, or electrified to power certain generators. The winch is even powerful enough to hold the Batmobile itself, allowing players to drive across some vertical surfaces.

The Batmobile is a welcome gameplay mechanic to the series, however Batman: Arkham Knight stands on the fine line between using it as a new mechanic for optimal use, and an outright forced gimmick. Street wars between the Batmobile and the Arkham Knight’s army of tank-drones begin as an intense action sequence in the streets of Gotham, but later end up feeling like a chore or a roadblock placed before the next chapter of the story. The player is often tasked with solving puzzles that involve clearing areas for the Batmobile to pass; many of these puzzles or situations are frustratingly blocked by story progression. The previously mentioned Riddler challenges are back in full force, however every challenge in Batman’s set requires the Batmobile in some way, be it a race or vehicular cog in the machine.

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Anyone currently unfamiliar with the core Arkham series from Rocksteady and WB Games Montreal will quickly discover that these titles are much darker and more graphic in nature compared to their early-media counterparts. The franchise is closer to the Christopher Nolan trilogy and the newer comic book sagas, compared to the Saturday morning cartoons and the early days of Burt Ward and Adam West. The Gotham City of Batman: Arkham Knight isn’t the typical comic book playground for heroes and villains; it’s a city overrun with violence, at the center of an apocalyptic disaster at the hands of a deranged chemist.

Gotham and the characters within are brought to life with a twisted and grotesque slant, while still holding some sense of realism. The Penguin is no longer a tuxedo-sporting umbrella enthusiast with a monocle; players are treated to a ruthless millionaire crime-lord with a broken bottle embedded over an eye. Harley Quinn is now an acrobatic killer, equipped with plenty of Joker-esque toys for Batman and the cops of Gotham; her DLC campaign even provides a deeper look into her troubled psyche. Gotham City may have been established with Arkham Origins, however Arkham Knight gives the once-bustling city a sense of life, with individual districts and cultural areas; players can drive through the red-light district one minute, and soar by Gotham’s TV studio headquarters the next.

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It’s unfortunate to see an end to the core saga, however Batman: Arkham Knight completes the Rocksteady trilogy on the highest note of the series. Players coming directly from Arkham City may be a little disheartened by the inability to control other characters outside of specific missions, however the new Dual Play mechanic and several other additions leverage the absence of extra free-roam characters. The Batmobile and all of its tricks add an extra thrill with countless chases and tank battles, though if not forced at times.

Rocksteady’s M-rated take on the series dares to send players to dark places they might not expect from a Batman game, with the most compelling title in the entire Arkham franchise.

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