Fried Take - "Batman: Arkham Knight" (2015)
(For the purposes of this review, I will not be reviewing any of the retailer-exclusive or preorder DLC. While it's all very enjoyable, it could have easily been a part of the complete package, and I won't justify it with any more space than this blurb, on principle.)
The Arkham series isn't that fresh anymore. When Arkham Asylum came out, it was a burst of creativity and a testament to how licensed games could actually work if done right. And when Arkham City was released, it took the established framework and used it to make one of the definitive open-world titles of the last generation of consoles. But now? Times have changed. Origins was very solid, but not exceptional, and Blackgate barely worth mentioning. The basic gameplay of the franchise has been aped so many times that it now feels tired. And grim, dark, brooding superheroes are becoming a bit passe. The times have changed since 2009.
For better or worse, Rocksteady has changed with them.
To my surprise, Arkham Knight manages to pull off the unthinkable and avoid the pits of sequelitis. At no point during my several, several hours of playtime have I stopped to think that this was more of the same. In fact, I'm duly impressed with how different everything is. While the basic ideas of combat and gadgetry usage are mostly intact, roughly everything else has been changed. To an extent, it almost feels like Rocksteady saw how much of a retread Origins was, then decided to push Knight into almost absurdly different territory for the sake of being original. "A" for effort, I suppose.
Thing is, that effort actually pays off more often than not. It starts at the most basic level: the narrative. While the story itself feels somewhat conventional, the way in which it's told is easily the most interesting I've seen in a game this year. What should be a formulaic, "Batman has to stop a big bad bomb and take out a big bad guy" experience turns into something that delves into psychological horror. This is a Batman that's clearly traumatized from all the horrible stuff he's been through, and it's starting to get to him. Add in some of antagonist Scarecrow's nerve gas and you've got a volatile, damaged antihero whose quest for justice is constantly thwarted by his own mind. That is to say, the way he sees the world isn't quite how it actually is.
And this is what makes Arkham Knight so particularly effective in the story department. Time and space start bending in the most bizarre ways possible. Players will pan the camera around Batman, then back around only to find that the room has changed, or that a new character is standing there. People that die may or not actually be dead, and major narrative events might not actually be happening. After the introductory bits, Rocksteady's swan song for the Dark Knight turns into an often unnerving descent into the darkest corners of its protagonist's mind. Players are simply yanked along for the ride, at the mercy of what's one of the darkest Batman stories ever told.
Of course, no story is perfect, and Arkham Knight's certainly has some glaring flaws. Some twists end up getting blatantly telegraphed and dampen the surprise. The cast is a bit bloated and ends up feeling packed full of characters that don't necessarily need to be there. And, most importantly to me, every female member of the cast is put in some sort of captivity at some point. Some might take issue with me pointing this out, but it needs to be stated. The source material has some really interesting female characters, and the way all of them get represented here is sorely lacking. I won't go into much more details at risk of spoiling anything, but it really ground my gears to see some of my favorite characters only get utilized as lazy motivation for Batman to do a thing.
That isn't to say that the overall story in Arkham Knight isn't good, because good lord, it's excellent. Despite those particular flaws that stuck like a sore thumb, I quite enjoy the main narrative brunt of the game, and think it's one of the better ones put on the market this year. Add on the fact that every side mission has its own sort of important narrative, and you've got a lot of content to sink your teeth into. Overall, from a narrative enjoyment standpoint, this is definitely a solid win.
Rocksteady innovated the brawler with Asylum, but with so many other games aping the simple, fast-paced combat of that title these days, does it hold up here? Surprisingly, yes. The developer has gotten the formula down to a near-art. It's still basically a series of intuitive, timed button presses, but the accompanying visuals, different sets of abilities and new varieties of enemies make things much more interesting. Also helping is the introduction of other characters into the mix. Playing through a good portion of the various missions, I've taken control of 5-6 unique characters, all of whom play a little differently. This keeps the combat interesting, snappy, and full of different elements that managed to take me by surprise.
Stealth segments are also a vast improvement over what they have been before. In previous entries, stealth has been required at times, but often felt like it progressed in a very closed, linear sort of way. In Arkham Knight, it's become an impressively dynamic system. Enemies are constantly chattering, always adapting to whatever strategy you're adopting. They'll bomb vents, rip floor panels up, and use sonar. They can tell if you hit somebody from above or at ground level, even if they didn't see you do it. Players have to use every ability at their disposal in order to stay hidden in the large stealth playgrounds the game provides. To be honest, this never feels like you're playing a stealth game; it feels like you're trying to hide from real, thinking human beings who start learning your every move. Of course, there are some fun and funny little things players can exploit to easily win, but the illusion of actual intelligence is fairly palpable here.
Any semblance of realism goes out the window with the introduction of the Batmobile, however. Critics are divided on this addition and I'm going to be up front: this is my favorite part of Arkham Knight outside of the story, hands down. To be blunt, the Batmobile is one of the most improbable, stupid vehicles ever put in a video game, and doesn't behave according to any rational laws of physics... in the best way possible. Steel beams crumble like cardboard by just bumping the thing into them. It can drive upside down with minimal acceleration. It's often used for environmental puzzles, such as scaling a wall with a cable or counterbalancing a scale to make a ramp. If it isn't obvious already, I'm trying to say that the Batmobile is used in the most counter-intuitive, hammy ways possible, and I honestly can't get enough of it.
But wait, there's more! The Batmobile also transforms into an agile tank for some of the game's most fun sequences. The streets of Gotham are filled with unmanned drone tanks, and the only way to take them out is by blowing them to pieces with machine guns and shells. Player have to boost out of the way of incoming shots, fire off barrages of missiles, and just wreak general havoc among enemies. It's some of the most fun I've had in a vehicle in a game since Grand Theft Auto V hit shelves.
I appreciate what the Batmobile adds to the experience because it reminds players that they're playing a video game. Too many games these days try to be realistic and gritty and bleak. Here, things go from zero to stupid in one second as soon as you step into the Batmobile. Things careen through the air while the vehicle flips and bounces without abandon and any semblance of immersion goes out the window. And I mean that in a good way. If I want to drive a car, I'll go drive a car. If I want to jump a car/tank hybrid between skyscrapers while it flips for no reason and is also firing missiles, I'll play a video game. And it's not like it controls poorly. It's totally accurate to every twitch of your finger. The Batmobile is some of the most fun I've had in a virtual vehicle in way too long, and the sheer variety of stupid stuff you can do in it never ceases to bring a smile to my face.
Despite the funny break in realism with the Batmobile, however, the visuals never cease to arrest and pull you right into the action. In terms of graphical fidelity and performance, Arkham Knight might be the most impressive game of this generation so far. Character's faces are convincing without treading into Uncanny Valley territory, as are different fabrics and textures. It's striking. The environments are also impressive, in particular the billowing water that surrounds all of the islands of Gotham, and the practically lifelike clouds of poison toxin that get shown off later on in the game. What I don't like is that this is still a game that mostly takes place in the dark, and the color scheme is relatively limited. It's arresting overall, yes, but I guess I'm sick of that color scheme in modern games, and am spoiled by the several dozen hours I've put into both Splatoon and The Witcher 3 in the past few weeks, both of which are very colorful. Still, Arkham Knight is an impressive technical achievement overall, and even more so considering that the frame rate practically never dips while rendering everything.
Once last thing to note is the fantastic voice acting. And I do mean fantastic. As in, premature shoe-in for several, several voice acting awards. Kevin Conroy returns as Batman, and carries the character with a nuance and gravity that we haven't seen before. Troy Baker is does a stellar job as Arkham Knight, and this is speaking as somebody who's a bit sick of the guy, But, by and far, the two scenestealers are John Noble as Scarecrow and Mark Hamill as Joker. The former is a haunting, vindictive sociopath with an approach that's horrifically methodical, and Noble does an eerily good job nailing it down without coming across as hammy or forced. And Hamill... well, what else is there to say about him that hasn't been said? The man's a legend, and his turns as the Clown Prince of Crime here are among his best and most psychotic (mostly thanks to the M rating.) While I won't say what capacity he appears in outside of "flashbacks," rest assured that you're in for a real treat.
A "real treat" is probably the best description of Batman: Arkham Knight I can think of. There are some niggling complaints that prevent me from gushing praise of it being "the most next-gen game ever" (which doesn't even mean anything,) but overall, it's just straight-up fun. It's a blast zipping around rooftops as Batman. It's a joy getting totally blindsided and startled by visual trickery straight out of something like P.T. (RIP.) It's pure dumb fun doing literally anything with the Batmobile. Arkham Knight has some issues, sure, but for a AAA game to come out, be functional, and most of all, not feel like contrived, focus-tested garbage... well, that's pretty great.
Trashy DLC practices and narrative hiccups aside, Batman: Arkham Knight does a skillful job of ending one of gaming's most popular story arcs and avoiding any serious feelings of "sameness" brought on by being the fourth game in a franchise. Rocksteady is clearly one of the the best devs in the business, and I'm looking forward to whatever new IP they work on next.