Second Opinion – Batman: Arkham Knight

First things first: My time in Gotham was powered by a Playstation 4. The experience was smooth with no crashes and only slight frame rate drops during driving. The PC version however is still a mess and Warner Brothers should be ashamed of themselves for delivering such a product. 

This is it: the final chapter in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series. It is bigger, darker and more complex than any previous entry, but is it a better game for it? After all, I personally enjoyed the less open, more guided experience of the original Arkham Asylum more than the open world of Arkham City.
Before we delve deeper into Arkham Knight however, heed this warning: The following words include a major spoiler for Arkham City and you would be well served to play the previous games in the franchise. They’ve aged well enough and this one does not bother too much with explaining certain basic concepts of the Arkham style gameplay. The game starts you with most of your gadgets and combat moves from Arkham City, delivering a strategically deep experience from the get go. It works great for returning players, but you might have a harder time if this is your first time under the Bat-cowl and Bat-cape.

You may be not allowed to text and drive, but nobody said anything about Skype.
How do you make a good Batman: Arkham game without The Joker? You don’t. In fact, the biggest smile in the universe is the first thing that greets you and although it isn’t exactly the liveliest, you know, with the Joker being dead and all, this first scene is an outstanding piece of storytelling. There is so much foreshadowing and mystery hidden inside this minute long showcase of intelligent and suspenseful intermedia craftsmanship, that you could easily fill a half hour long discussion with it. The song choice, the interaction, how your mind fills the blanks, the classic Clockwork Orange zoom. It’s a powerful start.The story set-up is easy. After the events of Arkham City and The Jokers death, Gotham experiences a time of calm. In a world of super-villains, this can never be anything other than a deception however and so it comes as no surprise that soon after the game starts, Gotham comes under threat and gets evacuated, leaving us with an empty city as our crime fighting playground.
You weren’t expecting a living and breathing city, did you? If so, you’ll be in for a disappointment. Every now and then you’ll encounter a police car chasing someone, but otherwise it’s mostly thugs and some plants that make up the biological diversity in Gotham. Can’t have Batman accidentally kill some innocent bystander while he travels around in one of the new additions to the game: The Batmobile.

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I'm pretty sure at least 2 people died during this scene ...when I did a burnout on their faces

Behind the chaos stands Scarecrow, acting as the main antagonist, of sorts. His promotion to bad’un #1 didn’t result in a more fleshed out character however. In fact, he feels more shallow than back in the first game and while there are some cool gameplay moments spun from his inclusion, it’s nowhere near as unpredictable as his appearance in Arkham Asylum.
This is not without reason. Scarecrow has two more hidden roles in this story. One becomes very obvious early on through the side effect his fear toxin has on Batman. The second one is to keep you guessing, questioning the “reality” Batman experiences.
In a way, he is acting as a sort of psychiatrist to Batman, and the fact that, despite him being the direct threat to the city, he’s still only a delivery tool for the more intricate bits of story, is a clear testament to the writers understanding of the world and the intelligence that went into crafting this final adventure of Batman. Sadly, this doesn’t help Scarecrow’s underdeveloped character fill the main antagonist shoes and urgency in dealing with him is something that you probably won’t experience much of.

Looks like the Green Arrow started using soldiers as arrows. (Queen Industries is the company run by Oliver Queen, aka. Green Arrow)
And so we set the stage for our second antagonist: The Arkham Knight. Developing a good original villain for such a beloved and long running franchise like Batman is no easy task. Thankfully, the Knight makes the mark, if only on the merit of being believable inside the universe and his potential. Like Scarecrow, he’s a bit flat. Unlike Dr. Crane, his character is shrouded in mystery and as a result doesn’t suffer as much from it.
Still: The reveal of who’s behind the mask? Underwhelming. The person beneath it? No surprise. The timing of the reveal? Not working in its favor. It’s astonishing when you think about how little time the game spends on a character whom it gives three or four boss fights. The Knight is great as a character concept, but there just isn’t a whole lot of character in him at the end of a game that wears his name.

I'm sure some people got a decent sized laugh out of this
The rest of the villain lineup is again diverse, featuring classic Batman characters like the Penguin and Two-Face, previously in the Arkhamverse featured ones like Firefly and Hush, and even Man-Bat gets a bit of screen time. The cast isn’t bad, but their treatment as characters again suffers. Looking for some extended one on one on one time with Two-Face? No luck. Want to explore the Penguins psyche? You’ll probably be better served watching La Marche de l'empereur.
Still, the way they are sewn into the underlying open world game play fabric is to be commended. Every villain serves as a master of ceremonies for a unique set of side missions. Be it stopping Two-Faces goons from robbing banks, incl. an interesting twist on the stealth mechanics, beating up Penguins henchmen with Nightwing, doing some detective work to discover who’s behind a serial murder case, or chasing down Firefly in your Batmobile. All of those do a great job at keeping the game from becoming stale. A special shout-out goes to Hush, who has an amazing role to play in this game, easily beating out everyone else when it comes to twists.

He might be rich, but money can't buy artistic skill. This is not what a Bat looks like, Bruce.
But it’s not all good when it comes to the side missions. While most villains get mission structures that suit their actual role, The Riddler, a character I even enjoy when he’s played by Jim Carrey, now gets to build race tracks for the Batmobile?! What the f***, Rocksteady? You already included Lex Corp. Give them a bigger role and don’t piss on The Riddler this much. He was already busy enough with his trophies, which actually leads us to the next point:
The collectibles? Screw that. Even if we don’t count the over the top amount of Riddler Trophies (and yes, you need to collect all for the complete ending), there are too many watch towers to “climb”, mines to destroy and guarded checkpoints to clear. Even worse: new ones spawn throughout the story and they don’t show up on the map at all unless you’ve found them previously, or the “police” discovered them (which happens about once every full moon or so). It took me about an hour to find the last 2 mines and it was the second worst time I had in the game.

Solution: The number of collectibles in the game
Despite all of this, the open world design works better than it did in Arkham City. It’s still far from perfect, but no longer does the City feel like a fancy traversable mission select screen, linking together separate levels. Instead, it becomes the stage for many meaningful encounters, even serving as an active and competent story teller at times. This is supported by a shift in perspective. Arkham City saw you mostly traveling via the sky, looking down. The inclusion of the Batmobile changes that to the ground level, at least in theory.
Since this is now the third time I mention the Batmobile, maybe it’s time to talk a bit more about it. After all, it’s the biggest addition to the game and the biggest factor of complaint for some that aren’t me. People who clearly don’t have as refined a taste as I do. *cough*Cody*cough*
The Batmobile consists of two flavors put into one sexy package. First off, the traditional role: The Bat-car. It’s fast and gets you around. You’ll need some time until you’ve mastered the steering, but once you do, it’s the fastest option to get from point A to point B. I suspect that Rocksteady is using some sort of guided steering, which makes it feel rather awkward at first, but I never really had any problems with it besides one instance that we’ll discuss shortly. The most offensive thing about it is the engine sound. It’s like a mid 90’s Honda Civic motor stuck into a modern supercar.Depending on controller configuration, pressing/holding a button switches you into mode of operation #2: The Bat-Tank. That thing is a beast …on a vegan diet. Keeping with the spirit of Batman, you are of course not allowed to kill. Thank god the Arkham Knight is so technically advanced and uses remote controlled tank drones. Why he never thought about strapping some goons on those tanks remains a mystery.

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I wonder how Batman would have handled that situation, if he couldn't just blow up the tanks.

Handling is completely different to that of the car, allowing you full movement control on a 2D plane. This not only enables you to master parallel parking and travel safely through trickier parts of the world, but also annihilates any challenge when it comes to tank combat. Whenever the Arkham Knight sends his mechanized forces, you’ll easily strafe out of the very clearly telegraphed attacks. It basically becomes a game of “don’t touch the glowing line”. Dodge, shoot, repeat, use a special ability (insta-kill rockets, EMP, and the drone equivalent of a charm spell).
It’s a fun, mindless, almost zen inducing game play loop every now and then, breaking up the “monotony” of punching bad guys, but tends to outstay its welcome. Especially later on, when you deal with up to 50 enemy tanks, spawning in waves. At this point, it would have needed some deeper mechanics. And don’t get me started on the stupidity of the pseudo-stealth “boss fights” you have with that thing. It’s fun once, not 3 or 4 times.
But that alone possibly can’t be where the frustration about the Batmobile stems from, right? No, most people would probably still be fine with that. The real problem is that it’s everywhere, often feeling shoehorned in. You use the tank for platforming puzzles. Do I need to say more? It also doesn’t help that the worst parts in the game all happen while you are behind the wheel.
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Not sure if Rocksteady planned for things like this, but it's still great if you pull it off.

My $*#& experience was during a main story mission, when you basically use it as driving bait for a giant “worm”. This comes with a change in camera perspective, which completely threw me off, and insta-death. Couple this with atrocious load times, and suddenly your controller morphs into a batarang flying against the wall.
It’s not all bad however. Again, driving works well, the change of perspective is nice (would have loved a real cockpit view though), tank combat is fun every now and then, there are some fun riddles and challenges revolving around it, and you will experience some great scripted and emergent gameplay moments thanks to it.
The rest of the game is everything you’ve loved about Arkham City, but better. The stealth is depper, not only because you get several new tools and traversal options, but also thanks to enemies now using incineration grenades, tracking mines, drones and more. The brawling a bit more diverse, thanks to a couple new units. It’s an evolution of the previous formula, which isn’t taking any risks and doesn’t leave any room for disappointment as a result.
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The FEAR takedowns are new to the series and allow you to take out multiple opponents. Nobody knows how they work, but the guy at the end shows that quantum physics are probably involved somehow.

Personally, I still prefer Asylum’s casual spin on the Metroidvania structure. Pacing and open world aren’t easy to combine. Rocksteady’s remedy comes in the form of story arcs that are almost episodic in nature. Short, sometimes self-contained events, only revealing a tiny bit of the overarching picture. It works at first, easing you into the changed landscape of the now desolate Gotham City, but it completely destroys the impact some of the bigger events in the game have. Events that can’t be finished inside one of those “episodes”. Only once are you not able to complete your secondary missions during a multi-part episode. It completely destroys any feeling of urgency and therefore suspense, and it never really picks up speed until the end of the main story, which it then destroys again by obfuscating your chance for reflection through inserting the equivalent of a fetch quest before the actual credits (and I’m not talking about the Riddler Trophies you need for the full ending).
That end bit however is probably one of the best pieces of Batman fiction ever. Advertisements tell us, Batman: Arkham Knight is about becoming the Bat. It’s not. It’s about understanding the Bat. Understanding what effect he has on his enemies. I can’t go into too much detail without dropping some major spoilers, so let’s just say that I now share a very deep emotional connection with the super-villains of Gotham. I understand their fear, because I’ve experienced it. While most of the game itself may “only” be an improved version of Arkham City with tank sections, this last stretch of the main story, which completely turns the game inside out, makes it an outstanding adventure worth your time.
It’s not the best entry in the series, but still the second best Batman game ever. Full recommendation from me.

For a more in-depth analysis of the gameplay mechanics and an opposite point of view, make sure to hop by Cody’s review.