Review: Batman: Arkham Knight - Batman Doesn't Kill; Really, Please Believe Me!
Batman: Arkham Knight
Warner Bros. Interactive
Xbox One, PS4
Review copy provided by the publisher
Batman: Arkham Knight is finally here, bringing what is supposed to be the final adventure of the Dark Knight developed by Rocksteady Studios. Batman: Arkham Origins lost a bit of the signature luster created by the series’ original development studio, but did Rocksteady manage to bring it back alongside its beloved brand?
The story begins with a rather predictable event: something happens, turning Gotham City into a ghost town governed by criminals and anarchy. Apparently there can’t be a Batman: Arkham game in which civilians aren’t first encouraged or forced to get the hell out of the way. This seems to be a steel-clad rule of the series, and one that I personally would have liked to see broken, but it simply wasn’t to be.
This time around it’s the Scarecrow doing the honors, threatening Gotham with a fear gas attack. The only ones left are Batman, a few allies, a handful of cops led by Commisioner Gordon, and a gazillion of supervillains that seem to pop up like mushrooms, at the head of their army of ridiculously inept underlings.
Sounds a bit on the silly side? Maybe it is, but just a bit. The story is definitely still enjoyable, especually due to a few elements that I really cannot mention without throwing massive spoilers your way. You’ll possibly have to allow the logical area of your brain to rest for a bit in order to fully enjoy the plot, but Batman has never been the most realistic or logical production by DC Comics anyway.
Unfortunately, one of the pivotal elements of the story, which is discovering the identity of the Arkham Knight, is beyond easy to guess for anyone that has a relatively good command of Batman’s lore. The hints are just too many and not really too subtle.
There’s also the fact that Batman doesn’t kill. It’s a staple of the IP, so it’s not surprising that Rocksteady tried its colective best to respect it. Yet, in Arkham Knight it gets hammered into our faces so hard and so often that not only it loses its ethical value, but it simply becomes a joke, causing severe breaches of immersion in numerous occasions.
The way the Batmobile behaves is a clear example: the car’s weaponry will instantly and flawlessly detect a human in your line of fire, and instantly and flawlessly switch to nonlethal rounds (which will hit even if you’re aiming way off target, mind you). But that’s only the tip of the iceberg: want to run over some goon Grand Theft Auto style? Your kind Batmobile will simply zap them out of the way with an electrical discharge.
Think about it: an intimidating armored rocket on wheels launched at hundreds of miles per hour with full afterburner engaged, will somehow manage to push its victims out of the way at the very last moment with electricity. I don’t know how you might define this, but I have only one word. I will replace it with a more charitable “silly” because I’m a nice dude, but it feels lifted straight from a Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner cartoon.
As icing on the cake, the Arkham Knight decides to attack Batman with endless squadrons of extremely conveniently unmanned drones. A supervillain who is perfectly aware of our hero’s main weakness (of which we’re reminded over and over anyway), surely goes out of his way a whole lot to accommodate the Dark Knight’s ethical quirks.
The “team” of supervillains is a bit hit and miss. Some are way too cheesy in the way they speak and behave (the Scarecrow is a good example, and the fact that he’s the main antagonist turns this into a problem), while other received a quite good portrayal. The Riddler is probably the best, and his monologues are as fresh and hilarious as ever. Another staple supervillain is almost adorable in the way he interacts with Batman, but I can’t really tell you who he is. You’ll see.
The story and the characters are definitely enriched by absolutely superb voice acting, and it isn’t just about the main stars. There’s a veritable metric ton of additional voice overs for everyone, down to the most insignificant goons. This makes Gotham City feel definitely alive, despite the lack of civilians.
Speaking of production values, we can’t move on without taking a look at the graphics, that are generally spectacular. Gotham City itself is probably the most beautiful modern city to ever grace a video game (I say modern, because it’s pretty much on par with the medieval cities featured in The Witcher 3), featuring its signature complex architecture and an attention to detail that can only be defined mind-boggling.
Characters look just as great, and the new design of the Batsuit conveys a sense of power that is truly delightful. I found myself spending minutes circling the camera around Batman just to check out all that armored goodness. The same can be said about the Batmobile, which fits here pretty well, because you could easily consider it a character on its own right.
The visual impact of the cast is enriched further by superbly fluid and realistic animations, that will really make you feel the strength of the blows. Whether Batman is brawling or preying on his enemies from the shadows, his powerful grace is mesmerizing.
Lighting and shaders are a joy for the eyes, giving Gotham City just the right atmosphere, made even better by eye-popping effects for rain, wet, smoke and environmental physics, especially if you’re on PC and you’re able to take advantage of Nvidia’s GameWorks.
The overall impact of the graphics is only slightly marred by an overly invasive film grain effect. Many developers have become extremely enamored of this kind of filter, and paint it all over their games, because it helps in making objects and characters look less artificial and plastic-like. Unfortunately, not everyone likes it, and the inability to turn it off can be problematic.
This leads us to an enormous set of flaws limited to the PC version (which is the one depicted in the screenshots). It’s quite obviously a throwaway console port, and while it benefits from a few effects, it can only be defined a really, really shoddy job. The fact that it has been hastily withdrawn from sale with refunds offered alongside a half-hearted apology, is nothing else than a fig leaf covering an eyesore. You know I like to be constructive and positive where possible, but in this case we’re looking at an unmitigated trainwreck with zero justification whatsoever.
If you got the game on PC, feel free to subtract three points from the final score below, because a five is all the PC version deserves, and that’s being generous.
I’m honestly not aware of the conditions in which the external team working on the PC port had to work in, but the shamefully shallow graphical options and the lock to 30 FPS (unless you go out of your way to edit the configuration files) are an insult to PC gamers, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The PC version of the game was launched with an enormous problem with the motion blur effect (which again, has no option to deactivate it without editing files), causing absolutely game-breaking frame rate issues on most configurations. We’re not talking about five or six frames per second lost, but drops to 10-15 or less even on powerful gaming rigs.
What’s absolutely unsightly is that whoever tested the game (has the final build even been tested at all?) did not notice the issues, and the port was deemed ready to launch. It took the community just a couple of hours to find out that the problem was with the motion blur, and to devise ways to force it off, improving the situation radically. I’m no programmer or engineer, and I identified the issue myself just by turning the camera around a few times. It was just that visible.
How is it possible that this wasn’t done by the development team before launch, is a question that still boggles my mind.
After this rant, that I really had to get off my chest, let’s move back to something mostly positive, which is King Gameplay. One of the first thing that veterans of the series will notice is that Batman finally regained his lost power.
Gone are the tedious moments that made skulking and stalking basically the only enjoyable option in Arkham Origins, where Batman had to pitifully hit even the most humble underlings way too many times before they finally bothered to fall. In Arkham Knight Bruce Wayne is a war machine on his own, and is be able to dispatch most trash with a few blows, closing the enjoyability gap between frontal assaults and stealth by quite a bit.
That’s no small feat, because stealth itself has been improved massively, with the addition of multiple new options and the evolution of classic ones. Even fear multi-takedowns, which initially seemed an overly shallow concept, are actually satisfying and fun to prepare and execute.
New elements like co-op battles with Batman’s allies are also a refreshing factor, and while their combat mechanics aren’t exactly unique, it’s extremely fun to jump out of Batman’s cape and into the spandex (yes, I know that they don’t wear spandex. It’s just poetic license) of one of his buddies.
The crime scene investigations are also great fun, and tied into each story segment in a really elegant way, giving us some great insight on what happened before Batman reaches a given location. New elements like the ability to examine security camera footage interactively add to the experience, and truly made me look forward to the next time I’d have a murder or similar mishap to investigate.
Unfortunately, the most publicized new element of the game is also the one that ended up being hit and miss. Initially, roaming around with the Batmobile is nothing short of a delight. Switching to tank mode and turning the enemy drones into scrap metal also starts as a lot of fun (as soon as you switch the control method to Battle Mode Toggle because the default option is totally nonsensical).
It’s regrettable that the game shoves the Batmobile down our collective throat so many times and so often that it ultimately gets old. The worst culprits are the puzzles, that make it feel even less like a powerful weapon of war to crime, and more like a gimmick every time we’re forced to navigate cramped puzzle-platforming areas with the grace of a lame elephant, instead of speeding around Gotham City and wreaking havoc.
This is actually a problem that extends beyond the Batmobile, as the over-reliance on puzzles and platforming rears its ugly head in full force in Arkham Knight. There’s simply too much of that, combined with the enormous chore of collecting all of Riddler’s trophies, that in this case also serve as a barrier between the player and… something that I can’t mention because it would be a spoiler. In an action-adventure like this, locking that kind of thing behind collectibles, many of which require jumping around like Super Mario, can only be defined bad design in my opinion. They’re not entirely optional anymore, and they should be. Batman is supposed to be a superhero, not a mustached plumber in silly overalls.
Luckily, Batman: Arkham Knight really shines when you’re set free to roam. Gliding around Gotham City is a source of absolute joy, and I spent quite a lot of time just zipping between skyscrapers and exploring every nook and cranny. When we aren’t cornered into a forced mechanic or the other, Rocksteady’s latest game is doubtlessly ten-worthy.
Ultimately, this game has quite a few flaws, including some unexpected ones, but the good points largely outweigh the negatives (unless you’re stuck on PC, at least until all the issues are fixed).
You may need to suspend your disbelief here and there (but if you’re a superhero fan you should be used to it), and some design decisions will probably make you frown, but the game is doubtlessly a whole lot of fun, crowned by a very solid suite of content.
As Rocksteady’s final love song to the Batman‘s franchise, Batman: Arkham Knight comes with some false notes, but it still plays like a great symphony most of the times.