Playing as Batman? Awesome. Playing as Batman through repetitive, empty missions? Less awesome. Playing as the Batmobile? Awful.
UPDATE, 10/28/2015: Arkham Knight‘s technical woes have been (mostly) solved, and the game is back on Steam. It’s largely a symbolic gesture at this point, but we’ve updated our review with a score. For the most up-to-date news about how the game runs, click here. But if you’re trying to figure out whether the game itself is good (story, mechanics, et cetera), I think the below text is still valid.
ORIGINAL STORY, 07/01/2015:
There are going to be spoilers in this review. Or, at least, a few of you may deem them spoilers—I am going to actively discuss some of the villains in Arkham Knight. By name. And a few of the plot points. Why? Because there are very specific examples that I feel embody Arkham Knight’s failings, and it’s easier for me to just talk through them than talk around them.
Good? Good. Let’s dig in.
Phew. Where to even start with Arkham Knight? I mean, we could take the easy route on this one and talk about how busted the PC port is. It is busted. I got a higher frame rate in The Witcher 3 on Ultra than I did in Arkham Knight, and I don’t just mean because of the console-esque, 30-frames-per-second cap the game shipped with.
You know what though? The PC version will get fixed. It might take weeks. It might take months. But I have no doubt eventually Rocksteady will fix it. Should it have been released this way in the first place? Absolutely not, and thus we’re not bothering to score this review. It is not a game in any condition to be scored. And, for that matter, it’s not even on sale anymore.
The technical problems with Arkham Knight have been a lightning rod, though. There are so many other issues with this game that have nothing to do with its frame rate, its textures, any of that. Let’s discuss those instead.
Sure, it’s fun, but Arkham Knight is not a great game. It is a collection of pretty great mechanics soldered onto some cringe-worthy dialogue, a pile of meaningless side missions, a decent main story, some truly illogical plot conceits, and so much forced vehicular action it’d be easy to forget this is a story about Batman.
Everything that is great about Arkham Knight has been lifted from Rocksteady’s previous two games—the incredible Arkham Asylum and the slightly-less-incredible-but-still-good Arkham City. Embodying Batman in Arkham Knight is, frankly, fantastic. The trademark Batman combat has never been more fluid. Gliding around the city is considerably less janky than it was in Arkham City. And there’s a new move that involves ejecting out of the Batmobile at high speed and launching yourself a mile into the air before gliding around Gotham. It looks badass.
That is the last nice thing I am going to say about the Batmobile.
See, the Batmobile is problem number one with Arkham Knight. Rocksteady touted the Batmobile feature a ton prior to release, and now we know why: because it’s been forced into practically every single encounter in the game. Even Riddler’s missions. Riddler now constructs race tracks. No, I am not joking.
There are a few issues here. First of all, THE RIDDLER NOW CONSTRUCTS RACE TRACKS. This is something so magnificently stupid I can’t even fully come to grips with it.
Other missions have you fighting legions and legions of “drones”—they’re tanks but they’re unmanned because Batman doesn’t kill!—until your eyes glaze over. None of these missions are particularly hard. Just tedious.
But the greatest sin of the Batmobile has nothing to do with the car itself. Rather, it’s the design direction the game took once it was apparently mandated that Batman’s biggest and most inefficient gadget had to factor into practically every part of the game.
One of the best ideas in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City was something I’ll refer to as the “Villain Lair.” In Asylum, this meant seeing how each member of Batman’s Rogues Gallery transformed their little section of Arkham—a fiefdom within Joker’s larger kingdom. Arkham City kept the same idea, except it expanded to villains’ owning entire buildings. “Here’s Penguin, holed up in a weird museum! Here’s the (infamous) Mr. Freeze section! Here’s Mad Hatter’s lair of Scarecrow-inspired dream sequences!”
Arkham Knight abandons this and squanders its villains, especially outside of the main story. Penguin is smuggling guns out of featureless warehouses. Firefly pulls the same “bust out of a building that’s on fire” move three times before deciding he’s been punched in the face enough to stay down. Man-Bat doesn’t even do anything—he just flies in circles until you decide to find him. Two-Face is robbing generic banks.
And Deathstroke—oh, poor Deathstroke. He doesn’t even get his own unique storyline. One of the most fearsome villains in the DC Universe is relegated to a fourth-tier role here, as he takes over for another villain you’ve already confronted. Even worse? Deathstroke’s “boss battle” is a Batmobile-led tank battle that’s literally a copy-paste of a tank battle you already played earlier in the game.
Batman’s most iconic villains are just sort of…doing nothing at all. Farting around committing petty crimes while the entire city is on the verge of extinction. God forbid Two-Face rob a few banks while Scarecrow is threatening to literally wipe Gotham off the face of the planet with fear toxin.
It feels empty. Tedious, even. And how did we get here? The other Arkham games somehow managed to make even lame characters (Calendar Man) seem interesting, or like you should know something about them. Here, even the franchise’s most iconic characters come off as buffoons (at worst) or just empty filler characters (at best). There’s nothing uniquely Penguin about smuggling guns, nothing uniquely Two-Face about robbing banks. And by placing them in these settings, you also miss out on the whole “Lair” aspect. Your final fight against Two-Face takes place in a bank that’s indistinguishable from the first two he robbed. There’s nothing there that screams “Two-Face.” No clever environmental storytelling.
Which is weird because the city of Gotham itself is just as over-the-top as it was in Arkham City. There’s neon everywhere. All the buildings teem with unique art and visual design. It’s a creative, comic book-esque take on the city and I love flying around it—but very few of these buildings actually factor into the story in any interesting way. They’re just there to look pretty while you glide/drive around.
And I blame it on the Batmobile. I do. Arkham City had the same open-world setup as Arkham Knight, but it played completely differently. The city was essentially an enormous hub between the actual levels. Very little of the game took place in the city itself. Instead, you flew to wherever the next mission was, went inside, and then explored the building often for upwards of half an hour.
Arkham Knight is so afraid of letting you be inside, because what if…what if you forget about the Batmobile? As such, probably 60 percent of the main story and 80 percent of the side missions take place in the city itself. And the rest? It’s mostly made up of quick hit-and-run beats. Two-Face’s robberies, for instance—you’re only inside for five to ten minutes, max. Then you’re kicked back onto the street.
The result is a game that feels unfocused, that feels like it’s shuttling you from empty mission to empty mission and discarding all its villains. Whereas Arkham City felt like it had potentially too many villains, Arkham Knight feels like it has too few—or at least too few that matter. It’s basically Scarecrow (the main baddie) and the titular Arkham Knight. Everyone else is disposable.
Luckily Scarecrow carries some of the narrative weight, thanks to an excellent, truly wonderful performance by John Noble. Unfortunately, it’s a Star Wars situation where you have a talented actor reading utter farce. On the other hand, he’s so menacing you can forgive the occasional plot hole or telegraphed twist.
Sorry, when I said “occasional plot hole” I meant “Arkham Knight’s plot is silly.” Even with the spoiler tag above, I don’t want to kill the whole plot for you.
But let’s just say there’s a point where Scarecrow announces his big back-up plan…and it’s to cover Gotham in fear toxin. A Gotham that’s already been evacuated. A Gotham that is only populated by a handful of police, Batman, Alfred, and a whole bunch of villains.
Go ahead, Scarecrow. Gas the city. See if I care.
The thing about Arkham Knight, about reviewing Arkham Knight, is I didn’t even hate the game. It’s a summer blockbuster. It’s soda and popcorn. It’s something that goes down smoothly (aside from the stupid tank sections), but at the end you’ve consumed nothing at all of value.
I’m not going to say that Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were particularly smart games, but they were smart superhero games. Take the grit of Nolan’s Batman, combine it with the eye-candy of Tim Burton’s Gotham, and you’ve got one hell of a take on the dark knight. The Arkham series was great because it played to Batman’s strengths—his brutality, his knack for inducing fear, his cleverness, and (most importantly) the unique and twisted personalities of his villains.
Arkham Knight doesn’t do those things. It doesn’t let Batman be Batman. It doesn’t let Batman’s villains be villainous. With the exception of a single plot thread it squanders two games’ worth of set-up and replaces much of what I loved about the series with pointless filler. Filler I completed. Filler I even sometimes enjoyed on a purely mechanical level—crawling through vents and silently taking down henchmen as Batman is as satisfying as ever.
But too often I felt like Arkham Knight was a professional athlete post-retirement: Bloated, unfocused, and always boasting about a really nice car.
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Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.