Rocksteady Studios’ final outing in the Arkhamverse is packed with bombastic set-pieces, its own brand of bone-crunching (and now tyre-screeching) combat and a tale worthy of the best Batman comics, all set in the most stunningly realised Gotham City that’s ever existed on page or screen. The game itself looks gorgeous, with cutscenes switching seamlessly into the beautiful, dark world Rocksteady have brought to life. The attention to detail runs throughout the game’s intensely layered Gotham City. As always, there is a mountain of side missions, collectables, secrets and challenges to be found. Every street feels gritty, authentic and completely at home in this setting and the alleys are littered with unique quirks and wider references to the DC universe, from Lex Luthor’s messages on Bruce Wayne’s answering machine to the thugs’ ever-entertaining chatter that you pick up whilst scaling the city’s towering rooftops.
(Very mild spoilers to follow)
Batman: Arkham Knight is a masterclass in modern storytelling, taking the Caped Crusader into uncharted territory as he faces his deepest fears in a uniquely gratifying way. Following the events of Arkham City, Batman struggles with his inner demons. Racked with guilt and heavy trauma following the Joker’s death, he is called out by The Scarecrow along with many of the series’ classic villains, all hell-bent on his destruction. The mysterious Arkham Knight emerges into the fray, boasting an enormous arsenal of drone tanks and intel on the Bat that stands to turn the odds in his favour. With the Arkham Knight’s insider knowledge and Scarecrow’s willingness to exploit those closest to Batman, the player is taken on a ride that shows off more twists than an M. Night Shamylan film, more DC royalty than Alan Moore’s desk drawers and offers an unrivalled look into the mind behind the cowl.
Whilst Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight are at the forefront of Batman’s third night of terror, Rocksteady find creative ways to keep the Joker at the centre of the story, ensuring this feels like a true Arkham experience and a fitting finale for their outstanding trilogy. Every character is fleshed out, especially in Batman’s immediate support system, from the ambitious but held-back Robin to the coolly intellectual Barbara Gordon. When the focus shifts away from the Bat himself it’s always welcome, widening the scope of the story. The voice acting is as strong as ever: Kevin Conroy lends his iconic vocals to Batman with more growl than ever, while Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks makes a distinctive debut as James Gordon and John Noble commands your attention as Scarecrow. Ashley Greene packs a supremely defiant punch as Barbara Gordon, Troy Baker returns as the menacing Two-Face and David Cross is masterful as the Riddler once again. It is truly a golden age for video game acting and these powerful performances bolster the cinematic atmosphere in the Arkham series.
The grandest addition to the game is, of course, the inclusion of the Batmobile, which looks like the Dark Knight Trilogy Tumbler with added flare and a significant increase in firepower. With two core setups, pursuit and battle mode the Batmobile adds a diverse tool to the Dark Knight’s arsenal. Pursuit mode fulfils the dreams of any Bat-fan since his very creation, allowing players to speed through the streets of Gotham at dizzying velocity, giving chase to unwitting bank robbers, bringing down Arkham Knight’s fleet of armoured cars or even solving elaborate Riddler courses set up throughout the city. It’s high-octane carnage at its best.
The battle mode turns the rapid rescue vehicle into a tank designed for all out warfare. In battle mode, Batman is often placed in arenas and charged with fighting off an army of conveniently unmanned drones. The mobile combat system is slightly clunky, as your Vulcan Cannon has a recharge time equal to watching all three Godfathers back to back, and the machine gun’s range is simply not enough to overpower the multitude of armoured vehicles sent your way. All of this does make for some challenging encounters filled with explosions and the odd stealth section against the Cobra Tanks, whose Death Star-style weakness means that they can only be hit from behind. All in all, the battle mode gameplay is enjoyable, but the sheer quantity of Batmobile missions in the main campaign often slow the pace and detract from the sheer pleasure players can get from playing as Batman himself – something that Rocksteady worked for years to achieve. Also, the overload of drones, missiles and unmanned helicopters in some missions occasionally caused havoc with my frame rate. In one particularly taxing battle I was plummeted straight through the floor and sent spiralling endlessly through fog until I landed in the same spot and proceeded to explode.
The regular gameplay, on the other hand, takes what’s best in the previous instalments and builds on their successes. The impact of each punch is accompanied by a satisfying thump that’s kept its appeal since the beginning: it’s still a joy to dole out punishment to Gotham’s riotous renegades. With the hyper-powered shock gloves found in Warner Bros. Games’ Batman: Arkham Origins, Arkham Knight offers new features for both the Dark Knight and the grunts that he leaves sprawled across the alleyways of Gotham City. The World’s Greatest Detective gains a couple of new toys, including a voice modulator, which allows Batman to impersonate his enemies and order their thugs around, and a device allowing him to control the Batmobile remotely. The grunts of Gotham are kitted out with aerial drones that scan the environment for signs of unwanted sleuthing, electrified thugs who can’t be countered and medics who can revive unconscious grunts who’ve already received their bat-kicking.
Each feature adds an extra element of strategy, whether you’re stealthily taking down a room of armed grunts or in all-out brawl. The AI have been given a healthy upgrade to boot, now learning which style of take-down you favour whilst hidden and adjusting their behaviour to combat it. When combined, these tweaks are not just a great addition to the Arkham series’ existing stealth gameplay, but can be explained in the game as the result of the Arkham Knight‘s knowledge of Batman’s special brand of ass-kickery. It’s this kind of care and attention to detail in the games’ design that tie together Rocksteady’s story and gameplay and set it apart from the rest.
Ultimately, Batman: Arkham Knight proves to be one of this year’s biggest blockbuster hits whilst also boasting a brilliantly crafted tale that draws from the best of Batman’s extensive back catalogue to create an instant classic. The combat and stealth gameplay is refined almost to the point of perfection and the final hours of the game pack an emotional punch like no other superhero game has before. It’s clear there has never been a better time to don the cape and cowl and take to the streets.
Batman: Arkham Knight is available now for PS4 and Xbox One, with a fixed PC version on the way.