By Jarrod Jones. This is Load File, where we believe all games are vengeance, the night, etc. This week, Jarrod pulls a shift as Gotham City’s nuttiest savior in Batman: Arkham Knight, Rocksteady and Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment’s final chapter of their insanely popular series. For PS4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows.
And now it’s finally come to pass. Batman: Arkham Knight is upon us, and Rocksteady’s monstrous open-world one-player has so many wonderful and terrifying things to show you. There was never any doubt that Rocksteady was going to pull out all the stops for its grand Arkham finale, and you can rest assured that they have; aside from pulling a hefty bank loan to go out and rule the night as a Dark Knight Detective, this is as close as you’re likely to get to being… well, you know.
As the fourth game in the series (Rocksteady sat out for Batman: Arkham Origins), Batman: Arkham Knight seeks to put a cap on its immensely successful series while paying proper tribute to over seventy-five years of the Batman. And since they already did that for Arkham City, Knight knocks itself out trying to be even better.
It’s not only bigger than all the previous games (the map alone is an intimidating thing), it’s spookier, more violent, and downright meaner than anything Rocksteady has ever committed to disc. Since the games that came before pushed the Bat-envelope as far as it could go (and, let’s face it, since they were so damned good), Knight ends up overwhelmed by its own ambition. But it still packs a wallop.
Still plenty sore over his defeat in Arkham Asylum, the Scarecrow (John Noble) has returned on Halloween night (because of course he did) to hatch a plot so diabolically convoluted that Gotham City has almost completely emptied itself out. (“Head-scratching plot twists? Pants-shitting terror? Nooo, thank you!” – The Population of Gotham.)
And he’s not alone. Armed with a laughably tremendous army led by someone called “The Arkham Knight”, the Scarecrow plans to seize the city, kill the Batman (Kevin Conroy), unleash a chemical attack over the eastern seaboard, and maybe take a minute to wonder why in Hell the LexCorp building is in the middle of Gotham. The odds are stacked against our eponymous Caped Crusader.
But this wouldn’t be an Arkham game if that was all there is to it. The usual assortment of gaudy ne’erdowells (Two-Face, the Riddler, Penguin, Harley Quinn, and much, much more) have taken advantage of the stymied police force (led by Jonathan Banks’ Commissioner Gordon), each breaking off into separate factions to carve out a piece of the city for their very own, none of them fully aware of what the Scarecrow actually has in store for the night.
If this is all starting to sound a bit familiar, that’s because it is. Arkham Knight takes the formula widely enjoyed by its three predecessors and widens the scope to a dizzying degree while pilfering narrative cues from other Batman stories across all mediums. That’s a hindrance unto itself: these games have been widely considered to be a spiritual successor to Batman: The Animated Series, and with Asylum and City co-writer (and Series contributor) Paul Dini sitting this installment out, the parallels aren’t only superficial, they pale in comparison. It’s a world familiar in execution and utterly different in tone, which only works until it doesn’t.
As it is with every other Arkham game, the Main Story mode is only window dressing; the real fun is slowly unveiling Gotham City in all its encompassing glory. Whether you’re patrolling the skies with a hilariously long-reaching grappling hook or cruising the streets in the newly-minted Batmobile (a first for the series), you’ll encounter all sorts of engaging, intriguing, and seriously fun side missions that provide way more Easter Eggs than you’re probably prepared for. (Seriously! LexCorp!)
Batman wouldn’t walk into a nightmare scenario without all his tools at the ready, and neither will you. For the most part anyway; every single non-essential tool in your Utility Belt is gone (freeze grenades, remote electrical charge, and your Disruptor have to be earned yet again), but the tools you have at the onset are as powerful as they were at the end of Arkham City. That means your upgrades are going to get pretty intense (not only can you snatch weapons from the bad guys, now you can snap them in half right in front of their dumb faces), but so are the scraps you’ll find yourself embroiled in. So make sure you’re building XP with the odd side mission as often as you can; eventually you’ll be faced with the Arkham Knight himself, and that dude is all business. (Though his Boss Battles are so egregiously unfair, you’ll find yourself unprepared no matter what you do. Trust me on that.)
Since you’re the Batman now, it’s only fitting that you do everything Batman ought to do: dive into a Fear Multi-Takedown, where time slows enough for you to strategically knock enemies the fuck out; use your grapple to launch yourself higher into the air than ever before, and cheat like a sumbitch by using the Batmobile against every small army that comes your way. (Though one can’t shake the feeling that having Batman fire a gun at human beings not only feels tonedeaf, it feels wrong.)
The combination of Takedowns, your gadgets, and the Batmobile make dispatching shithead soldiers much easier than in previous Arkham games. Ground Takedowns are faster and a lot more fluid, making higher combos an easier thing to accomplish. And if that wasn’t enough, every so often you’ll find yourself engaged with over thirty armed goons alongside a member of the Bat-Family (that’s the Unreal Engine 3 working overtime), and between the Dual Play Takedowns — where you have the ability to switch characters at will — the Fear Takedowns, and Batmobile Takedowns, kicking ass in Gotham has never been easier. (Seriously. This gets far too easy.)
Things only get difficult, ironically enough, once you’re behind the wheel of the Batmobile. Getting the hang of the controls shouldn’t take too long — it handles beautifully once you’ve developed a knack for it — but its frenzied Battle Mode will make stuttering novices of you all. Even if Battle Mode can be summed up with “stay out of your enemies’ line of sight and shoot straight”, switching between Battle and Pursuit Modes to get the drop on powerful foes takes finesse, and more often you don’t have time for that shit. (Good luck timing a Pursuit just right when you’re barrelling down a tunnel with all sorts of mayhem right behind you.)
Your car is fortified with very durable armor; only well-placed missile strikes and certain artillery will pierce your shell, so feel free to drive through and flatten just about anything you see. You’re a billionaire, after all, and as such you can afford to fix everything. And as the game progresses, it will become apparent that all this happenstantial havoc you’re causing might not be entirely your fault.
With Gotham City being as huge as it is, and with Batman taking on just about every single villain you can conjure in your mind, it’s important that Arkham Knight functions smoothly. And when you’re not utterly biffing it with the Batmobile, or stumping yourself stupid on those goddamned Riddler puzzles, navigating this world can be a real breeze: the handy-dandy Mission Select is prompted without hitting Pause, and you enter buildings, cross bridges, and generally rain justice all over Gotham City with nary a load screen to be had. The segueways from gameplay to cutscenes are totally seamless, and when you’re barrelling through the Main Story (like I did), Arkham Knight rides like a dream. And then the Scarecrow turns it into a nightmare.
That is what’s so frustrating about Arkham Knight. John Noble’s gravely dire Scarecrow does a justice to the character few other iterations could touch (and this aloof, terrifying mastermind makes Hugo Strange look like a lapdog), but his presence is a mere afterthought. Batman’s still working through some stuff post-City, and a small dose of Fear Toxin releases an unrelenting dread that has little to do with the Master of Fear. There to shove a fleet of unmanned drones right up the Batmobile’s tailpipe is the Arkham Knight, and the Main Story spends a lot of time shoving other things aside to make the character’s dots connect properly, even if it means taking the plot to some really, really silly places. (Silly even for Arkham, which is saying a lot.)
The Arkham Knight, whose voice is a cross between Bob Odenkirk from that one Mr. Show skit and Leo from Twin Peaks, holds the claim of being a wholly original character for the series. But it becomes quickly, painfully obvious who’s really hiding underneath that helmet, even for those who have a cursory knowledge of the Batman’s history. And if you happen to crack that puzzle before the big reveal (and, odds are, you will), any mystery left for Arkham Knight is gone. That’s the shame about this game: it tries to mix innovation with reverence, only to find that road more difficult to navigate than all the streets in Gotham.