This is the end folks. Rocksteady's last Batman game. As we saw with Warner Montréal's Arkham Origins, you can't just ask another studio to copy the formula and come up with the goods. Wipe away those tears though and step into the world of Batman: Arkham Knight.
This final adventure sees Batman finally playing on home turf in the expansive Gotham City. A dream come true for gamers, but the Scarecrow wants to make it everyone's worst nightmare. He's been cooking up a small ocean of his trademark fear toxin to make a whole city lose its mind and tear itself apart.
Rather politely, because he only really wants to break Batman, he gave the citizens time to evacuate. All that remains on the streets of Gotham is Batman, a few allies, the cops and any surviving members of the Rogues Gallery and their legions of goons. Oh, and some chap called the Arkham Knight who has an army of mercs, hundreds of tanks and a personal burning desire to hunt down the Bat.
While we're sure Batman would be arrogant enough to think he could punch a hole through them all (and to be fair, he might), he's lucky enough for Lucius Fox to have finally entrusted him with the keys to the Batmobile. I've already gone into extensive detail about my opening impressions of the Batmobile in this feature article, but I'll give you a quick updated rundown.
The handling is initially very slippery and the control setup is an odd mix of retro and modern that is awkward to get used to for a while, but all in all, the car is a lot of fun. Some missions will have you racing around Gotham chasing down enemy convoys with lock-on immobiliser attacks, or incredibly satisfying side-swipe attacks that send enemies into walls. Driving through round tunnels can be frustrating though thanks to the twitchy handling.
The Batmobile can also be transformed into a tank (Battle Mode) at will. It's armed with a cannon and machine gun to take on waves of the Arkham Knight's tanks. The Batmobile tank is very agile and can move in any direction via FPS-style controls and can even boost dodge, making it almost feel unfair against smaller numbers of tanks as you can easily evade their telegraphed shots while building up combos to unleash a wave of lock-on missiles or a highjack signals to get them to fight for you.
The problem with these battles is that there are far too many of them and the ones towards the end of the game seem endless. The only change to the formula is against Cobra units who can finish you in a shot or two so must be attacked from behind with a carefully timed shot. It's essentially a stealthy bat and mouse game with the Batmobile against tanks. Sounds awful. Sounds beyond stupid. But it's actually a decent diversion.
Whether Batman should be messing around in a tank at all is an entirely different matter and one Rocksteady may find themselves being judged for rather harshly when we look back at the trilogy. Overall though, the Batmobile is suitably aggressive in regular form and lots of fun to tear around Gotham thanks to its brute force.
Rocksteady have also used the car in puzzles as it has a winch to pull heavy objects and the turret can fire upon enemy gun emplacements or smash weak walls, all via remote control if Batman is inside a building and needs backup.
Combat hasn't seen any drastic changes, but given the Freeflow system is one of the most respected combat engines in existence, we're not complaining. With Rocksteady back on dev duty, the dropped combos and unresponsive counters of Origins have been banished. Bats can counter three enemies at once and now enjoys slamming enemies into objects like electric fences, pipes, light fittings and more. There seems to be more enemies in the brawls too, which can result in things getting a bit too out of control when the shield and brute enemies appear and demand more than basic punches. Seriously, what a bunch of combo-breaking shits. Knife-wielders are still a nightmare to counter, which is why using the grappling hook to clotheslines them is oh so satisfying. If anything, the combat is better than ever, as long as you ignore the ridiculous distances Batman can travel between each punch around the combat area. He just doesn't seem human anymore.
Predator modes, where you need to sneakily take out armed soldiers, assume you've played the previous games and can be very tough. Especially if you want points for remaining undetected. Or you can use the new Fear takedown moves to chain together quick finishers by dropping into the middle of a group of them. You'll need to charge this move with a few solo takedowns first though.
As with the previous games, I found that there aren't enough silent takedown options, as most finishers are deemed loud enough to guarantee the other guards come running. What's worse, they can now revive everyone you take out! So you better get a move on.
For years, we've been waiting for Rocksteady to turn us loose in a full version of Gotham City and they've done a fantastic job. Gotham is easily the best-looking city I've seen on the new-gen machines and easily trumps AC's Paris or Infamous' Seattle. The classic signage and neon lightning that gives the impression that Gotham could be set anytime from the 1950s to today, giving it a unique flavour, with the closest comparison being Bioshock's Rapture before the fall. There are some environmental effects throughout the story that are often beautiful to behold, but hard to talk about without spoilers. You've never seen a city like this in games before.
Graphical detail is exceptional as you watch the rain drops roll down Batman's cape, or you smash through objects with a realism the Frostbite enjoy would kill for. You'll lose count of all the times you stop to gawp at the lighting too. There aren't even any loading times when you enter any building. It's basically witchcraft.
The layout is a massive improvement over Arkham City too as all three islands are easily reached and it never takes long to get anywhere as there's no impassable wall to go around in the middle of the city dragging out all the back and forth. Gotham is a large city, but it's also one of the tallest I've ever seen in a game. Batman dives down from such incredible heights and you can appreciate just how many twisting layers and overpasses and bridges cross over each over.
For all the talk about the Batmobile, the ultimate way to see Gotham is from above, gliding around, or using grapple points to launch you at incredible speeds through the skies. It's much easier to chain glides now, even without fresh launch points, via diving down and swooping back up again. You can go around the whole map without touching down at all. I actually found it a faster way to travel than the Batmobile and most mission markers are on the roof anyway. Let's put it this way, gliding is so good, even 'follow missions' where you tail vans back to base are exciting.
The only downside, is that much like Arkham City, it can feel a bit deserted and lifeless as there are no citizens (they've evacuated) at all. But you'll be so busy taking on gangs, saving fireman and finding Riddler trophies, you'll not have time to notice. And after all, we've had plenty of city-based superhero games, and they're all full of filler missions of citizens having their purse snatched or lost balloons. Been there, done that.
The world of Gotham sees a few familiar crooks taking advantage of the chaos. Throughout the game, you'll have optional multi-levelled quests involving stopping Two Face robbing banks or breaking into the Penguin's warehouses and blowing up his mountains of cash. Naturally, The Riddler has been busy leaving Trophies in all manner of clever traps and puzzles, even including ones for the Batmobile. Oh and he's taken Catwoman hostage to ensure you do as he says. There's more, including a murder mystery, religious cults, some very Far Cry 4-esque bases to take out or convoys to defeat and much more.
The side-missions often have plenty of story to them and really help to add depth to the world of Gotham. They are optional though; you can run through the main story and ignore most of it if you wish. There's such a sense of urgency to the story's main events, that it's hard to stop yourself to take a breath or develop your skills a bit more. Eavesdropping on conversations before you smash through the window reveals the extent Rocksteady have gone to in order to flesh out the events and they really help to provide updated perspectives on the plot as you listen to the goons discuss past encounters with Batman, or rumours about the crime lord bosses.
During missions, the puzzles break up all the fighting and sneaking. What makes them great here though is the way Rocksteady lets you work them out yourself for a while. Once you have a gadget, you'll be expected to try it out without prompt in new areas and see how to unlock the next area. New tools include a voice synthesiser to fool guards, an ability to tilt the airship you're on (beats The Order: 1886's airship level without breaking a sweat). Rewinding CCTV footage screens and examining them for clues is great fun too.
There are some great uses of tech with some terrific uses of imagination from Rocksteady. Then there are some bits that are just plain stupid. None more so than Batman scanning a vial of toxin with a flash from his mask to identify the substance, which he's then able to transfer digitally to Oracle for further analysis. No. Just, no. You can't email a liquid! Batman spends two thirds of the game with a bullet in his gut too, but shrugs it off with a quick injection.
The absurdity of the happenings in Gotham aren't just limited to the tech. Naturally, the story is full of WTF moments. But this is great, it keeps you constantly involved and trying to work out what the hell is going on. There's a surprise early on that sticks with the plot as a rather neat narrative device that threatens Batman's mindset throughout. It's often confusing, but compelling nonetheless (sorry, for the vagueness, but I don't want to spoil anything). I would advise trying to break up the story with some side-missions though, as Scarecrow's rhetoric with Batman can get a bit old as he's always on about facing fears and breaking him and it can get old fast.
The cast is on top form throughout. Kevin Conroy is still the best Batman in the business. Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) is an excellent Commissioner Gordon and John Noble (Denethor from Lord of the Rings) is suitably unsettling as Scarecrow. Seriously, you're not even going to miss the Joker.
It's a shame the Batmobile isn't very Batman-like (as a tank), but it's fun for its part in Arkham Knight. But as a whole, Batman: Arkham Knight sees Rocksteady once again nail down the all-important parts of being Batman. The combat is empowering, gliding around the night sky and crashing back down to earth to land inside a moving Batmobile is all sorts of fanboy gold and the Rogues Gallery shine on the Gotham stage. Other studios making superhero games may as well go home now.
- Fighting, gadgets, gliding and story all nail that Batman feeling
- Gotham is incredible to behold
- Batmobile can be fun...
- ...but tank battles wear out their welcome
- Some of the tech-science is laughably stupid (even for comics)
- It's Rocksteady's last Batman game
The Short Version: Rocksteady and Batman is a combination we'll sorely miss. Their trilogy ends on a high though, with a refinement of their excellent Freeflow combat and Predator modes. The Batmobile is a somewhat mixed experience, but its heart is in the right place. Our much-awaited tour of the city of Gotham was a gorgeous sight to behold and an unforgettable goodbye.
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One | PC
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive