When Batman: Arkham Asylum released in 2009, the comic book landscape was in a very different place. The Dark Knight and Iron Man had just seen a theatrical release in the previous year and comic book culture was on the cusp of becoming mainstream; Batman himself was still living in a pre-New 52 universe. Now, in 2015, we're neck deep into a Marvel cinematic universe and about to jump headfirst into a DC one, multiple comic book shows air in network TV primetime, Comic Con is one of the biggest events of the year. Comic books are no longer "geek culture", it's part of the mainstream. So with more eyes on them then ever, did Rocksteady provide a satisfying conclusion to their phenomenal Batman trilogy?
Batman: Arkham Knight's story setup is simple enough: Scarecrow has returned after the events at Arkham Asylum left him scarred and deformed. In order to exact his revenge, he plans on releasing a new batch of fear toxin on Gotham City. After a city-wide evacuation, it's up to Batman and his supporting cast to stop the madman and make the streets of Gotham safe once more. It's very difficult to speak on the story beyond that without spoilers, as plot twists happen early and often. Even the identity of the titular Arkham Knight himself is a mystery waiting to be solved, though the game drops enough hints that most Batman fans can probably piece it together before the big reveal.
That being said, there is an interesting story being told here. Not only is there a solid main storyline to follow, but most of the side missions tell self-contained stories unrelated to the central plot. While the stories are very hit-and-miss, the amount of time that went into multiple narratives is much appreciated. Unfortunately, some of the characterization of the classic Batman cast is questionable, especially when it comes to the women. While still trying to avoid spoilers, fans of Oracle and Catwoman may not be pleased.
No longer confined to a prison or a prison-that-is-also-a-city, Arkham Knight gives us a fully realized Gotham to explore. The city looks great, with many landmarks fans will recognize. The fact that the city is free of civilians is a little disappointing because it makes Gotham seem fairly deserted. I understand the rationale behind this (Batman running over pedestrians is not exactly in character) and the story conceit makes sense, but it's a bummer nonetheless. Still, traversing the city is a lot of fun on foot. Grappling up the side of a building, running across a roof, and gliding across the skyline is a joy... when the game allows you to do so. There's another way that you can get around: the Batmobile.
There was much said about the inclusion of the Batmobile leading up to the game's release. The vehicle has two modes: car mode and tank mode. Car mode is fun enough. Driving around the streets is fast and chase missions are furious, but the controls are loose and the physics of the car seem much lighter than it should be. The tank mode sees far less success than that. Once transformed, the Batmobile initially gains full 360 degree movement, a machine gun, and a cannon. Controls in this mode are sluggish and slow, a huge juxtaposition to the speed of car mode. Tank "battles" boil down to firing, slowly moving around as you wait to reload so enemy tanks don't hit you, rinse and repeat until everything is blown up. Why Batman, a non-lethal hero, would have heavy artillery handy is beyond me. Even the game seems aware of that, as they go out of their way to let you know that enemy tanks are unmanned drones.
Had the Batmobile been used as an alternate optional mode of transportation with a couple chases thrown in, it would have been great. Diving off a building and summoning your vehicle in midair so that it arrives just in time to catch you is a really cool feeling, as is driving at top speed and ejecting straight into a glide. There's fun to be had in the car. It's the frequency of which its required that makes it frustrating. The game forces you into the Batmobile at any opportunity it can. For example, at one point I had to get into the Arkham Knight's base. In Arkham City, the would have meant fights, sneaking around, stealthily dispatching henchmen... You know, fun stuff. In this game, that means I had to get into the Batmobile, drive into the underground compound until I hit a closed gate, get out of the car to find a control panel to open it, return to the car to come upon a group of tanks to dispatch, then I got to enter a grate and do cool Batman stuff. Even then, that was followed by another tank battle and chase sequence. Many missions involve you exploring an area to find a way to get the Batmobile in there as well. Typically the reasoning for this involves needing the vehicle's winch or dealing with other tanks. I'm already in there, let me explore! Why do I need my car too?
When the game does let you get into fights on foot, the series' lauded combat shines here. If you've played any of the previous games in the series you know what to expect. There are a few new wrinkles thrown in for good measure, such as new combos, new gadgets, and a deeper weapon counter system. In certain battles, Catwoman, Nightwing, or Robin will fight along side Batman, allowing you to switch back and forth between characters. Building up your combo meter during these battles allow you to perform a takedown that involves both of them. While it looks cool, these sequences don't really change much as everyone fights pretty much the same way.
Besides the main story, the side-quests carry quite a bit of range on them. Some early ones involve you investigating strung up bodies found around the city or searching for kidnapped firefighters. Riddler trophies return as well, but even those are woven into a bigger plot thread. These missions each carry an independent storyline with them, which provide a worthy distraction from the main quest and give you plenty to do after the credits roll.
As the first Batman game on current-gen consoles, Arkham Knight looks and sounds wonderful. Gotham is a fully realized place, with tons of detail and no fog or load times between areas. Character models vary in quality, but all the important players look great. The soundtrack is great and the voice acting is sublime. Some people say Michael Keaton or Adam West will always be their Batman, but Kevin Conroy will always be mine. The supporting cast does an excellent job as well. Given that Scarecrow is the main antagonist, the mood of the game can get a little creepy at times with crazy effects and creep outs. There are even a few genuine jump scares that caught me completely unexpected.
Batman: Arkham Knight does a lot right. There's a (mostly) well-told story, impressive sound and visuals, and the game plays beautifully while on foot. Unfortunately, the Batmobile segments slow down the pace of the game and are far too plentiful. Had it been limited in use, the game would have fared much better. I wanted to play as Batman and beat up bad guys, not get involved in races or tank battles. Still, Batman: Arkham Knight is a worthy successor to the franchise that ends the series on a mostly positive note. I'm having a lot of fun with it and Batman fans or fans of the series will likely feel the same way. For everyone else, expect a solid action game that's a good time, but won't set the world on fire.