Batman is a sociopath. Abiding by a self-enforced code of ethics, Batman never kills. However, he's not above inflicting just enough pain to make people wish they were dead. It's this muddy gray line that separates the Dark Knight from the supervillains. But, in Arkham Knight, that line is rapidly receding, as the hero is fighting a seemingly losing battle on all fronts against Scarecrow, a mysterious new foe and his own psyche.
In Arkham Knight, you'll find the hero at his most haggard and aggressive. Gamers will have to use every trick in Batman's utility belt, including Batarangs, Batclaws and new gadgets, like the Voice Synthesizer, to survive. The Batmobile is also on hand to assist you in your travels. It's a gripping journey toward the heart of darkness, but the ends might not justify the means.
[Editor's Note: Due to a number of bugs, sales of the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight have been suspended. However, we generally had a smooth experience with the title on both the PC and PS4, and compared the two versions later in this review.]
Story: Channeling Christopher Nolan
Arkham Knight picks up several months after the Joker's death due to the after-effects of the Titan drug from Arkham Asylum. After some helpful narration from Jim Gordon, commissioner of the Gotham Police Department, I set off in the Batmobile to handle the latest threat facing Gotham: the Scarecrow (aka Dr. Jonathan Crane) and his henchman, the Arkham Knight. The two villains are planning to blanket the entire Eastern Seaboard with the doctor's fear toxin.
Batman narrowly stops Scarecrow's plan, but not before getting a large dosage of the toxin and a visit from a ghost. Our hero has survived, but something is definitely wrong with Batman, and it starts showing immediately — even the riffraff on the street notices. Batman's hitting harder and is showing less restraint when stopping crime — it's all very uncomfortable.
In one instance, the vigilante questioned one of Riddler's men by threatening to crush the man's head under the Batmobile's rear wheel. The player has no choice in the matter, so I found myself pressing the right trigger as gently as humanly possible to keep from crushing this man's head. A sick dread filled my stomach as I wondered, "Is this the day I see Batman kill someone?"
Get used to that knotting feeling in your stomach, folks. As I progressed farther into the game, I felt that the writers were trying to do the video game version of a Christopher Nolan movie. That meant I got to see re-enactments of two of the more iconic and violent Batman comics, "The Killing Joke" and "Death in the Family." There's also a hint of the animated movie "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" thrown into the mix, because why not? Add in a few refrigerated women, and you've got yourself a game with little to no laughs.
As Batman sinks farther into his psychosis, burning bridges and making mistake after mistake, Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight gleefully gloat. I wondered if there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. After all, the commissioner did say this was the story of how Batman died. The main story became so dark at points, I needed to stop to do a few side missions to restore my faith that this could all work out.
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I get it; Batman isn't the shining beacon of hope that Superman is. But damn — this is the first time I've interacted with a Batman property when I didn't like or empathize with the hero. The story has definitely left an impression on me, but I'm not sure it was the one Rocksteady or Warner Bros. wanted.
Combat: Feeling the (Painful) Flow
After Arkham City and the less-popular Arkham Origins, I didn't think the series' fighting mechanics could get better. Rocksteady proved me wrong within the first 5 minutes of gameplay. The Freeflow combat system is even more polished than that of its predecessors, allowing for faster strikes and more fluid transitions.
Jumping back into Arkham was like riding a bike. Administered via well-timed punches and counters, Freeflow is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Once you get the basics down and start targeting foes, you'll start building combo chains that allow you to access some of your stronger moves, including a multi-Batarang takedown (if it's been unlocked on the skill tree).
Similar to on past Batman titles, you can also incorporate your gadgets into the fray. Don't think you can make the leap to that far-off enemy? Just hit him with a Batarang, or pull him closer with the Batclaw. Better yet, just tag them with the Explosive Gel, and wait for the fireworks. If you have the Batmobile handy, you can execute a devastating takedown that starts with an uppercut and ends with a concussive round from the car-turned tank's 60mm cannon.
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I started with a small, quick punch to the face by way of the X button, then a counter with the Y button. It wasn't long before I was stringing together a 50-hit combo, reaving a path of destruction with moves that were equally brutal and balletic.
As always, once you've reduced the hostile crowd to a heap of unconscious bodies, the last man standing gets dropped in spectacular fashion in slow motion with exaggerated audio, so you can hear his skull hit the pavement.
Rocksteady has added a new move to further drive home the point that Batman has an unwelcome visitor in the belfry. Now, you can pick up a downed enemy and deliver even more pain with a flurry of hard-hitting punches. The interrogation moves have also gotten more extreme, with Batman stepping on thugs' faces before dropping a hard-hitting knee to end the conversation.
The best part of Arkham Knight's combat is the Dual Play system. Throughout the course of the game, you'll run into several of Batman's allies who will help you clear out the bad guys. Starting with Batman, you'll string together a high-enough combo to allow you to activate Dual Attack. From there, the Dark Knight will toss up an enemy to the air while your partner finishes him off. After that, you'll play as the new character until the Dual Attack is available again — and rinse, wash and repeat until all of your enemies are defeated.
It's Hunt or Be Hunted
For those of us who like to pretend to be ninjas, Predator Mode has made a triumphant return. Like the Freeflow system, the stealth-centric mode has been refreshed with new tactics and smarter A.I., which makes for a more intense experience. Old standbys like the see-through-vision Detective Mode, vantage points, floor grates and destructible walls can still be used to silently dispatch hostiles. I never get tired of dropping down on an enemy, stringing him up by his foot and watching him dangle helplessly in the air.
As fun as they are, don't fall into the trap of leaning too hard on the old reliables. As the Arkham Knight repeatedly reminds you, he's trained his militia to counteract all your moves. This is true, for the most part. Once the troops figure out that you're popping out of floor grates to incapacitate them, they'll toss an incendiary grenade down there to flush you out and destroy a few grates. Rely on the vantage points too heavily, and they'll toss proximity mines on them. However, if you're fast, you'll be out of the danger zone well before your enemies can react.
Luckily, you can teach an old Bat new tricks, since the Dark Knight employs a few new gadgets, such as the Voice Synthesizer. Using the voice pattern of the Arkham Knight or one of the other boss baddies in the game, you can order their minions to move to places that make them easier to attack.
The Batmobile Lost a Wheel
If you were expecting the Batmobile from the 1960s Batman television show, you're going to be disappointed. Heavily armored and outfitted with an afterburner, the Batmobile resembles a small tank — because it occasionally is. Holding down the left trigger activates the vehicle's Battle Mode, which causes the car to transform into a formidable tank.
Once Battle Mode is triggered, Batman has access to a whole new range of weapons, including a 60mm cannon, the Vulcan gun, a powerful Gatling gun and the Power Winch, which is used to rip particularly stubborn doors off their hinges or deliver an electric charge. The car also has a few unlockable gadgets, such as the CPU Virus and the EMP, which allows you to hack into enemy drones or temporarily fry their circuits.
Cruising down the streets of Gotham was a relatively smooth experience. When used as a regular car, the Batmobile has a fair amount of cornering — you can even drift, if you're so inclined. The afterburner delivers a temporary boost to help you chase down bad guys even faster.
Switching to Battle Mode gives the Batmobile a level of verticality you can't get with a regular ride. With cannons prominently displayed, the tank can strafe from side to side, launch up to four missiles simultaneously or use an anchor to climb up a wall a la the ThunderCats' Thundertank.
Cycling between modes does take some getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, Battle Mode became invaluable in high-speed chases. Instead of trying to drift my way into a difficult turn, I transformed the car and simply strafed my way in.
The Batmobile definitely provides a faster way to navigate the massive Gotham City, but outside of the drone battles, with their ever-increasing difficulty, the only place the car got any use was in a few random Riddler challenges. These courses didn't feel like something Edward Nygma would use to prove his intellectual superiority over Batman, and worse, some of the challenges put the Batmobile at an unfair disadvantage. Whereas I could easily make a hairpin driving around Gotham, there was little to no traction on Riddler's racetracks, which caused more than few expletives to fall out of my mouth.
Challenges and Trophies
When you're not hunting down Scarecrow or the Arkham Knight, Gotham offers a few hundred distractions by way of Riddler Challenges. In fact, there are more than 263 Riddler trophies and challenges hidden throughout Gotham. Collecting trophies unlocks little side stories that provide backstory into some of the more obscure members of Batman's Rogues' Gallery. Finding every single trophy and challenge gives you the opportunity to fight Riddler himself, who's created a force-field-emitting mech to take you on.
If hunting down Riddler trophies isn't your thing, you can extend your stay in Gotham by chasing down a few more of Batman's enemies and returning them to the clink. Over the course of the game, I searched for firefighters kidnapped by angry mobs, tracked a serial killer by examining the bodies of his victims and broke up a gunrunners' operation — just to name a few. I even defused a few bombs and cleared out militia strongholds.
There are also the AR Missions, which pull double-duty as training exercises and leaderboard fodder. Each challenge concentrates on key parts of Batman's arsenal, with missions focusing on hand-to-hand combat, Predator mode and the Batmobile. Earning the fastest times or highest scores on these particular side missions will earn you a WayneTech point and a spot on the online leaderboard.
While the missions themselves were very repetitive, most delivered a WayneTech point or two, which let me upgrade my gear and combat moves. Truth be told, I needed these diversions to help me get through the game. After watching Batman do something particularly heinous, like lie to his allies, I needed those somewhat-mindless pursuits to raise my spirits. Those completed missions were the only spots of sunshine I got out of a plot sinking farther into the heart of darkness.
PC versus Console
Although publisher Warner Bros. Interactive suspended PC version sales of Batman: Arkham Knight, I cleaned up the mean, fear-besotted streets of Gotham using the updated MSI GT72 Dominator Pro. The 17.3-inch gaming laptop has a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-5700HQ processor with 16GB of RAM, two 256GB mSSDs in Super RAID configuration and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M GPU with 8GB of VRAM.
I didn't run into most of the glitches that my fellow Steam users experienced. However, I did have to use a workaround to disable the 30-frames-per-second cap limit. It was smooth sailing from there, with the laptop delivering 50 fps at the highest setting on 1080p. Unsurprisingly, the PC version delivered sharper graphics than the PlayStation 4 version, with little to no jagged textures and stuttering.
Outside of the Batmobile and a few new tricks sprinkled throughout, there's nothing especially innovative about Batman: Arkham Knight — and that's OK. The familiarity of the setting and combat makes Gotham feel like it's worth saving. And at the end of the day, that's all Batman has ever wanted to do — protect the city that his parents loved and show it a better way, by any means necessary.
For all its tropes and uncomfortable moments, Arkham Knight comes the closest of any game in the series to making people understand the type of insanity it takes to wear the cowl and be Batman. The Dark Knight is always one step away from turning into the villains he hunts down so prodigiously. Arkham Knight is all about that fine line, making it one of the best entries in the series and a must-play title.