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It’s now been three weeks since I finished the main story of Batman: Arkham Knight and I finally feel comfortable writing my impressions of it. I don’t like to give my thoughts on a game immediately after completing it, this almost always results in knee-jerk reactions and nitpicking. It’s hard to see the positives through a handful of negatives or vice-versa until you step back to ponder the twenty hour journey you just made.
Arkham Knight is the third Batman game that developer Rocksteady has produced. These games feel like love letters to the Batman world, clearly made by fans of the comics. The amount of detail they manage to cram into them never fails to impress me. Villains that anyone on the street could recognize, like the Joker or Penguin, make an appearance in these games as well as more obscure ones like the Mad Hatter and Clayface.
It’s as beautiful of a game as I’ve played on the PS4. That doesn’t mean it’s photorealistic, that would be a disservice to the universe the game is set in. This isn't supposed to be reality. Batman’s world is heavily stylized with gothic architecture and bright neon signs that slice through the dreary Gotham weather. The game looks and sounds like a Batman comic book come to life.
The main story is a brilliantly woven journey inside the head of Bruce Wayne and it’s one of the most interesting narratives I’ve experienced in a video game. It's all about the price Bruce has to pay to be Gotham’s savior, the personal sacrifices he’s had to make over the years and the lives he has knowingly put in danger. Kevin Conroy is brilliant as always in his portrayal of Batman, to not recognize a performance of this caliber as top notch acting would be naive and foolish. This is a man that has knowingly put his friends and family in danger to chase the justice he is driven to find. As a player I found myself carrying a sense of guilt as the story progressed as I considered the consequences of my actions that go along with being a masked vigilante.
The free flow combat system introduced in the original has remained relatively unchanged over the games and that’s a good thing. It feels tight and precise, this is how I imagine Batman would fight. Not with button-mashing and brute strength but by using his instincts to outthink his opponents. As the game progresses Batman’s enemies will start coming at him with stun sticks and swords, throwing a nice wrinkle into the combat that keeps it fresh. But at it’s core it remains the same throughout, anticipate and react. Success is found in problem solving and pattern identification.
What holds Arkham Knight back from greatness is that it just isn’t as clever as the previous games. The original Arkham Asylum gave us the mind-bending, drug-induced hallucinations of the Scarecrow missions. And if you visit the cell of Calendar Man in Arkham City on an actual holiday he will tell you a story that is specific to it. That’s brilliant game design, the latter breaks the fourth wall and inspired me to turn the game on long after beating the campaign just to see who Calendar Man had killed on the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. This kind of creativity is missing outside the main story of Arkham Knight. Every time it looks like a side mission will take a turn for the fun it quickly falls into a trap of repetition. Using the Batmobile to upload a virus into a land mine is a clever concept, but I don’t want to do that a dozen times. And that’s what you do in Arkham Knight’s side missions, you repeat the same objectives over and over and over again. Even worse, several of these extracurricular activities are so similar that I still can’t tell what exactly is different about them. With no competitive multiplayer I’m sure the development team was pressured to extend these side activities beyond their expiration point to provide its audience with a sense getting its money’s worth. This is a disturbing trend that has been surfacing in games for some time now, the most egregious example being last fall’s Alien: Isolation which overstays its welcome by about 15 hours. Give me a tight, 10-12 hour game and I’ll be perfectly satisfied. I don’t want to waste my time with boring, repetitive filler activities.
Now you could counter this by saying “just don’t play the side missions”. Well the problem is that you have to complete seven of them to unlock the game’s ending. And there’s a “true ending” beyond that, but all of the side activities must be completed to achieve that. I’m guessing most people YouTubed it like I did because of the Riddler.
The Riddler side missions start out strong by alternating creative Batmobile challenges with some cooperative puzzles featuring Batman working with Catwoman. These are as close as Arkham Knight gets to feeling like the previous games, the Catwoman segments are particularly good. This builds momentum and looks like its really going somewhere, you complete a bunch of these and the next thing you know you’re battling the Riddler himself. And then suddenly he disappears and you’re told you have to find 243 of his trophies in order to finish the Riddler’s story. There is zero chance I am going to invest that kind of time into this game and it frustrates me that I don’t get to throw one of Batman’s most storied villains behind bars simply because I don’t have the time or patience to find 243 collectables.
I can’t close this article without addressing the Batmobile. Fans have begged for its inclusion in these games from the start and Rocksteady finally delivered. I feel like at some point the hate for the Batmobile got out out hand, I don’t think it’s as bad as some. Honestly it just suffers from the same problem as the side missions, it’s just too much of the same thing. But of course you don’t have to play a side mission to beat the game, you can experience the amazing story without having to stop Two-Face from robbing banks the exact same way a dozen times if you want to. But the Batmobile and it’s mediocre tank battles are unavoidable, there’s a half-dozen of them that are woven directly into the narrative. I’m sure a lot of time and money went into designing the Batmobile, especially given that it has to perform the duties of two vehicles, car and tank. There had to be pressure to get a return on that investment, you can’t spend years developing a vehicle from scratch and not use it. But the rest of the game suffered as a result of this. You can tell a lot of love went into crafting Batman’s supercar but it feels like once Rocksteady built it they just couldn’t figure out a fun way to include it in their game.
I don’t think there will ever be a Batman game that can top the original Arkham Asylum. There was something magical about creeping around that claustrophobic old asylum that struck a chord with me, a feeling that the much more open Arkham City and now Arkham Knight failed to recapture. There was a sense of mystery in the original that was diminished in City and that is almost nonexistent in Knight. That’s not to say either of these are bad games, quite the opposite. Arkham Knight is a great game, possibly the best one I’ve played in 2015. But it’s not a game of the year contender for me, despite it’s fantastic main campaign.