As a videogame power fantasy, Arkham Knight is a heady brew. It makes me feel powerful, it makes me feel smart, and it adoringly invokes a pop culture icon and multi-billion dollar franchise that even the stuffiest of non-comic book readers can groove to. We live in a post-Dark Knight world where the Nolan brothers — who, for all I know, are drawing from some Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman thing I’ve never read — have represented the Batman/Joker dynamic as a dialectic straight out of Greek tragedy. Never mind this silly “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight” nonsense, plucked from a vat of colorful acid. This is Apollo and Dionysus. It is order and entropy, superego and id, lawful neutral and chaotic neutral. Forget mere good and evil. That stuff is easy. This is what D&D nerds in junior high school parsed when it took everyone else until they were gathered together in college dorms. Take it where you can get it. Gary Gygax, Jim Morrison, Nietzsche, Bob Kane.
After the jump, a videogame that goes beyond good and evil.
All this fascinating folderol — apologies to anyone with a philosophy degree reading this after his shift at Starbucks — is still very much a part of Arkham Knight, even though the Joker died in the last game. So I’ve been told. I couldn’t be bothered to get through the boss battle. I don’t want to belabor the point, because Arkham Knight is smart but not sublime. I mean, look, any ol’ videogame or comic book or trashy action movie can have the bad guy say to the good guy, “You and me, we’re just alike”. I’m guessing at least 70% of them do. I’m also guessing the Joker says it to Batman pretty much every time they have a conversation.
“Hey, Joker, how about lunch?”
“Sure, I could go for a bite.”
“Okay, what do you feel like? Sandwiches? Thai?”
“You and me, Bruce, we’re not so different! Hee hee hee, hoo hoo hoo!”
But Arkham Knight’s take on the hero/villain relationship is unique. You can hail it as clever as Fight Club or dismiss it as stupid as midichlorians — you’re at least a little right on either count — but you cannot deny that it’s a compelling variation on the theme, and it works wonders to sustain the story with unique dialogue and narrative opportunities.
As for the rest of the yarn in Arkham Knight, it’s the usual comic book tropes, where no one who’s dead is gone, if even dead. So when the first image in the game is Joker’s body being cremated to a wonderfully appropriate Sinatra ditty, you might guess the first word isn’t also the final word. But it’s definitely the word, no-nonsense, no fooling, you’ve seen what you’ve seen, so now what? Count it among the finer reveals and follow-throughs you’ll see in a videogame.
The good guys are mainly here to be temporarily locked into refrigerators to motivate Batman. “Your friends can’t be left alone five minutes without being kidnapped,” someone cracks late in the game. At which point literally every single good guy has taken a turn getting kidnapped. Every single one. All in one night, mind you. It’s like a season of 24, but in half the time. 12.
As for the rogue’s gallery, Rocksteady gets to introduce a brand new villain. It’s news to me that the Arkham Knight isn’t just another one of Batman’s titles. I figured calling it Batman: Arkham Knight was like calling it Batman: Dark Knight or Batman: Caped Crusader or Batman: World’s Greatest Detective. But it’s not another title for Batman. Nope. The Arkham Knight is a whole other dude — a villain, in fact — and the ideal opportunity to throw a bunch of tanks and soldiers and tanks and tanks at Batman. This new character’s identity is neatly teased, and even more neatly revealed.
As with the previous games and their casts, the voice work is fantastic, especially among the leads. Jonathan Banks, who most folks know as Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, is a wonderfully morose Commissioner Gordon. But now that Commissioner Gordon has a distinct voice, I wish the character model wasn’t a slavish reproduction of the previous Gary Oldman-a-like they’ve been using up to now. As for Troy Baker, I really don’t need Joel from The Last of Us showing up, which is precisely what happens. At least when they cast Nolan North as the Penguin, I’m never going to hear Nathan Drake.
Gameplay, you ask? Oh, right, that. I mean, you did play Arkham City, right? This is the next-gen that. Which is to say one of the finest gadget-based stealth games you can play, adoringly nestled in a gorgeously moody tribute to the Batman catalogue, digging deep but a little less scattered than Arkham City. It’s got plenty to do, but more focus on specific guest stars with distinct gameplay. You won’t get any of this “…and now lets visit the sewers for a brief special appearance by Killer Croc, followed by a Bane boss battle!”
Rocksteady continues to refine and develop the opportunity to take gunplay out of a contemporary open-world game, which is no mean feat. Imagine Watch Dogs without gunplay. Please. And as long as Arkham Knight stays in the open world, it’s on sure footing. But for whatever reason, Rocksteady didn’t have the confidence to stay in the open world. As they tell the main story, they increasingly retreat into tedious instances of someone getting kidnapped, Batman having to outwit 10 armed guards in a stealth sequence, and then the Batmobile having to blow up 20 tanks to secure something or other, and then some closed off instance of some gimmicky frippery usually accompanied by a gratuitous difficulty spike. But you’ll be back in the open world soon enough and all will be forgiven as you glide through the smooth fighting system, sample your choice of gameplay from the generous mission buffet, and scoop up those myriad lovely Riddler collectibles.
The Batmobile is a fine addition to Batman’s stable of gadgets, even though it does nose itself into the center of the game a bit often. Driving games don’t often play well with non-driving games, and in an open-world game that already has kick-ass traversal, trundling around in a car is going to be a bit underwhelming. For the proper place of cars in superhero games, see Saints Row IV, for example, or Just Cause 2. But the Batmobile has plenty of personality, and when it’s not being appropriated for an ill-conceived stealth game, it fits well enough into Rocksteady’s Batman universe, if not the city of Gotham (this thing must be a terror when the city isn’t evacuated!).
Gotham is a small open world, but it makes up with detail what it lacks in size. Rocksteady knows how to bring the city to life. Batman comes out of the Gotham City police department and there’s a cop standing in front of the Batmobile getting his picture taken by another cop. “Sorry, Batman,” they say, moving away quickly. “We didn’t touch anything.” Criminals muse, cajole, and react to storylines. You don’t get collectible icons splashed onto the map for nothing; you run down Riddler informants to unlock them. Rocksteady even resorts to some of the typical Ubistuff you’d see in an Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry game, like clearing out areas to capture territory. Hey, wasn’t that a clever jump scare? You’ll know it when you see it. The rain eventually stops. Well, gives way to something else. The city changes. The soundtrack flutters and thrums its tribute to Hans Zimmer. Capes rustle, rain beads convincingly, cold neon colors glow, the Batmobile coughs throatily when it idles down. This is a fine place to be, and this latest-gen Batman is a fine one to be here.
Batman: Arkham Knight
The Epic Conclusion to a Legendary Trilogy: Rocksteady Studios returns to the helm of the multi-award winning franchise. Scarecrow is back to wreak his revenge against Batman joined by a completely new and original character, the Arkham Knight. Don't make the same mistake Tom made by thinking we just put Batman's name in the title twice.