A lot of times, “Batman: Arkham Knight” feels like two entirely different video games rolled up into one. They are both very good video games, but I’m not sure that they belong together.
The first game is very much the sequel to the previous “Arkham” games that was promised. You play as the Batman, gliding, stalking, and fighting your way across Gotham city with nifty gadgets and super-cool martial arts. You are a master of stealth and fear, picking off foes one at a time or recklessly diving in and methodically incapacitating entire mobs of armed goons.
Sometimes you do detective stuff.
In the second game, you play as the Batmobile (sometimes quite literally — Batman doesn’t even have to be in the thing to drive it). You are a lord of horsepower and property damage, ploughing through pillars and trees and taking on platoons of tanks with missile swarms and a giant 60mm cannon. Sometimes you race through death traps and solve puzzles with a giant tow cable.
Occasionally, these games intersect — like when, as Batman, you’re pinned down by a small army that thinks they have you dead to rights, only to run scrambling in fear when you call in your personal tank to back you up. Those are nice moments.
“Batman: Arkham Knight” is the grand finale to a trilogy of games that began with 2009’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and 2011’s “Batman: Arkham City.” (There’s also a 2013 prequel, “Batman: Arkham Origins” set in the same universe. It’s referenced, but not terribly important). They’re excellent games that really nail the feeling of being Batman, set in a world that’s a pretty terrific mashup of the various ways the hero and his world have been depicted over the past 75 years. If you like Batman, chances are you will love the “Arkham” games. If you’re new to the character, they’re one of the best introductions to him outside of “Batman: The Animated Series.”
How much you enjoy “Arkham Knight,” however, will depend on how much you like the Batmobile.
Make no mistake: The Batmobile is really fun, and developer Rocksteady Games work very hard to make it as deep and complex as every other part of the game, complete with upgradable powers, puzzles, and challenges designed specifically for it.
It’s just that it is the one thing in the game that feels the least like Batman, and the game requires you to spend nearly half of your time in it. It’s an excuse for a game to pit you against an army and fire endless amounts of lethal weaponry, with the hand-wavey justification that the tanks you blow up are “unmanned drones” and the men you shoot (almost every character in the game is a man, you can count the women on one hand) are taken out with “nonlethal” ammunition.
On the one hand, this is all preposterous. On the other hand, shooting things is a fun, popular activity to have in a video game, and the narrative justification is there for those who want to enjoy it and still feel like they’re adhering to Batman’s code.
There’s really only one other potential trouble spot in “Arkham Knight,” and that’s its role as the conclusion of a trilogy. It’s story, while quite good, isn’t without faults (we’ll discuss those in a spoiler-heavy post) — but it also expects you to know the events of “Arkham Asylum” and “Arkham City.” It also expects you to be pretty familiar with how those games worked. There are tutorials, but if you aren’t already familiar with the set of gadgets returning from the previous games then you might be left in the dark until you find a mission that requires (and teaches) you to use them.
If you’re an “Arkham” vet, though, you’ll be right at home. The formula is pretty much the same, just bigger. Scarecrow has teamed up with the mysterious Arkham Knight to blanket Gotham with fear gas, and you’ll use a mix of stealth, puzzle-solving, and fisticuffs to stop him.
There are a few tweaks to the formula: Boss fights aren’t really a thing anymore, mostly relegated to a couple extra-challenging Batmobile encounters. You’ll also have a few opportunities to team up with a few of Batman’s allies with a fun new tag-team “Dual-play” fight system.
There are also other villains on the loose in Gotham, and the majority of the game’s side-missions involve tracking them down and putting an end to their plans. The majority of these side missions are fantastic and worth doing (although you’ll have to complete most of them in order to get the game’s actual ending, and all of them if you want the “full” ending. It’s kind of crazy, since that includes solving all of the Riddler’s 256 puzzles).
“Batman: Arkham Knight” is a good video game, but it’s also a textbook example of how sequels feel compelled to top what came before by getting bigger and going wider. That’s admirable, but sometimes it doesn’t work, resulting in a game that it is at odds with itself, introducing exciting new things that are really fun but are fundamentally opposed to the world and character they have established.
It’s almost like the developers, in their efforts to give us a better video game, forgot to give us a better Batman game.
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