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Wot I Think: Batman - Arkham Knight

Knightmare?

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There’s been so much talk about Batman: Arkham Knight [official site] but one question has been left unanswered, at least round these parts. Is it any good? While the game was unavailable, there seemed little point in telling you Wot I Think but I did in fact play this latest Batventure in its entirety when it first released. I was mid-way through my introductory review paragraph when Warner pulled the game from digital shelves. It’d be dishonest to pretend that my thinking about the game hasn’t changed in the months since – I enjoyed it much more in the moment than my memory allows me to believe – but on one point I still stand against the critical tide.

I love Rocksteady’s Batmobile.

If you were to listen to popular consensus, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the addition of the Batmobile was a preposterous mistep for the series, comparable to the time when Bubsy met 3D. I thought so too, during the opening sequences, when the vehicle is introduced to great fanfare and insists on involving itself in every single activity. Want to travel across the city? Get in the car. Want to take down a tank? Get in the car. Want to open a gate? Get in the car. Want to solve a buttons ‘n’ levers puzzle? Oh, you better believe you’ll need to be in your car.

It’s an outrageous and unwanted insertion. For a while it’s as if Batman is a toddler who just got a vroom vroom for Christmas and refuses to put it down because it’s the best thing EVER. There he is, at dinner, driving his car into the gravy boat and ruining everything. There it is trundling down the church aisle. And, yes, your eyes don’t deceive you – he’s only gone and replaced the figure of baby Jesus in the manger with his shiny new toy.

Half an hour in and I wanted to smash the bloody thing to pieces. My mood wasn’t improved by the fact that the gouts of smoke the BatTank spews up as it squeals its tires, doing more donuts than Homer Simpson’s boy racer alter ego – they caused my framerate to tank. Astonishingly that was the only technical issue I had, playing with the original release of the game, once I’d knocked my settings down a notch from max and turned off the Nvidia FX doohickeys (my system specs are listed at the end of the review).

Thirty nine hours later, the main plot and many of the side-missions put to rest, I’d grown to love that car. Arkham Knight is still reliant on repetitive loops of close combat, predatory stealth and basic detection, and the Batmobile adds another layer of activities to interrupt those loops. While the rest of the world might not agree with BatKilmer’s suggestion that anyone digs the car, I enjoyed the strafing-and-shooting tank combat. It’s how I’d want a modern BattleZone to play out and while it might not cohere with the character quite as well as the freeflow fisticuffs, I always found it to be a welcome alternative.

As an actual device to aid movement around the city, the Batmobile isn’t necessary. Gotham is large enough to make walking a pain in the soles, but Batman’s gliding abilities have been upgraded so extensively that he can launch himself like a cannonball and take an aerial tour of the entire area in a matter of minutes. Batman is his own mode of transport.

While it might not be necessary, the Batmobile is superbly integrated. Press a button and it finds its way to you. Do that while you’re gliding and it’ll find a suitable parking spot and wait as Batman goes into a dive and lands, smug as a Lord, right in the driver’s seat. It’s ludicrous and brash, and it allows for seamless transitions between gliding, punching, grappling and driving. What I loved about the car, eventually, is that Rocksteady have managed to make it both secondary character, when remote controlled for use in puzzle solving, and gadget subservient to the player’s needs.

Some of the sidemissions make smart use of the car, and it’s instrumental in the drone-packed main plotline, but the core of the game is still exploration and combat. It’s caught somewhere between the tightness of Arkham Asylum, which is still the series highpoint, and the bagginess of Arkham City. I think it’s better than City, mainly because the balance between all of the various elements feels more comfortable. The plot is structured such that it makes sense to chase minor villains while events are unfolding, and many of them only become active from time to time rather than sitting waiting as great big icons on the map.

There are a lot of icons on that map though. I tapped out before chasing down all of the Riddler trophies but I did complete a fair few mindless busywork tasks. As with any of these big budget map-cleaning games, your tolerance for all of that busywork will depend on your enjoyment of the theme, the presentation and those core action sequences that knit the cutscenes and collectibles together. If you’ve played any one of the Arkham games, you should know whether you’re ready for another dose.

Combat has a few tweaks, mainly thanks to Rocksteady’s admirable refusal to push a Metroid-style reset on Batman’s abilities when the game begins. You’re building from an established moveset and powerbase rather than starting from scratch, and that means enemy variants can be introduced quickly, and the range of foes expands beyond what City offered. The tag team sessions, which see Bruce teamed with a partner, look flashy but are more an excuse for huge combo strings than a real change of pace. As is usual for the series, bossfights are a bit of a letdown, particularly those that take place in the Batmobile and deny a proper face-to-face, but there are enough inventive setpieces to shake things up from time to time.

Story-wise, it’s a load of old guff but I found the whole silly mess enormously entertaining. The smaller side-stories are far more interesting than the big Bat Family story that unfolds, wrapped up in the identity of the MYSTERIOUS Arkham Knight. The main issue with that centrepiece villain is that anyone with an interest in Batman that goes beyond the basics will most likely guess who is behind the mask long before the reveal, while everyone else will find emotional hooks attached to characters they’ve never met before.

Knight introduces allies who have played no real part in the trilogy but acts as if they’ve been on the sidelines the whole time – not so jarring if you’re aware of the idea of Batman Incorporated, but slightly odd if your knowledge ends with ‘And Robin’ (the first Robin because, what, there are more?). Arkham City assumed a lot of knowledge as well, throwing villains and wonky romance subplots every whichway, but it never felt as if it were putting quite as many eggs in one basket as Arkham Knight does with its titular villain.

It’s a shame that the reveal isn’t quite as surprising as the build-up suggests because so much of the execution is brilliant. When the story is about Bruce and his inner demons, it’s as angsty and snarly and heroic as Batman should be, and there’s some smart and effective perspective-switching in the final act that performs bold surgery on the whole Dark Knight mythology. Rocksteady have made a habit of that, writing their own vision across the screen and creating a canonical work across this trilogy that uses whatever is useful from decades of backstory, but forges its own path. Even when Arkham Knight is citing and alluding to existing BatTales, it’s utilising those references for its own ends.

And this is an end-point for the trilogy and (perhaps) and end-point for this particular take on Bruce and the Bat. It’s his story that matters here and everyone else is a motivation. That means there’s little room to explore the ramifications of the military tactics and weaponry that Wayne is forced to use against a villain with an organised army – there are moments when the game seems interested in questioning the escalation of his methods (and he is the target here; the city is collateral damage), but for all its bombast, the story is concerned with personal conflicts rather than the limits of power.

As far as the technical issues with the port go, I’ve had a remarkably smooth ride. As mentioned above, the initial release suffered staggering framerate drops with Nvidia PhysX enabled whenever there was smoke on-screen (most of the time) and gliding, with the full city in view below and draw distances maxed out, was impossible. The sight of Batman hanging in the air as everything froze brought to mind a baby’s hanging mobile rather than a Batmobile. With PhysX off, everything was smooth bar the occasional slight bit of slowdown when a new scene came into view, testing my card’s ability to render everything in sight.

Batmobile sections were occasionally stuttery, when lots of debris was flying, but never enough to throw me off course. Oddly, bumping down other video settings didn’t seem to improve performance at all. I’ve had a quick spin on the newly released version this morning and it seems to run exactly the same as the old one for me. Still haven’t had any joy with PhysX, still don’t need (or have) 12GB of RAM to enjoy the game. Sadly, it all seems like a bit of a crapshoot – my PC is mighty (specs at the end) but it’s not the mightiest, and given the botched nature of the release and now re-release, I couldn’t confidently state that anyone should take a chance with the game unless they had the option to refund.

I wish more people could play though because those who know what they’re buying into will almost certainly enjoy what they get. Yes, you might end up exhausted before the end but keep in mind that you don’t have to spend hours chasing sideplots if you don’t want to. That some of the best moments in the game are stashed in those diversions should be encouragement enough to at least peek at the tip of each iceberg though.

More than anything, Arkham Knight makes me hungry for a Batman game that is about a smaller story. A case for the great detective rather than a crisis for all of Gotham. Some of the optional missions show what that game might look like – I’m far more intrigued by the Batman standing on a rooftop above a bustling city, poring over a murder scene and searching for justice, than the Batman who stands between a burning city and its complete collapse.

Arkham Knight is the sweet spot between the ‘all cowl and no codpiece’ rigmarole of Arkham City and the tight claustrophobic construction of Arkham Asylum. It’s not as solid as the latter but it manages to have more variety and more focus than the former. It’s a beautiful game as well, ditching some of the swollen stylised body types of its predecessors and finding a more cohesive neon-gothic, blimps and all.

If the game itself were as much of a mess as the port, I’d happily ignore the whole thing but Rocksteady are still capable of spectacle and style. Given the choice of one big budget collectathon series a year, and that’s often all I can find time for, I’d pick Arkham almost every time.

Batman: Arkham Knight is available now. I played on a machine running Windows 7 with an Intel Core i5 at 3.50GHz and 8GB of RAM. Video card is a GeForce GTX 960 with 4GB.

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