Wot I Think: Batman – Arkham Knight

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.

44 Comments

  1. padger says:

    “I love Rocksteady’s Batmobile.”

    BURN THE WITCH!

  2. mechabuddha says:

    “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.”

    You know, this sounds pretty darn good to me, too. And I think it would help involvement in the characters — the plot for Knight was all over the place, and I kind of tuned out after the 5th villain trying to destroy the entire city showed up.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Thirded. I would love to see a small-scale, intimate Batman game and story like described. And maybe a a version of the more brawling, vicious Mad Max take on the combat.

      • skyturnedred says:

        I still think Sleeping Dogs did the Arkham style brawling better than any other game.

        • gwathdring says:

          The introduction of, essentially, polymorphic input is what made it sing. Three times is different from two times. tap tap hold is different from tap tap tap. And they were careful enough that it didn’t have too much weird memorization. I liked it a lot, too. :)

    • NonCavemanDan says:

      One of the animated films (Mask of the Phantasm) had this as it’s plot, it also managed to have more explicit deaths than most of the “You Gotta Save Gotham” ones.

    • SomeDuder says:

      Yea, the problem with “end of the world” scenarios (well, Gotham IS Batman’s world, can’t imagine him anywhere else) is that such a storier are a bit too large for a Batman tale. It’s more of an Avengers or Superman thing to stop nukes/supervillains/natural disasters.

      And that’s why I loved the first game – it had this “detective mode” where you scanned the environment for extremely obvious clues and whatnot. Stupid, but still a better fit than the apocalypse…

      • gwathdring says:

        You say that, but I can’t help but feel the same about most Avengers, Superman or whatever-else stories too.

        Big save the world stuff is fun sometimes. When it’s bombastic and ridiculous or when you’ve built to it slowly and you’ve earned it. When it’s the routine way of things it gets frustrating. When every team-up or cross-over event has stakes higher than Shaggy and Scooby it gets frustrating. When these characters have interesting fictions being crafted and slowly developed only to have Secret Invasion or Civil War destroy those stories and replace them with dull-as-dishwater replacements … or when DC reboots the universe every ten seconds…

        It’s just not fun. It’s boring. Sometimes, sure, I just want stuff to get punched in the face. But usually I want characters–ridiculous and fantastical as they may be–doing something more personal.

        Guardians of the Galaxy could have been amazing if it hadn’t ratcheted the stakes up so high in so short a time so generically. The same cast, most of the same plot points and set pieces … but replace Ronan destroying some planet we barely give a toss about with some delightful mess involving multiple parties all scrapping over the same stolen items, to-be-collected bounties and personal scores while our not-really heroes stick together to pull out of the mess they’ve made as cleanly as possible rather than out of Love and Friendship for the Sake of the Universe.

        Ditto Avengers.

        • gwathdring says:

          Avengers almost pulled it off, but I think the whole business with Loki to begin with made it feel really flat. They needed to either keep it simpler with the alien invasion or keep it smaller and darker with Loki’s shenanigans. Mixing the two made it feel week and slapdash and while it was an exhilarating roller coaster it’s really boring to reflect on or watch multiple times.

          This isn’t the only way it can be. I LIKE superhero stories. I LIKE ridiculous nonsense. I like these characters. I just don’t always want the world to be about to explode.

        • hungrycookpot says:

          I don’t think the end-point has much to do with it. You can make any story about anything personal and effective. I mean, what’s more personal than the loss of everything you have? The key is in building up to that point, show the characters living their lives and enjoying everything they have to lose. Show the villain’s subtle approach and plans coming to fruition, create that sense of meaning that in the end that after all the time you spent becoming invested in the world, now it’s in danger and you actually care about it. I agree, most big movies jump right into the danger zone and don’t give us time to give a damn about the world that needs saving.

  3. MadMinstrel says:

    I feel the game has gone too far away from the Metroidvania roots it used to wear on its sleeve in Arkham Asylum and veered too close to Assassins’ Creed. Now that the locations are so much larger, they’re simply not that detailed or interesting anymore.

    • anHorse says:

      I got a real impression of that on one of the missions, IIRC it was the serial killer side thing

      The game describes to you this location where you need to go and because I was either flying over it all game or driving past it I had absolutely no idea where I was going.

      The only memorable bits of design from knight and city are the enclosed missions, the city may be big but most of the time it’s just an obstacle between the player and their next bit of possible excitment

      • Asurmen says:

        I liked the serial killer missions precisely because it wasn’t just a ‘go to this location’ quest.

        In fact quite a number of the side missions you had to look out for yourself unless you wanted to fly/drive along every road to find them.

    • Frank says:

      Yeah, I’d say it’s entirely an open-world Asscreed/GTA-alike now. But that’s okay. It’s not like the earlier, better metroidvanias are going anywhere.

  4. rgbarton says:

    Finally someone else that likes the Bat Tank. All across the internet I’ve seen reviewers dump on it even though its really some of the best tank combat I’ve ever played.

    • GWOP says:

      I guess you are feeling what I was feeling like when everyone was shitting on Mass Effect’s Mako…

      • rgbarton says:

        People either seem to either love or hate the mako. I myself was more in the middle about because while yes the controls could have been a lot more refined and sections with it could drag on a bit to long there still was a lot of fun to be had bouncing around on the moon and other copy pasted landscapes.

        Speaking of which I actually really hope the mako adopts the control scheme of the bat tank in arkham knight.

        • gwathdring says:

          Doing flips off of mountains and playing “is this cliff face too steep and if so how much can I abuse the geometry to get to the top anyway” were highlights of the Mass Effect 1 shonk-fest.

  5. Ufofighter says:

    So an i5 3.4Ghz + 16Gb Ram + 7870 2gb will run this thing at medium settings (1080p)? Weekend is coming and MGSV is almost done.

    • Sakkura says:

      “Intel Core i5 at 3.5GHz” is not very descriptive. Could be anything from a 2009-era Core i5-750 overclocked to 3.5GHz to a brand spanking new Core i5-6600K with no overclocking (and reporting the base clocks rather than the turbo boost).

      • Sakkura says:

        That wasn’t supposed to be a reply, sorry – the comment system here is buggier than Arkham Knight.

  6. It's not me it's you says:

    Yup, I too dug the car. The game ran similarly decent for me and I had a great time playing through it in the days after it came out.

    I’ve mostly stayed away from The Internet’s Opinion About This Here Videogame as it’s mostly bluster. Admittedly WB and Rocksteady royally fucked up this port and that is a damn shame but the game was thoroughly enjoyable for me and I see little gain in letting misers on the internet tell me I should feel otherwise.

  7. lupinewolf says:

    The Batmobile is the most fun to drive vehicle in a long while, probably because almost everything is destructible and so there’s little penalty for reckless driving. AND you don’t get slowed down! What’s not to like.

    Fully agree on the bat-tank battlezone comparison. I even liked the stealth parts!

    But if there’s one thing, and one thing only, that I hate about Arkham Knight is the fucking rain. Always raining all the time. The game looks great, better than ever, but you gotta see it through this unavoidable noise filter.

    Modders, you’re my only hope?

    • rgbarton says:

      They probably made it rain all the time to show off the games awesome glisten effects

  8. Richard Cobbett says:

    Tsk, such rampant wrongness about the Batmobile. Or as I came to think of it, Car-Car Binks.

    (nods with holy fervour, glides off like a sensible Batman)

    • Minglefingler says:

      I was able to play with a fairly smooth frame rate after the interim patch, that is until I progressed a bit and the performance started to swing between terrible and substandard. Despite this I finished the game because I absolutely loved it, including the Batmobile. Richard Cobbett I feel I should put a friendly arm around your shoulder, sit you down and explain to you that you are wrong. I may even offer you a chocolate chip muffin to soften the blow.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        With that level wrongness, I’d fear the chocolate chip muffin was actually a doorknob coated in Vegemite.

        • subedii says:

          The most wrong thing here is, I’m afraid, your misspelling of Marmite.

        • Minglefingler says:

          As with any wayward child kindness are persistence are the keys to successful education. Richard will see the error of his calamitous views soon enough.

    • Punning Pundit says:

      I thought Jar Jar was an interesting concept that was executed no more poorly than anything else in the Prequel trilogy.

      Think of him as an agent of pure chaos, but with a good heart. He was a man so clumsy that when he tripped, he broke the Republic.

      Alas, Lucas had no idea how to actually write that character in a way that was both endearing and tragic.

      • gwathdring says:

        I agree. Some of the slapstick was amusing and endearing, too. People forget that despite being stilted and very dated, the originals did TRY to be funny fairly frequently.

        It didn’t ultimately work, but it’s no more a failure than the Duel of the Fates lightsaber choreography and everyone seemed to like that bit for some reason. I’m continually confused by the things people like and dislike about the prequels and the magnitude of expression.

        Midocloreans don’t work because they’re never important, not because they ruin the magic of The Force–they replace one magic with a second magic. It’s a net neutral–nothing happens. Ok, The Force, Midochloreans. Now we have TWO words for the same mystical unexplained power. Explaining the Force isn’t a bad thing–Sanderson has made a career out of well explained magic systems. From my perspective problem with Midochloreans is that they never, ever matter again … so the scene introducing them is wasted air time that could have been spent developing Qui Gon as an actual character with actual motivations. Or making Darth Maul even half as interesting as the already medicore Qui Gon.

  9. jonahcutter says:

    I actually ended up ok the car stuff and some its puzzles too (and love its design), but the actual tank vs tank gameplay was arcade tedium for me. Something just to get through.

    This review was pretty spot on. Arkham Knight is a great entry in the series. And while it ran horribly for me at release, it’s been real solid since being fixed up, while also looking great.

  10. Carlos Danger says:

    Batmobile isn’t really that bad it just isn’t really Batman-y. Think it is the Bat-tank part that loses it as you are randomly shooting people in it. Would have worked well in another IP perhaps but did not fit here.

    But the biggest issue with the Batmobile is that it feels like it is stealing content from other aspects of the game. There is so little of the close combat, which had received various upgrades, and it feels like most of it was run over by the Batmobile.

  11. Procrastination Giant says:

    This actually reads like a review by someone who wanted to play the game and not like one by someone who HAD to play the game, which seems to make a world of a difference in this particular case. So hats of to you Adam for giving it a fair shot, despite all the lingering hate and frustration surrounding it.

    My opinion on the game is pretty much in line with this review, since i had a bloody good time with it despite its occasional foibles, actually enjoyed some of the later tank battles (though i definitely can understand why some hate those) and also ended up liking it quite a bit better than City. It just ended up using the open world setting in a much more natural way, while throwing the odd surprise and clever idea at you. Loved how they kept track of your progress. Loved how none of the side missions pestered you into doing them and only gently nudged you whenever there was downtime in the story. Hated the Riddler trophies this time around though. Blerph, way too many!

    Also had the pleasure of running it without major performance issues (4790k at 4.6ghz, 16gb ram, 970 4gb, win 8.1 – still had to disable the smoke), which might have affected my opinion a bit by appeasing my inner graphics snob, since it’s truely a ridiculously good looking game ontop of being a decent batman title.

    Anyway, i do believe that anyone who actually likes the Arkham series enough to consider playing this one AND has a machine beefy enough to play it (and has luck with the compatibility lottery) shouldn’t necessarily buy into all the negativity and give it a shot. I simply can’t see anyone who liked the first two and hasn’t grown tired of the series yet hating this one.

  12. ljohnsonjean says:

    good

  13. freedomispopular says:

    Did people really not like the Batmobile? Or just the fact that there was entirely too much of it foisted upon the player?

  14. blackmyron says:

    I give Arkham Knight an A+ for successfully testing out Steam’s new refund policy.

  15. Unsheep says:

    This game is a good argument for delaying PC releases until they actually work well, instead of releasing them broken just because they want to keep up with the console releases.

  16. epeternally says:

    While the way the Batmobile is implemented (especially early game) is iffy to say the least, my biggest non-performance problem with the game has ended up being the environmental design. The entire area doesn’t feel alive or convincing in the slightest, and especially when I’m above it I immediately start noticing a thousand different things that are just wrong, wrong, wrong. It never feels like a city, or even a section of a city (and for the theme of ‘all of Gotham is in crisis, it’s far too small), it just feels like a game map made by a team of people who don’t understand the structure and flow of environments. It’s jarringly game-y and kills my ability to get immersed in the world. Even if technical issues were not a thing, I think that would still put it as the worst Arkham game for me (Origins included). This isn’t Gotham City, it’s a half cooked sandbox playground through and through.

  17. Marclev says:

    I got a refund after an hour playing it. Performance was fine for me, but apart from the bat mobile there just didn’t seem to be anything new over what I’d played in Arkham City. The city looked practically the same while gliding over it, and the hand to hand combat was the same. Possibly I just didn’t give it enough time, but it just came across as “been there, done that” during that initial hour (and the Batmobile arcade combat was just tedious and forced, not fun).

    It also seemed very unfocused. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were very tightly plotted (City possibly slightly less so), but this one practically seemed to be screaming “Play the side quests, play the side quests!” at me after the first hour was over. As epeternally above says, it just feels too much like a sandbox playground.

    Just didn’t click with me at all.

  18. Uhuru N'Uru says:

    I don’t think it’s the inclusion of the Batmobile, that the complaints are about, I’ve never heard anyone say that.

    The two things that were complained about, were it’s changing a tank like gun platform, but mostly they said that in a supposed “open world”, too many missions forced it’s use, until they were finally sick to death of it.