Batman Arkham City was one of FBT's favourite games. Will the Knight ruin it for him?
Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum finally allowed us to say ‘I’m Batman’ and mean it. Bats was largely grounded and faced appalling boss battles but AA was brilliant – gaming’s Batman Begins. And then Rocksteady gave us The Dark Knight as a follow up; Arkham City. Freed of the boxed-in Asylum, it was Escape from New York and you were Snake in a Cape. With the exception of yet more infuriating watch-and-learn-with-Bats boss battles, AC was one of the best games of all time, a towering achievement of gaming and story-telling worthy of any graphic novel. And now, Arkham Knight – Dark Knight Rises or Batman and Robin? I’ll give you a clue; Robin’s in it. Oh yeah. I’ll give you another clue – this review is filed under Rage Quit.
After the ending of AC, Gotham is bracing itself after the power-vacuum left by Bats and Joker’s epic battle. This time it’s Scarecrow, who was roundly beaten by Bats in the previous games - well, beaten, inhaled his own fear toxin and chewed on by Killer-Croc - Understandably pissed off, Scares unleashes a toxin causing Gothamites to go murderously insane. Everyone except the law-breakers scarper. And Bats.
The city is extraordinary to look at, like it was designed by a fan of The Crow having a fever-dream after reading a book about Art Deco while watching Metropolis and listening to the Bladerunner soundtrack. Its twisting labyrinth streets, uneven rooftops, modern-on-gothic look makes for a rainy, gritty, dirty maze of crime and grime. It’s perfect. It’s perhaps the most beautiful and detailed game world I’ve ever seen, decay and misery included. Never mind you had to own a Sunway to run it (Ok Google, what's the world’s most powerful supercomputer?) – this is worth upgrading for. Gothman is sheer rotting beauty.
From a lithe and leafy Poison Ivy, Bats learns that Scares' toxin is only the start; he clubbed the Rogues Gallery together to support him in destroying Gotham. Before Bats can even grimace at the idea of Gotham dying, a militia force rolls in, tanks and tech’ed to the teeth and starts pulling the town apart looking for him, commanded by the mysterious Arkham Knight, who has the kind of hatred for Bats that borders on the fanatical, becoming fantastical, eventually farcical. Time and time again he has the chance to kill Bats but doesn’t take it, conveniently says it’s not time for him to die, or leaves him alone to escape; “I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death” – Arkham Knight is Dr Evil. But for now, we’re only concerned about the tanks rolling in. Of course, this Bat doesn’t take things lying upside down.
Bats in AC was fear gliding over the city. In AK he’s a bus driver with a grudge, the one that waits till you nearly reach it then shuts the doors. Once you get control of the beast-like Batmobile, it’s the only way to travel. It’s a monster and better than the Tumbler - It is. It’s a terrifying joy just to look at, Bats’ mood rendered in cold dead steel. It looks like the kind of thing Death would drive – talking of Death, there’s no way Bats’ no-kill policy extends to the Batmobile, without doubt that thing kills people. Aside from that, the sheer destruction you cause just turning a corner is doing Scarecrow’s work for him. It has two settings, pursuit and battle mode. Battle mode works yet doesn’t. The BM basically becomes a crab, able to sidle side to side, spin around, but why turn into a merry-go-round when under attack? Bats has always been about Arrive, Express how much he hates crime, Leave. Why is stationary is the best defence? Is it because the tanks stay still once they see the BM? That's lucky. The pursuit mode lets you fire disabling rockets at vehicles but it handles like a caravan and goes like a rocket so it’s all so fraught and crashy until you activate battle-mode and it turns into a ballerina. It’s just not the assured, dominant pose you expect from Bats; the thugs are more scared of Bats behind the wheel than the wheel itself.
It’s great to drive once you get used to it, assuming you have enough fingers to operate all the options, but within the game it’s a gimmick. Rather than a complement to his crime-fighting ways there's convoluted reasons to use it, and everything is solved by either gliding or driving - not both, you don’t get to choose how to approach a problem. You’re also confined to close-quarter chases when it should be GTA Gotham; you never really open it up, let lose. You can remote control it too, but that’s irritatingly underused or forced in as a problem-solver.
So, apart from Knight and his boo-hissing, Scarecrow’s open-season means we also tangle with Azrael, who's interesting appearances in AC are completely undermined, mockney Penguin doing something or other, Two-Face for padding, and then there’s helium-voiced Harley Quinn; she should be a loose-cannon threat given Mr J’s fate but she’s got nothing to do and only there because we’d complain if she wasn’t. There's a ton of filler-villains too; zeroes like Man-Bat, Professor Pyg and Firefly are crammed in (Can’t we find something better to do than chase a fly? You don’t even get to smoosh him on the BM’s grill). But the real rager is Riddler. Taking convenient advantage of the Batmobile, he sets a route of time-based chases around Gotham’s sewer system for Bats to conquer. There’s a city filling with poison, do you really have time to play Mario Kart, Bats? Yes, because Riddler has kidnapped Catwoman. She’s not key to the poison plot or anything, but we’re all a sucker for Rocksteady’s Catwoman. The issue is though, Bats always out-thinks his opponents - sure he’s got the gadgets, the cash and the bod, but his mind was his super-power. Yet in AK he just goes along with Riddler’s demands, jumps through his hoops to save Catwoman. He doesn’t outwit him, figure ways around the problems, he just solves them. Boring. And reducing Catwoman to a damsel in distress is a huge disservice to one of the more interesting female characters in Batman. In AC she was hot and formidable, Bats’ equal. Riddler may be helping Scarecrow to distract Bats, but he would have known that – plus Catwoman is imprisoned, not in danger so from our perspective it's filler and annoying for it. I get so bored with Rids’ games I leave Catwoman chained up.
While the thugs are largely the same, the Knight’s men are anti-Bat trained; electrified fields, the ability to revive fallen comrades, armed with mini-guns, tasers, blades, they can also counter Bats’ moves and scan to spot where he is. The best thing about AC brawling was Bats had the tactical and technical superiority; they just had numbers. Now they have both and the fights turn into button-mashing scraps. It was fun to fight in AC, test Bats’ mettle; now it’s an annoyance. I once played AC for so long the entire city was silenced. I’d offed every thug in Arkham. There’s so much locked down arena fighting in AK it’s more Tekken than Taken; Bats should be brutal and efficient, not hopping around in the background like Pumaman. Bats can be accompanied by Catwoman, Robin or Nightwing and reaching a certain streak-count allows you to body swap; sounds cool but it’s a bit gimmicky and who cares, I’m Batman; just make fighting more satisfying.
We’re also supported by Gordon and his daughter Oracle as well as the occasional dry comment from Alfred. We even get to use the police precinct to doss about in, pick up crimes in progress and drop off the side-villains we take down. AK has some RPG DNA in it, and you wish Knight and Scarecrow would naff off and let us tidy up the city in the Batmobile instead of all this ominous stuff. There is one ominous element that almost saves AK though.
Bats has another side-kick … The Joker. This is a brilliant dynamic. Bats and Joker have always had a complicated relationship, so to have Joker in his mind, reminding him of his failures and his guilt is proper stuff. It’s the best thing in the game as Joker corrodes Bats’ mind and looks set to take over completely, intertwining with the main plot (until Knight’s histrionics make everything daft again) and its really good when Bats conveniently needs to get a little crazy (It’s a shame it’s scripted though, would have been great to get Joker-time as an option like bullet-time). They have some great moments together.
The plot of AK is huge, epic and a fitting end to the trilogy; everything that is happening is Bats’ fault - Scarecrow’s revenge has been a thread throughout the series and more and more people get pulled into – or pay for – Scarecrow’s obsession and Bat’s actions. The game asks if Bats is really doing the right thing, or just making things worse. And it’s played out in the most beautiful environment, by a Bats at his most grizzled and agitated, with all the usual suspects, and the Batmobile – and we’ve even got the Joker doing a Tyler Durden. AK is pure class, and I’m still giving up on this gem? Hell yes.
AK has a lot of annoyances – the fights aren’t fun, the Batmobile has a puncture, Riddler is an idiot and Knight is Widow Twanky with a painfully obvious secret identity. But the real rage-quit is AK’s habit of rug-pulling. The plotting is like one of those old 30’s serials where each episode ends with certain death then the next tells us Rocketman or Flash actually escaped in time. There’s some real mouth-hits-the-floor, eyes-wide, ‘holy shit’ moments where you really think Bats can’t come back from this. Game-changing, narrative-impacting, how-you-play and how you feel moments. And … then it undoes the moment. This happens at least three times – as far as I got anyway, who knows if there’s more.
At the risk of a spoiler, a perfect example is the fate of the Batmobile. After a huge (and daft) fight with Knight in the sewers the Batmobile is destroyed. DESTROYED?! No! OMB. Now what? I feel naked, worried about how I’ll get about town, the toxin everywhere, the tanks, this is real hell-no, game-changing stuff. I’m terrified and excited, and we’re stuck trying to rescue someone, surrounded by tanks and ... wait, Bats isn’t worried … oh yeah, just call Alfred and get Batmobile Mk2 delivered. Which is actually a meatier and better version. What?! Fine that Bats has a spare, but games always put you in extreme situations and you go along with it because that's the world you've been told exists - it was Bats, trapped in the city, alone. If Bats can just call in backup, if Alfred can pilot a replacement then the world changes; roll everything out - get the Batwing to take out the militia, have Nightwing rescue Catwoman, Robin can chase Firefly; let me and Joker go get a beer. It sounds like a whinge but it changes the reality we trusted the game to maintain. The other twists are even more of a betrayal because they undercut emotional reactions. They’re soap-opera twists. In AK it turns out J.R shot himself.
Another example of the game’s treachery; when the militia’s commander-in-chief is run off, what happens? Another Merc rocks up and takes over. Where did he come from, why didn't he get involved earlier? What, he was just sitting in the super-villain waiting room?! You kept a spare henchman, Scarecrow? It’s exactly the same, just different voice goading you. The game can’t let things change too much because there’s so much non-linear stuff going on it would impact - Bats needs the BM outside the main mission, so it has to reappear and that's a cheat, like Skyrim had Dragons that don’t damage anything and a civil war you never see, AK gives you show-stoppers then restarts the show rather than having the guts to let it stay changed. Each time you think this is the boldest, bleakest, bravest Bats ever and then it double-crosses you. I can’t believe AK became a let-down, especially after how AC played out. That game stuck to its shocks. I’ve had enough. To the Bat-Exit.
Arkham Knight opens with the line ‘this is how the Batman died’. This game pranked me so many times I suspect Bats doesn’t die either. AK gets so much right; it can make you gasp in shock, at it's beauty, the story, but eventually you’re gasping in annoyance.
2015 | Developer Rocksteady Studios | Publisher WB Interactive
platforms; Win | PS4 | XO