Despite the best intentions of their handlers, popular superheroes are, to a certain extent, encased in amber. They can change for a little while, but there are fans to appease and kids to indoctrinate, so for most of their existence they are the same. They keep their iconic markings and fight their iconic villains for decades at a time. Some of them even keep the same expression on their face as they do it.
This cycle goes and goes, and eventually some readers “age out”—which just means they found something else they would rather do. But others find comfort in the sameness, in the steadiness of storyline reboots and intractable canon. It’s the fine line between boredom and pleasing familiarity.
Batman: Arkham Knight takes that fine line, sticks it in a grapple gun, and drags Batman from the end of it. It’s the fourth game in the beloved Batman: Arkham series in six years (and the fifth if you count the rather different Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate, but let’s be generous and not do that). As a mandate, it cannot be too different from its predecessors.
And so it is not. Batman is still the lead here, and he’s still skulking through a story that sees him taking on the greatest hits and occasional B-sides of his rogue’s gallery—a Two-Face here, a Man-Bat there. The Scarecrow is the ostensible lead villain, ruling over a sprawling Gotham City that has been evacuated under threats of a gas attack, and Batman spends the game navigating the city and fighting his way to Scarecrow using the tried and true Batman: Arkham combat system.
It is still best-in-class brawling that marries perfectly to the character of the caped crusader. When Batman is able to stay out of sight, he can use guerilla tactics, dropping from the rafters or bursting through plywood walls. When his cover is blown or there is no cover to be had, a hard-hitting fistfight of strikes and counters ensures Bruce can beat the odds—unless the odds have guns, in which case he should have dealt with that from the shadows first. Batman: Arkham Knight adds a small wrinkle to that old punch-and-duck, occasionally integrating an ally that can be switched to on the fly. These fights are easier than the norm, so they’re more flair than anything else. Two heroes is way too much for most thugs can handle.
A Scarecrow-hired mercenary named the Arkham Knight, a new and awful character created specifically for this game, leads the thugs. The Arkham Knight is a faceless, cyborg-looking bat-man who is angry at actual Batman for seemingly no reason. (The reason does eventually come.) Now you know everything there is to know about the Arkham Knight. The guy is a cardboard standee, especially when compared to the maniacs Batman is usually charged with bringing to justice. It made me glad to take them on again, even if I had taken them on over and over again in previous Batman: Arkham games.
This is a theme with Batman: Arkham Knight. It cannot be completely the same as previous games, so it adds things that are new—but all those new things do is highlight how great the old bones of this series are. Take the primary new addition to Batman: Arkham Knight, the Batmobile. It mostly acts as a rocket-powered roadster and is the fastest way to get across the city. But it’s too fast and corners too awkwardly for Gotham’s narrow streets. That makes it a less enjoyable way to move around than the old method of gliding and grappling across rooftops, an elegant in-character solution that became overused and tired in previous games. It can still be done in Batman: Arkham Knight, though, and every time the Riddler throws another rote racetrack challenge in front of the Batmobile, it’s a reminder of how much better the older solution is.
The Batmobile can also transform into a more maneuverable but slower assault vehicle, which lets Batman fight the many remote-controlled tanks that the Arkham Knight has dropped into the city. These tanks attack in the dozens, move at lethargic speed, and take forever to line up their cannons, so this part of the game becomes a simple, long-winded shooting gallery. Perhaps its goal was to make one pine for the complex and well choreographed fistfights that are, again, getting tired but are still in Arkham Knight. If that is the case, mission accomplished.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of that older, stronger stuff here, making it enjoyable in the aggregate even if that’s not always the case in the moment-to-moment action. The story flows similarly, fumbling many awkward lines but still hitting on all of the major points and swerves—including a thrilling finale. There’s also a fair variety of distractions, though there are too few interesting missions (like the ones where Batman is tracking a mysterious serial killer) and too many involving the Batmobile.
And the entire game is propped up by best-in-class presentation. (At least on PlayStation 4, that is. The PC version is reportedly a disaster. We did not receive a copy of this version for review.) The game’s beefy depiction of Batman is detailed to a striking degree of fidelity. He moistens realistically in rain, and his batsuit withers believably under the relentless assault of hooligans and lunatics. Gotham itself is exquisitely filthy, a neon-lit corpse of an ancient city that has never been able to fully exhale. And all of the audio, from the line reads to the score to the screech of tires, is brash and dramatic. It’s the sort of work where an impeccable and expensive production can paper over an uneven flow, and that’s what happens here. Blowing up drone tank after drone tank feels like a waste of time, but staring at what looks like thousands of moving Batmobile parts? That’s less difficult to mind.
Batman: Arkham Knight works as a piece of summer blockbuster entertainment, even if it’s not always pulling its weight as a game about being Batman. Its blend of “things that have been done” and “things that aren’t worth doing” is safe, just another turn in the wheel of the World’s Greatest Detective. There will be a comfort in that for some. Others, who would find it tiring, have probably already moved on. I expect some will do as I did and bounce from one opinion to the other as the game’s joys ebb and flow, end up somewhere in the middle, and start fantasizing about the next inevitable reboot. And so the cycle continues.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PC (temporarily unavailable until it’s fixed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4