Without any hesitation, I can say that Arkham Knight is the best superhero game ever made.
That of course makes it the best Batman game ever, and a fine culmination of everything Rocksteady and Warner Bros. have been working toward with the three prior games in the series. But it’s not without it’s flaws. There’s a little too much emphasis on using the Batmobile to proceed through the story, which mostly works great, but at other times feels unnecessary. And while the arc of the eponymous Arkham Knight starts off strong, the reveal of his identity will ultimately disappoint many Batman fans.
The gameplay in the Arkham games is so good that Warner Bros. Interactive apparently uses it for the basis of all of its action games now. Seriously, go pick up Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor and Mad Max. The basic combat is nearly identical. But Batman was the first to introduce freeflow combat that mixes strikes with parries and dodges in Arkham Asylym, and Arkham Knight absolutely perfects it. Maybe the timing is a little bit looser or refined, but it just seems easier to counter in this game, which just makes everything feel a little smoother and less frustrating.
New to Arkham Knight is the addition of the Batmobile, Batman’s trusty racecar/tank/whatever comic book writers conveniently need it to be this month. It’s incredibly exhilarating to race around the new, larger version of Gotham in the Batmobile, running over bad guys, and jumping off ramps. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a superhero game is jumping off of a building straight into the Batmobile, driving across town, and then ejecting out of it to kick a thug in the face. Arkham Knight nails everything that makes Batman cool. No other superhero game comes close in terms of understanding the essence of its lead.
That being said, sometimes using the Batmobile feels forced, such as when you have to use it to pull down walls or grapple up buildings. Later in the game, you’ll use the Batmobile’s combat mode quite a bit to sneak behind tanks in a bit of stealth that feels so silly it could have been ripped right out of the ’60s Batman show starring Adam West. It just doesn’t make much sense. Apparently you’re supposed to assume that no one can hear or see the giant $100 million tank creeping around downtown Gotham. Better spray some trusty shark repellent on it just to be safe in case it gets near water. These missions don’t break the game, but they do slow down what’s an otherwise thrilling adventure to save Gotham. They also seem to have replaced the predator rooms that popped up fairly regularly in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but which are few and far between here. Their absence is missed.
Arkham Knight doesn’t stray too far from being a traditional Batman story. Batman once again faces off against the Scarecrow, trying to spread his fear toxin across the city. Meanwhile, the mysterious Arkham Knight has also come to Gotham to kill him. And to make matters worse, while the Joker died at the end of Arkham City, he returns in Arkham Knight as a constant hallucination that follows the caped crusader around, reminding him of his failures as a hero. There’s a lot going on here, with appearances from many other Bat-family mainstays like Robin, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy, and overall it works as an examination of what motivates Bruce Wayne to be Batman. This is a common theme in Batman comics and movies, but rarely has a topic like this ever been touched on in any video game, and it works here. Though Arkham Knight is the largest Arkham game to date, it’s also the most intensely personal story.
It’s not a perfect story, however. The reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity will no doubt disappoint many Batman fans. Warner Bros. and Rocksteady did a good job of keeping this secret until after the game released, and hinted that the Knight was an exciting new addition to the Batman universe. He’s not. In fact, his identity won’t be terribly surprising to anyone who’s somewhat familiar with Batman comics. Worse, this reveal doesn’t even make a lot of sense within the context of the Arkham universe, which never even really hinted at this character’s prior existence. This isn’t a huge problem because playing as the Dark Knight is so much, but it is one of a handful of small issues that holds Arkham Knight back from being considered one of the absolute best games of all time.
The previous three Arkham games were among the best looking releases on the Xbox 360. The only real problem with them was that even if you were technically in a city, the areas often felt confined to avoid putting too much stress on the frame rate. Thanks to the power of the Xbox One, technical issues are no longer a concern. This version of Gotham City feels straight out of the stylized take of the city from 1995’s Batman Forever, minus all of the terrible Joel Schumacher decisions that almost killed the franchise. Gliding across the neon-lit Gotham skyline as Batman while a light rain splashes against his cape is one of the most stunning moments I’ve yet witnessed on the Xbox One. And up-close, all of the character models are super-detailed. Arkham Knight makes Gotham City seem like a real place, and I almost want to visit it, even if there are constantly psychopaths on the loose trying to kill everyone.
Few games feel as cinematic as Arkham Knight, and the music is a big part of that. The major scenes in the game, such as one especially dramatic scene early on where Batman nearly sacrifices himself to save Gotham, are only made more epic by Arkham Knight’s score. Though this version of Gotham isn’t as realistic as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the music still makes it feel like an almost-real place that would make for an amazing Batman movie. But the real standout of Arkham Knight’s sound is the voice acting. Kevin Conroy has long been the perfect Batman for cartoons and video games, and of course no one has given a better voice to animated versions of The Joker than Mark Hamill. Conroy and Hamill put on their best performances yet in Arkham Knight, and if this really is the last time they’ll be lending their voices to these characters, they’ll be sorely missed in the future.
Just completing the main story takes 12-13 hours, and after that there’s a ton of side missions involving tracking down some of Batman’s most famous rogues who didn’t fit into the storyline, like Man-Bat and Two-Face. The Batmobile can also be used in some fun races against The Riddler’s mazes. There’s easily another 10-15 hours of gameplay to be had from side missions, plus more than 200 Riddler challenges if you’re so inclined to track them down, which makes it closer to a 40-50 hour game. If that’s not enough, there’s also a season pass, but for $30, it’s mostly just Batman and Batmobile skins, plus a few new levels with other characters that last maybe 30 minutes each. It’s kind of fun to play as Harley Quinn and the Red Hood, but not necessarily worth the extra money. Still, even if you just go through the story mode, there’s more than enough content here to justify paying full price.
Reviewed by Chris Freiberg