In the weeks leading up to the release of Batman: Arkham Knight, I played through all the console-based Arkham games for the first time since their respective releases. I wanted a reminder of where the series began and where it might have misfired, but I also wanted to have everything fresh in my mind as I stepped into Rocksteady’s “final” contribution to the Batman universe. Because despite some notable issues present in all three previous games, the Arkham series has come to be one of my absolute favorite representations of a character I’ve been obsessed with since I was six years old. Simply put, if you want to know what it feels like to be the Batman, you play the Arkham games.
Rocksteady hasn’t gone out of its way to shake things up for Arkham Knight, And that’s okay. You’ve still got a city to save, a rogue’s gallery of monologuing misfits to apprehend, and a panoply of gadgets to aid in your quest to strike fear in the hearts of ne’er-do’wells. It is an exceptionally good-looking game (and a noticeable improvement on the already-gorgeous last-gen Arkham games), but the only thing that’s really new this time around is the Batmobile, which you spend almost as much time in as you do soaring above the Gotham skyline. It’s a mixed experience that I’ll return to in a bit, but one that does at least provide a fresh perspective on the city itself.
My favorite thing about Arkham Knight is that it shows its characters a level of respect that is rare in modern AAA game development. By treating the Arkham-verse as a self-contained entity and sticking to the rules it established in 2009’s Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady’s allowed its characters to grow and evolve over the past six years, to the point that they feel more fully-rendered than any of their Hollywood counterparts ever were. So while the plot of Arkham Knight might be a bit predictable (especially to fans familiar with the Batman comics of the last half-decade), the actual characters themselves have never been more believable, or more sympathetic.
Again, if you’ve played any of the previous Arkham games, you know exactly what to expect with Arkham Knight. The series’ signature Freeform combat is back and better than ever, though Rocksteady has disappointingly utilized the PS4’s extra processing power to beef up the number of thugs you’ll face at any given moment, rather than to build a smarter class of criminal. Still, some fun but obvious tweaks—usable melee weapons, occasional team ups with various Bat-friends like Robin and Nightwing, and a wider variety of gadget-assisted takedowns—make Arkham Knight’s combat the most diverse and satisfying in the series. Predator sequences have seen subtle improvements as well, but the best of the bunch is a new multi-takedown ability, which lets Batman take out up to five randos without raising an alarm. Hiding in the shadows and waiting to strike has never felt better: every time Arkham Knight’s terrified baddies scream “WHERE ARE YOU?!” I’m unable to resist the urge to growl “HERE” as I swoop down upon them.
The Batmobile is a central component of Arkham Knight’s main storyline, and driving it can be both exhilarating and exhausting. On the one hand, Rocksteady’s interpretation of the iconic vehicle–a sleek, rocket-powered racing machine that transforms into an imposing, rocket-firing tank–is instantly more fun than any other Bat-gadget, and I loved switching between the two modes just to watch it transform. Once you get the hang of Rocksteady’s driving engine, which compares unfavorably to pretty much every other open-world driving game I’ve played, barreling through destructable obstacles and rioters on your way to a destination presents its own unique kind of thrill, and you’ll want to fire the afterburners at full blast just to eject Batman at maximum velocity into the skies above Gotham, which is one of Arkham Knight’s best new tricks. It’s a different story when you’re forced into tank mode, which happens with alarming frequency as you’re constantly dogged by an army of drone tanks. Raining fiery destruction upon Gotham from a military-grade vehicle feels remarkably un-Batman-like, and the game’s constant insistence that the Batmobile’s weapons are non-lethal stands as the biggest absurdity Rocksteady’s ever foisted onto players. It’s definitely a blast the first few times, but the more the story missions required the Batmobile the more I wondered if the developer’d simply run out of ideas.
In fact, Arkham Knight’s biggest idea isn’t really in its gameplay, but rather in the ways it externalizes the grief Bruce Wayne’s carried with him for nearly his entire life. It’s a well-established and critical tenet of the mythos that Batman’s mere existence puts his loved ones in mortal danger, and the Arkham series certainly hasn’t shied away from death as a plot device. But it’s not the death of a friend or lover that haunts Batman so profoundly throughout Arkham Knight’s story; instead, it’s that of The Joker (who expired at the end of Arkham City) that causes our hero to question everything he’s done in his ten-year career as a vigilante. Rocksteady admirably avoids the kind of deus ex machina that’s plagued so many game plots (including its own previous games): The Joker remains dead in Arkham Knight, with no magic Lazarus Pit or other such nonsense to bring him shambling back from the land of corpses. And yet he’s more present than ever in Arkham Knight, manifested as a physical embodiment of all of Batman’s fears, a constant reminder of the tragedies our hero could’ve prevented if only he’d broken his code and killed The Joker so long ago. As Batman considers the implications of this line of thinking, it’s this internal struggle—and not the mystery of the Arkham Knight’s identity or the threat of Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin—that elevates Arkham Knight above its predecessors.
Even though Batman: Arkham Knight’s gameplay feels mostly familiar—and it’s big new trick doesn’t really fit comfortably within the Batman code of conduct—it’s built on some of the sturdiest foundations in modern action gaming. The writing is as strong as it’s ever been, too: the predictability of the game’s main story will no doubt leave many fans disappointed, but the characters are treated with a level of respect rarely seen in modern big game development, and the constant verbal sparring between Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker is undebatably the stuff of legend. I’m sad to see Rocksteady saying goodbye to the series that proved that a great Batman game was possible, but I’m happy to say that it ends as it began: unforgettably.