The final chapter in the Arkham trilogy, Arkham Knight once again casts you as the Dark Knight Detective as you defend Gotham City from some of its greatest villains. The big bad guy this time around is Scarecrow, who wants to cover the city–and the entire eastern seaboard–in his patented fear toxin. And he’s essentially declared war on Gotham, bringing in a private militia to take over, along with the titular Arkham Knight, a mysterious figure who seems to have all Batman’s gear and moves–and, naturally, is obsessed with killing the Dark Knight.
The setup is superhero 101, but the story’s execution is top-notch. It smartly builds on both the previous games and the existing Batman mythos to spin a yarn that consistently pushes the action forward and delivers some thrilling moments. The game doesn’t just rely on the grand stakes of its villain’s threat, as it often smartly focuses down the drama to core members of Batman’s crew, making the danger that follows feel very real and personal. One of the core plot elements–the identity of the Arkham Knight–ends up playing out in an incredibly predictable fashion, but there are a half-dozen other moments that took me completely off-guard, and the final encounter provides a satisfying conclusion to the Arkham saga.
The core gameplay builds upon that from the previous games. Arkham Asylum’s melee combat was an absolute revelation back in 2009. Up until then, the iconic action scene featuring a lone hero fistfighting dozens of lesser bad guys had never really been well executed in video games. But then here came Rocksteady, a very nearly unknown developer, with a combat system that did it and did it damn near perfect–to the point at which dozens of games have tried to copy the system, with varying degrees of success. The punch-punch-counter combat is just as satisfying here in Arkham Knight, and while there are a few new gameplay elements, such as environmental takedowns and medics that can revive KO’d enemies, there isn’t anything here to shake up an already great system.
The same goes for the predator stealth sequences. While most stealth games tend to make you feel very weak in comparison to your foes, in Batman you strike from the shadows to slowly pick off enemies as their comrades grow more and more terrified of your unseen presence. These sequences, as always, are tons of fun, and do a great job of making you feel powerful against gun-wielding enemies who can actually kill you in just a few seconds. There is a significant new ability in Arkham Knight called the fear attack, which allows you to sneak up on groups of foes and take them out in a flurry of quick strikes. This move doesn’t fundamentally change how the predator sequences play out, but it’s an impressive ability that only adds to the powerful feeling of controlling the Batman.
While these core gameplay elements are pretty much as you remember them from previous games, there is one totally new addition.
This is the first time you’ve gotten to control the batmobile in the Arkham series. As you’re flying around the city, you can summon the car at any time and it will just find you and pick you up. You can launch out of it, fly over a building, and have it catch you on the other side. You can remotely control it, and then drive over your actual location and automatically pick yourself up. What I’m saying is that it’s a very exciting thing to get into and out of. What you do while you’re in it, well…
It’s okay. I don’t mean “it’s good.” I mean it’s okay. And in a game that’s otherwise as great as Arkham, that’s a pretty damning thing to say.
As you’re driving around the city, at any time, you can pull the left trigger to convert to battle mode, which turns the Batmobile into a tank, and turns the game into a slow-moving third-person shooter. You can aim at the turrets of enemy tanks for what amounts to headshots, dodge out of the way of clearly designated enemy firing lines, and build up for various special attacks. If this were a minor piece of the game, it would be a nice way to break up the action, but the developers at Rocksteady clearly considered vehicular action a third, core pillar to their gameplay, in addition to melee and stealth, and there’s just not enough merit to these systems to justify the amount of Batmobile-related content.
Turret blocking your path? Better call the Batmobile. Elevator not working? Batmobile’s on the way. Need to power a rooftop generator? Then it’s time to endure an awkward Batmobile platforming sequence. Again, none of these elements are terrible–although there are some vehicular stealth sequences later in the game that are damn near insufferable–but this stuff easily makes up a third of the game, and all that time just feels wasted in comparison to the super-fun, tight action that makes up the rest of Arkham Knight. The entire time I’m in the Batmobile, I’m thinking about how I could be doing something more engaging, and that serves to make a large chunk of the game feel completely superfluous, which is a major bummer.
Arkham Knight builds on the same open world formula that City introduced, and while I’m more a fan of Asylum’s tightly designed Metroidvania-style setting, the open world is fun to traverse and a variety of side activities ensures that Gotham feels alive. The side content avoids the problem typical of games of this type, where you’re putting the giant world ending catastrophe off for days or weeks while you run errands for NPCs, as it makes EVERY situation life or death. Having these quests focus on big-name villains who are making major threats against the city just adds to the desperate atmosphere, and makes the pay-off for each quest satisfying in its own right.
Of special note are the Riddler’s death traps, in which you alternate control between Batman and Catwoman to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. These segments are a ton of fun and I wish there were more of them–but, unfortunately, half of your time with the Riddler is spent dealing with fiddly Batmobile controls in awkward underground racing and car-based puzzle challenges. I’d spend half-an-hour dying over and over in the Batmobile segments just to get to the next ten-minute challenge room.
And that’s kinda the thing with Arkham Knight–half of it is so fantastic, so polished and fun and exciting, that it should be one of the best games of this generation yet. It doesn’t reinvent the series, but it offers exciting new situations in which to explore the existing gameplay, and tells a dramatic pulp-action story that delivers both on years of Batman lore and the specific plot elements of the Arkham games. But then there’s the Batmobile. It’s weird to hinge your entire opinion of a game on one feature, but there’s hours and hours and hours of content here that’s just not that great, and I spent every second of those hours wondering when I’d get to the next good part. I was willing to endure segments parts because everything else was so good, but “endure” is not how you should describe a core element of a great game. And Batman: Arkham Knight should, by all rights, be called a great game–but the experience is sadly diluted by hours of stuff that’s just kinda boring.
And I wish I could end this review there. But now it’s time to address the elephant in the room–the PC version. It’s kinda messed up! There are some folks out there who are reporting no issues, but the vast majority are seeing some serious performance issues even with current gaming PCs. If you add to that the fact that the PC version seems to be missing some graphical effects that the console versions have, and the fact that the game is locked at 30 frames per second, then, well… Let’s just say the Internet is a tad bit upset.
I’m no power gamer–I’ve got a midrange PC, and if I get a steady 30FPS at medium settings, I’m satisfied. And with that in mind I found Arkham Knight pretty playable. Sure, the game would freeze for a second when I rounded a corner in the batmobile, and I couldn’t spin the camera too fast without murdering the framerate, and sometimes textures wouldn’t load, which occasionally turned NPCs into gelatinous blobs, but…
Okay, no. No buts. That’s not acceptable. I don’t expect a brand-new game to run on ultra settings on my middle-of-the-road computer, but I do expect to be able to turn those settings down and play it without being constantly reminded that I could be seeing a better version of it on the consoles.
So I would tell you not to buy the PC version, but… You can’t. The response to this port has been so incredibly, overwhelmingly negative that the publisher, WB Games, has elected to stop selling the PC version of Arkham Knight. This is a big deal. WB’s previous big release, Mortal Kombat X, had a PC version so utterly busted at launch that most people couldn’t even play the game. I mean, I can launch and play and bad version of Arkham Knight, but to buy a game only to find you can’t even play it? Man. And yet this is the game they decided they needed to stop selling. What changed in the months since Mortal Kombat’s release?
Well… Steam instituted a refund policy. Now, I don’t have hard numbers here, so this is all educated guessing. But we have a publisher here that released a completely busted game and kept selling it as if everything was fine. Then, a few months later, they released a somewhat busted game and decided a day later that they should stop selling it. It seems like there’s only one thing that happened in the intervening time that could cause that change in policy–refunds.
Publishers don’t really care about your angry all-caps posts on the Steam forums–if they’ve got your money, then they’re going to count that transaction as a success. And let’s be clear here: publishers, not developers, are the ones making decisions like what state it’s acceptable to ship a game in. Developers themselves are, by and large, just as passionate about games as you and I, and absolutely want to make the best product possible, but they have two very limited resources–time and money. And those resources are controlled by the publishers.
I can pretty much guarantee that everyone who actually worked on Arkham Knight’s PC port are looking at their bosses right now and saying I told you so. You, as a consumer, shouldn’t have to care about who makes these decisions–you bought a product that turned out to be faulty, and you’ve got the right to be upset about it. But don’t misplace your anger–the developers know that this stuff is real messed up and are just as angry as you are about it.
But now, we have refunds. And when a publisher like WB Games sees all their preorders and day one sales evaporate in a matter of hours? That’s what causes a decision maker there to decide that it doesn’t make sense to sell a game in that condition. This has been our first test case with refunds on a big AAA PC game, and it seems that it has given us as consumers some real power to fight this pattern of games being released in broken states.
So if you’re unhappy with the condition of a game you’ve purchased, don’t just suffer through it and complain online. Get your money back. This sends a very clear message–you wanted to play this game, but it didn’t meet your standards. Your money makes a statement in a way no angry forum post ever could.