Batman: Arkham Knight Review - Predictable Story, Fantastic Game

Jonathan Bolding | 22 Jun 2015 19:00
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Developed by Rocksteady. Published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Releases June 23, 2015. Available on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One (Reviewed). Review copy provided by publisher.

From start to finish, Batman: Arkham Knight reminds you why you loved Batman the first two times Rocksteady had their hands on it. The free-flowing combat is as strong as ever, the batmobile adds variety to the game, and the puzzles are just as clever as you remember. While some of the game's elements aren't as strong in the much more open world of the new Gotham, the sense of exploration you get from hunting down the game's challenges is more than worth the loss. Better than anything, the return of some of Batman's most memorable villains and moments from past games takes center stage and sucks you into the moment-to-moment play. That's good, because after Asylum and City, Knight had a lot to live up to.

The new Gotham is wonderful, introducing some bright colors and neon to contrast the dingy greys that dominated previous Arkham games. The lighting effects and character design are as on-point as ever, with enemies clearly silhouetted and colored so that even in the busiest combats or cluttered screens you can tell what's going on, who's who, and what's what. Environment design is well varied, and little details scattered everywhere will remind you that the city of Gotham is in utter chaos, very explorable, and filled with hidden secrets to find.

The basics of the story are about what you'd expect: A contrivance forces Gotham to be evacuated, leaving criminals and the desperately insane behind. The desperately insane include Batman and his friends, alongside various police officers. Everyone but Batman exists to be kidnapped or put into harm's way so Batman can save them - though characters like Oracle, Nightwing, and Robin get their own badass action scenes and key moments to shine. It is not the best Batman story ever told, but it is by no means the worst.

That story has a lot of weight to carry, dealing with the convoluted Batman mythos alongside the events that have taken place over the course of two games now - and even throwing a bone to 2013's mostly-forgettable Arkham Origins. The game's writing does well interweaving the many characters that take the stage - and even those who don't - giving enough screen time to make you care about characters you didn't know about until this game. Do you care about Man-Bat? No? Well, you probably will if you take a moment to enjoy the side story that features him. The tight nature of the side mission plots actually often makes them more enjoyable than the game's main storyline.

It's good that the characterization of individuals is so good, because you need clear-cut and obvious characters to keep up with the main story. Interwoven with constant new action, a few absurd setpieces, and more often than not juggling multiple arcs, it's hard to keep up with the morass of action the plot becomes. It's simply... too busy. Worse, really, the plot is so obviously telegraphed and scripted that you'll often know what's going to happen with a character hours before it actually happens in the game... and getting to the fulfillment is just a matter of slogging through content. It's not entirely clear how, but the game's plot is at times both boring, predictable, and too complex for its own good. To be fair, nobody was expect The Last of Us from a Batman story, but when I was near-constantly rolling my eyes at cliches during the first few missions I found it hard to go on.

That said, the main story thread picks up in its third act, when it stops throwing curveballs and instead focuses on bringing a single scenario to a deeply satisfying conclusion - one I think any fan of the series will be thrilled to see in its last game. Better yet, the vast majority of the game is integrated to work with that main plot's ending. Even when you finish the story and move on to mopping up side challenges you feel like you're continuing the same story with the same characters - and both dialogue and events shift to match that.

As usual, the voice acting is on point from almost every corner - with throwbacks to Mark Hammill's Joker providing the series' spotlight performance. Likewise, the new Scarecrow does wonders. Much of the workhorse dialogue is a bit stilted though, clearly only existing to spell out the plot and game events for players, and Batman gets the worst of it. Even Kevin Conroy's iconic performance can't quite keep up with the limited range of dialogue he's called on to perform, and Batman's constant internal monologue reminding the player what to do not only becomes annoying, but seems more than a little tired by the end of the 40 or so hours you'll be playing. Would the game be entirely playable without that dialogue and hand-holding? Yes. Does the game trust players to figure it out without being explained to? No.

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