Game Reviews - Reviews

Batman: Arkham Knight (Warner Bros., Multiformat)

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There was once a time when Bruce Wayne’s ventures into videogames were the subject of derision and disappointment. For a long time, the Dark Knight only popped up in increasingly lacklustre beat-‘em-ups and movie cash-ins that absolutely squandered the licence. Yes, there was the occasional gem such as Ocean Software’s Batman, a quirky isometric adventure that gave DC’s greatest detective a pot belly and a cartoon scowl, or The Caped Crusader, a side-scrolling classic designed to resemble the flipping pages of a comic book, but they appeared on home computers way, way back in the late 1980s. What they lacked in processing power they made up in creativity and, crucially, a love for the source material.

However, in 2009 the British development studio Rocksteady released Arkham Asylum, which, against more odds than Phil Collins could imagine, was an absolutely fantastic amalgam of various genres that nailed the dark and violent beating heart of the titular antihero. The asylum itself was a fearsome creation, a haunting gothic monstrosity that opened up its many nooks and crannies in Metroid-vania style with further progression and unlocked power-ups and bat-gadgets. Arkham City built on this premise, changing the action to the city of Gotham, a sprawling open world with an abundance of side missions, nods to Batman lore and a menagerie of twisted villains straight out of the comic books. After that game finished, it was anyone’s guess where the developers would take the story next, and the prospects were certainly tantalising.

Let’s ignore the disappointing follow-up Arkham Origins, largely because Rocksteady did not make it and therefore were not responsible for its many shortcomings. Instead, we now have the sequel proper, Arkham Knight, intended as the closing chapter in the trilogy in the same way that The Dark Knight Rises is the denouement of Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology. There are certainly parallels to be drawn between this game and its cinematic cousin. Arkham Knight is a high dive into the tar-pit of Batman’s violent, troubled world where the stakes have grown higher than ever before. Bruce Wayne is put under physical, mental and emotional pressure by the return of baddies such as fan favourites Riddler, Penguin, Two-Face and the truly terrifying Scarecrow, whose decaying death-mask grows more and more repulsive with age. There is also the entrance of the eponymous Arkham Knight, a doppelganger whose true identity forms the core of the main narrative. As in the previous games, this storyline is helped in no small part by the tremendous voice acting and sharply drawn characterisation, which never strays into the pantomime territory that has so often derailed other comic book adaptations. Batman remains a sympathetic antihero, a loner who has never quite matured from the poor orphan who lost his parents in Crime Alley, and a vigilante whose desire to punish the lawless is hampered by his unwillingness to go full psychopath and commit murder. That said, it stretches credulity somewhat to argue that none of the blows delivered in this game are fatal. Combat, as ever, is satisfyingly visceral, fluid and crunchy, and the enjoyment thereof is compacted by how easily the game moves between sections of stealthy sneaking about and cracking the skulls of street goons.

Meanwhile, Gotham is bigger and badder than before, truly impressive in its scale and design, with entire new sections with a wealth of quests and upgrades to plunder. The Batmobile that gamers have been demanding for so long also roars into play. It is mostly fun, adds a new dimension and handles as well as virtual automobiles can handle – that is to say that it doesn’t in any way feel like driving a normal car – but there is so much pleasure to be had just being Batman. As before, it is a joy to climb, swing or swoop to a vantage point and plan in which order you are going to duff up a gang of henchmen down below. Frankly, this never gets old, and it is a delight to experience a mechanic that has been playtested to perfection.

Of course, complainants and nitpickers could highlight niggles: the hackneyed lines of dialogue, the underused characters, some of the levels that do not run quite as smoothly as others… but this is carping for the sake of it. Arkham Knight invokes the tortured Batman of The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight Returns. It is a moody, tense, brutal and wholly engaging fable that allows its central character to let rip rather than grounding him with half-finished concepts and cumbersome fetch quests. Rocksteady clearly adore the comics, and their enthusiasm is displayed in the attention to detail that they have lavished upon this triple A title. When something is this good, it’s hard to bid it farewell. Sterling work, Rocksteady.  Ross Thompson