Arkham Knight – Beauty in Motion

[Originally published July 6, 2015]

I cannot put this game down. The story brings a satisfying conclusion to the Rocksteady trilogy, and also manages to nail Batman as video game narrative. Additionally, the basic act of playing is so invigorating that even moving around is fun. Cathartic, even. What Rocksteady has done with the Arkham franchise is nothing short of impressive – breathed life into licensed games, showed how a superhero game could be done right, etc. – and lightning has just struck a third time. Arkham Knight is easily the best game in a series that consists of exclusively stellar titles, and I’m going to tell you why.

Locomotion. That’s what so much of this game’s success boils down to. Everything you do is so wonderfully kinetic. Maintaining a glide is elegant, and requires constant awareness from the player. There is a low level of engagement that the game demands, forcing you to keep adjusting your course. It keeps the movement stimulating, without overwhelming or frustrating the player. It’s an absolutely brilliant locomotive technique that has not been so successfully replicated since Treyarch’s Spider Man 2.

Even though you aren’t covering substantial ground during combat sequences, the same ideas apply. Punctuate blows with the occasional gadget or takedown. Spatial awareness, input variation, constant rhythm. Rocksteady has captured this flow of combat and stealth – locked it up tight underneath the cowl – that is so distinctive and punchy, and expanded its execution for Arkham Knight. They have provided the player with a glut of new input options, and they’re all devoted to accelerating the pace of combat. Responding to their old, sluggish, combo-breaking ground takedowns, Rocksteady now allows you to pick up stunned men and beat them further into submission. The presentation is just as elegant as the design, with Batman now reacting to – and moving around – the fighting environment. It’s violent, it’s direct, it’s fierce – it’s all very Batman.

These principles have also carried over into the most significant addition to the series – the Batmobile. Combat is all about controlling the space. Dodge right, shoot, then propel yourself forward to avoid a barrage of shells. Shoot down a missile, and then boost into the enemy next to you, destroying it. It’s. All. About. The movement. The constant flow – Rocksteady, pushing the player into continuous, engaging rhythm.

Though the mechanics are my favorite part of the game, I’m also a huge fan of what Rocksteady’s doing from a narrative standpoint. The previous two titles were fun little homages to the Batman – and greater DC – canon, but never felt as though they truly broke out into something that could be described as “definitively batman.” Cute references and deep cuts only go so far, and – while the strong, original character designs, the succinct character writing, and the grim, Frank Miller tone nailed the feel of Batman – I ultimately felt like the first two games had very little meat on their bones. The stories were interesting, but didn’t grab me. Each felt like a slightly different buildup from the other, with nothing particularly interesting to say or examine. This disappointed me, because something that makes Batman such an interesting character is what writers can do with him – what writers can say with him. I am happy to report, however, that Arkham Knight tells a story that not only peels apart who the Batman is, but is also good enough to stand with the greats as one of the best original Batman stories.

The Killing Joke[1], A Death in the Family, and other iconic Joker storylines come into significant play during the course of the narrative. All of these stories deal with the contrast – or lack thereof, depending on your point of view – between The Batman and The Joker. So does Arkham Knight. Despite his untimely demise in Arkham City, the clown prince of crime is back. Batman’s Joker blood poisoning from Arkham City has left him haunted by visions of the Joker, who taunts Batman and sadistically comments on the events of the game. Though the primary antagonist is The Scarecrow, he ultimately doesn’t matter. Every major choice Batman makes is accompanied by the Joker. He is utterly inescapable, and I love it. No good deed goes unpunished, and The Joker is happy to remind Batman of that. Though this may seem like a cheap gimmick to maintain the presence of the Dark Knight’s most iconic adversary, it ultimately plays into the ideas Moore explores in his Killing Joke in a way that has not been achieved with such success since the release of that comic.

Story aside, everything else you wanted to return from the previous Arkham games has come back, better than ever. Cameos from DC characters you love, cameos from DC characters you’ve never heard of, and Riddler puzzles[2]. Other side missions provide a welcome escape from the relentless intensity and gravitas of the main quest, and are far more creative this time around. We see the return of ridiculously impossible forensics, as well as an inventive, well-designed open world. Rocksteady has improved upon their open world formula, making each neighborhood more distinctive, as well as providing the player with numerous landmarks to imbue a sense of familiarity.

One final thing that deserves mention is this game’s uncompromising lack of hand-holding. Rocksteady tutorializes the player for a short stretch at the beginning of the game, and then it’s hands off – no training wheels. There was a gadget that I never picked up until after I had completed the main story. No other modern game has the guts that Arkham Knight has in this regard. I just can’t get over how bold it is. They are so confident in the effectiveness of their systems – and the intelligence of their players – that they almost immediately drop you in the deep end. Do you know what the best part is? They’re right. Their combat is intuitive and slick, as is their stealth. Moving around is easy and enjoyable. Relearning how to master an Arkham game is one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory, and I congratulate them for their daring attitude towards this game.

I never had a frustrating moment during the entirety of my playtime with this game. I still haven’t! I’ve enjoyed Arkham Knight so much that I’m still playing it, even now – have to play through the downloadable content. If it’s anything like the core Arkham Knight, I’m sure I’ll come away loving the series even more.

10/10

[1] This is the quintessential Batman story. One of them, anyway. It’s by Alan Moore, I recommend it if you have the opportunity.

[2] In all fairness, I know these aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I like ‘em. So sue me.

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