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Batman: Arkham Knight
Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Free-Roaming

Graphics & Sound:
Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City are two of the greatest games ever made. Not only do they empower the player in ways that most games (much less superhero games) donít, but they feel like essential enrichment of the Batman mythos. Perhaps the fact that most comic franchises have no interest in establishing and adhering to one singular canon makes it all the more impressive that these games are loaded with shocking moments. The long and short of it is that the Batman: Arkham series is the bar-setter for both licensed products and atmospheric action adventure games. Batman: Arkham Knight brings the lauded franchise through a final act that mostly satisfies. It doesnít have very many flaws, but the ones that exist definitely keep this final chapter from reaching the dizzying heights of its predecessors.

Over the years, Iíve grown averse to writing about graphics with superlatives; as the marriage of technology and artistry continues to strengthen, itís a given that all that high praise will be rendered meaningless. But for today, for this review, Iím going to say that Batman: Arkham Knight is the most atmospheric game that you can play on a next-gen gaming console. Gotham City may be one of the worst cities in the world, but man is it gorgeous nonetheless. In the previous two games in the trilogy, narrative convenience has allowed Rocksteady Games to go all out with the lone wolf motif that is so prevalent in the Batman legend. From the creepy corridors of Arkham Asylum to the dilapidated ghettos of Arkham City, dark and abandoned is most certainly the preferred aesthetic at the time. But as technology improves, so too must artistic ambition Ė and Rocksteady has absolutely knocked it out of the park in that regard. Sure, Gotham is a dark and dreary place, but itís positively exploding with life and color. From the neon signs advertising scuzzy businesses below to the red cones of light that represent the many surveillance cameras watching over the besieged metropolis, Arkham Knight is a treat for the eyes. The attention to detail remains the strongest aspect of the visual design; the rain and water effects are stunning, textures are sumptuous and almost palpable, and a series of late game set pieces I wonít dare spoil are just plain otherworldly.

As Batman: Arkham City was for Mark Hamill, Batman: Arkham Knight is perhaps the equivalent of a curtain call for Kevin Conroy. Batman is absolutely put through the wringer over the course of the story, and the script calls for incredible ferocity, poorly-masked vulnerability, and everything in-between. Fortunately, the veteran voice artist rises to the challenge and turns in perhaps his best performance in the trilogy. The rest of the cast is superb, as well, with special mention going to John Noble (The Lord of the Rings, Fringe), whose performance as Scarecrow is so quietly powerful that my mind kept flashing back to The Silence of the Lambs. Another delightful new voice is found in the considerable talents of Jonathan Banks (Wiseguy, Breaking Bad) as Commissioner Gordon. I will admit to being a little disappointed at hearing more than a few tracks recycled from Arkham City, but the orchestral soundtrack is still incredible.


Gameplay:
How do you pick up after an ending like that of Batman: Arkham City? Batman: Arkham Knightís story picks up immediately after that jaw-dropping denouement, tends to a bit of closure, and then jumps forward one year. Itís Halloween night, and Dr. Jonathan Crane (better known as Scarecrow) has forced the civilians of Gotham to evacuate, lest they fall prey to his new fear toxin, which is more potent than itís ever been. So the streets are mostly empty, save for the GCPD, the remaining members of the Rogues Gallery, and the organization run by our heroes.

Scarecrow works from the shadows, behind the scenes; in terms of pure manpower, he doesnít have much to hide behind on his own. Enter the Arkham Knight, a mysterious assassin and military leader who has tons of experience with cybernetics and drone warfare. On top of that, he seems to know way too much about Batman himself. And just when things couldnít get any worse, he holds a deep personal grudge against Batman and sincerely wants him dead.

So itís up to Batman to stop whatever Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight have in store for Gotham, but itís not easy. Jokerís death seems to have pushed Bruce Wayne into a very dark place. His mental state is in flux throughout most of the game, and his anger and grief frequently threaten his attempts at fighting this new threat. But with the likes of Tim Drake (Robin), Dick Grayson (Nightwing), Barbara Gordon (Oracle), his butler and surrogate father Alfred Pennyworth, and his tech man Lucius Fox, he might have what it takes for one last night as the Bat.

While I would say that Arkham Knightís story satisfies as a final chapter, a lot of it just plain doesnít work. For much of the game, the core mystery surrounds the titular character. However, his true identity is telegraphed in such a disrespectful manner that when the reveal finally comes, Batmanís shock will have you marveling at the fact that your powers of deduction far outmatch those of the Worldís Greatest Detective. Itís just bad writing; Batman isnít infallible, but heís way too smart for this stuff.

Batman: Arkham Knight is structured almost identically to Arkham City and Arkham Origins. As Batman, you travel around the city as you wish, taking on story missions or side quests that all fall under a few specific types of gameplay. The Rogues Gallery is expanded in Arkham Knight, and they each have their own particular mission arc. Some, like one regarding a certain gene-splicing scientist and another dealing with Gotham's fallen district attorney, are terrific and give Batman a reason to keep doing what he's doing. But a few of them, most particularly two of the arcs started in Arkham City, almost feel like afterthoughts and would be better off left out of the game as a whole.

Of course, there are moments of pure action, in which video gamingís greatest third-person hand-to-hand combat system is unleashed in its most hard-hitting form yet. There are moments of reflection, as the game guides you through a series of plot developments that grow the characters weíve become so close to. There are moments of chase in which Batman soars through the air in blissfully badass pursuit of his foes. Best of all is the predator gameplay, where Batman must eliminate a series of armed enemies using stealth, gadgets, and the environment.

And then thereís the Batmobile. Yes, Batmanís vehicle of choice makes its debut in Arkham Knight, and it figures heavily into nearly all aspects of the gameplay. Way, way too heavily, in fact. Make no mistake: the mechanics behind the Batmobile are intuitive and well-designed -- but all too often, the game feels like it was built for the Batmobile, rather than the other way around. Several narrative contrivances justify a fair bit of clumsy shoehorning, as Batman suddenly finds himself in a series of tank battles between the shapeshifting Batmobile and the Arkham Knightís legion of armored (and unmanned, better make sure we make that plain and clear) drones. Certain puzzles can only be solved through use of the Batmobile, whether or not Batman is behind the wheel. Its firepower, maneuverability, and logical application in puzzle-solving are undisputed. But thereís so much of it that it wears out its welcome incredibly fast. And since the Batmobile is being marketed as a major selling point for Batman: Arkham Knight, thatís kind of a problem.


Difficulty:
Those playing Batman: Arkham Knight should already have played Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. And if that's the case, the difficulty curve is almost non-existent. Nearly everything controls just like it does in the early games, and that's a very good thing. On foot, Batman is weighty and a tad clunky, but given his appearance and presence, that's not really a problem. And once the action heats up, the controls in turn loosen up.

I would suggest most of the difficulty (save for the variable settings) in playing Arkham Knight comes from not leveling up smartly. If you don't upgrade the Batmobile's armor and weapons and neglect your Disruptor, you might have some trouble with certain bomb defusal missions and outposts.

As it was in every game before it, Riddler's challenges remain the lengthiest sidequest in Arkham Knight. These can range from simple hidden trophies to scanning puzzles to Batmobile races. You'll want to complete them, too; he's fitted Catwoman with an explosive collar and gated the keys behind his trials. And as they've been in every game before, they are probably the hardest parts of Arkham Knight.


Game Mechanics:
If you played Batman: Arkham City or Arkham Origins, the core control scheme for Batman: Arkham Knight is deeply etched into your muscle memory. Once the game starts, you wonít have any trouble getting back into the swing of things. Movement is still a thing of pure joy; grappling over the top of a building and putting some air underneath Batmanís cape is a thrill that is incredibly tough to match. Diving and ascending has an intoxicating rhythm to it, and transitioning from the ground to the air is always stylish, regardless of how you do it.

When I reached the end of Arkham City, I wondered how the developers could possibly improve on their formulae for combat, stealth, and puzzle-solving. Well, there wasnít much room for improvement across all fronts, but Batman: Arkham Knight manages to surprise time and again.

Combat features more variety, from gadget assists to special takedowns. The freeflowing combat keeps its hard-hitting intensity and zen-like focus, but littered across most combat areas are environmental features that give you expanded opportunities to make your enemies feel pain. Cutting down a light fixture and slamming it on top of a mook or dunking someone headfirst into a giant spotlight are hugely thrilling and satisfying, no matter how often you do it. And at times, youíll find yourself teaming up with the likes of Robin, Nightwing, and Catwoman; you can switch to your teammate at any time during specific encounters, and you can initiate dual takedowns, which often look a little wonky, but are no less fun to pull off.

Stealth takes a cue from the two most recent Splinter Cell games. When you perform a silent takedown, you gain the ability to unleash a Fear Takedown, which has Batman smoothly chaining one-hit knockouts together in a whirlwind of intimidation and pain. Furthermore, the environment design makes it very clear how vents and underground passages are laid out; while youíll still enter the first person viewpoint every now and then, the camera is most often above your position when youíre engaging in the predator-style gameplay. New gadgets and enhanced combat applications also liven up proceedings; my personal favorite is the Voice Synthesizer, which allows Batman to hack into goon radios and alter his voice to sound like whoever is the boss of those particular thugs. Directing enemies into your traps is a delightfully schadenfreudetastic method of thinning out the herd before dropping to the ground and bringing the pain.

For all of its drawbacks to the game in general, the mechanics behind the Batmobile are as well-designed as they could possibly have been. If you've played any racing games in the last decade or so, you'll have a good idea of what to expect as far as the driving goes with one exception. What you might not expect is the sheer amount of force that comes with it; environmental destruction is very impressive; sideswipe a wall and some of that wall will be destroyed. It cuts through almost everything like a hot knife through butter. A single button press will call it in, regardless of where you last left it, and the camera angles swoop around to give you the most cinematic view possible.

The Batmobile isn't just for getting around; in fact, grappling and gliding remains by far the fastest way to get from one end of Gotham to the other. But at times you will need to engage the enemy from the ground. And here's where that one exception comes in: while one trigger acts as the Batmobile's accelerator, the other one transforms it into a strafing, four-wheeled tank. This combat mode allows you to take the offensive with a cannon, a machine gun, missiles, EMPs, and a series of countermeasures. On top of that, there's the Power Winch, which is useful for simplifying otherwise complicated terrain and acting as a safe ascending/descending tool for the Batmobile. If you're going for 100% completion (and you should if you want to see the "true" ending), you'll have to get used to the Batmobile; there are a set number of mobile drones on each of the islands that must be destroyed, not to mention a series of bombs that can only be disposed of using the Batmobile's Power Winch.

Batman: Arkham Knight is in kind of an unenviable place; the bar was set so high for it and in the end, it doesn't overshoot it like the others. On top of that, the design philosophy surrounding the Batmobile doesn't do the finished product any favors. But it's still a fantastic game and a must-play. Even though Batman: Arkham series doesn't go out on the highest possible note, it's a solid conclusion to what has been a hell of a franchise. I can't wait to see what Rocksteady does next.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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