This is a spoilery post about Arkham Knight. Read at your own risk.
Arkham Knight is a deeply flawed game. Though, in the end, I'm glad I played it, the fun to not ratio is something like 70/30. For every super cool cutscene or clever puzzle, there was a tedious agility challenge, boss fight or car segment that made me want to enact the Garyfall Protocol. Here are the problems, prefaced with a few good things. Again, I'm going to talk about deep end game content (otherwise I'd have very little good to say!) so if you haven't played and plan to, now would be a good time to back off.
- What's Good?
The thematic stuff in the plot is strong. Though this game goes to absolute ridiculous measures to do so, it does a pretty good job of getting to the core of the character. The things it does to get there are uniformly nonsense, however, which I'll talk about later.
The dialogue, voice acting and costume design are all pretty top notch. I regularly found myself riveted during cutscenes that featured any of the scene stealing villains (especially Scarecrow, Pyg and Joker).
The stuff that has always been fun in these games remains fun. Predator missions, the combo based combat, the rare but neat inventive use of gadgets. That stuff is still pretty rad.
Some of the new additions are pretty cool. I like the Fear Takedowns, I think the Batmobile is fun about 30% of the time (though that's faint praise, as we'll see). Some of the new minions are just annoying but that's always been a problem with the series (the lock and key style of introducing new mooks).
- BAD STUFF, STARTING WITH THE OBVIOUS: The Batmobile.
A lot has been written about the Batmobile and even its most ardent defenders agree it's been overemphasized. I knew this going in, having read the ominous hashtag "StealthTank" but I wasn't totally prepared for how much Batmobile there would be. At times, it feels like Arkham Knight was written by a car. The loving closeups of spinning tires, the slow motion shots, the way the car often saves you from danger. It's car propaganda.
Oddly enough, I think the non boss Batmobile sections are fun enough (though there are far too many) and that the non boss stealth car sections are more silly than obnoxious. What's most irritating are the times the car is shoehorned into regular batplay. I have a fucking portable electricity generator! That's all it does. Why do I need to try to drive my car up a building to charge this battery? Is lowering my car via a winch really the most efficient way to blow up a wall that's down a pit? I'm Batman, I've never had to use a car before. All of a sudden, it's the master and I'm the student. It's like I'm Robin!
The bigger problem with the car parts were the boss fights. Batman against an invincible tank. Batman against an invincible excevator. Batman against another invincible tank. These encounters don't feel like Batman encounters. Batman is a guy with technology. He's not Superman, he's not the Hulk. I'm not going to go on much more about the Batmobile because there is a lot of writing about it already but, crab on a crutch, did it not feel very Batman to me.
Oh, and it takes a long time to control it well. That means that after a loving close up of the tires, you're very likely to peel out and slam into a building. Again, it made me feel like an idiot and not the super cool dude it wanted me to.
- Bland Encounters
Batman fights sociopaths and psychos. He fights villains who could be the antagonist in a Thomas Harris novel. That's his thing. Further, the best Batman villains reflect some aspect of Batman. Two-Face is his double life, Scarecrow is his reliance on fear, Joker is Batman without a moral code, Riddler is his super smart side, Man-Bat is "What if we reverse the two parts of Batman's name?" Good Batman villains work thematically.
You know what doesn't fucking work? An army. A literal army of nameless soldiers driving tanks and setting up millitary checkpoints. Batman fights dozens of millitary drones and hundreds of tanks in this game. Hundreds! Again, I get it. Arkham Knight brought them in specifically because Batman isn't good at fighting that stuff. But that doesn't make for a better game. It'd be like if you were playing a Superman game and you spent half of your time doing galactic grand strategy and base building because Brainiac challenged you to that sort of contest. It might make sense in one way but it's not what I'm looking for in a Superman game.
This wouldn't be so bad if there weren't so many of them. A significant percentage of your side missions are just clearing these checkpoints. A large cut of the main story involves that as well. I want to go into secret lairs of weirdos. I want to solve crimes. I don't want to shoot tanks. I can do that in other games, Rocksteady!
- Unearned Plot Shit/Bigness
Two issues I'm rolling into one.
The reveal of the Arkham Knight felt like a limp fart to me. I'd guessed his identity because I know the comics but even for those who didn't, I can't imagine this working. The Jason Todd stuff is important to the Bat-Universe but comics fans had years of buildup, they got to know Jason Todd, so when he was The Red Hood, it was legitimately shocking. In Arkham Knight, it's like, "Hey, he's a guy we introduced to you 2 hours ago. Shocked?"
What happens with The Arkham Knight works thematically but it doesn't work in terms of plot. It's not the big twist that it's built up to be and it has no emotional resonance because, as an audience, we don't know Todd and don't care about him.
This is related to, as are many other problems, a dumb upping of the stakes that permiates the entire game. This being the 4th game in the series, there had to have been pressure to just make the game bigger, bigger, bigger. I know Origins got a lot of flack for just being City with new villains, so the pressure to escalate must have been strong. But the things that don't work in this game are the big things.
Batman fighting super tanks, Poison Ivy manipulating mega plants to clean Gotham's air, a limitless army occupying Gotham in 24 hours, an excavator that can outrun the Batmobile, Riddler in a death mech creating underground racetracks all over the city, all of these things scream big big big. Rocksteady have said this is their last Batman game and I'm not surprised because what is left? They blew their load here. Batman can't just, I dunno, fight planets and dinosaurs next.
But, and I think I speak for more than just myself, the strongest moments in these games are small. It's entering a villain's lair for the first time and being overwhelmed with attention to detail. It's doing detective shit even if that is just walking from button prompt to button prompt. It's Batman's internal struggles, be it whether or not to kill the Joker or whether or not to put his friends in harm's way.
And when Arkham Knight focuses on those things, it's really, really good. The Perfect Crime, for example, pays off wonderfully, a slow burn with a truly memorable villain at the end. The Azrael stuff is a super cool inversion of our expections, and the internal struggles, lordy. This game does the absolute best shit with personifying Joker as Batman's fear. It's constant and oppressive and instills doubt in the player. It's internal and small and good. Teaming up with a giant mutant plant to fight 30 tanks is not.
So, in the end, it really comes down to that. Bigness versus Batfeel. And this game really didn't give me enough sense of Batfeel because it's a game without a solid sense of identity. The plot is very concerned with the character but the play isn't, making this one of the best examples of ludo narrative dissonance I can think of.
Oh, and before I let it off the hook, hiding the true ending behind hundreds of Riddler challenges is a mind boggling, stupifying, frankly insulting decision. And I didn't get into how shitty this game is about women or how much crime Batman could solve just by pouring his tank money into social programs. The more I think about it, the madder I get.