Review - Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4)

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Rocksteady hits highs and lows, in its final installment of the initial Batman: Arkham series

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The Batman: Arkham series did for superhero games what Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy did for superhero movies. As Rocksteady's third – and supposedly final – installment in the series, does Arkham Knight give this storyline the send-off it deserves?

This review is free of specific spoilers, but it does make broader references to plot choices.

Final installments of trilogies are often the most ambitious – and Arkham Knight is no exception. But big ambition also means bigger risks, and this finale both soars higher and stumbles more often than any other entry in the series.

The game follows a familiar trajectory: explore an open world environment as the Dark Knight, with main story missions joining optional side quests to stretch out the gameplay. It also continues with the crazy-fun mix of combat, stealth and detective work that have been hallmarks of the series from day one, while adding a new Batmobile gameplay element to the mix. Batman's car has always been a big part of his various comic, TV and movie manifestations, so it makes sense that it finally makes its way to the gaming world.

When the Batmobile weaves itself into the game as merely one more way to play as the Caped Crusader, it's awesome. The scenes where Batman starts on foot, finds himself cornered and then uses the Batmobile as a remote control drone to save his own ass are especially sweet.

In other places, the Batmobile mechanic is overused and out of place. Apart from traveling, the Batmobile is used mostly as a tank, firing missiles and machine guns to take out the main villain's drone tanks, which are swarming Gotham City (of course they had to be unmanned drones, or Batman would have broken his no-kill oath hundreds of times over). These sections would be more fun, if only they didn't make up such a huge portion of the game.

Have you ever tuned into a Batman movie, or opened a Batman comic, just so you could get your fill of some tank battles that would be at home in Patton? To get caught in a barrage of missiles that would make a Call of Duty game proud?

Didn't think so. Unfortunately that's what far too much of Arkham Knight is.

As the game progresses, though, it finds a better balance, with the tank fights blending in much better with the series' polished predator (below), combat and detective modes. If only the entire game weaved in the tank play that carefully.

Rocksteady likely constructed it this way as a tutorial, so players would be well-accustomed to the tank mechanic when it plays a pivotal role later in the game. But the lopsided first half throws off the overall balance, giving us a Batman that's too little Dark Knight and too much G.I. Joe.

The game's storyline is mostly fun and intriguing, leaning on a central mystery: who is this Arkham Knight character? Unfortunately, Rocksteady's writers are no Agatha Christie. Once the game starts dropping clues, they all point in the same (ultimately right) direction. We were hoping for a red herring, with someone more surprising revealed behind the Knight's mask, but alas, what started off as great suspense turned bleedingly obvious by the time the game spilled the beans.

… and Batman's baffled surprise at who he sees behind the mask makes his reputation as "the world's greatest detective" sound like a joke. If the audience solves the mystery long before Sherlock Holmes does, then it might be time for Mr. Holmes to pack up his pipe and magnifying glass and move to Palm Beach.

Visually, the game looks terrific on the PS4 – not dramatically better-looking than the first three games on PC, but a noticeable improvement over the last-gen console versions of those titles.

Though voice acting is perfectly functional for the source material, it's also uneven. Jonathan Banks (Mike the cleaner from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) brings a natural-sounding realism to his scenes as Commissioner Gordon, but he's surrounded by far too many cartoon voices that prevent his tone from bleeding into the game as a whole. The series' Betty Boop on crack treatment of Harley Quinn continues to perplex us, as Quinn was supposedly a successful psychiatrist before falling under the Joker's spell (we aren't sure how that transformation would make a highly intelligent and educated person suddenly sound like a moronic caricature). And Batman himself, voiced by Kevin Conroy, still sounds more Saturday morning cartoon than he does Nolan/Bale-era Batman.

As games continue to become more realistic and cinematic, it would be nice to see acting and writing taken as seriously here as it is in the best films. But for every title like The Last of Us that pushes things forward, we also have games like Arkham Knight that reveal an industry more interested in over-the-top cartoons than masterful writing and acting.

Considering it's based on a comic book, maybe the cartoon-like element is appropriate, but it still creates a distance between the gamer and the story. Cheesy dialogue, predictable "surprises" and inconsistent voice acting tend to do that.

There are a few other cool additions to the game, including a partner combat mechanic, where Batman teams up with Robin and Nightwing to beat down baddies. You can swap characters mid-fight and execute team takedowns, to spice up the beat-em-up scenes (which are otherwise growing a bit long in the tooth after four games). Up to this point, the series has stuck with the lone wolf side of Batman, but Arkham Knight introduces just enough of the sidekick element to pay homage, but not enough to betray the former.

Batman: Arkham Knight also borrows the crime scene reconstruction mechanic that was introduced in Warner Bros' Montreal's Arkham Origins, letting you fast-forward and rewind crime scene reconstructions (perhaps Batman is beta-testing the Hololens) to gather the clues you need. For a game that was criticized at the time for being too iterative, it's interesting to see an element from that 2013 title make its way to the finale of Rocksteady's series. It's still a highlight – and a pleasant contrast to the high-pitched action that makes up most of the game.

Arkham Knight is a worthy, if flawed, final act. At its highest points, it's the best of the three, even if its lowest points feel less like Batman, and more like General Patton. Assuming Warner Bros. is going to continue making Batman games (and why wouldn't it?), Rocksteady has left the next developer all the building blocks it needs for a kick-ass ode to the caped crusader. If future installments can keep the Batmobile element, but use it more sparingly than we saw in Arkham Knight, then the franchise's best days could still be ahead of it (though perhaps not its most innovative).

In the meantime, though, this flawed epic is still very much worth playing.

Note that Gizmag played the PlayStation 4 version of Arkham Knight. It's also available for Xbox One. Warner has temporarily suspended sales of the PC version due to massive bugs that made it nearly unplayable for many gamers.

Product page: Warner Bros.

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