Arkham Punch (You with a Tank)

WTF is Batman: Arkham Knight?

Batman: Arkham Knight is the fourth and supposedly final game in the Arkham series developed by Rocksteady Studios. Immediately after I wrote that it didn’t work on PC, I discovered that that problem had been solved – it’s amazing what being two years behind on your games can do.

Knight picks up shortly after the events of Arkham City, with Batman facing off against Scarecrow and a mysterious foe who goes by the name Arkham Knight. The action takes place in Gotham this time – a sprawling set of three connected islands – and the biggest change is that players have access to the Batmobile, which is essentially a tank. This splits the action between two planes – traditional Batman-style combat on the rooftops, and tank wars on the streets.

Rocksteady tried really hard to keep the story line a secret, going so far as to block screenshotting at certain points in the game, but, suffice to say, this story is still about Batman’s personal war with the Joker, even if the Joker’s in his mind.

You’d better love driving a tank, because that’s most of the game

Traditional punching quests take a back seat to tank quests in Arkham Knight, and I’m all right with that. The punching system hasn’t changed that much over four games – and, where it’s changed here, it’s mostly a case of re-assigning buttons just for the joy of making me push the wrong one. Tanks are the only thing that’s truly fresh and new, and Knight gets as much mileage out of them as it can. There are racing tank quests, and shooting tank quests, and chasing tank quests, and defending a small scrap of territory from an onslaught of enemies tank quests – The Riddler even gets in on the action by making a bunch of tank-centric puzzles.

The game also goes out of its way to make up an explanation for why blowing stuff up with a tank doesn’t run contrary to Batman’s code of ethics – his tank shoots non-lethal rounds and the enemy tanks are all unmanned drones.

Even so, as much as the tank stuff adds something new, it’s pretty clear it’s not a Batman thing in the same way that punching stuff and using gadgets and doing detective work is a Batman thing. All of the normal Batman things are pushed to the side in favour of tank Batman things, and there are pros and cons to that. At the same time, I’d be a liar if I said my heart didn’t flip a little bit when the Batmobile first slid into view. After spending, like, forty hours in that fucking car, I take it for granted, but it’s a pretty cool thing to have.

Speaking of the Batmobile, I drove it without my system crashing

Back when the game didn’t work on PC, driving the Batmobile used to crash your system. I can see how that would make the game unplayable, since the Batmobile is not optional. You have to be inside that thing to play the game.

I had a few minor problems when I first installed the game, and I had to manually uninstall and reinstall all of my drivers and adjust the settings a few times to get it to stabilize, but, once that was done, it was okay. Running the game on the lowest possible settings very occasionally made things look weird, but I’d say that, 99% of the time, I didn’t notice or care.

Predator challenges are basically completely gone

Which I’m obviously okay with, since I suck at them. Arkham Knight places less emphasis on person-to-person combat overall, but it also introduces a new move called a “fear multi-takedown” which, if you upgrade it, allows you to punch up to five armed enemies in one slow motion sequence without taking damage. The silent takedown mechanics are also much more generous – you barely have to be near someone to initiate, and there are lots of ledges that are just the right height for you to pounce from above.

The gadget upgrade system also encourages you to hide in the shadows and use your devices to take people out rather than having to awkwardly stalk up behind them. You can terrorize your victims from the floor grates, or a well-chosen vantage point, and, if your fear meter is active, you can also be kind of careless and know that, if somebody spots you, you can transition from a silent takedown to a fear takedown instead.

Taken all together, these were the least stressful stealth missions in the history of this series, and I approve. There’s also a side quest that I enjoyed a lot more where you have to take out bank robbers “hard and fast” before they can rob the whole bank. It’s still a stealth challenge, because they’ll shoot you if they see you, but it’s a loud stealth challenge, because they can’t hear you over the alarm. You literally just swoop in, pummel some dude, and swoop away. I love it.

The super secret story line is really fucking good

It’s not accurate to say that I guessed who the Arkham Knight was after an hour or so, but it is accurate to say that I for once knew a comic book thing that let me hope who the Arkham Knight was after an hour or so, and then experience a mounting sense of glee as my hopes were slowly confirmed. Next to Catwoman and Harley, this is my favourite character, and I loved the way that character’s relationship with Batman was dramatized.

Up until this point, I’ve avoided giving spoilers for the end of Arkham City, but I kind of have to in order to talk about what else is cool in Arkham Knight. So, spoilers for Arkham City, but the Joker dies at the end. Given that the very first scene of Arkham Knight involves cremating the Joker’s dead body, I was not expecting him to have much of a presence in the game. The big surprise in the first act of the game is that that’s not true – Batman is hallucinating that he sees the Joker everywhere. The Joker is even more of a presence in this game than he was in the previous three. He’s hanging out on random rooftops. He’s popping up in your peripheral vision. He’s giving colour commentary on Batman’s every action. He’s singing the greatest song ever written. Sample lyrics:

Your parents are dead, and I can’t stop laughing.

The Arkham series has also always been interested in experimenting with hallucination, imagination, and bending the rules of video games to make the experience feel more immersive and surprising. It took huge steps forward with that in Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight builds on that success even more. There are lots of sequences where you turn the camera away from something and, when you turn back, the scene has changed, or where subtle elements in the environment like movie posters change from shot to shot. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s disquieting, sometimes it’s both of those things and also kind of wonderful, in a weird way. The game feels very organic and psychological and it’s come a hell of a long way since the days when you were punching prison inmates just to prove the concept.

Knight feels like it’s winding to a finale, and, between the main story and all of the side quest material, it wraps things up for a lot of the major characters. Some of them die. Some of them become something they never wanted to be. Some of them find redemption. Some of them do all three.

Being things that aren’t Batman

Ever since Akrham City, I am always most excited for the times I get to be someone who isn’t Batman. There are three main ways that happens in Arkham Knight. The first is that, during the main story, and some of the side quests, you can temporarily take control of secondary characters and (in an even smaller number of instances) engage in a new style of tag-team combat and tag-team takedowns (hilariously, you can also do a tag-team takedown with your tank).

The second way to access other playable characters is through buying DLC to upgrade the extremely robust set of challenge maps to let you play as Batman, Batgirl, Catwoman, Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood, Azarael, and – yes!!! – Harley Quinn. The DLC also gives you the third way to play as a non-Batman character, which is through little side missions called “Arkham Episodes” where you can go on a short campaign as any of the Bat sidekicks, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman.

The character I was most excited for was Harley Quinn, and I appreciate that Rocksteady went to the trouble of giving her a unique combat style that suits her character rather than cloning one of the existing styles. I love whacking people with a bat, and I love the detail where the “silent takedown” option is replaced by “loud takedown” because she can’t be subtle or quiet.

None of the challenge maps holds a candle to “Joker’s Carnival” – a combat challenge from Arkham City that involved defeating successive waves of enemies without taking a hit in order to score a million points before the time ran out. A lot of the combat challenges in Arkham Knight involve facing infinite waves of enemies until you die, and the metrics for what success looks like, beyond getting three stars, are not as well defined. Even “1 vs 100,” from Arkham Origins, had a victory state that wasn’t death, and the clear goal to maximize your score while taking out exactly 100 enemies.

I enjoyed playing the challenges in Arkham Knight, but mostly just for the fun of being a different character, rather than because the challenges were so well-designed.

Things that were annoying

One small annoyance in every Arkham game is the moment when you clear a predator room and Batman says, “Now that I’ve secured the room, I can use the console.” Fuck if I know where the console is and fuck if it looks different from the other junk inside the room. After I masterfully become the night and swoop out of the shadows to dispatch the frightened thugs, I spend, like, five whole minutes running around the room in circles, hopefully scanning things with my detective vision to see if I can interact with them.

Gotham is huge and the map really sucks. If I didn’t have a quest beacon leading me where I needed to go, it was almost impossible to pinpoint a specific place. Often, when I overheard comms chatter, the people talking gave the name of an intersection or a district that wasn’t marked on the map. When I was trying to hunt down Riddler trophies for 100% completion, I couldn’t tell if they were above or below me.

I understand why they had to switch the controls for this game – adding the Batmobile and cleaning up the gadget menus are among some very good reasons – but I kept calling the Batmobile when I wanted to use detective vision, and I kept jumping off of things when I tried to select a new gadget. Arkham Knight also removes the blade dodge takedown and slightly changes the mechanics of the blade dodge itself, which means that I both kept getting stabbed and also feeling disappointed when I didn’t get stabbed and nothing happened.

I actually don’t know why it was necessary to change the special combo moves, but I was completely confused about which buttons I was mashing other than B+Y. There’s a new move where you can pick up a weapon using the same combo you use for an environmental takedown and the same combo you use for a Batmobile tag-team takedown – picking up the weapon doesn’t really help you, and I was usually confused about what was going to happen at all.

In general, this was the first time I felt like being good at the previous games actually hurt my performance and like the controls were not responding the way I expected them to. I also don’t even remember most of the gadgets I had, because I hardly ever used any of them.

In conclusion, this is still one of the greatest video games of all time

Look, I had problems with small little parts of Arkham Knight, and I started to get annoyed while trying to tie up the loose ends to get to 100%, but this is a huge game that tells a great story and is, more often than not, extremely fun to play. It’s an incredible achievement on its own, but, taken in the context of the other three games in the series, it also shows how Rocksteady has grown more ambitious over time and achieved greater and greater things.

For fans of the series, this is a great finale that, once the DLC is added in, includes a bunch of cool extras. And it totally will work on PC if you’re willing to mess with the settings.

Image: Arkham Knight; Rocksteady | August 4, 2017