Above and Batman Beyond
Look, it’s no secret that two of my favorite things in this world are Batman and videogames. Batman’s just one of the coolest ideas, scratch that, the single coolest thing in the history of the world. I’m just really into the idea that he’s a normal guy who’s on the same level as Superman and the other Justice League members not for any special power, but rather just because he is. It’s really cool in a meta, existential kind of way. Add in all the edginess, angst and an incomparable rogues gallery and Batman definitely cements his place as the best hero there is.
That brings us to Batman: Arkham Knight, the latest and supposedly final chapter of the Arkham Trilogy by Rocksteady. Arkham Knight continues the open-world trend from Arkham City and blows it up by giving you all of downtown Gotham City to fly around and then destroy in the new Batmobile. Rocksteady really does go completely all-out in this title and to be honest, I was actually starting to get a little worried leading up to launch. Arkham Asylum was a very quaint Metroidvania-esque game set on the island of Arkham Asylum, and now with a bona-fide open world, Batmobile, race tracks, tank battles, and dual-play mechanics, Arkham Knight really has become the complete antithesis to what the series began as. The thing is, though, is that it’s fucking amazing. It’s so good. Arkham Knight manages to combine all of these things, including the story and core combat and predator sections, like pieces to a perfect puzzle and make one of the best games in years.
First off I’ll start with the infamous new Batmobile, which Warner Brothers’s marketing department made sure to let you know was the most revolutionary thing since George Washington crossed the Delaware. It’s fine. Look, the Batmobile is perfectly okay. I understand the criticism with it that there’s too much of it and I agree with that to an extent, but besides that it was actually pretty neat. It handles exactly as you expect (very arcade-y with a good amount of grip) and driving around was actually kind of fun as far as driving in games go. The tank battles on my first play-through were often annoying, especially at the end, but they were still enjoyable enough once you got on a roll and built up a combo. The whole mechanic of strafing and the way you move in it too is completely unique as far as I’m aware, and felt pretty good.
The main problem with the tank combat is that it doesn’t feel fair like the hand combat. The missile and helicopter enemies need to be taken out ASAP, but shooting each takes several seconds longer than normal tanks, therefore opening you up to attack for several seconds. It basically means that location is just as important as skill, because then you can use the environment to keep buildings between you and the missiles. But during New Game+ when the Batmobile was fully upgraded, it was actually pretty fun just wrecking shop and dodging left and right, and it felt nowhere near as annoying or pace-breaking as the first time around. The stealth tank sections are as silly as they sound though, and are only okay at best, becoming slightly more interesting once you get the upgrade to have them investigate your shots. On top of that, the tank is mildly story breaking when you think about it. If the Arkham Knight knows Batman in every way (supposedly), even mocking his no-killing philosophy, why doesn’t he just have people manually control the tanks? Batman would be screwed. And if shooting people with rubber bullets from the tank is now okay, why doesn’t Batman just bring a machine gun with rubber bullets to every combat encounter? Why doesn’t he just snipe people with rubber bullets from afar? The answer is that in addition to being against killing, Batman’s against guns because “they’re a cowards weapon,” which Rocksteady had to glance over to make the tank guns okay. The tank just isn’t at all what people think of when they think about Batman, and that’s the problem really with the tank in general. It’s a fine gameplay mechanic, and it works, but it’s just not Batman. It’s also always going to be more fun flying as Batman than driving any day.
The classic combat and predator sections are improved and changed in pretty good ways too. The biggest changes are the addition of F.E.A.R.™ takedowns, the disruptor gun and the dual-play mechanic. The fear takedowns let you take out up to 5 enemies (once you’ve upgraded it) of a combat encounter and they certainly look really cool, I’ll give them that. At its core, you press square, then move the right stick, repeat, which isn’t too much different than regular combat, albeit with the left stick. I understand the criticism that this is basically an “easy button”, but I wouldn’t put too much weight into that. The disruptor gun is a lot more interesting, because it basically “disrupts” enemy weapons (jams guns, electrifies ammo crates, stops medics, etc.). It doesn’t really make too much sense as a weapon, but it does put a little strategy into every encounter. For example, there’s only 3-4 “bullets”, but often much more weapons in play so you have to make every one count. It feels like a very Batman thing to do, because Batman doesn’t play by the rules.
I was a bit worried about the dual-play feature when they first showed it off just because it seemed like a bit much, a bit close to jumping the shark. Surely it wouldn’t work like that in-game, but I was willing to give it a shot, thinking it sure would be weird it did end up being amazing. And you know what, it really was amazing. Doing dual takedowns felt so good and I’m just absolutely shocked how well it worked. The animations between Batman and his partner-in-crime (either Robin, Nightwing, or Catwoman) are so perfect, and then you get to play as the other for a while. You can even beat the final Riddler fight as Catwoman instead of Batman which is pretty cool. The animations in this game really are top of the line. Even just during combat sections, the way Batman moves is so impressive, and there’s custom animations for 21 different takedowns and 30 different combat moves. And many combat and stealth sections have custom camera fly-bys, including many situational camera animations. Rocksteady really have such a deep understanding of game programming and animation that it’s really inspiring.
The open world of Arkham Knight works so much better than Arkham City too. In Arkham City, it was like really? Would they really lock off a large part of the city for criminals to roam free in? Mmmmm. It was a bit of a stretch but okay. Here it feels so much more natural. The way they handle finding missions is pretty great, because you actually have to find them in the world if you want to do them, so most side missions you end up discovering naturally while exploring. The side missions themselves though are a mixed bag. The Manbat reveal and Hush mission are amazing, but like the others are just Penguin and Two-Face again, and the others are weird choices like Professor Pyg and some preacher who wants to kill Jack Ryder. Plus about half of them are dime-a-dozen watchtowers, bombs to defuse, and militia checkpoints and car chases. The point is apart from the Hush mission, which really only needed to be the one mission, they all feel very arbitrarily long. It all feels very Ubisoft. Overall though, the side-missions do a pretty good of mixing up the gameplay in various ways and do a great job in fleshing out the world.
AND on top of some of the most unique, refined and fun gameplay in years, the story Rocksteady tells is honestly one of the best videogame stories of all-time. In fact, it’s not just a great story, but a great story that’s told in a top-of-the-line way. I’ll start with the major spoiler in the beginning that I don’t know how Warner Brothers managed to not spoil pre-release: the Joker is back, and played by Mark Hamill too. It’s such a smart way to bring him back too. For the first two hours you essentially play a fairly straightforward Batman game: there’s a bomb you have to find and some firemen to rescue. This does have the funny moment though when you’re investigating where they’re making the chemicals in Gotham and discover it’s at the ACE Chemical factory; like ahhh yes, they’re making chemicals at the chemical factory. Who could’ve guessed. But while you’re purposefully moving as slow as you can in a really tense environment, the Joker shows up in one of the best scenes and simply says, “Miss me?” and shoots you. It was immediately obvious that this was just brought on by the Scarecrow’s Fear toxin (except as we find out later, it wasn’t), and that was such a smart way to bring him back into the game without literally reviving him from death. This basically allowed to them to avoid Joker as the trope villain and create really off-the-wall moments throughout the game.
It was also a really great decision to make Scarecrow the main villain of the game, because as shown by Arkham Asylum he’s by far the best Batman villain for the videogames. The fear toxin lets them do really fourth-wall breaking moments that simply couldn’t happen in movies or with other villains. He’s also a really cool antithesis to Batman in that Batman wants to make Gotham a better place through fear, but Scarecrow wants to make Gotham a worse place through fear. And in the end, the Scarecrow ends up winning on both of the things he wanted to do: ruin Gotham by detonating the Cloudburst of fear toxin, and ruin Batman by forcing him to reveal his identity to everyone. It was a really interesting way to end the series, even if things did end up working out in the end.
But the way these two intersect through the game though is the really genius part. You think it’s Scarecrow’s fear toxin causing you to see the Joker everywhere but then you actually find out it’s the Joker’s blood that’s causing him to see the Joker, and not only that but also turning Batman INTO the Joker. This was a really cool, memorable idea because it was set up in Arkham City, doesn’t ruin the Joker’s character (see: Bourne Legacy with its magic drugs), it sets up some real stakes to deal with in addition to the Scarecrow problem, and is a really cool way of making the Joker a threat without bringing him back to life. Plus finding the four other “Jokers” was pretty amazing. And the ending! The ending of Arkham Knight is basically the best endings in games period. The Joker’s strength over Batman increases throughout the game at points where Batman’s most exposed to the fear toxin, namely the bomb defusal scene in the beginning and the Cloudburst scene in the end, so the full injection basically completes the takeover and from now on Batman is for all intents and purposes the Joker. Then because the Joker is fine with Scarecrow ruining Gotham and Batman, Scarecrow frustratingly injects another dose of toxin, but this time it causes the Joker to see all of his fears. This plays out in one of the most amazing sequences in games through the Joker’s perspective, where you learn his biggest fear is being forgotten so he ends up being locked away in Batman’s mind. So essentially the Scarecrow ended up actually curing Batman of the Joker disease, and then Batman escapes with the help of Red Hood and saves the day. It was just really impressive how they tied the two villains together at the end.
That’s not even counting the titular villain of the game, the Arkham Knight. I like how the Arkham Knight was really sarcastic throughout the game, because pre-release I’d imagined he’d be pretty robotic for some reason. The Arkham Knight obviously turns out to be Jason Todd a.k.a. the infamous Red Hood by the end, which was pretty cool because I personally really love Red Hood. However, Rocksteady basically tells you halfway through the game that the Arkham Knight is Jason Todd, which makes it seem like it was much more of a marketing decision from Warner Brothers to play up “Who is the Arkham Knight?” rather than Rocksteady. In fact, Warner Brothers’s marketing seems like the people who probably thought of the whole Arkham Knight idea in the first place. It just doesn’t really make much sense that Jason Todd would need to adopt a masked persona, the Arkham Knight, and then adopt a second masked persona, Red Hood, after he’s unmasked. If Batman doesn’t know who’s under the Red Hood/Arkham Knight, why doesn’t he just become the Red Hood in the first place? Now Batman knows who the Red Hood is so it doesn’t really matter that he changed personas. Besides that though, the scenes with Jason Todd being tortured by the Joker are amazing and really take advantage of games as a medium of storytelling. And the reveal of who it is, although obvious, is really touching and handled so well, much better than the “Under the Red Hood” animated movie. Jason still passionately hates Batman from his torture with the Joker, but when Batman has the chance to hit him (like he’s done to every criminal in the game), he doesn’t and instead radios Alfred and the conversation basically goes, “Alfred… I’ve found Jason,””I’m sorry for a moment I thought you said you found Master Todd,””…””Oh my god is he alright?” And it’s like awww, people do care about you Jason! He’s disappeared by this point but he obviously heard this conversation and is really struggling to deal with all the hate he’s had for so long, knowing he’s wrong now. It’s a really simple and poignant ending that’s really satisfying, especially considering Jason hasn’t even been mentioned in the other games.
The final bit of story I want to talk about is the very, very end, after you find every single one of the 243 Riddler trophies. Bruce Wayne has been unmasked, and now he has to initiate Operation Knightfall. What is Operation Knightfall? It’s an emergency measure taken when Bruce Wayne’s identity has been revealed, and he needs to pretend that someone kills him by having his house blown up with him inside, except obviously he’s escaped because he’s Batman. After you finally find all the Riddler trophies, which honestly is a bit of a rite of passage for playing the Arkham games, and defeat him, you talk to Catwoman about needing to disappear because the legend of Batman just doesn’t cut it anymore for Gotham, and he’s right. Scarecrow got together all the villains and he actually succeeded in evacuating 6.3 million people and gassing the city. I kind of wish Batman wouldn’t have pushed Catwoman away so much at the end though. I just really like the idea of Catwoman; it’s really nice that she and Batman both have someone who’s crazy like them and they can be crazy together. So Batman’s been killed in Operation Knightfall; a lot of time has passed and crime has actually decreased significantly. In a scene obviously paralleling Bruce Wayne’s parents getting murdered, a rich couple and their young son leave through a back alley and as luck would have it, get mugged by some criminals. However, a shadowy Batman figure stands on the rooftop… and just unfolds into a crazy fire fantastical fear-toxin-esque Batman. Who’s taken up the mantle? Azreal? Nightwing? They don’t tell you, and I see why this was controversial to not have a definitive ending to the whole series but that’s not the point. Batman tells Catwoman that Gotham needs a bigger legend than he could ever be, and crazy vampire Batman is that legend. That’s the point, but not much people are going to see that scene because you have to spend 10-20 hours finding all the trophies around the city. It’s an admittedly disappointing finale if you take it at face value, but once you realize what the point of it is, it’s actually a pretty great ending.
If I haven’t explained it enough, Arkham Knight is amazing. It’s basically the best videogame since Grand Theft Auto V, and features frankly the best storytelling in videogames ever (note: not necessarily the best story in games ever). It just really tells a story in a way that only videogames can, which is really cool and impressive. It’s constantly doing crazy things that require player agency and moving around a scene to be immersed more, and not only mixes up the gameplay in order to make a story point but also to make the game more fun and interesting to play. Before I said that the Last of Us was the best game at mixing gameplay and story, but Arkham Knight just blows that out of the water. Arkham Knight at every moment has the player doing cool things and feeling like the Batman, it does a great job of giving players control of a scene when an important story moment happens and knows what scenes to show a cut-scene for to continue the flow of the story, and it looks insanely amazing. Rocksteady don’t just understand Batman insanely well, they understand videogames insanely well. Arkham Knight does so much right, and it really cements itself as one of the greats, right alongside Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption.