If you are so into the Arkham games that you are going to be wounded by learning anything at all about Batman: Arkham Knight — what characters may or may not be in it, for example — please don't read this review. Go play the game! You will like it, mostly. The spoilers in this review are minor, in my view, but they are there. UPDATE: If you are sensitive to spoilers, you may disagree about how minor it is. Mentioning it is fundamental, in my opinion, to talking about what is good about this game.
On with the show!
It's impossible, at least for me, to encounter the fourth big entry in a wildly popular Batman series and not think of Batman and Robin, the disastrous 1997 Joel Schumacher movie that starred George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Uma Thurman. Batman and Robin did what the Joker, Riddler, and Penguin had been trying and failing to do for almost 60 years. It killed the Dark Knight (as a film franchise, at least), at the time seemingly for good.
Batman: Arkham Knight, the fourth major title in the Warner Bros. series of video games that began with 2009's Arkham Asylum and the third to be helmed by the London studio Rocksteady, is not a debacle on the order of Batman and Robin. But well into the game, I feared that it would be. For several hours, it seemed that the opening lines — "This is how it happened. This is how the Batman died" — were not an omen that might or might not be paid off by Arkham Knight's ending, but rather were a foreshadowing of what Arkham Knight was going to do to the reputation of the Arkham games as the only great superhero series in video games.
Batman and Robin was probably not any worse as a movie than its mediocre predecessor, Batman Forever. But its abrupt change of tone — a shift from the gloomy, Frank Miller-inspired atmosphere of the Tim Burton movies to a campy, colourful one taken from the 1960s TV series — was jarring. Tonally, Arkham Knight is very much an Arkham game. We're still in the grim Gotham of Miller and Christopher Nolan. But interactively, Arkham Knight makes a Batman and Robin-ish mistake.
After a stylish opening, Arkham Knight miscalculates, badly. The decision to revolve so much of the game around the new Batmobile is an alienating move that robs Arkham Knight at the outset of the fantasy of becoming the Dark Knight. The great joy of the Arkham games has been how well they allow players to embody the Batman, gliding and grappling and duking it out with criminals using a combination of fists, feet, and gadgets. Arkham Knight jettisons much of this during its first couple of hours in favour of teaching the player how to drive the new Batmobile and use its weapons in tank battles on the streets of Gotham.
Instead of donning the Batsuit and striking silently in the night, for a good long while we're in a car in yet another open-world driving game, one that compares unfavorably to Sleeping Dogs, much less Grand Theft Auto. The result is a game that does not match the tactile pleasures of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and the maligned Arkham Origins.
If you want to avoid spoilers, skip the next three paragraphs!
Storywise, Arkham Knight's setup is more in keeping with the series: Something happens that requires Gotham to be emptied, except for street thugs and supervillains and a few Batman allies, who exist mainly to be kidnapped by the aforementioned criminals and subsequently rescued by Batman. But once we're past that silliness (and especially after the reintroduction of Mark Hamill's Joker), Arkham Knight unfurls a plot that is by far the strongest of the Arkham games, even as its themes (Batman sure has a lot in common with the Joker!) are expected and its twists are telegraphed. The Arkham Knight himself — a new, mysterious villain hunting Batman with tanks — is not all that interesting as a nemesis, but there's so much else going on that his blandness is forgivable.
Much of the acting is flat, though some of the blame for that rests on the dialogue. The barks from the street thugs as Batman drives and fights his way through Gotham are irritating and unnecessary verbal fluffery, meant to maintain the player's tumescent sense of power without earning it through play. And for a while I thought Kevin Conroy had been secretly removed from the role as Batman and replaced with the affectless delivery of Pat Summerall from a 1990s Madden game.
Hamill, however, is as brilliant as ever. His Joker salvages what might otherwise have been a dreary bore. Once he is introduced — in a manner consistent with the ending of Arkham City — I became more accepting of Arkham Knight's flaws. A scene in which The Joker regales Batman with a song while Robin, under the player's control, sneaks around the two men is probably my favourite moment from any video game in 2015, even if I loved it less the two times I had to replay it after failing its objectives.
OK, the spoilers have passed!
Anytime the Batmobile cedes the stage to another co-star — Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman — Arkham Knight finds its footing. While fighting alongside an ally, Batman can execute a dual takedown that shifts player control to the other character, and then back to Batman after the next takedown. It's a welcome wrinkle to Arkham's still compulsively enjoyable brawling. (The player can also choose to control a single character throughout the fight.)
Likewise, moving swiftly and stealthily to stop Two-Face's minions from robbing a series of banks is a reminder of how solidly this series was built in Arkham Asylum. And in the later stages of Arkham Knight, once Batman has leveled up his suit and his car, even the Batmobile becomes another welcome old friend. Batman can fly high and fast over bridges and buildings and then descend into — or ascend out of — the Batmobile and its street-level action.
It's a good thing that the late-game play is so terrific, because the credits don't roll when the main quest is over. Instead, to see the game's ending, a number of "Most Wanted" sidequests must be fulfilled, Some are brief encounters that are easily finished, some others feature repetitive animations, and a few are real slogs. (I'm looking at you, Riddler trophies.) But many are as rewarding as the throughline. In addition to Two-Face's bank robberies, I particularly enjoyed rescuing Catwoman, battling the Penguin with Nightwing, tracking Man-Bat above the Gotham skyline, and learning why Lucius Fox disappeared. If some of those names are meaningless to you, Arkham Knight, like all Arkham games, offers a full education in Batman lore for neophytes, telling players which comic book — or video game — introduced a particular Gotham villain or hero.
Once the credits do march across the screen, Arkham Knight divulges a new, more annoying surprise: If you want to see the full ending, Batman will need to hunt down everyone in the game, take down every watchtower, eliminate every guard station, collect every one of those Riddler trophies you've been trying your best to ignore since 2009.
Despite this misstep and the ones made at the outset — which at least were made with the laudable ambition of shaking up a series that some felt had grown stale with Arkham Origins — Arkham Knight will not be remembered as the game in which the wheels came off one of the great video game series of the past several years. It will, alas, be remembered as the game when the wheels came on.