Republished on Wednesday 28th August 2019: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Branded as the apparent finale to London-based studio Rocksteady's gritty affair with the world's greatest detective, Batman: Arkham Knight proves to be a eulogy of epic proportions. However, although brandishing all the stand out qualities of its critically acclaimed predecessors that are now polished to a blinding shine, Arkham Knight seems insistent on making clumsy missteps for the apparent sake of variety when we all know that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Someone at Rocksteady spun the wheel of A-grade Batman villains to see who'd be tormenting the poor citizens of Gotham in this instalment and - after landing on the now obliterated Joker panel a few times - it finally landed on Scarecrow. Lo and behold, the pesky psychopath has got to his fear toxin again and is plotting to disperse it around Gotham, rendering its residents a jittering mess. Enter the caped crusader to begrudgingly access his multi-billion dollar militaristic arsenal of non-lethal weapons and gadgets to restore temporary peace to what seems to be the most unlucky city after New York.
It sounds somewhat similar to the events of Nolan's Batman Begins, and plays out in a painfully cliché manner that feels constantly overshadowed by the innovation seen in the narrative of previous iterations. Of course, Scarecrow isn't the main wrongdoer on the block as, well, his name isn't on the box. The Arkham Knight is a whiny tin can of a villain that's jumped on Scarecrow's bandwagon in a relentless attempt to extinguish The Batman for reasons that'll remain a mystifying mystery for now. Juvenile behaviour aside, he's actually a clever addition that helps to distance Arkham Knight from the silver screen plot line that it's so evidently been inspired by.
What it lacks in originality, Arkham Knight more than makes up for it in the voice acting department, playing host to vocal talents from some of the industry's' finest, with Kevin Conroy once again taking the helm as the gravel-chewing protagonist. Troy Baker and Nolan North crop up as a few classic bad guys, and none other than John Noble (Lord Denethor, The Lord of The Rings) is the chilling tone of Dr Crane's Scarecrow. This talent only adds to the already impressive character design that really stands out alongside a surprisingly lacklustre closing ceremony, and works to keep you deeply engrossed in the many investigations, especially where the clichés would often lose you.
The now staple open world design makes a return in the largest Gotham yet - and the best looking one, too. Rendered in the sweaty Unreal Engine, the vistas on display here are breathtakingly well designed and really shine on Sony's hardware, dodging many, if not all, of the graphical issues found in the troubled PC version. Rendering a large map is one thing, but it's populating such an expansive world that's the true test. This task falls to the many copy and paste thugs, tanks, and drones - so many drones - that are scattered throughout. Alas, it's hard to feel like the last word of justice when you're detonating unmanned vehicles, and in truth, a handful of new thug varieties would have more than sufficed in their place.
Because of the new sandbox Gotham, side missions are pleasantly plentiful, as the Arkham series is now known and expected to prescribe; they feel somewhat condensed, but they're all the better for it. The Riddle-athon of solving incessant puzzles has had all its quizzical fat trimmed off, leaving a swift and enjoyable experience in its wake instead of a long groan as you trudge to the next hostage location. Loads of B-listers make brief appearances in short-lived but pleasurable missions that litter the main narrative, and they last just long enough to leave an impression without deterring from the core experience. This is in stark contrast to the previous Arkham games, which suffered from an overwhelming amount of things to do that all seemed to take forever. Arkham Knight is proof that dieting can work.
Obviously, it's not all cutbacks, as Rocksteady has also thrown in pretty much everything that it can into the mix - namely Bruce Wayne's slick new wheels. The Batmobile was the poster child for this release, and frankly, it's the weakest link in the otherwise fantastic chain. This tank of a vehicle borders on the unbelievable, brushing pedestrians aside with electric shocks to avoid mowing them down, while switching to rubber bullets to make sure that you don't detonate a thug's skull – all in a bid to maintain The Bat's 'thou shalt not kill' rule. Inaccuracies aside, it handles like a well-tuned F1 car, and is a joy to utilise in takedowns, chases, and general exploration. However, when you're forced behind the wheel at specific points, the Batmobile swiftly goes from being the best pocket in your utility belt to being a pace-destroying menace, leaving you to slug through convenient obstacle courses and fend off incessant nondescript enemy vehicles that leave you feeling like this new WMD on wheels is more of a distraction than an addition.
Fortunately, the combat has always been the icing on the proverbial Arkham cake, going from strength to strength with each release - perhaps excluding the disappointing Batman: Arkham Origins. That being the case, you'd assume that Arkham Knight would be the prodigal son of the franchise in the combat department - and you'd be bang on the money. Fluid as ever, the combat demands that extra tactical input to execute, which separates it from your average brawler. The already impressive array of takedowns has been bolstered with fancy new environment takedowns that use everything from lights to fuse boxes to dispatch the swaths of henchmen, along with the fear takedown that renders multiple thugs unconscious in quick succession – all from the shadows, playing on the thoroughly good stealth elements of the franchise. They certainly take some practice to lock in, but the pay off is brutal and satisfying.
Meanwhile, the new dual play mechanic seeks to further improve the combat situations Batman faces by enabling him to call upon the help of Nightwing and Robin. Much like the charming LEGO games, you're able to switch characters at the tap of a button, leaving your previous host subject to artificial intelligence controls. Thankfully, Arkham Knight's AI is steadfast, and switching characters is a welcome blast of variety in an already accomplished set of mechanics - it's just a shame the new faces are only available in closed combat scenarios, and not throughout the experience.
From the get-go, we know that this is the end for our caped companion, but it's hard to feel completely at ease with his curtain call. Many elements are fine-tuned to perfection, like the fluid combat, deep character design, and Gotham's moody landscapes, but then there are also a handful of elements that are still very much in their infancy. The Batmobile is great, up until to a very specific point where it swiftly becomes an immersion-ruining burden, while the story sometimes feels so cliché that you're often left waiting for a 'POW' to pop up on the screen. It's a superior game that plays brilliantly, and certainly stands in a league of its own in the Arkham line-up for the most part, but it simply doesn't leave your jaw agape like Arkham City seemed to manage with such ease and finesse.