If there’s one series that would have done well to have paid attention to the phrase, less is more, it’s Rocksteady’s Batman games. Arkham Asylum was one of the best games of the last generation, a slick, compact action game that perfectly captured the essence of what it was to be the Dark Knight. Its sequel, Arkham City, tried to build on the winning formula by expanding the roster of villains, Batman’s abilities, and most significantly, by providing an open-world for the player to glide through. But Rockstedy didn’t quite pull it off. Arkham City felt diluted, and a tad cluttered by comparison, a lesson they should have paid close attention to. Unfortunately however, Batman: Arkham Knight - their conclusion to this particular take on Batman - succeeds at nothing but falling deeper into the same set of mistakes.
The big draw going in this time was the inclusion of the Batmobile, with it Batman’s astounding array of gadgets and resources was supposedly complete. But it’s the Batmobile's very inclusion that serves to completely undermine the experience. Instead of being just another excellent toy for you to enjoy, the Batmobile takes centre stage for vast sections of the game, forcing itself upon you whether you like it or not. And perhaps that wouldn’t have been so bad had Rocksteady made it feel more like the Batmobile and less like the world’s most pimped out trolley.
Let me explain. You see the Batmobile has two distinct modes, pursuit and combat, and it’s the latter of the two that’s the cause of much of the game’s problems. Racing around firing the afterburner, smashing through concrete barriers, trees and all the other guff that frequently irritates you while driving around in other sandbox games is great fun, as is the cinematic way in which you remotely call in the Batmobile. But hold down L2/LT and it transforms into combat mode where the accelerator becomes fire, and the brake becomes the consumable special weapon. It's a clusterfuck of bad design as, for the first four or five hours of the game, you’ll likely transform when you want to break, and inadvertently fire your special weapon when you try to correct yourself. It’s as if the next Call of Duty suddenly decided to use one of the face buttons to shoot, or like when Gears of War: Judgement tried to re-hash the series’ already stellar control scheme. Having L2/LT serve as the transform button conflicts directly with ten or fifteen years of driving in videogames, and it’s not an easy habit to break, no pun intended.
But more importantly when you do transform the Batmobile feels, like I say, more akin to your local supermarket trolley, able to slide about in any direction whilst always facing forwards. The end result is that fights with twenty or thirty tanks soon devolve into rinse and repeat games of strafe, dodge, and shoot, something that, unsurprisingly, starts to feel like little more than a chore pretty quickly. Instead of feeling like Batman, the sensation it delivers is probably closer to the crack induced, fever dreams of Bumfights’ Bling Bling.
This, unbelievable as it may sound, isn’t where the Batmobile’s problems end. The inclusion of the Riddler’s racetracks, three lap courses that force you to navigate subterranean labyrinths at high speed whilst avoiding pitfalls, barricades and crushing traps are, almost impressively, frustrating. As are the needless Batmobile platforming sections, and yes I did just say platforming… in the Batmobile. Whomever was responsible for thinking this up really needs to re-learn the definition of a bad idea. Using its winch and combat mode, you’ll occasionally have to navigate narrow rooftops and seesawing ramps, all the while surrounded by sheer drops into either water or the streets below, forcing you to re-try these sections time and time again. It’s all incredibly frustrating, and most of the time spent tackling them will likely have you thinking how you can’t wait for them to end so you can get back to the rest of the game.
But aside from the Batmobile, Arkham Knight does have a few redeeming features. Firstly, its central storyline is incredibly strong, and is perhaps the only thing that pushed me to want to finish the game. By giving a definitive answer on the events of Arkham City straight from the start, and committing fully to their own storyline, Rocksteady have delivered a Batman story every bit as good as anything you’ll see in any comic or film. Obviously I can’t speak in any real detail for fear of spoiling it for those yet to experience it, but to put things in perspective, Arkham Knight is to Rocksteady’s Batman what The Dark Knight was to Christopher Nolan’s. It’s easily the strongest of the trilogy, delivered with such a complete understanding of the characters and world that even should you have only the slightest of interest in Batman, then this is one storyline you really can’t afford to miss out on.
Secondly, and this at the time of writing doesn’t apply to the recently pulled PC version, it looks and runs very, very impressively. Gotham City is a truly amazing looking place to play around in, whether you do it down at street level, or across the city's sprawling rooftops. Its neon signs and twisted architecture do a great job of making the iconic world Batman inhabits come to life in a way that even the previous two games couldn’t match.
Elsewhere, the rest of Arkham Knight is made up mostly of things you’ll already be reasonably familiar with. Predator missions and the signature freeflow combat both return, and function much as they did in the previous games with a few added gadgets and abilities. However - and I held this opinion about Arkham City as well - combat can feel overly complicated and less entertaining than it was in Arkham Asylum. The reason being that guards carrying shock sticks, electrified suits, knives, shields and guns all need to be tackled differently, and trying to do so, and pick out the right target in amongst the crowd, can become somewhat frustrating. Brawls are more about area management and trying desperately to remember which two buttons disassemble guns or finish grounded targets, rather than the more streamlined dodge, counter, takedown rhythm that used to be so enjoyable. When Batman’s list of combat abilities alone can outstrip a Street Fighter IV character’s moves list then you know things have gone too far.
And that’s the whole problem with Batman: Arkham Knight, there’s just been too much added to what was an already winning formula. Something that’s even more damaging when one of those ingredients is the horribly misjudged Batmobile. If its weak controls, tedious combat and ridiculous puzzle solving doesn’t make you want to tear your hair out, then the maddening end of game challenges Rocksteady are notoriously weak at delivering will. More is not always better, and although having access to the Batmobile is - in theory - an excellent way of letting players really feel like Batman, it’s undermined in practice when you find out it’s Jeremy Clarkson lurking under the cowl, and that all he wants to do is drive fast and shoot guns.