EDITORIAL NOTE- The following retrospective contains spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight and the preceding ‘Arkham’ games.
When it comes to PC Gamers it seems that Warner Bros. games’ matra is “Meh, fuck ’em!”. Despite being a huge critical and commercial success on the console scene, the PC port of Batman: Arkham Knight in 2015 was legendarily poor, with shoddy allocation of V-RAM resulting in the game becoming virtually unplayable for all but the highest-spec rigs.
While I was able to get the game up and running at the time, the constant tweaking of settings and adjustment of texture resolutions took me out of the gaming experience a little too much for me to be able to write about it.
Instead, I summarised some of my top moments from the previous games and resolved to write a more in-depth account of my experience playing Rocksteady’s closing act in the trilogy (or quadrilogy if you count 2013’s Arkham Origins and aren’t offended by the word quadrilogy) whenever I bothered to upgrade my graphics card.
Now, 18 months later I find myself in the luxurious position of being able to play the game at a reasonable frame-rate with all the settings maxed out. And wow, it’s just the gorgeousest!
So, join me as I return to Rocksteady’s Gotham City for more Arkham Nights…
With each installation in the series Rocksteady did a phenomenal job of expanding the scope of the tableau in which we, as Batman, operate. The original game benefited from the relatively small and claustrophobic confines of Arkham Asylum before broadening the canvas to include a cordoned off section of Gotham in Arkham City. In erecting a cordon sanitaire around Arkham City the developers found a plausible narrative excuse to circumvent the technical demands of recreating a digital facsimile of Gotham City.
With a new generation of hardware, the yoke was removed from Rocksteady’s neck and Arkham Knight allowed us virtual free reign across the whole of a beautifully realised Gotham City.
The city itself has always been as intrinsic a character to the mythology as Alfred or The Joker. As we drive (or glide, as is my preference), through the city we get to see the traditionally gothic architecture of ‘old’ Gotham and the pristine spires of glass and steel that house the likes of Lexcorp and Waynetech in the financial district.
It’s a lived in city of contrasts; gaudy neon and shady back alleys. Crumbling stone and gleaming metal. The scars of great depression and the shining arrogance of 21st century prosperity.
It’s also a city littered with the kind of Easter Eggs that will raise smiles among veteran comic book geeks like myself. traditional Gotham land marks like Ace Chemicals and Park Row are right where we left them but look hard enough and you’ll also find some loving nudge-wink references among the gargoyles.
Take, for example the above movie poster for “The Ghost in Gray”, an explicit reference to Batman: The Animated Series. There’s even the offices of one John Constantine.
In the GCPD lock-up you’ll find not only a selection of trophies from villains bested in previous games but the name of a certain manhunter named John Jones amidst the duty roster.
I got you under my skin!
The Joker is as dead as a doornail. Indeed, our very first act in the game is to initiate his cremation, but thanks to a circulatory system full of Titan-infused Joker blood, we have to reluctantly cart him around with us in our war against crime. Mark Hamill’s performance is as superb as we’ve come to expect and his playfully antagonistic banter has a habit of chiming in right when we need it least.
Unconstrained by the limitations of having a physical body you can tell that Joker is having the time of his (after)life, first as a tedious ear-worm and eventually as a malignant incubus, tearing Batman’s sanity to shreds as he forces his way to the surface.
The posthumous head-fuckery is only exacerbated by the effects of Scarecrow’s fear toxin and the game does a fantastic job of wrestling control away from the player at crucial moments to illustrate Batman’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality.
As great as Hamill’s vocal interjections are (the highlight of which has to be serenading the Dark Knight with a catchy ditty about all the horrible things he’s done to the Bat-family), they’re not the only way in which the Clown Prince of Crime malignantly inveigles his way into Batman’s psyche.
As you travel through Gotham you’ll see Joker’s face everywhere on posters and statues all over the gothic metropolis, but look twice and they’ll revert to their quotidian forms, Marley’s ghost style!
I suppose we should’ve known that the death of The Joker wouldn’t be enough to prevent Hamill from turning in another phenomenal performance as Batman’s nemesis but I’m sure few could have expected that this game would give us some of the best and most definitive Joker moments of the entire series. Which brings us to…
Joker’s Greatest Hits
One thing the Rocksteady games do really well is dropping the player right into a Gotham in which Batman has been active for quite some time.
The games give us a sense of history that we piece together through the games’ narratives and supplementary materials. We got a real sense that when Batman dragged The Joker through the gates of Arkham Asylum in the first game that it wasn’t the first rodeo for either of them.
While ‘Origins showed us a ‘Year One’ Joker it was clear that the two had clearly been locked in battle for a good many years by the first game.
Thus, Arkham Knight reveals some of The Harlequin of Hate’s most egregious offences against the bat-family in flashbacks.
We get the ‘Arkhamverse’ treatments of classic story lines like Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” in which we see the horrific events that led to Barbara Gordon’s paralysis, and a version the death of Jason Todd a’la Jim Starlin’s “A Death in the Family”. We as Batman are forced to watch, powerless and unable to intervene as these old wounds are torn wide open.
Not only do these sequences put a new spin on familiar stories but their emotional magnitude really gives us an insight into Batman’s psychological torment and an efficient qualifier for his hatred of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Aside from Oracle’s ubiquitous voice in our ear and a brief appearance from Tim Drake’s Robin in the second game, the bat-family have been mostly absent throughout the series.
Now, we are afforded the opportunity to control Batman and a selection of sidekicks in close quarters combat, switching seamlessly between the two as they toss henchmen to one-another for ostentatious finishing moves.
Those who enjoyed the DLC from Arkham City will no doubt relish the opportunity to play once again as Robin, Nightwing and Catwoman with their subtle variations in gadgets and vocabulary of moves.
As compelling as the notion of Batman as a tortured, solitary figure is, there’s no denying the fun of playing as both Batman and his supporting characters, trading banter with one another as they dismantle hordes of foes.
Not only is the combat a fun addition to the classic formula, but the interactions also afford some wonderful dialogue and character moments.
Batman Goes Silent Hill… Again… More!
With the Scarecrow serving as one of the game’s primary antagonists, its clear from the get-go that some creepy gameplay is on the cards.
From the terrifying opening scene, in which we assume the point of view of a Gotham beat cop and get a first person perspective on the effects of Dr Crane’s latest fear toxin, to the psychologically twisted climax it’s clear that the developers wanted to populate the game with some genuine chills.
The game’s closing sequences offer a particularly effective twist on the ‘fear toxin’ sections from the first game in that we get to navigate our way through the fear toxin’s effect on two warring personas trapped in the same brain together; Batman’s and The Joker’s.
It’s the most epic battle between these two nemeses imaginable fought within the smallest battlefield.
Another creepy moment worthy of mention, though in the DLC and not the main body of the game, is Batman’s trippy and disturbing navigation though the previous games courtesy of Jervis Tetch; The Mad Hatter.
Mystery of the Man-Bat
Tonally the Arkham games represent a triumph of balance. They have been able to integrate the more fantastical elements of the Batman mythos (Ra’s Al Ghul, Solomon Grundy, black undies on the suit) while still maintaining a Nolan-esque veneer of plausibility.
Rocksteady’s third entry takes this a step further, integrating one of Batman’s more fantastical villains, The Man-Bat… with terrifying results.
While it only takes place within the context of a side-mission, the tense, atmospheric discovery of Gotham’s answer to Dr Jekyll is every bit as nerve shredding as it deserves to be!
From the heart-stopping first encounter with the creature to the heart wrenching conclusion, this side mission hits every essential beat and really makes you care about the fate of Dr Kirk Langstrom and his wife Francine.
Not to mention the phenomenal design of the creature which combines the fearsome and the sympathetic in a way that’s hauntingly reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Tanks… A LOT!
One of the best gameplay elements of Arkham Knight is also one of the worst by sheer virtue of its overuse.
While there’s no denying that the volume of tank battles eventually becomes repetitive and tedious, there’s no denying the sheer thrill of being able to summon an armed behemoth of a Batmobile at will.
Tearing around the streets of Gotham is fun, don’t get me wrong, but everything from the sleek transitions from driving to ‘combat’ mode to the intuitive control system is amongst the game’s most overlooked triumphs.
While, in comic book lore, firearms are anathema to The Dark Knight, no iteration has the same aversion to them so long as they’re mounted on a vehicle.
The tactile pleasure of dismantling drone tanks with the Batmobile’s booming cannon is an unexpected but welcome additionj to the tried and tested gameplay of the previous efforts.
That, said I could definitely have done without being denied a mano-e-mano rematch with Deathstroke.
I’m not wearing hockey pads!
In over 70 years of appearances on page and screen The Masked Manhunter has amassed a pretty awesome wardrobe with which to combat injustice.
Now, through the miracle of DLC some of the best bat-suits in history are ours to don!
Whatever your preferences, long ears or short, blue cape or black, tights or body armour, the chances are your favourite iteration of the bat-suit is at your disposal and gloriously rendered in vivid colours and textures.
Lee Bermejo’s stunning rendition of the suit is there, as is my favoured Batman Incorporated suit, alongside the original 1939 version with the short, purple gloves.
As someone who’s devotedly followed Batman through his cinematic career one of my purest delights was being able to play the game in the classic 1989 suit worn by Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s original film.
If the Nolan-verse is more your bag, though, then the costume from The Dark Knight is also available in Batman’s virtual wardrobe and for the DCEU purist Ben Affleck’s grey and black suit from Batman V Superman is available as well.
It’s a shame that as a PC gamer I’ll forever be denied the classic Adam West suit but the 1966 renderings of Catwoman and Robin are a fair compensation.
Oh, and getting to drive around Gotham in the tumbler, the BvS batmobile, the 60s batmobile and Anton Fursts 1989 classic?
Tell me… Do you speed?