Bar a few notable exceptions, great sandbox games have never really made for great stories. While you may have played your part in the meticulously crafted lore of Dragonborns, Liberty City gangsters and the creed of assassins, truly memorable tales are few and far between in games that look to extend the boundaries of world building and draw distances. Batman: Arkham Knight is a rare exception to the rule: a masterclass in psychological unease that pushes its protagonist to the very limit, played across a landscape as vast in scope and detail as a sandbox game has ever dared attempt. Not bad for a game about a chap dressed up as a nocturnal mammal.
Batman: Arkham Knight begins in bold, spoilerific fashion as a statement of intent from Rocksteady Studios. Aside from a brief detour in the mildly disappointing prequel Arkham Origins (developed by another studio), Rocksteady’s experience with the billionaire playboy behind the cape and cowl has left them in a confident mood and Arkham Knight is the culmination of game design and story threads that began with their unexpectedly triumphant Bat-debut in 2009’s Arkham Asylum.
Following the fall of Arkham City and the passing of one of its least-celebrated sons, Gotham’s streets are at relative peace until Scarecrow threatens a reign of toxin-induced terror upon its denizens. With a hyper-militarised force led by the titular Arkham Knight in tow, Batman is once again tasked with bringing order to a city ruled by the disorderly.
Following on from the minutely detailed landscape of Arkham City, Rocksteady takes full advantage of the next-gen hardware to create a living, breathing Gotham that is reportedly five times the size of its predecessor. Grappling off buildings and vantage points to soar through the damp, neon-lit skies of Gotham is as satisfying as ever, with the increased geographical span only adding to the sense that this is the ultimate Batman-simulator.
Texture detail and frame rates are impeccable considering the scope of Rocksteady’s creation and controlling Batman himself is as fluid as ever, due in no small part to the free-flow combat system that has been fine-tuned to perfection in this fourth entry into the franchise. After maxing out the extensive upgrade-perk system there are more button combinations than you could possibly think of pulling off in one single encounter, but the variation of methods to deliver a firm Bat-beating keeps both Arkham Knight’s stealth and melee sections fresh and gratifying until the bitter end.
Arkham Knight’s headline feature is the introduction of the Batmobile. A cross between Christopher Nolan’s tank-tumbler and the more traditionally streamlined vehicle of the comics, the Batmobile is both a welcome introduction and an unnecessary diversion. While screeching round sharp bends and boosting off ramps in a souped-up war machine is thrilling, skulking through back alleys while avoiding one-hit kill juggernauts or engaging in the umpteenth strafe-battle with a flurry of drones in combat mode is an often dull and humiliating experience in a game designed to fulfill its tagline: ‘Be the Batman’.
Thankfully Arkham Knight is eager for you to wander off the main quest route and it’s here where the character of the Caped Crusader is as iconically realised as it has ever been in any medium. The versatility of the lengthy side quests takes full advantage of the World’s Greatest Detective’s deductive skills, with the returning Riddler logic puzzles, the hunt for a serial killer with a penchant for opera and reports of multiple bank heists (among many others) all playing in to the Dark Knight’s varied skillset, as well as perfectly showcasing his back catalogue of opposing villains at their most devious.
If this is to truly be Rocksteady Studios’ swansong with the Batman, then this meticulously crafted, shockingly mature conclusion to their Arkham series is debatably their masterpiece. While Arkham Asylum’s intimately claustrophobic surroundings still hold their place in my heart, Arkham Knight is a triumph of wish fulfillment played large across a magnificent sandbox with surprises on every street corner, in every maintainence vent or on top of each towering building. Breathe in the fear gas, don the Batsuit and experience the Dark Knight at his very brightest.
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