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Batman: Arkham Knight

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: June 23, 2015


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Xbox One Review - 'Batman: Arkham Knight'

by Redmond Carolipio on July 9, 2015 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

In the explosive finale to the Arkham series, Batman faces the ultimate threat against the city he is sworn to protect.

Superheroes lead a life of harsh consequence, and few know this better than Batman. This is displayed in full with Batman: Arkham Knight, which pokes, prods and ultimately punctures the psyche of the Dark Knight in ways that didn't exist in previous Arkham games. Arkham Knight's predecessors were clever, action-packed and entertaining. Those words apply here, but there's also an undercurrent of schadenfreude, with Batman's simmering reservoir of contained misery fueling our entertainment. It is brilliant and exhausting.

Fittingly, the story begins with Frank Sinatra and fire. You, as the player, get to cremate the casketed body of the Joker with one pull of the right trigger as Frank plays in the background. As you remember, the Joker succumbed to a synthetic disease in the previous game, and the image of his body being enveloped in flames sets the tone for the voice of Commissioner Jim Gordon ruminating about "the day Batman died."

Now, Gotham City faces a dual threat. The most omnipresent is the Scarecrow, the master of fear Batman has faced down and defeated on several occasions, but who brings his A-game to start infecting parts of city with an epic version of his fear toxin. This forces the evacuation of Gotham City, leaving behind only criminals, other supervillains and a heavily armed militia under the command of another nemesis known as the Arkham Knight. The Knight, who wears a mechanized Batman-esque suit, remains an enigma for most of the game, but it's clear he despises Batman while also claiming to know how he thinks and acts. In effect, he is an anti-Batman, whose aim is to make him suffer before he dies.

I thought the Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight were perfect choices as adversaries, especially after seeing how they chipped away at Batman's mental defenses while he searched the city for answers. Aesthetically, this is Scarecrow at his most ungodly and frightening. He looks like a nightmarish zombie sorcerer, armed with a needled hand ready to shoot up anyone he touches with new and improved fear juice. Through well-written citywide broadcasts and other forms of communication, Scarecrow verbally stabs at every potential fear Batman has, whether it's a fear of failure or a fear that someone he cares about could perish because of his or her association with him. The latter is something the game masterfully exploits at one point, when Batman realizes that the Scarecrow is actually capable of giving his deepest fears some verisimilitude, but I won't spoil it here.

The Arkham Knight, on the other hand, hints at being the embodiment of an actual failure Batman may have had in his crimefighting lifetime. Again, I won't spoil it, but it's a nifty, if not creatively loose, take on existing Batman lore. The Arkham Knight also spares no expense in chastising Batman at every turn but also makes the signature stalking combat more difficult. Since he claims to know how Batman thinks, the Arkham Knight barks orders at his troops to stick mines on vantage points or to check the ventilation shafts if a player gets a little too comfortable. It's a way to keep fights from feeling routine and adds a touch of tension to confrontations that didn't always exist in previous chapters of the Arkham saga.

The true indication of Batman's cracking mind, however, is the constant appearance of the dead Joker. During his efforts to stop Scarecrow from covering the city with fear gas, Batman gets blazed with some of it, which "unlocks" the Joker, who then appears as a chatty hallucination to Batman for the duration of the main story. He taunts Batman at opportune times, preys on hidden fears and also serves as sort of a twisted hint dispenser if Batman gets stuck in certain puzzle-style situations. He's the clownish glue to the overall narrative, subtly spinning the story forward into its climax.

In the face of all this, Rocksteady presents the most impressive and fearsome version of Batman in the series. If you're familiar with previous Arkham games, you'll have no trouble jumping into the fray now. The X button handles all the striking, while the Y button handles all the counters when the familiar lightning crown flashes above an opponent's head. The A button focuses on agility movements, while the B button offers up "stun" moves that can hinder larger enemies. As you improve your techniques via upgrade points, you can utilize a variety of two-button combinations to take down foes in impressive fashion. I've always enjoyed this fighting system best, as it emphasizes Batman's economy of movement and doesn't overburden players with information, thus enabling them to focus on the action in front of them.

One new wrinkle in the arsenal is the new Batsuit, a sleek, flexible and armored masterpiece that allows Batman to chain together instantaneous takedowns. These are called "fear takedowns," and with full combat upgrades, can spell doom for groups of up to five enemies. This was my favorite part of the stealth combat — if your foes are generally afraid, Batman can approach a group of them undetected and then engage in a quick-hitting and visually appealing dance of pain with a push of the X button. With a mix of good timing and agile handling of the camera (within a short window of slow-motion action), you'll find yourself satisfyingly clearing rooms.

Overall, yes, there's a bit of button-mashing that can be executed, but there are other aspects of combat that'll whet the appetite of anyone looking for something more complex: namely, Batman's ride.

Near the beginning of the game, players are asked to hit the left shoulder button to "even the odds." This leads to the flashy introduction of the Batmobile, and the game wastes no time in putting it to a lot of use, as if Rocksteady is apologizing for not having it readily available in previous games.

As one would expect, the Batmobile is joyously overloaded with technology. Its normal vehicle form follows semi-traditional driving controls, with the right trigger serving as the acceleration, Y button offering up the signature jet-style afterburner and X serving as the brake. I'm a terrible video game driver, which is why I'm glad the Batmobile's armor lets me basically slam into everything (and everyone, without killing them. Instead, people are shocked and repelled by an electric force field). When chasing down enemy vehicles, the B button can fire missiles to disable them after letting the fighter jet-style targeting system lock on.

The real chaos begins with Battle mode, which transforms the Batmobile into a roving tank of the future, complete with rotating 60mm cannon and a stable of other hardcore weaponry, like missiles, EMP bursts and hacking technology that lets you electronically sway enemy drone tanks to your side. It can even "dodge" enemy fire a direction and the A button. It also has a power winch that can be used to pull apart walls, yank on switches and even latch on to certain point so the Batmobile can actually climb up and down walls.

On one hand, you could argue that the Batmobile is the co-star of the Arkham Knight experience. It takes the player away from the cloud of tense fear by offering instances of sheer firepower and some design ingenuity. There are several instances where Batman (meaning you) can take control of the Batmobile via remote, and it functions as a partner of sorts, where artful remote placement and control can open doors, clear out rooms or trigger switches that let Batman proceed on foot. It's also another way to explore the breathtaking scenery of a Gotham City, which is broken into three large districts that have their own architectural personality. You can zip from Wayne Tower through the glitzy business district and into the more downtrodden areas to fight more of the leftover denizens from the evacuation. I spent more than a few turns trying to find the high points of each district to visually absorb the skyline. It also gives the player a dose of perspective, knowing that Batman has taken on the responsibility of defending everything he sees.

On the flip side, I thought there were too many story-mandated instances of massive tank combat. There are at least a handful of times when the Batman and his tank need to ward off waves of drone armor, and it started to wear on me as I neared the end of the central story mission. While the Batmobile is awesome, I don't need it shoved down my throat.

Away from the Batmobile, Arkham Knight follows the path of its forebears by offering a large, diverse combination of optional side missions. This is where Arkham Knight starts to flex its reverence for the DC Comics universe of characters with ties to Batman, as well as some intriguing gameplay tweaks focused on Batman's detective work. For example, one mission has Batman tracking down a serial killer who leaves behind mutilated bodies on display. To look for clues, Batman's cowl unleashed a deep tissue scanner that allowed him to examine skin, then muscle and even bone. I caught things like tattoos to knee replacements to ID the victims and, eventually, track down the killer. Batman fans will note the appearances of standbys like Catwoman, Penguin, Riddler (and his array of trophies and puzzles) and Two-Face, but they'll also run into adversaries such as Deathstroke, Firefly and Hush. All have different demands of Batman, and very rarely is the result a straight one-on-one showdown, which is something that was more prevalent in Arkham City. Thankfully, Batman has help in the form of Robin and Nightwing, where you can actually switch between characters during large-scale fights.

All of these characters and experiences give Arkham Knight a warped, this-is-your-life quality to Batman's struggle to bring Scarecrow and Arkham Knight to justice while the Joker dances in his head. The main story mission, aside from all the tank action, features chilling and tense interactive set pieces that still resonate with me and left me oddly shaken at the idea of dealing with this from Batman's perspective. It's not all gloom — I remember a funny mission where I had to take down a crazed, bomb-strapped professional singer with the help of Robin. The camera angle remained focused on Batman, who wasn't allowed to move while the singer belted out a tailored (and awful) song for him. The player must control a lurking Robin in the background, ducking behind cover and disarming bombs when the singer wasn't looking. Still, I thought the story maintained a dark overtone focused on the people in Batman's life, some of whom are in danger of dying and those who have actually died. The voice acting overall does a solid job of conveying a kaleidoscope of emotions, especially Kevin Conroy's stoic presentation of Batman and the eerie tones of Scarecrow.

A final point deals with the game's ending. It's the last game of the Arkham trilogy, and it can be viewed as split into two parts. The first is when you defeat the Scarecrow, and the second one is when Batman finishes most or all of the side missions. It has an after-credits feeling to it, but I'm curious how off-putting it would be to those who expect a complete ending without having to work through a few side missions to get it. I wasn't bothered by it — after all, it doesn't seem like Batman to leave a job mostly unfinished.

Batman: Arkham Knight has been billed as the most complete Batman video game experience in existence, and it lives up to that billing in spades. There's almost — gasp — too much Batman to handle, and I find myself still grinding away in Gotham when the time allows it. It would appear that too much Batman is a consequence I'm willing to live with.

Score: 9.0/10

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