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Batman: Arkham Knight review: The Batman's final chapter

It's the end of the line for Rocksteady Studios' acclaimed Batman series, as Arkham Knight concludes the developer's trilogy. Did they save the best for last?

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Jeff Bakalar
JeffHSurban2012.jpg

Jeff Bakalar

Editor at Large

Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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8 min read

The Batman: Arkham series did for superhero video games what the Tim Burton Batman films did for cinema. They re-legitimized them in popular culture and forced audiences to take the genre seriously. Up until 2009's release of Arkham Asylum, most superhero games weren't worth the plastic boxes they shipped in.

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Batman: Arkham Knight

The Good

Being Batman has never been more fun, powerful or easy. Arkham Knight is a great action game with an engaging story and an all-star cast of Batman allies and enemies. There's tons to do in Gotham City and a solid diversity of gameplay, even after you're through with the main campaign.

The Bad

Some Batman purists may take offense to the game's militaristic tendencies. Driving the Batmobile has a few quirks.

The Bottom Line

If you're a fan of the other Arkham games, you're going to really enjoy Arkham Knight, even if there's a handful of stuff you've seen before. The Batmobile and a number of new ideas and mechanics freshen the overall experience and the game's powerful brand of storytelling provides a satisfying connection between the in-game action.

Arkham Asylum changed all that. Developer Rocksteady Studios made becoming the Bat a fantastic experience. And it wasn't just precision controls, the freedom of gliding around and a now industry-standard melee combat system. Asylum perfectly nailed the prestigious Batman lore, honoring nearly every character in the universe and keeping intact the mythology that so many have come to adore.

Now arrives Batman: Arkham Knight, the third and final game in the series from Rocksteady (and the fourth Batman console game overall if you're keeping score at home). Arkham Knight has had roughly twice the amount of down time as there was between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, not to mention it was delayed twice during development.

Regardless, Arkham Knight is easily one of 2015's most anticipated titles and Rocksteady's blockbuster send-off for what's already been a masterful series. Now let's see how well the trilogy ends (spoiler-free, I promise!).

Rocksteady Studios

Batman's come a long way since the days of Arkham Asylum. He's got a lot more firepower now. The suit he wears in Arkham Knight makes him look like some kind of mechanized warrior, a far cry from his appearance the last time he faced Scarecrow.

But Scarecrow has grown up, too. He also has a new arsenal at his disposal. Gotham City is now filled with tanks and buzzing drones that monitor the skies. Arkham Knight feels very evolved, often representing what might be a futuristic imagining of Batman.

If you're a sucker for eye candy, Arkham Knight has you covered. I played through the campaign on a PS4 build of the game and was very impressed with Gotham's larger-than-life environments, its creepy towering architecture and the rainbow array of glowing neon peppered throughout the city. In a way, I found myself remembering my first introduction to BioShock's underwater city of Rapture.

Rocksteady has nailed the technicalities. Frame rate slowdowns are infrequent, and the game barely has any loading. For the most part, it's entirely seamless -- you'll never have to wait for anything.

Rocksteady Studios

The game is played at night (seriously, does the sun ever rise in Gotham City?) during a nasty rainstorm, so you're treated to a handful of granular weather effects. And of course, with most new-generation games, there's a smattering of the usual lens flares and artful glares that really add to the atmosphere.

I'd seen Arkham Knight played a number of times, so I wasn't worried about the visuals (and let's be honest, at this point no one should be overly concerned with graphical prowess). What I was concerned with was Arkham Knight's most notable new feature, the one thing die-hards had been clamoring for: the Batmobile.

My fear was real. I didn't want Arkham Knight to turn into some kind of bizarro "Grand Theft Gotham" situation where you'd rather drive to a waypoint instead of zip-lining and gliding your way there. At the same time, I wanted the Batmobile's implementation to be practical and unforced. I wanted variety that would seamlessly give me a balance of everything. For the most part, that's what you get -- but that's no guarantee you'll enjoy the gameplay mechanics it has to offer.

Batman can eject out of the Batmobile and transition into a glide. Once airborne you can call the vehicle to snatch you up as you dive your way down to the surface. Pulling off an ejection to a glide and then diving back down into the Batmobile is endlessly awesome.

Rocksteady Studios

Driving the Batmobile can be overwhelming at times, quite silly at others and immensely fun all in the same breath. It's a massive beast of a vehicle, ripping up nearly everything it touches. Railings fly off roadways, newspaper stands get obliterated and even the concrete corners of buildings and bridge support beams crumble in its wake. And that's all before you've tried out Battle Mode.

Holding the left trigger turns the Batmobile into Battle Mode, a super-maneuverable tank state that arms a machine gun and powerful cannon. Battle Mode changes the control scheme for the Batmobile, too, and you'll find it much more satisfying and responsive. It allows you to spin on a dime and strafe in any direction as opposed to the loose and easy-to-fishtail standard driving scheme. Switching between the two can be jarring. If you've ever played a game with universal vehicular controls, you'll often enter Battle Mode when you're really trying to apply the brakes instead.

Battle Mode is used to interact with certain items in the world and even complete puzzles and side missions. You'll also fight unmanned drones in Battle Mode, which introduces a brand-new dynamic for the Arkham series. This layer of gameplay feels much more like a watered down military tank sim than superhero game, but it's all fun nevertheless. It just doesn't feel, well, Batman-y.

So obviously being the Batman purist I am, I immediately began to wonder, "how the hell is Batman not murdering people left and right with this thing?" Well, it's complicated and requires a bit of suspending one's disbelief.

When it's aimed at bad guys, the Batmobile fires non-lethal rubber bullets. It just knows to do that. During car chases you can fire homing missiles that will explode and flip the car you're chasing, but the bad guys always seem to crawl out of the wreck unscathed. And if you do make contact with an enemy while in the Batmobile, the car delivers an electric shock to your victim, followed by a hilarious grunt or moan -- which is basically the game's way of saying "Batman didn't kill that guy, he's just electrocuted and knocked out, but he's still very much alive, we promise."

It's all pretty absurd, but I can't claim to know a better way of getting around that touchy Batman subject.

Rocksteady Studios

The Batmobile's introduction to the game changes a lot of the core gameplay in Arkham Knight, but you'll still be familiar with a majority of what's being offered here if you've played an Arkham game before. The free-flowing melee combat system returns with a few new tricks, while zip-lining and gliding exhibit some upgrades as well. You'll also be at the mercy of upgrade points to improve these disciplines within the WayneTech menu system, though you'll be surprised as to how quickly you acquire those tokens.

Arkham Knight introduces a new way to take out a gang of enemies with the fear system, which becomes available after a successful silent takedown is performed. Fear takedowns let you chain together attacks in gorgeous slow-motion fashion, allowing for Batman to neutralize the opposition before they have time to react. You can practice fear takedowns and other skills in the various AR challenges scattered around Gotham to earn skill points.

While you'll likely spend a lot of time scrolling through the map in previous games, I really like the different approach in which Arkham Knight presents story and side missions to the player. Instead of scrubbing around the map for icons and then dropping a waypoint marker, you now have access to two different selection wheels. These screens make it much easier to assign objectives and track your overall progress through the game. Certain iconography indicates what's available, what's locked and overall gives you a much clearer understanding of how to navigate through the game's numerous side stories and the main campaign arc. Of course you can still use the map to do this but it's a much more tedious affair.

Arkham Knight certainly takes a few risks with new gameplay ideas, but there are still some welcome mainstays like the Riddler's story arc and puzzle challenges. I liked being able to take a break from the main campaign to solve a puzzle or hunt down a Riddler Trophy.

The Riddler storyline, along with a number of other side quest arcs all help create a solid sense of progression in Arkham Knight, even though almost everything you're rewarded has appeared in some form in a game prior.

Rocksteady Studios

There's no denying Arkham Knight is the most aggressive Batman game to date. It can be pretty brutal at times. Batman feels more militant than ever before, which I found constantly teetered on the edge of what's believable in the world of the Dark Knight. It certainly isn't the most violent fiction Batman's ever been a part of, but it's the most he's been exposed to (and responsible for) in the Arkham games. It's also the first M-rated Batman game in the series.

Perhaps it's the level of violence being inflicted by his enemies this time around that warrants Batman's explosive response. Even the miscreants inhabiting Gotham express their surprise. From time to time you can hear them utter things like "Batman sure is kicking a lot more ass these days."

Batman is faced with a relentless, intelligent and vengeful nemesis in the Scarecrow. But he's not the only villain Batman'll deal with. Other classic enemies appear in the game, with their own specific stories, most of which you can pursue at your own pace. You'll also work with a slew of allies in Arkham Knight, some of whom can fight alongside you, even teaming up for partner-assisted takedowns. In a few sections, you'll even be able to switch between playable characters in the same location, which provides some truly stellar moments.

The game's story is a lot of the same kind of drama you're used to, though Rocksteady has weaved an interesting narrative regarding the internal struggles that Batman must deal with. The pacing keeps this inner turmoil bubbling at the surface and constantly fresh in the player's mind, all while delivering some memorable cinematic cut scenes.

Rocksteady Studios

It's never been more fun to be the Bat, and it's never been easier to perform his badass set of moves and abilities. Arkham Knight is a game with a lot of pressure weighing on it, but ultimately it rises to the occasion. If you're a fan of the other Arkham games, you're going to really enjoy Arkham Knight, even if there's a handful of stuff you've seen before. Its powerful brand of storytelling feels epic, important and will definitely surprise you at times.

There will be those on either side of the fence in regard to the Batmobile, but it does freshen up the overall experience. I think if I were just playing a much bigger and better Arkham City with nothing new being brought to the table, I might have been underwhelmed.

Even though it flirts with a Batman that is too overpowered, Rocksteady Studios goes out on top with Arkham Knight, a satisfying end to the best Batman's ever been in a video game.