Reviewer's notes: Due to review NDA stipulations, Warner didn't want us to discuss particular story beats - nor would we want to - for fear of spoiling the game. But everything else is on the table. We will say that like Game of Thrones, it's best to go into Arkham Knight with as little foreknowledge as possible. Additionally, due to our PS4 debug build being heavily watermarked we couldn't take screens, and until we get retail code we're using Warner's own shots to illustrate the review.
Escalation. Jim Gordon's comment at the end of Nolan's Batman Begins suggests its inevitability, and the danger that's inherent with it. Seven years later, in-fiction concern served as meta-commentary for the Dark Knight trilogy's close. While containing many a good idea, Rises nearly collapsed from the weight of its expanded scope; intimacy crushed under war-like spectacular as Gotham's besieged.
It's similar concern that has dogged Rocksteady's reveals of its final night in the same city with Arkham Knight. A bigger sandbox, bigger threats, and even bigger gadgets: the focus on the Batmobile, its Burnout-like gameplay and the need of a wider, more open Gotham as a result of its inclusion has sat uneasily with series fans. It feels a necessary, if unwarranted answer to new-gen demands: massive and sprawling cityscape with an overwhelming criminal element. The scope has widened exponentially, but the intimacy seemed lost.
And for the first few hours, that rings true. Rocksteady front-load the intro with huge thug fights and a nearly uncontrollable rocket-powered tank. To begin Knight focuses more on Batman's fists than his mind, missions that require brain not brawn are few, while just trying to take corners in the Batmobile proves a challenge, and we frustratingly pinball off walls to get round bends.
Previous side threat Scarecrow is now central antagonist, popping up to menace you in a now-evacuated Gotham via loudspeakers and building billboards. He's looking to break the Bat, through his grandiose monologues about the strength of fear lack menace given we've trumped him in other Arkham adventures, and he proves a poor one-dimensional successor compared to the nuance and insanity that the Joker brought to the same role.
Everything's big and brash, but lacking in considered refinement.
It may have shifted generations, but Arkham Knight is obviously a direct continuation of the last-gen entries, reinforced heaviest in the extensive fighting system of which most of the previous two/three games worth of moves are unlocked from the start.
Rocksteady makes the ballsy move to include zero tutorial to Batman's pre-existing combat or initial arsenal. There's VR challenges dotted throughout the city granted, but nothing to put you through the basics. The suggestion: two/three games into the franchise by now, you should have this down pat. Yet the several years that've passed since we cleaned up Arkham City prove we're initially poorly equipped to handle the heightened threat level.
Enemy groups come in huge numbers as standard, and rocking the versatile combat skills that marked City's endgame. They've learnt new tricks as well. Between leaping swordsmen, shield wearers and taser-wielding thugs you have knife-wielding heavies, fully-electrified attackers and medics that resuscitate downed comrades. Given this the game's sold as a power fantasy, we spent a strange amount of time in our first patrols grappling away from fights or staring at a game over screen.
Partly this is due to the open nature of the game world and thus the ability to stumble across missions by chance (something that becomes a positive later on). One such strand has you tracking down captured firefighters who are trussed up across the three islands that make up the sandbox. Those locations are revealed only if you happen to be near enough to pick up coms of those groups keeping them under 'protective custody'. These groups offer up tough opposition. One of our earliest encounters had us chewing through more game over screens that the rest of the game combined.
Along with unfamiliar territory, all-new traversal options and a basic set of opening missions that fail to showcase the unbroken flow between multiple gameplay mechanics that defined the series proves uncomfortable. And soon, worrisome. Has Rocksteady favoured spectacle at the expensive of finesse? Have we lost what made Arkham special?
The weak first few hours seems at odds with the brilliance of the first five minutes, a brazen collage of cinematics and shifting gameplay moments that from the off captures the attention. It's so confident in its delivery that you suspect you feel something's amiss the next few hours, that you've been shown a trick that's yet to finish.
And in a way, we have. Awkward though those opening hours are, what you think is the game's central arc concludes abruptly and turns out to be prelude to the real story (another nod to Nolan: The Prestige).
At the same new mechanics are joined, and gel with, tinkered takes on the iconic gameplay beats that made this series so great to begin with. The story pulls the rug from under you, the multi-mechanic flow returns, and suddenly everything just clicks. There's still a heavier emphasis on multi-foe fighting, but it's one of the few weaknesses from here on in.
The entire city's open to you from the start, though one island's so heavily fortified its unadvisable to travel there, and additions to the mission wheel appear on certain story and explorative conditions being met. The first thread of these optional multi-part objectives are seeded near to main story locations so you get the first taste easily. After, it's up to you which to pursue.
Some see Rocksteady adapting to conventions of the sandbox genre. Each island's under control by a militia; watch towers, guarded outposts, road bombs and roving APCs need neutralising. Doing so does arguably does little more than increase your completion percentage, but the studio split the solutions across multiple gameplay types: go stealth in Predator, practice your combat, perfect your powerslides.
There's a lot of variety on offer, from meatier missions right down to roving thugs, riots and police officers needing help as their cars come under attack. Get sated with one gameplay mechanic and the game offers nudges to taste another. You easily flow as one finishes to another. And all feed into the fiction: multi-tasking Batman wouldn't stop until his city was back under his control.
And yes, festooned throughout the city are Riddler Challenges, interrogating the criminal's informants once again peppering your in-game map with green icons. Cracking Nigma was always our favourite hobby in the previous games, and this time Eddie outdoes himself with a diverse range of puzzles. Initial rigged race tracks that require perfect driving by the Batmobile frustrate, but soon the challenges start to embrace the puzzle work that made them a joy to solve previously.
It's worth mentioning here how Rocksteady implement its hint system, which is the best we've experienced. There's no on-screen text prompts, instead additional dialogue is delivered by NPC characters that subtly suggest a solution or needed gadget. Lines that never feel out of place. It's brilliantly executed. (Additional note: in all the times we were greeted with a character-starring game over screen, we never once heard repeated dialogue).
The Batmobile redeems itself once you've got a handle of its controls, both as a speedster and a nimble-moving tank. Be gliding or on foot, be by a road, tap the shoulder button and the hybrid will roar into view, and you'll automatically jump in. A nice touch? It'll come to a stop in the direction you were facing while on foot. Along with aiding in puzzle-solving (and tossing in nods to the the Adam West and Schumacher eras simultaneously), Rocksteady even drops in vehicular stealth sections which breaks gameplay up even further.
It does still offer the game's weakest moments in the form of certain races. Riddle Challenges with car-crushing machines pounding the pavement at random give little time to react. And elsewhere as you race through sewer pipes, either driving up wall sides and onto the ceiling to navigate through gaps in blocked passages. Fiddly and much too easy to spin out, it's at odds with the perfect and polished control on offer elsewhere in the game. Thankfully though Rocksteady keep these moments to the bare minimum, and they are still, to an extent, thrilling.
The studio loads up on combat sequences though, dumping you in the middle of arenas full of unmanned drones, requiring you to squeeze the Batmobile into gaps between criss-crossing firing lines while taking attackers out. It's action-rhythm Batman, and is surprising satisfying as its quick pace and glorified explosions balance against the slower strategies of on-foot stealth.
Despite that seemingly by-the-books story at the start, you're soon reminded that this is the studio that faked a console crash to enforce a key story beat in Arkham Asylum. It knows the power of misdirection, and by god does it play on it. Any worry that Rocksteady's writing turned rocky quickly dissolves as it deftly marries gameplay with narrative. We had, on a number of occasions, the need to put joypad down either to cover our mouth in shock, or simply applaud the showmanship.
Put it this way: at one point, Batman struggles to escape a death trap. It's ludicrously early in the game, so clearly he's not going to die. Right? Yet we believe it could happen. Arkham City's ending proved it may be DC's source material, but this is Rocksteady's world. Like Nolan's Dark Knight Rises, we know this is the studio's final sign off from Arkham. All bets are off. Anything could happen. Sure, the central arc seems familiar, but the beats within catch you off guard.
You'll appreciate how everything connects if you've played the first two Rocksteady titles, and how the studio dares dig into the psychological trauma suffered by the man behind the mask over the years even as he's - and by extension, you - trying to save the city.
And while the story's strong, it's never at the sacrifice of gameplay.
Outside a few scenes in which gameplay flows into cutscene and back to gameplay seamlessly, the studio wisely keep you in control of Batman at all times, so even as the story twists, you never feel like you're watching a movie. It feels like this is happening to you.
The internal struggle permeates the story, but as you're struggling with demons you're freely criss-crossing the city, clocking through missions as they take your interest. Unlike say, Mass Effect 3, in which straying from the critical path felt unbelievable ("my planet's being torn to shreds as we speak, but sure! I'll have another drink"), the side quests here tie into the sense of slowly retaking Gotham over the course of one night.
There's even an inmate counter at G.C.P.D to help you keep track of how many more villains you've got to put behind bars. You'll note there's a board reserved for those in maximum security, and its number doesn't correlate with who you know is in the city. The game never feels like ticking off the completion box: it's structure is such that you'll want to see that completion percentage through to the triple-digits.
You're not alone either. The dual-play aspect of the game, letting you take momentary control of Robin, Nightwing or Catwoman as they cross paths with the Dark Knight and fight together, is as smooth and flawless as the rest of the fighting system. And while Rocksteady don't keep it all about combat, try keeping a grin off your face as the dynamic duo confidently march into a room filled with thugs. You will forget Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin ever happened.
It's in the city sprawl that the game's engine makes good on feeling like a next-gen overhaul. Perch on high anywhere and you can zoom in to scan the rooftops of all three islands with zero pop up and little reduction in detail. Look down and you'll see cars drive past, switch to Detective mode and you'll spot thugs and patrol outlines for the immediate city block. We've been staring at the back of Batman's cape for over fifteen hours yet we still couldn't help admire its texture. It looks real. Where visuals do suffer is with normal enemies. Polished though they are, animations and design echo what's come before rather than feeling entirely new. But it's a small issue likely chosen to ensure maximum enemy numbers come scraps. We played on a PS4 debug, and the game continued to impress visually, and the soundtrack has to be commended.
While the experience can feel overfamiliar due to base mechanics and game systems you've known before, presentation and story are such you can still marvel. Those new mechanics quickly come to fit naturally in with everything you've know before. It is as much a different game from City as that title was from Asylum. You'll have reasons to love those titles and favourite moments to talk about from each. It's no different with Arkham Knight. The intimacy's still there. It's just wrapped in a much larger, yet equally compelling, game world.