Platforms: PC/Steam, PS4, Xbox One | Developer: Rocksteady (Ported by Iron Galaxy Studios) | Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment | ESRB: M | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Controller
This review regards the PC version playing on a 2600K, 16GB 1866 Ram, MSi TwinFrozr 780ti. Game was played to near 100% completion with no crashes.
My History with the Bat
It was the Summer of 1989, Batmania was sweeping the universe; at least that’s how it felt to a 9-year-old child. This is back when you waited more than 2 weeks for a theatrical release to hit “home video”. So, being of modest means, it would be a long wait after seeing it in the theater and for the price of VHS at the local Tower Records & Video store (yes they had stores way back when kids) decreasing from their exorbitant $80-90 price, before I could get my fix again. This is all according to my rapidly aging and fuzzy memory.
In early 1990 it was the halcyon days of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, and a Batman game was released for my beloved Nintendo Entertainment System. At the affordable rental price of just a couple bucks for three days of play, I could satiate my need to experience Batman over and over again. It didn’t matter that the game had seemingly little to do with its source material. I was hooked.
That platformer cemented the foundation for a life-long love of almost all things pertaining to the Dark Knight and the playing of a multitude of Batman gaming titles, beginning with the aforementioned NES game. The second film wasn’t as good, but the arcade-style brawler in the style of Final Fight on the SNES that followed was amazing. It remains sorely underrated to this day. While the films began to flounder the animated series and games based on them excelled.
When the film franchise rebooted with a darker, more serious tone, a PS2 game followed that wasn’t so good; and still I played. Things got better when the Caped Crusader received the LEGO-game treatment. It was fantastic. The following year brought us the biggest achievement to date in Batman’s gaming legacy. A relatively unknown studio named Rocksteady, released Arkham Asylum in 2009.
Now, 20 years later, and a far-cry from that child experiencing Batman for the first time. I again found myself with the same sense of excitement and wonder as I took up the mantle of the Bat. Much as the film franchise had evolved, so to had the game-world Batman. Everything anyone wanted to do as the titular hero (well almost, but we’ll get to that) was in a single game: hand-to-hand combat, gadgets, detective skills, and a cavalcade of Bat-baddies headed by none other than the Joker, voiced, impeccably as always, by the fantastic Mark Hamill.
Now some 6 years later, Rocksteady has brought us, after some delay, the third and final game in their Batman universe. They have pulled out all the stops for this one, including the ability to drive the batmobile around three of the islands that make up Gotham City. It’s big in scale and even bigger on style, all while attempting tell a grand tale of duty, family, friendship, justice and regret.
Batman Arkham Knight – The Story
I played through the PC version of Arkham Knight, and in what may be a surprise to a fair amount of people, I had little in the way of issues with the game. This is not to say that I think the game is always operating at the level of quality that it should be, but simply that it worked for me, and the issues that I experienced were not enough to hinder my progress nor my enjoyment of the game. When I discuss any issues with the title, know that by all accounts, within OnlySP and without, the PS4 version of the game is nearly flawless.
A lot of people were shocked when Arkham Knight received an MA rating. If there’s really any doubt as to whether that is deserved, the game opens with the player controlling the cremation of the Joker’s body. This is followed by the reveal of a flaming Batman symbol and the voice of Jim Gordon telling us that, “This is how the Batman died.” The intro then moves us into a Gotham diner through the eyes of a police offer. This leads to the eventual reveal of the Scarecrow’s latest nerve toxin which distorts peoples reality, rendering them as monsters that begin to beat each other to death. It’s very dark and Arkham Knight keeps it that way from start to finish.
Along the way there will be friends and enemies, new and old. Some will surprise you with their actions, and others will feel like they’re just there to expand the game at times. There will be returning characters that show up in unexpected ways too. All of this happens while weaving through and often acknowledging the complex, rich and varied written and visual history of Batman through comics, games and film.
Rocksteady balances this homage while remaining true to their own narrative, which is a strikingly human one. In a world saturated with media increasingly full of bombastic super-heroes and their powers, it’s always good to step back and remember that Batman is just a man in suit, relying on his logic, reasoning, training and gadgets to fight crime in the city that he calls home. He is human, for all the good and bad that does him in his world.
He’s simply a man who turned his immense childhood grief into a fuel that fed the fires of justice for those who would not receive it otherwise. He feels fear and regret, and these fill the undercurrent of Batman’s mental state as the story progresses. Death and abandonment have haunted Bruce Wayne and his alter ego the length of his life, so it’s no shock that Rocksteady focused on this aspect of the character.
For the most part, the developer tells their story with a gentle hand, though many players will be able to foresee some of their twists ahead of time. Though the ending, and the slightly extended “true ending” only available on 100% completion of the game, feel slightly underwhelming, they are a mostly definitive conclusion. The final fully embraces a Dark Knight who is very weary from his ostensibly never-ending quest to protect Gotham from its villains.
Visuals & Gameplay
Arkham Knight is beautiful to look at, that is when every thing fully loads. This is an issue that the community at large has with the game. I experienced it several times during my play as well, a several of the instances lasting longer than a few seconds. When this issue arises, the textures appear really muddy and low-res. In development, both 3D assets and their textures are often given LODs (Level of Detail) for loading purposes, usually based on their distance from the player. You’ll see this in some games (its common in id Tech games like Rage), where the texture loading never catches up to the speed of the player or their transitions from scene to scene. This seems to be the case here. Again, it wasn’t a constant thing for me, and wasn’t always noticeable.
I spent the majority of my time gliding around the skies high above Gotham. The intense rain swirls around Batman’s cape. Surrounding light sources, such as neon signs and helicopter spotlights are reflected by the rain in a nice touch. The particles later shift to something else after specific events in the game and remain impressive and dense. They pair well with the destructive particles of breaking objects. Actually all of the game’s particles systems and light sources activated through nVidia Gameworks are stellar, save one. Their smoke, particularly that which comes off of the Batmobile, while moving realistically and being effected by surrounding objects, has no character. Its density feels more like a flat wall than a multi-layered, nebulous particle system. This is all very interesting because, yes, Arkham Knight on PC does have a framerate problem, and it seems that the smoke effect from nVidia is one of the biggest culprits of framedrops.
So let’s take a step back for a minute. Arkham Knight arrives on the PC with a soft 30fps cap. What do I mean by that? Well, you can easily use a text editor and remove the cap, therefore it’s “soft”, not hard-coded in some locked and packed resource file. And oh, I hear the outrage from a large swath of the gaming populace. 30fps!?! But we’re the “Master Race” (a term we really need to do away with), we demand better! Well, that’s all fine and good. Other than the fact that the previous two (three if you count Origins) could run at 60fps, this is not overly disappointing to me. The fact that it’s set to 30 and can’t maintain that 30 on the other hand, is much more bothersome.
Smoke and destructive particles paired with calling the Batmobile — the big new feature required for various segments — stutter the game, fiercely at times. Not on every usage, but it was greater than 50%. This stutter is sometimes a full pause, but more often just a huge dropping of frames as Batman leaps into the newly arrived vehicle. Moving a few feet from the car and calling it again usually doesn’t produce the same result though, It seems to be a combination of the Batmobile rapidly appearing on the screen, coupled with it smashing into and through objects and having the smoke effect enabled. It speaks of poorly of the optimization work that Iron Galaxy did for the game.
The only other times I had any noticeable framerate issues were occasionally grappling rapidly thorough huge sections of building, or doing the upgraded grapple-eject from the Batmobile. The rest of my time with the game felt like a pretty smooth 30fps, which again is fine by me. Remember, I was the guy that played through The Order 1886 and didn’t mind the framerate either. I left the soft cap on during my playthrough, as it was clear that this was as far as Iron Galaxy had optimized the title, and other players have confirmed that unlocking to 60fps can provide some uneven results.
Combat still flows at that rate, which is excellent, because Batman can get into some truly large-scale brawls both in story missions, and randomly around Gotham. Combos climb ever higher as Batman bounces from foe to foe, and the game has again expanded on gadgets and takedown moves utilizing them. In fact, there may be too many of them. Hell, there was even a gadget I completely missed until after I had finished the main storyline, the ice grenade, which is off to the side of one of the main building interiors! You won’t even be able to engage some of the Riddler’s tougher challenges without finding another secondary weapon. Some of this feels added in to expand the time you spend with the game.
Yet another part of me insists that this is simply Batman operating at his highest level. Short of the Batwing we’ve got nearly all of his toys at our disposal. This is why I don’t feel the Batmobile is “shoe-horned” in, as many have suggested. This is really what we’ve wanted all along. Roaming the streets of Arkham in our sweet Bat-ride and then ejecting to dole out our special brand of justice. Where the vehicle starts to feel out of place is when you spend time heading towards 100% of the game. Batmobile combat often devolves into the same side-dodge and constant gun firing while waiting for missiles to charge. They really missed out on combat variation with the car.
That being said, if you were simply playing through the main story, you get quite a smaller dose of that feeling. I had a lot of fun grappling up the side buildings and finding hard to reach areas. Chasing down bad guy vehicles and tearing through the destructible city was also fine by me. Though I would admittedly more often than not simply glide above the city, taking in the impressive view and avoiding the stutter of calling the vehicle.
The voice work throughout the Arkham series has been top-notch. Bringing in Conroy for the Batman and Hamill as the Joker set the bar very high. Conroy returns here to take on the dual roles of Bruce and the Bat, and this may be the widest range he’s showcased in the role. The character goes through a huge range of emotions and Conroy’s work is subtle enough to really embrace the emotional tonal shifts. Though you’ve probably already spoiled it for yourself by now (or you’ve already played) there are a number of familiar returning cast members and all are at the top of their games, though many are simply thrown in for the hell of it.
Sound design remains solid, though there isn’t much in the way of anything new here, aside from the satisfying rumble of the Batmobile. The biggest issue with sound and dialogue were discrepancies in the volume level at various times, which was kind of annoying. It also felt like, to me at least, that the musical score was pushed way into the background. So much so that I don’t recall anything truly standing out. Arkham City was one of the best soundtracks in the last 10 years, providing a surprising mix of styles that somehow incorporated the tones of both Danny Elfman’s 1989 score and the wonderful work Hans Zimmer did with 2005’s Batman Begins . Knight’s music, what I can hear of it, is full of callback’s to City’s themes, which sound excellent if underrepresented.
So let’s recap. Framrerate bad. Voice acting, great. Texture pop-in, bad. World design and combat, great. Story, good. Music, not enough. My time spent with Arkham Knight pushed past the 30 hour mark and any concerns about framerates and textures pops were easily overcome by a thoroughly fleshed out game world, a good, but not great storyline, and quality cast. Normally when scoring a game — which I am not fond of — my score is representative solely of my experience. Given everything we know about the game outside of the PC, and the patches in progress on the PC side, I’ve somewhat adjusted my scores. I wouldn’t call this game a masterpiece, but I rarely do that for anything, however my experience suggests the game is exceptional. Points have been taken off for the issues I had, and moreso for what others have experienced. Whether I think the game is getting a completely fair shake PR-wise, (hint: I don’t) it would be silly to not note that where there’s smoke there is fire. These scores will be adjusted should Rocksteady be able to fix the bulk of the issues they’re working on.
There’s lots to do in the game away from the main storyline and a 100% completion is the only way to see the extended “true ending”. DLC will also be rolling out through the coming months, though it’s assumed the PC stuff will be delayed until the game is patched. I fully recommend playing with a controller on your PC as the multitude of gadgets spread across the keyboard is highly inefficient.
Reviewed on the PC. PS4 review copy provided by the publisher.