The games' Predator encounters, in which Batman has to stealthily take out a room full of heavily armed enemies by using the room's features and his own array of gadgets, are consistently tense and challenging, and they give the player tremendous freedom in solving the problem at hand.
The Freeflow combat system created for the Arkham series is one of the finest core gameplay mechanics debuted in the last decade or so - it's simple and intuitive, simultaneously balletic and kinetic, allowing the player to effortlessly guide Batman through a crowd of goons while rewarding reflexes and anticipation. Combat in the Arkham series has impact - blows feel real, they have weight, and the system provides the right feedback to the player at the right time.
But more than anything else, the Arkham series nails the feel of the experience, of actually being Batman. The Arkham games put players in the cowl of the iconic character by allowing them to truly inhabit Batman's strength and athleticism in all parts of the game, including those without any enemies.
The series got these big things right, and in doing so it was able to move past the games' relatively uninspired stories, blunt, on-the-nose dialogue and a basic structure in which everything else was essentially thin connective tissue between the next Predator encounter or combat section.
I have, over the last couple weeks, been replaying Arkham Knight, the final game in the series. And the experience has only strengthened what I came to believe after finishing the game the first time: Arkham Knight is the best game in the Arkham series because it is, in a handful of very important ways, a striking, genuinely beautiful experience, one that, like the series as a whole, succeeds by hitting a few perfect notes.
Movin' On Up
Consider the following Indisputable Ranking of the games in the Arkham series:
1. Arkham Knight
2. Arkham Asylum
3. Arkham Origins
4. Arkham City
Set aside Origins, the competent but unnecessary prequel put together by an outside studio - there's basically nothing it does that other games didn't do first, which makes it somewhat irrelevant to the conversation, even if it's a basically enjoyable gameplay experience.
There are plenty of folks who would disagree with that ranking, callously disregarding the fact that it is, in fact, indisputable. Perhaps the biggest disagreement I have with the public view of these games comes with Arkham City, the second game in the series.
I put Knight on top - and City on the bottom - for a number of reasons, and I'll get into most of those below. But the biggest thing putting Arkham Knight over the top in this competition is also the simplest: movement.
Character movement is, of course, the most basic element of gameplay, and it's almost always the first thing a player learns - "Press the left thumbstick to move Batman forward." But when your game is set in a massive, wide open sandbox, the ability to efficiently move the player character from Point A to Point B is not just central to the experience, it's crucial to the success of the game. When you have to traverse a lot of territory, difficult, tedious movement can wreck an otherwise solid game.
And that's one of many areas where Arkham City falls short. City moved Arkham Asylum's gameplay into a wide open sandbox setting, but it did not adequately adjust Batman's movement capabilities to the new, much larger environment.
Put more simply, getting around Arkham City was a pain in the ass. It was a tedious experience, especially early in the game before the player had unlocked the grapnel boost, which enabled easier movement across rooftops. Getting across the game's map took too long, and it certainly wasn't "fun." It took the experience of playing as Batman and turned it into a commuting simulator.
Arkham Knight avoids those pitfalls - first, by bringing the much-maligned Batmobile into the equation, enabling rapid traversal of the environment, but even more importantly, by equipping the player with the grapnel boost from the get-go.
The grapnel boost (which can be upgraded throughout the game to allow for greater speed and length of travel) does more than let the player propel himself from ledges and roofs through the Gotham night - it allows the player to more fully tap into the experience of being Batman. The iconic image of Batman is not of the character beating up a generic mook or even fighting the Joker - it's of Batman illuminated against a full moon, cape fully extended, descending from some striking bit of Gotham City architecture.
Arkham Knight understands that to fully inhabit Batman, the player needs firm control over his movement, as well as an ability to gracefully glide across the night sky. As such, the simple act of movement in Arkham Knight is a genuine pleasure. When the player propels himself from a roof and glides through the rain, he's not just traversing the map to reach an objective - the sense of control and athleticism in that simple act is crucial to the experience of playing the game.
An Art Deco Joy
Of course, there's another reason that moving through the Gotham City of Arkham Knight is such a pleasure: put simply, the city is gorgeous.
It's tempting to contrast the Gotham of Knight with the walled off prison town of City and say that Knight's Gotham feels more like an actual city. And it's true that the environment of Arkham City doesn't feel like a real place: it's a same-y, unattractive mess of boring, blocky buildings, lengthy, tedious interiors and a dull gray color palette. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the city of City.
But there's nothing particularly "real" about Arkham Knight's Gotham City. It doesn't feel like a real, lived-in city. Gotham, in this game, is a city where every building is either a soaring Art Deco skyscraper or a Gothic cathedral. The entire city is designed to provide Batman convenient ledges to grapple off of or to silently brood on.
|Very practical architecture|
But realism is overrated, especially in a videogame based on a comic book property. Arkham Knight's Gotham City is something better than realistic: it's awesome. It's a creation that is glorious and grandiose, monumental and magnificent.This game's Gotham City is, in fact, one of the most beautiful environments in the history of the medium, a rare case of aesthetics meshing perfectly with the tone of the story and the very core of the character.
|Every city should have massive statues liberally sprinkled throughout|
Arkham Asylum is a very different experience than the three games that followed it. Asylum is a deliberately claustrophobic experience, one that values atmosphere more than aesthetics or movement. Batman spends more time in Asylum crawling through vents or striding through hallways than gliding across striking vistas.
It's not an inherently inferior experience, but it is decidedly less spectacular. And that's the best description of Arkham Knight's environment and, in fact, its entire "vibe:" spectacular.
|I'll rent an apartment in that building|
"This Is How The Batman Died."
Arkham Knight has the best story in the run of the series, but if we're being honest, that's not really saying much. These haven't been games defined by their nuanced and complicated narratives - Arkham Asylum ended with Batman beating up a TITAN-infused gigantic Joker, after all.
Arkham Knight tells a solid enough story about the end of Batman, and manages to keep it relatively tight and focused. Arkham City spread itself too thin and tried to accommodate all the members of Batman's rogue gallery, and in doing so it short-changed most of them. Arkham Knight, by contrast, lets peripheral villains like Two-Face and Penguin stay in their side quests, keeping the main story focused on Scarecrow and the new, titular villain.
Still, there's plenty to criticize here. The Arkham Knight's secret identity really isn't much of a secret - most players guessed it pretty quickly. And the game tries hilariously hard to milk genuine emotion out of Poison Ivy, one of Batman's weaker villains. There's an undeniable charm to watching massive plants spring out of the ground and destroy tanks, but if your narrative is leaning hard on Poison Ivy, you've probably mis-calculated. And the decision to turn Catwoman into a damsel in distress was not well thought out, regardless of the fact that the character herself calls it out within the game.
But what Arkham Knight's story gets right is tone. The plot points don't all add up, and there are definitely ridiculous points within the narrative. But the game's story embraces the necessity of "ending" an iconic character with true panache. Every element of Arkham Knight's story is infused with the importance of the moment - it feels big in a way that Arkham City's narrative does not.
In the end, that's what makes Arkham Knight such a compelling experience. It's certainly not a perfect game, and I'd probably grant it falls short of greatness.The Batmobile is not the miserably boring addition that many critics say it is, but the game definitely leans too heavily on it, reducing many sidequests to lengthy tank chases through the streets of Gotham. And the game's side quests are too reliant on the now-ubiquitous open world game collection missions.
But Arkham Knight finds the right tone from its opening moments and stays consistent with it throughout. It's an unapologetically big game in its narrative and its environment. It's a genuine epic in a series that called for an epic conclusion. Arkham Knight is, like most of the best Batman stories, almost Wagnerian in the grandiosity of the sentiments expressed and the striking iconography of the visuals.
And the game maintains this tone in all of its most striking elements: movement, aesthetics and narrative. For this consistency, and for all of its successes, Arkham Knight is both an outstanding experience and in sore need of a re-evaluation from the gaming community that greeted it with significant skepticism upon its release.