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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Arkham Knight

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Arkham Batman games. They're fun, and do a great job of simulating Batman. I was put off from buying Arkham Knight early, however, because the reviews indicated that the game included too much time with the Batmobile. But a price glitch at Bestbuy got me Arkham Knight at $16, so I grabbed it and started playing.

The game is beautiful. When I first booted up Arkham Asylum a few years ago, it looked so good that I was shocked. (That's what happens when you don't play video games for a while) Strangely enough, Arkham City didn't impress me as much: my expectations had already been reset, and I sit way too close to the monitor for the graphics on my relatively weak GPU to impress me.

Arkham Knight, however, was written for the latest generation of consoles (so much so that the PC version had major launch issues and had been pulled from the shelves until the end of October), and it looks gorgeous. The first fight I had as Batman felt fast, fluid, and responsive. In fact, the game didn't even so much as hiccup until near the end, where driving the Batmobile would cause framerate slow downs. I didn't know how much of this was due to the game having been running continuously for days (using suspend and resume) while I finished it. The sound design isn't just beautiful, it's fully integrated into the game. For instance, one of the markers for a side quest is guided by Opera music. With 5.1 surround sound, where the music comes from tells you where the side quest can be found. The game makes full use of surround sound and benefits greatly from it.

With 3 previous Arkham console games before it, Arkham Knight does away with lengthy tutorials and dumps you right into the action. I won't say much about the plot, except to mention that I'm enough of a rube that the identity of the Arkham Knight did surprise me despite the heavy hinting and foreshadowing of his identity. The story itself is well-written: we explore Batman's psyche, history, and his relationships with the Gordons, the previous Robins (Nightwing makes an appearance and the banter between Wayne and Grayson is great to listen to), and of course, the villains of the piece. What's impressive about this game is that not only does it use all the background the comics (and previous games) provide, it's also not afraid to make massive changes to the milieu, creating its own story and give you surprises before tying it off with its own stamp on how the Batman story ends. If you played this game (like I did) with the expectation that they'll stick to canon and not make any changes, you'll be surprised on many occasions, and they'll be pleasant surprises. You find yourself thinking: "Of course! Those two characters were always going to hookup." But of course, that never happened in other versions of the Batman story!

The game play itself is excellent. One of my complaints about Batman cartoons and comics is that the villains always get to ramble on and on while Batman seems to do nothing. Well, in one of the first scenes of the game, a villain rambles while you remote control the Batmobile to come and blast the bejesus out of the villain in the middle of his speech. The game doesn't even prompt you to execute this piece fun and expects you to figure out that you can do this.

The detective mode brings back the best feature of Arkham Origins: the crime scene reconstruction and evidence scanner. Not only does it really make you feel like the Dark Knight Detective, the game's smart enough to use it sparingly: only one side quest really makes use of it, and the main storyline only does it once.

The Batmobile, while fun at first, does grate a bit. There's something wrong with a Batman game in which you have to race the Batmobile. The Batmobile also turns into a tank for battles, which would itself be a fun game, but after 10 hours or so you do get pretty tired of yet another tank fight, though there are variations that make it interesting. You end up spending most of your upgrade points on the Batmobile not because you like it, but because you'd like to finish the tank fights faster so you can spend more time being Batman. If not for the excessive use of the Batmobile, this game would be highly recommended. Of the new Batman features, the one I like the most is when you get to fight with a sidekick, and get to execute team take downs. Great fun, and I wish there were more of those!

Overall, the worst aspect of the game is the amount of padding stuck into it. While Arkham Asylum had no padding, and Arkham City felt long but didn't have required side quests, Arkham Knight has side quests galore (I finished 5 of them and still weren't close to done when I arrived at the main storyline ending), and many of them are just tedious repetition. Your primary motivation for going through these side quests is that they provide additional upgrade points for Batman. Once you've upgraded Batman sufficiently to clear the game, the content itself isn't sufficiently attractive to clean up, especially in the case of the Riddler. Clearly a case where AAA game makers feel like they have to "provide more content" at the cost of story coherency or variety.

Nevertheless, Arkham Knight is as well designed as games go. The puzzles aren't unfair, and the graphics and sound are gorgeous. Well worth the time. Recommended.

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