Courtesy of said cousin, I played through the opening of “Arkham City” but couldn’t shake my bad feelings towards its predecessor. So I skipped it and didn’t bother nabbing it when it was available, gratis, to PlayStation Plus members. To say I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to play “Arkham Knight” is to err on the side of gentility. My wariness was stoked last week when I didn’t receive the PC review code that I’d requested. In hindsight, it’s blazingly clear why the PS4 version arrived instead.
Rocksteady entrusted the Chicago-based developer, Iron Galaxy, with porting “Arkham Knight” to PC. When the game was released on June 23 it was met with waves of derision from the PC gaming community. On Steam, people vented over not getting the game to work or not being able to run it with a decent, sustainable frame-rate. Sales of the PC edition have been suspended as Rocksteady and its partners work to rectify the matter.
Allowing for these reservations, imagine my surprise – nay, shock – when I discovered that pretty much from the opening cutscene onwards the game roused the old comic book aficionado in me, leaving me to wonder what sort of tizzy the game would have sent me into when I was thirteen or fourteen.
In case you didn’t pick up the last game, know that at the end of “Arkham City” the Joker dies. Setting the tone for what is to come, “Arkham Knight” begins with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The camera pans from the exterior of a funeral home to its interior and comes to rest above the Joker’s body lying in a crematorium chamber. Though it may seem like a small detail, the first design choice I appreciated was the way the developers give you a moment to absorb the situation before a discreet on-screen prompt appears, directing you to press a button to incinerate the corpse. In fact, I only noticed the prompt the second time I played through the scene. On the whole, I was relieved that “Arkham Knight” dialed back much of the obnoxious handholding that marred my experience with “Arkham Asylum.’
If setting fire to the Joker isn’t enough to grab you, the next scene surely might. Adopting a first-person camera view, the game follows a police officer as he enters a diner, sits down at the counter, and places his order. The art direction here and in the rest of the game is commendable. Everything from the waitress to the decor seems haggard, as though all have seen too much life. Anyone who was ever smitten with Frank Miller’s Batman comics – which popularized the grittier take on Gotham City evoked by the Dark Knight moniker – will likely breathe in these details with gusto.
The officer hardly has the time to relax on his stool before another patron asks him to see to a customer who is flouting the no smoking rule. Alas, when the officer goes to investigate the disturbance he’s sprayed with a neurotoxin that causes him to suffer sanity-breaking hallucinations. Soon thereafter, Scarecrow — a villain obsessed with using fear to subordinate his victims — takes to the airwaves to threaten Gotham’s population. In the wake of a city-wide evacuation, Batman attempts to bring Scarecrow and his criminal allies to justice. But the Dark Knight’s sanity is none too sound. In short, he starts seeing the Joker with increasing frequency.
“Arkham Knight” alludes to much of the Batman lore. Jim Sterling, Jim Aparo, and Mike DeCarlo’s “A Death in the Family,” which chronicled the death of Batman’s sidekick Robin, is a touchstone as is Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, and John Higgins’s classic graphic novel, “The Killing Joke.” The game’s exploration of psychological decay owes a huge debt to Moore’s story, which illuminated the co-dependency at the heart of Batman and the Joker’s relationship. Everyone in Gotham seems in need of counseling. Listen to the anonymous henchmen’s chatter and you will hear the complaints of war veterans who feel socially disenfranchised.
The game’s pop psychology never gets in the way of its gameplay. “Arkham Knight” is a good brawler with extensive skill trees. The game also boasts a number of devilish racing challenges. The Batmobile is more nimble than it may initially seem if you remap the brake to the left trigger and master the powerslide move. However, there are vehicular combat sections later in the game that can be quite tedious if you haven’t selected your upgrades wisely.
As an open-world game,”Arkham Knight,” on consoles at least, makes fabulous use of the Unreal 3 graphics engine, rendering Gotham in romantically grungy detail. This is the first Batman game that I’ve played that feels adequate to the comic book’s legacy.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.