Games have changed over the years. The biggest changes that I have seen are the move towards open-world games and DLC. Gone are the days when a game came packaged with all of its content and gone are the days when you followed a set path through a game. Now developers can go back to a game they have already released and add on new features like costumes, characters and quests. Developers have mostly done away with the linear paths that defined many older games and have opened up their game worlds, allowing players to explore those worlds at their own pace, taking on sidequest after sidequest instead of advancing the main story. As a result, games these days are more open-ended than those of the past. While I do like these new changes in game development I sometimes feel nostalgic for the structures of old games. I miss the days when a game had a definite beginning, middle and end, unsupported by DLC and not extended by extensive sidequests: games like Ratchet and Clank or God of War come to mind. I’m not saying that I think that this older model of making games is superior to the newer one or that the gaming industry should make purposely archaic games. Nor am I saying that there are no examples of games with an open world that are old (the Fallout series comes to mind) or that there are no examples of linear games in modern times (like Final Fantasy XIII). Rather, I’ve noticed that this newer model has proliferated in recent years and makes me nostalgic for the older one.
I say all of this to frame my experience with last year’s Batman: Arkham Knight (I’m late to the party, I know). I think that this game is a compromise between more linear game design and more open-world/opened-ended design. I’ll review the game here with a focus on how it fuses old and new.
I’ll start with the most striking aspects of the game: its graphics, art design and atmosphere. The game looks incredible. Gotham City has never looked as brooding and dark as it appears in Arkham Knight, a pouring rain washing out the colors of bright neon signs, police-car sirens and red searching lights of drones. Batman himself has a new suit of flexible metal plates, glistening in the rain and the roving searchlights of helicopters and passing headlights. Each character model is highly detailed and you notice something new every time the game zooms in a character. When the camera zooms out, like when Batman glides, the game offers a stunning panorama of Gotham City. This is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen. The game’s understated soundtrack adds to the moody atmosphere of the city, striking up at dramatic moments in the story, hitting all the right notes. This is a game with serious atmosphere.
The game’s story fits in perfectly with its gloomy atmosphere. I won’t spoil it but I will give an overview of it: Scarecrow has launched an attack on Gotham, sending all of its law-abiding citizens running in fear. After the city has been evacuated, Batman sets to stop Scarecrow and his mysterious ally the Arkham Knight. Batman works with a cast of familiar faces like Barbara Gordon, Jim Gordon, Aaron Cash and Nightwing while facing off against classic villains like the Penguin and the Riddler. The story is gripping as you try your hardest to stop Scarecrow but, no matter what you do, he always seems a step ahead. You try your best to face up to the new threat of the Arkham Knight and his militia but he always eludes you just when you think you have him cornered. The story features spectacular set-pieces and twists and turns that will satisfy any Batman fan. Drawing on Batman lore old and new, the story weaves all of the best of the Batman franchise together into one explosive narrative.
Now while I am praising the game’s dramatic appeal I have to qualify my enthusiasm. The story is well-written, well-paced and well-told but it does rely on problematic tropes. There are many instances of tired old images like the damsel in distress. But more insidious than that is the over-reliance of female sexuality to render female power. Characters like Catwoman and Poison Ivy are undoubtedly powerful and have important roles in the game’s plot (especially Ivy) but they can only express their power by their sex appeal. The sexualization of female power allows for a very limited vocabulary with which female characters can express their relevance to a story and renders them as objects to be looked at, even as it emphasizes their importance to a plot. While Arkham Knight does have an exciting story, it has a problem with presenting female characters. Despite this, I have to give the game credit for how it handles Poison Ivy. I won’t spoil what happens to her but her plotline is extremely well-done despite her needless sexualization. I must give credit where credit is due.
Now let me turn to the gameplay, where I can best illustrate the point I made at the outset of this review. The gameplay will be familiar to everyone who played Arkham City. The game is open-world and Batman can glide around the city, scouting for leads on Scarecrow or taking out the time to deal with lesser threats like Firefly or Two-Face. The game neatly organizes all of the missions in a helpful mission screen from which you can select the mission you’d like to pursue and set a way-marker on your map for it. There are so many missions in that game that you’ll often find yourself gliding to take on the Arkham Knight or follow a lead on Scarecrow only to be distracted by an appearance of the elusive Man-Bat or a burning firehouse that signals the presence of Firefly. There’s so much to do in the game but the missions never feel repetitive or boring: each has its own charm and challenge that will keep you engaged. Some missions are combat-based while others challenge you to solve puzzles using Batman’s vast array of gadgets (how does he fit all of that stuff on his belt, anyway?). The variety keeps the gameplay fresh even after you’ve put in dozens of hours into it.
The combat system is the same as it’s always been in the Arkham series. The “Free-Flow” system rewards players as they land consecutive strikes on their enemies, giving them attack bonuses and access to special moves as they build up their combat meter. The free-flow style is fast, furious and fun. An improvement that Arkham Knight has made to the combat is the removal of the Shock Gloves from Arkham Origins which made the game too easy as activating them made enemies unable to guard against your attacks. While more difficult than Origins, the combat in Knight won’t give seasoned players much trouble. The only criticism I can offer on the combat system is the boss battles. They are all underwhelming, especially the encounter with the Arkham Knight (I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler). The boss battles feel tacked-on and do nothing to accentuate the game’s main combat system or show off the power of Batman’s many gadgets. They all feel out of place.
The biggest change to the Arkham formula that Knight introduces is the Batmobile. Many reviewers have criticized the game for forcing the player to use it too much and I couldn’t agree more. While the Batmobile controls well, fights well and has unique and interesting tools to solve elaborate puzzles, the game forces you into the driver’s seat so often that the novelty wears off quickly. Too much of a good thing can easily spoil it as this case goes to show. I understand that the developers put a lot of hard work into the making the Batmobile and are clearly proud of their work, but too much is too much.
Let me now turn to the crux of this piece, namely the way in which Arkham Knight is a compromise between older and newer game design. After the player completes the main story line, Batman introduces a new plot line (which I won’t spoil) but in order to see how the story ultimately resolves, the player has to complete every mission, or 100% the game. This is the compromise that Arkham Knight makes: even though the game is open-world and offers many side quests, it contains all of those quests and extras within the scope of its main story. With many other open world games, the side quests can feel extraneous to the main plot and do nothing to resolve it. Arkham Knight provides players with a motivation to see everything that the game has to offer by placing its many missions within its narrative context. The game offers the satisfying closure of an older, simpler game while maintaining the open-world structure of a newer title like Fallout 4. It effectively combines the old and the new.
Overall, Arkham Knight is a great game with only a few blemishes with regard to overusing the Batmobile, its underwhelming boss battles and its presentation of female characters. More importantly, it demonstrates that older game design models are still viable within newer ones.