Rocksteady returns to the well for a third and purportedly final time with Batman: Arkham Knight, which goes out of its way to amp up the mechanics of the Arkham series' previous three games in every conceivable way. With the notable exception of the newly controllable Batmobile, this is well worn territory by now; glide over Gotham rooftops, swing around on gargoyles and crawl through air vents, and bust some heads in the franchise's trademark staccato style. Some of the new ideas don't come together quite as tightly as you'd hope for in a series of this pedigree--and the sheer amount of stuff in here is occasionally overwhelming--but this is still a thoroughly entertaining and tremendous-looking last outing for old Bats, if you haven't gotten your fill of this specific brand of caped crusading already.
Arkham Knight was already fighting an uphill battle before it even got started, given that Arkham City put a definitive end to the Joker and his hijinks. Where do you have left to go when your main antagonist has already bought the farm? Sure enough, the new game kicks off with yet another evacuation of Gotham City under threat of yet another fear toxin outbreak, courtesy of the Scarecrow. It all feels a little forced and predictable at first. But Arkham Knight quickly turns notably darker than the previous games, and that core plot ends up serving as a vehicle for a few particularly intense character moments that drag raw pathos out of the hero and his allies. The game also manages to weave subplots and secondary villains in and out of the storyline more naturally than the previous game.
Oh, and the Joker? He isn't actually gone at all--he just lives in Batman's head now, popping up every few minutes to offer some wry appraisal or grim mockery of the situation at hand. Frequently, these Joker moments are cleverly integrated into the cinematic sequences, but there were more than a few points where I wished he'd stop yapping so I could just get on with things. It's a neat trick, but as soon as the game literally stops your flight mid-grapple so the Joker can spit some gleeful invective in your face, it feels like it's being laid on a little thick. The game would be missing something without him, though.
Structurally, you can think of Arkham Knight as an improved version of Arkham City, in that Rocksteady has gotten better at utilizing an open world, populating it with a broader range of things to do, and more seamlessly transitioning you into and out of story sequences and side activities. This game improves on City's slightly nebulous set of objectives with a comprehensive mission wheel that makes it easy to see how far along you are in each of the various side quest chains, and notifies you when you're able to pursue the next step. Admirably, you can't just set an automatic waypoint for every side mission in the game; many of them require you to look or listen for a telltale giveaway--a burning bat symbol on rooftops for one, opera music for another--before you'll know where their next location is. Having to actually look around for clues a bit feeds into the whole "world's greatest detective" thing in a satisfying way. Some of the side mission chains can get pretty repetitive, since they all pretty much task you with doing the same thing over and over from half a dozen to two dozen times, and a couple of them just take a mission objective you completed in the main story and then have you repeat it again several times without any real changes, but there's still a good number of enjoyable missions around the periphery.
Speaking of side missions, you may have seen a minor furor going around about the way the game wraps up, or specifically that it doesn't fully wrap up when you finish the main story quest line. It's true that you have to go back and finish up the side activities involving the other major villains (including the zillion or so Riddler challenges and trophies) to get the last bit of the ending, but the game provides a decent narrative justification for making you do this that made me actually want to get back out there and do it. More importantly, the conclusion to the main story, which has no extra requirements, is executed in an elegant and fulfilling way on its own. By approaching this from the outset as the conclusion to the series, Rocksteady provides a coda that didn't leave me feeling unsatisfied just because it took place before a set of end credits.
The melee combat and predator (or stealth) frameworks from the previous games are of course here in full force, each with a few additions. Batman can now counter melee attackers and knock them way back rather than just parrying them, and there are even more ways to integrate your gadgets into your freeflow combos. On the stealth side, you get a multi-enemy takedown move that's extremely satisfying, as it lets you choose in slow motion which enemies to take down in succession. Both of these gameplay types have been iterated on to the point that they're starting to get a bit top-heavy--it can occasionally feel like a chore managing all the different melee attackers who you can't hit without various special tricks, or all the various environmental gadgets and countermeasures that will stop you in your tracks in a predator sequence--but if you really invest the time in learning all the ins and outs, there's a pretty serious amount of depth here.
The big departure from Arkham City is that a large portion of this game is occupied with the Batmobile. That thing is just plain everywhere. You can tear around the city streets in it. You can turn it into a tank and get into shootouts with enemy tanks. You drive it through a long sequence of Riddler-constructed obstacle courses. You... do some platforming with it. You do some stealth with it! The designers were apparently hellbent on integrating the Batmobile into as many different scenarios as they possibly could, with varied success. The tank combat is a bit simplistic but handles well enough, but you'll spend a lot of time shooting at the same rocket-launching drones, to the point that even late in the game, some main story objectives still have you show up, hop in the Batmobile, shoot some tanks, then you're done. The car is integrated more interestingly into a variety of puzzle-solving situations, mostly involving a tow cable you can winch a few physics-based mechanical contraptions with. A few missions require you to get the Batmobile itself over ramps, onto roofs, and generally into tight spaces where a car wouldn't normally go. Some of these work better than others, and navigating the Batmobile (even with its generous hover tank-style controls) can be a bit clunky in spots. None of the Batmobile sequences are flat out bad, but there are just so many of them that I found myself often wanting them to be over as the game wore on.
One of the most impressive things about Arkham Knight, surprisingly, is its looks. It's a visual tour de force. There's nothing surprising about the art design, since this is aesthetically more or less identical to the previous games, but it's all rendered with such a high degree of fidelity that I found myself constantly stopping to just marvel at how damn pretty everything is. The entire game takes place at night in a heavy rainstorm, and Gotham is so bursting with lights of every intensity and hue that you get tons of snazzy reflections on wet pavement, blurring neon as you pan around the city in flight, and so on. The game doesn't skimp on its interiors, either; there's plenty of dramatic and varied lighting in the enclosed spaces, which are set in some imaginative places like an abandoned movie studio and a high-tech zeppelin. And other than some slight hitching when tearing around in the Batmobile at high speed, the performance was generally nice and smooth in the PlayStation 4 version I played through. If you were to compare this game side by side with its predecessors, it would really drive home the fact that you're playing a game made specifically for new console hardware. Even though Arkham Knight is in nearly every way iterated over the previous Arkham games, nothing about the game's presentation feels like a half step.
That said, for my money this series has still never topped its first outing. The finely tuned clockwork interplay between different areas, gadgets, and villains that had you traipsing back and forth across Arkham Asylum over the course of a single night gave that game a sense of place and pacing that became a bit diluted in Arkham City's move to an open world. Thankfully, Arkham Knight sees Rocksteady becoming more confident in its design within the larger scope of an entire city, and despite a few uneven spots, this is overall a satisfying way to wrap up what the developer has referred to as its trilogy of Arkham games. This trilogy represents a really impressive body of work, and it leaves me excited to see what the studio turns its attention to next, superhero or otherwise.
Note: The PC version of Arkham Knight was removed from Steam before I had a chance to try it out. While the publisher has said the game will be made available again once its severe technical issues have been addressed, I'd recommend treading with caution and keeping abreast of user reviews and so on before you buy the game on the PC in the future.