This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week – find more here. Also, and this is important: this article does contain some spoilers for the story of Batman: Arkham Knight, particularly in regard to the appearance of certain series characters. Consider yourself warned.
My feet are swinging freely, nothing but air below my soles, the solid surface they were just recently comfortable on shifted several inches from where it should be and the next reassuring slab of something thick and quite possibly concrete a deadly number of metres beneath me. Black, gloved hands grip my collar. I'm sweating fear. Shitting the stuff. The hands pull me towards a masked face. It speaks: "I want you to tell all your friends about me." "What are you?" I scream into eyes that glow like dying suns against the endless dark of space.
The face, what I can see of it, contorts into an expression of pained bewilderment. There's half a laugh, in a voice different to that instructing me mere seconds ago, and then silence. I fall from my attacker's grip. Down and down, until the world around me is swallowed by bats and I appear, again, to once again try to make the next checkpoint. The roles reverse. I'm the guy who's good at being bad for goodness' sake, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, whatever you want to call the construct that is Batman: an eternal superhero who isn't always that super or heroic, a billionaire playboy who was never in it for the money, a servant of the people whose very existence relies on them remaining terrified. Or am I? This isn't a Batman I've met before, in films and comics and television and video games. This one is crooked, corrupt, different. It's all in the eyes.
And neither of us is in control.
Slight Spoilers Follow
Rocksteady Studios' third and, we're told, final entry in its Arkham series of Batman games begins as those who've played the previous Asylum (2009) and City (2011) have come to expect: you're Batman, here's some shit happening, go and sort it out. Except, that isn't how it begins: Arkham Knight's opening prologue, explaining how and why the city of Gotham managed to evacuate the best part of its 6.3 million inhabitants in a single day, puts the player in first-person control of one Officer Owens, just an ordinary cop at the end of an ordinary day, going about his business in an entirely ordinary way.
Owens is signing off from a shift with a coffee and some food at Pauli's Diner, the kind of compact and densely detailed environment that you can't help but poke around in. The bowls full of sweets for trick-or-treaters look almost good enough to eat. Damn, this is a handsome game. You drift from booth to booth, checking out the patrons – here are some bikers minding their own business, here's a couple on a going-nowhere date, here's someone walking up to you, to complain about a customer smoking. You'd better go check it out. On the way you scan newspaper headlines, from over the shoulders of their readers. The stories might not seem important now, or relevant. But they will be, likewise the missing person poster behind the counter.
"Excuse me, sir. There's no smoking in here." Cue: the extraordinary, orchestrated by Scarecrow and his threat of unleashing enough "fear gas" to turn everyone in Gotham into a violent lunatic. Cue: the expected, as Batman sets out to stop the villainous Dr Jonathan Crane from achieving his terrible objective, again. Cue: a secondary antagonist's arrival, an unexpected additional headache for Batman, the Arkham Knight of the title. Cue: questions, lots of them. Who is this mysterious man with a militia and missile-firing drones at his command? Why is he working with Scarecrow? What does he have against Batman and how the hell does he stay a step ahead of our hero, as if he knows precisely how his mind works? Cue: a showdown, the suggestion of self-sacrifice, an against-all-odds saving of the city, and...
Point, click, boom. It's all in the eyes. Or, rather, it's behind them. We thought it was gone, but suddenly the two of us is a threesome and I can't feel the real me anymore. I was okay before this game began. Then I became Batman. And then Batman became something else, someone else, and here we are, 24 hours of game time later (split between two consecutive PMs of a solid 12; story at 89 percent completion; some side-missions finished, others left flapping in Gotham's northwesterly winds), back on the rooftop, not sure which of us is going to fall this time. Which of us is getting back up. Which of us is going to battle through all of these fucking drones in an over-"gamed" Batmobile upgraded to within a titanium-coated inch of its operational capability.
Significant Spoilers Follow Regarding The Appearance Of A Major Character - Turn Away If You Must
"The look on your face... Batman, scared of his own reflection." The voice is familiar, not one to ever be forgotten. In a previous life he wielded a sabre of purest light; in another... well, this is his second-most-famous role. Mark Hamill is back as the Joker in Arkham Knight – of course he is; of course they are. And it's when the clown prince of crime makes his entrance that Rocksteady really begins to exert its storytelling strengths here, repeatedly referencing both Asylum and City with such ferocity that if you've not played those games prior to this one, you probably should. For one thing, it's because of the bloody events in City that the Batman of Arkham Knight is in this mess. It's why Scarecrow tells him he's changed. It's why there's an isolation chamber with Bruce Wayne's name on it across town. But first, there's work to be done.
Busywork, like destroying mindless waves of the Arkham Knight's ground and air drones. Like chasing down a number of his lieutenants before leaving them to be scraped from the tarmac by the GCPD (yeah, yeah, they're not dead, we know). Like taking out militia-held checkpoints around Gotham, just because. The Arkham games are at their best when they're indulging the player in the fantasy of being Batman, whether or not it's actually all him beneath the cowl, and when you're soaring above Gotham, pounding down goons of plot importance and deploying gadgets aplenty to tackle the clustered forces of evil, Arkham Knight excels. "The ultimate Batman simulator" was its makers' aim, and for something like two-thirds of the game they've achieved that. The other third, though, is horrible.
Much of the game's more tedious content can be ignored for the most part as "you" progress through the its core narrative, ultimately representing extras to be picked off once Scarecrow's plan's been scrapped. But when Arkham Knight forces Batman into his armoured and heavily armed wheels, and then into tight spots that no vehicle should ever be in – on crumbling rooftops, inside deep mine shafts and abandoned shopping malls – the game collapses into frustration and despair. This is not the Batman simulator anyone wants. This is Transformers Do Gotham. And it's abhorrent.
Significant Spoilers Follow - We're Going To Discuss A Boss Fight In Some Detail - So Bail If You Need To
"What are you?" I scream into the dark tunnels beneath Gotham, gripped by the anguish at seeing my game restart, and restart, and restart, even though I know what I'm supposed to be doing but the game doesn't want me to actually do it. I'm looking for tree roots for Poison Ivy, or searching for the kidnapped Jim Gordon, or digging for gold enough to have Scarecrow bugger off to Vegas, or something. To be honest, I've forgotten my purpose being down here, and am losing any will to care, because this is not the "ultimate" anything, anymore. I'm playing a stealthy game of cat and mouse on a claustrophobic grid, underground, in the Batmobile, against a gigantic drill piloted by the Knight himself, a drill that delivers a one-hit kill, which then becomes a pursuit through obstacle-laden tunnels that end lined with explosives.
This is a boss fight and it's just the worst, one that takes about 30 seconds to figure out – get the Knight into those explosives three times and you win! – but significantly longer to execute because the Batmobile handles like it's being driven by a freak with with one ankle made of iron and the other chalk at the best of times, and down here I'm pulling teeth over how Rocksteady's celebrated designers evidently took the afternoon off for this section of the game, handing direction over to a couple of interns with bubblegum for brains. This is painful: a diabolical mark of disdain against the Arkham series' good name. "What are you?" I cry, close to real tears, as once more my game is over because the Batmobile, which earlier on could smash through brickwork and steel and iron and concrete like it was popping candy bound by Silly String, doesn't break through the thin propeller of a slow-moving fan and is therefore caught and crushed by the ever-gaining industrial contraption turned instant-death machine.
About to give up when it happens, and I do it, and I smile again – only for the tank-drill-beast to reappear and total the Batmobile. I smile harder. It's gone. I'm free. Finally, Arkham Knight is going to forget about all the Carmageddon bollocks it's been force-feeding me these past (*checks watch, dies a little more inside*) 21 hours and let me get on with swooping and scanning, and being the most bad-ass detective that fantasy has ever known. And I remain free for another hour or so before... of course he's got a spare, which is airdropped into the fray. He's a billionaire, after all. Here we go again.
Significant Plot Spoilers Pretty Much End Here
The story of Arkham Knight is great. It's a riveting climax to the Arkham series, and at various points I was genuinely shocked and moved by proceedings. Rocksteady understand that this Batman exists in a universe of their creation alone, and that his enemies and allies alike are theirs to sculpt and mould, empower and destroy as they see fit. It's why City ended the way it did – it's why Arkham Knight begins how it does, in the briefest of contextual-button-pressing pre-prologues you'll ever see, reconfirming that what you witnessed at the climax of City really did happen. Not that death can stop a man who's never really existed, of course.
The fiction here is rich, deep and giving – explore it and you're constantly rewarded, tiny seeds of storyline potential growing into significant plot beats. Be sure to check out the evidence room at the GCPD, and play the answering machine in Wayne Tower. Hearing members of the Knight's militia discuss Batman's tech is great fun: "I hear he's CIA funded," says one guy, a minute before I almost certainly break his skull. (He's not dead, he's not dead! He's... probably going to die from that, actually.) Another is overheard saying: "Arkham Knight? I was in Arkham City, and I never heard of him." How very meta! And how very wonderful, too. Having Hamill back as the Joker is a genuine treat, even as he (once again) gradually becomes the real enemy of the story. "You know, I had the singing voice of a soprano once," he lies to us, in one of many interjections of meaninglessness rattling about Batman's head. "Well, I had her vocal chords."
The game plays brilliantly every time the Batmobile is in the garage. On foot, Batman is slow, barely capable of a jog in all his gear, just a man – but by using an enhanced Batclaw he can take to the skies at speed enough to cover great distances in no time whatsoever. Navigating by air is the way to see the incredibly detailed and impressively drenched Gotham, and the city's never looked better, on film or in games or across pages. (Flight is also essential for finding the stuff that the game doesn't explicitly signpost for you, like the presence of a certain other "bat man".) Plot-essential puzzles that gently test your grey matter are simple but satisfying, and when fists fly, new abilities present themselves: there's the option for environmental takedowns, and a new "fear" takedown can be used to instantly incapacitate successively targeted enemies. The usual Arkham series combat and "predator room" sequences are as refined as ever, easy to pick up and exacting to master, and encounters where Batman's joined by an ally allow for tag-team takedowns. Yes, you'll be brawling as several characters, not just Batman, and not all of them always on the right side of the law. Meow.
I'm a good ten hours into the game when one of these partners in crime fighting, Nightwing, says to me: "It's going to be a long night, Bruce." No shit. A good 14 more later and it's still not through: the rain continues to fall (well, it did, until something happens that I'm not going into here because I gave the spoilers all-clear, up there), super-villains like Two-Face and the Penguin remain at large, and this replacement Batmobile isn't going to drive itself (well, it does, but you know what I mean). My brain feels entirely liquid, my eyes are bloodshot, like I've sucked deep on some of Scarecrow's brew. I need a break. But it won't be a long one. I want to get back to it, now that the worst is (I hope) behind me.
On Motherboard: The Dark Knight Disses and Stumbles All Over Clean Energy
There's some stupid, almost world-breaking stuff going on in Arkham Knight. How the hell did the Riddler get all of these racetracks and obstacle courses under the ground? How'd he ever afford the materials and the muscle power? (Not to mention: why bother at all? "Insane" isn't really an answer, here.) Why is Batman's cape billowing when he's indoors and nothing else around him indicates the presence of a substantial breeze? Why, in 2015, is one of the strongest (if not the strongest) female characters in Batman lore relegated to a please-rescue-me role? (Yeah, she does get to show off her claws, but she's still this game's archetypal damsel in distress.) And why does Bruce Wayne look more than a little like Gareth Bale on a steady diet of MaxiMuscle? Seriously, he does. Wait for a moment of hush and you'll see, clearly.
Then there are the few sections of such desperate awfulness that some players will give up on them. (Rocksteady should prepare to be billed for a fair number of smashed controllers.) Arkham Knight's not perfect, then, not by a long shot. But it is, in its own ways, beautiful – erratic, fantastic, drop-dead gorgeous; glitching out of control, bold and bruised and broken-hearted. It's a character study of twisted excellence told with elegance enough for its gameplay shortcomings to just about not matter enough. It's both the two-bit robber hanging over the edge of the building and the vigilante in black, the player being played, the fate of all involved in the unseen hands of someone else entirely.
Batman. I'm Batman. Eyes wide open and wild like crazy. At least for a little longer, until he turns or we do.
I'm still playing Arkham Knight on PlayStation 4, but it's out for Xbox One, too. It's probably best that you don't try to play it, just yet, on PC.
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