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Review: Explosive 'Batman: Arkham Knight' Is the Hero Gamers Need Right Now

He hangs out in caves. He’s haunted by the past and obsessed with the future. He probably has rabies.

But we admire Batman. We identify with him. He’s human, and broken. Like us, he’s just trying to make sense of things. Where other heroes rely on super powers to succeed, Batman gives us hope that, with a little ingenuity, a lot of exercise, and a few billion dollars, any one of us could don the cowl and become the Bat.

For years, Rocksteady’s Arkham games have been the best way to do this. They didn’t put the Dark Knight on the video game map so much as tear up the map and draw a new one. 2009’s Arkham Asylum was a taut, brilliant action game; Arkham City blew it up into a dense, open-world playground. Each was, at the time, considered the best superhero game ever made.

That’s a lot to live up to, but for the most part, Rocksteady has found a way to match its past work. Despite a few missteps, Batman: Arkham Knight is the biggest, boldest, baddest Batman game yet, a feature-rich showstopper that proves a satisfying end to a terrific trilogy.

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It certainly doesn’t hesitate. After a brief sequence re-introducing you to the post-Arkham City world of Gotham, the game flings you into the deep end. The Joker is dead. Scarecrow is threatening to release a fear toxin. The city is (again, conveniently) evacuated. You’re gliding, brawling, and detecting in minutes, with very little in the way of tutorial. If you’ve never played one of these games, Arkham Knightis not the place to start.

But of course you’ve played one of these games, and I welcome the fact that the game eschews the annoying “use the right stick to look around” training bits in favor of turning you into Batman and assuming you’ll figure it out.

In short order, you meet Scarecrow’s right hand man, the Arkham Knight, who is notable not only for his Iron Man-like supersuit and impressive army of soldiers but also for the fact that he is brand new to the Batman universe. Rarely do games actually contribute to canon; it speaks to DC Comics’s trust in this series that they’ve actually created a new character specifically for the game. Scarecrow might be the head honcho, but the somewhat ironic quest to unmask the vengeful Knight is more interesting.

Even better? There’s another big plot twist (no spoilers here, promise) that delves into Batman’s troubled psyche, a fascinating internal struggle that fans will absolutely adore. Yeah, there’s a lot going on inArkham Knight.

At times, it can be a little hard to follow. Voiced once again by Kevin Conroy (the best Batman, bar none), the Dark Knight contends with a colorful cast of villains and heroes roaming Gotham. Penguin, Two-Face, Man-Bat, Nightwing, Catwoman and others join the fray, and in no time, you find yourself with eleventy-million side quests and plot threads and Riddler trophies to deal with. Several hours in, flinging batarangs at another diabolical Riddler puzzle auspiciously wedged into a random rooftop, I was grappling with a mild sense of déjà vu. Including the underwhelming Batman: Arkham Origins (not the work of Rocksteady), we’ve had a new Batman game every two years, and it’s grown a little, dare I say, formulaic.

But Rocksteady manages to crank up the volume enough to giveArkham Knight its own identity. Batman’s grapple-into-glide has been supersized; grappling, soaring, and diving through Gotham is efficient and exciting. Despite being copied both well (Shadow of Mordor) and poorly (almost everything else) over the years, the melee combat is the best in the biz. Occasionally Bats will even team up with other heroes for epic, balletic brawls; transitioning back and forth from Nightwing to Batman via the cinematic ‘dual takedown’ move is the stuff of comic book fantasy. Even the detective mode sequences, which in past games felt overpowered and/or gimmicky, offer better variety and actually require some real thought. Scrubbing through a wall of surveillance footage to track a character’s past movements is an inspired feature.

Negotiating this morass of tasks is made surprisingly easy thanks to a radial mission menu that, at a glance, tells you how far away each mission is from your current location. The pyromaniac Firefly torched another building? That’s 300 meters away, so hop to it — especially since the next story mission is 1700 meters in the opposite direction. It’s a smart, simple tweak that keeps you doing important things without wasting time in transit or having to scour the map for icons.

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And it all looks great. Gotham is wonderfully realized. The citizens might be gone, but the city is still bursting with life. Packs of thugs roam the streets, toying with an outmatched police force while hoping to take a shot at Batman. The Arkham Knight’s forces patrol the skies, turning skyscrapers into tightly guarded fortresses. Rocksteady’s firing on all cylinders here, wringing every drop of power out of the new systems to deliver a gorgeous, rain-slicked world to explore.

But in their quest to pack Arkham Knight full of stuff, they might have overreached. The Batmobile, a staple since Batman’s 1939 inception, makes its first appearance in an Arkham game, and it proves both breathtaking and problematic.

The breathtaking part: at any time, Batman can summon his trusted ride, which will skid through the city to its master, open its moon roof, and do a donut as Batman leaps into the driver’s seat, hands at ten and two and foot on the gas. This never gets old, nor does careening through Gotham’s twisting streets or, better still, the Riddler’s ridiculous Batmobile-specific challenges. You will drive on the ceiling. It’s awesome.

It’s also, unfortunately, at odds with Batman’s core principles. The Batmobile is a wrecking ball, as Rocksteady has sacrificed the city to keep you moving smoothly. Skid into a tree and the tree is uprooted; fishtail into a concrete barricade and it crumbles like wet sand. I’m not sure what’s worse for Gotham: clouds of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, or a totally demolished infrastructure? At least under Scarecrow, the lampposts are safe.

Adding to the property damage bill is the fact that the Batmobile doubles as a tank. At the press of a button, the Batmobile transforms into a treaded, destructive force of nature, equipped with a cannon and machine gun. “But isn’t Batman all about NOT killing people?” screams the voice in your head. Rocksteady’s answer is that the Arkham Knight, despite having an army of foot soldiers on speed dial, has opted to chase Batman with legions of unmanned drone tanks. So don’t feel bad about blowing up 500 of them.

It’s…stupid. It’s awkward. Tanking around Gotham isn’t Batman, it’sBattlezone, and Rocksteady’s silly drone rationale doesn’t hold much water. You literally shoot and run over bad guys, and they somehow just faint. And you can’t ignore it: the story periodically forces you into the tank, and many of the side quests do, too.

The silver lining? It’s also…fun. There. I said it. Over time I grew to enjoy the tank bits, which speaks to Rocksteady’s talent to simply craft a dumb, fun video game thing. It’s impossible to square with Batman, but suspend your disbelief (of a fictitious city rampant with supervillains) and you can have a good time with it.

And that’s what we’re here for, right? For each questionable moment of scattershot storytelling and Batman-breaking vehicular insanity,Batman: Arkham Knight offers hours of big, splashy, undeniably cool comic-book hijinks. We don’t look to our superheroes for perfection; we look to them for inspiration, to show us that, in spite of our flaws, we can achieve great things. Rocksteady has done just that. Bring on the night.

What’s Hot: Holy graphics, Batman!; tremendous gameplay variety; unrivaled combat; terrific performances; the Batmobile

What’s Not: The Batmobile; excessive vehicular madness; feature creep

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