I spent a full work week playing Batman: Arkham Knight

Non-lethal tanks, endless gadgets, and Batman's crippling survivor's guilt

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Big-name games are sometimes criticized for feeling too much like Hollywood blockbusters. But sometimes, a “cinematic” game can truly capture the feeling of being inside an epic spectacle, and one of the best examples is the 2009 Batman: Arkham Asylum. Its stylish brawling and methodical stealth sequences required real skill, but the outsized rewards — a complicated array of gadgets and fighting moves that broke the laws of physics — made you feel like you were doing more than just pressing buttons. You were in a full-fledged martial arts battle (loosely) inspired by comic genius Grant Morrison, you controlled the outcome, and you looked great doing it.

The sequel, Arkham City, gave players far more of the series’ best features. With a few design tweaks, it introduced the subtle but fascinating theme that Batman wasn’t just morally ambiguous; he was a complete monster. Like so many other open-world games, though, City struggled to balance a consistent story with the freedom to explore. Its setting was by turns delightfully open-ended and frustratingly overwhelming, eventually leaving players with no real motivation except collecting hundreds of trophies to complete 100 percent of the game.

Last week, developer Rocksteady concluded its series with Batman: Arkham Knight. Arkham Knight introduces more structure into the huge world of Gotham. It introduces the Batmobile. It introduces a new enemy: the mysterious Arkham Knight, a masked man with a personal vendetta against Batman. And it is completely insane — narratively, mechanically, and thematically. We’re just lucky its madness is so much fun.

[I played about 97 percent of Arkham Knight over about 45 hours on the PlayStation 4; despite a couple of bugs, this proved an excellent decision. The catastrophically broken PC version did, however, spawn one pretty fantastic mod.]

Arkham Knight’s story assumes a surprising amount of Batman lore knowledge, with dozens of characters showing up like old friends at a surprise birthday party. You remember Firefly, right? How could you forget your old pal, Professor Pyg? While you’re busy trying to put names to faces, the game begins setting up the ideal Dark Knight playground: a bizarre place where everyone can be hurt and no one can die.

A supervillain’s plot has driven out all of Gotham’s law-fearing residents, leaving only gang members, an Arkham Knight "militia," and other people that you can beat up with impunity. The Knight is a huge fan of autonomous warfare, so you can have constant non-lethal drone fights. Most of the city is now equipped with convenient handles for the Batmobile’s winch, which Arkham Knight treats as a universal puzzle-solving tool. How will I extinguish this ironically burning firehouse? Winch! And what about this expensive puzzle constructed in the middle of a busy city? Oh right, winch. And these bombs that can only be solved by inserting a computer virus into their operating system, then detonating a small controlled explosion? Yes, somehow, winch.

There’s not just more of everything from previous games, there’s a surprising range of completely new stuff. Batman has been equipped with a set of strangely specific tools, ranging from a voice synthesizer to a rifle-like device that jams guns and blocks tracking devices and places tracking devices and disables just about every other random piece of technology a goon might be using. It’s a gun that does everything but what guns do best: kill people. The Batmobile can lock into a "battle mode" that allows it to fire missiles and dodge drones, and the game occasionally throws you into what can only be described as tank stealth missions.

Ironically, the tank battles — the most obviously un-Batman-like part of the game — are one of the best new additions. They’re like a 3D version of Space Invaders, with the Batmobile dodging missiles, luring drones into shooting each other, and deploying the occasional special move. It’s the closest thing I can imagine to a vehicular version of Arkham’s brawling system, and the Batmobile is actually far more mobile and responsive in battle mode, to the point where I sometimes shifted into it while driving.

On the other hand, Arkham Knight’s puzzles distinctly suffer from the game’s feature-stuffing; they seem designed to awkwardly force players into using the Batmobile in far more tedious ways. (Again, this is a game in which "Lucius! I need a way to track an ancient root system" is a perfectly reasonable request.) And standard driving, easily the weakest and most generic feature, can’t simply be ignored. It clogs up a frustrating amount of the missions, particularly major story ones.

But once you’re actually in the middle of a fight, or trying to pick off goons from a distance, the new gadgets are both useful and optional — you might lock off a box of guns before jumping into a group of unarmed enemies, or imitate a villain’s voice to get one of their goons in just the right place. They don’t break the flow that Rocksteady has perfected so well, they just make it more complex.

Maintaining this flow has required an increasingly delicate balancing act between realism and fantasy. WB’s frankly bizarre "Be the Batman" advertising campaign ("Are you a 130-pound hipster who’s getting mugged? Just punch those guys out!") did a terrible job of conveying why you should play Arkham Knight, because it relied on convincing people that there was any connection between its utter absurdity and real-life heroism. It’s not just that Batman pulls apart steel fuse boxes like he’s opening a soda can, or that he can take several bullets at close range and barely flinch. It’s that unless you let the game operate according to its own contrived, goofy, self-aware rules, it becomes horrific.

From one angle, Arkham Knight is the world of Batman at its most brutally amoral. Batman threatens to torture people constantly, and Arkham brawling is peppered with limb-shattering cracks. There are new "takedowns" that knock thugs out with your car’s guns or let you beat them with bats and slam their heads into fuse boxes. From another, it’s an enjoyably silly and self-aware Tom and Jerry sketch. The game assures us that all of Batman’s deadly-sounding gadgets are non-lethal, down to the little jittery moans when you knock someone aside with the Batmobile’s electrified cow-catcher.

The thugs themselves, whose conversations pop in and out as Batman flies around the city, provide strangely self-aware bits of levity. They’re a Greek chorus for the audience, alternately hopeless fanboys and snarky commentators. One minute you’ll be hearing them wax rhapsodic over how cool your tank looks, the next they’ll put forward an eminently reasonable theory about how Batman is a CIA-funded domestic operative recruited to circumvent due process, or point out that he never kills but seems just fine with near-fatal maiming.

The whole thing produces both hilarity and complete tonal whiplash. It’s hard to get in a dramatic emotional confrontation with an old friend, break to run a few laps on Riddler’s neon-colored racetrack, and then threaten to crush a man’s head with your car tire without feeling like something’s a little wrong. That’s always been a problem with Batman, and with superheroes in general — they’re cultural archetypes who take on incredibly serious subjects with a veneer of unreality and cartoon logic.

But it doesn’t help that the major quest writing is so surreally clumsy it sometimes seems to be intentionally mocking itself. When a character leads you on multiple identical chases in which he shouts the same half-dozen catchphrases over and over, and they’re all half-puns that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze roll his eyes — is it just a badly written quest? Or is it a commentary on how video game writing is more about giving mechanical feedback than crafting fine prose?

A few of Arkham Knight’s side quests are gems, but the primary plot is full of heavy-handed cliches, down to the Arkham Knight himself — a character that was done more effectively in, of all things, Pixar’s The Incredibles. Arkham Knight’s female characters spend a troubling amount of time getting kidnapped, but that’s just a symptom of its larger problem, which is that almost literally everyone Batman knows becomes a damsel in distress. We get it. Batman can’t save everyone. Villains can only tie up so many friends, allies, lesser villains, and random bystanders before it starts seeming cheap.

It’s a shame that the writing breaks down so often, because Rocksteady can mess with the actual mechanics to great narrative and cinematic effect. Throughout the series, side missions have let you play as other characters, but in Arkham Knight Batman tag-teams certain fights with characters like Catwoman, with players switching control of them at will. Instead of using cutscenes to show something happening that Batman can’t see, Arkham Knight sometimes jumps to another character’s point of view entirely. At one point, the game offhandedly suggests you perform an act of vigilantism that even other characters seem to think is a bridge too far. It turns out fine, but for a moment, you’re left wondering Arkham Knight has sent you down the wrong path — if you finally made Batman snap.

Getting that "100 percent" marker in most games is just about trophies, but Arkham Knight uses it to parcel out its endings. Finishing the main story gets you a limited conclusion, completing a certain number of side quests gets you a larger one and the credits, and knocking out every single random quest and hidden trophy brings you something like a movie stinger. If you’re playing in a rush, this is miserable, but it actually gives the game a structure and momentum that’s lacking in Arkham City and open worlds in general. This is the Arkham series’ Bruce Wayne spending his final night in the cape and cowl. For once, completionism actually makes sense.

While this surely isn’t the end of Batman games, Arkham Knight really does feel like the end of this particular story. Arkham combat has been adopted into other games, and Arkham Knight could provide its own share of influence (I’m looking especially hard at the tank combat here). But narratively, it’s gone about as far as the series can — and it did it with style.